Bewitched, Bothered & Bedazzled

06/30/2009

Okay, that’s not exactly the name of the song but that’s how I’m feeling on this Tuesday morning as I sit surrounded by the latest and greatest in technology, teaching and twitter. I have learned more in the first three days here than I have learned in my five years of teaching and the MS degree that preceded it.

The problem is that its all coming at me so fast and from so many directions that I’m having trouble digesting it, thinking about it and trying to determine what of what I am learning I need to retain and what I can safely discard or file deep in the recesses of my brain; a brain that is beginning to feel as crowded as that New Delhi slum shown in the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire. Doing the meta-cognition involved in making those decisions is almost painful given the paucity of my coffee ingestion this morning. And there are two more days to go!

I was going to write about some of the incredible people I’ve met, the learning sessions I’ve attended, the skills I have gained, the hardware I’ve played with, the software I’ve seen demonstrated and the websites I’ve been turned onto, but somewhere in the paragraph above I got insight into what my students experience in their classes and to why writing this blog is so valuable to me that I will continue to do it whether or not anyone else ever reads it.

My students are easily distracted. So am I as I wander the exhibit hall and my eyes are drawn left, right, up, down, right again, wait – what was that I just walked by on the left?

My students have trouble processing multi-step instructions and I am, too, as I try to keep up with the highly enthusiastic instructor teaching two dozen of my colleagues and I how to use Audacity, iMovie, VoiceThread, GarageBand, Windows Movie Maker, Vigo (no, wait, those two were a different session) to create a podcast and make it accessible to the world. I have again learned that I can either listen or use my hands to take notes or click links, but I can’t do both at the same time.

My students have vocabulary deficiencies that often prevent them from communicating what they know and what they don’t. Same here. I talk to exhibitors and my mind goes blank trying to remember the name of a program or technique, and the new, unfamiliar words I am hearing are coming to me so quickly that by they time I realize I need to ask what one word means six more have passed by without comprehension.

My students have deficiencies in short-term and working memory, or in transferring those memories into long-term retention. Not usually a problem for me, but it is here.

Auditory processing problems? Visual processing problems? Verbal expression problems? Sensory processing disorders? Guilty of all that and more.

To paraphrase Pogo, I have met the enemy and it is I; I have become on of the students my professors taught me about. My name on Twitter is spedteacher, but this week it should be spedlearner.

I will come back from this wonderful convention a better teacher, not because I’ve learned all this new stuff about technology, but because I’ve learned so much about my students and myself.

One of the big themes in the speeches and discussions here is to give students the opportunity to fail without penalty and the time to try again and again. Boy do I need that now.

That’s why I write this blog. I don’t write to communicate with an audience. I write this to communicate with myself, to do the reflection and self-assessment inherent in learning from experience. You’re welcome to listen in, especially if it stimulates that same cognitive activity in you.

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Are Schools Irrelevant?

06/28/2009

I am in Washington, DC, at NECC09 (National Educational Computing Conference) to learn all I can about integrating technology into my teaching so that I can model that and teach it to my colleagues come September. I have already learned about a dozen or so new-to-me applications to try out during something called a ‘technology smack-down’ in the morning session of a pre-convention meeting of education bloggers. Fantastic.

In the afternoon I listened in on a session called “Where School Reform Meets Madonna:
Can public schools fundamentally reinvent themselves?” hosted by Jon Becker, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In this informal session about three dozen very smart and capable people discussed how schools might change their focus, their methodologies and, this being a technology convention, their technologies to, among other things, redefine what it means to be educated, reestablish a clear purpose for public education and create a better world for students, teachers and everyone else.

At some point it occurred to me that schools are increasingly irrelevant. Now I wonder if teachers are, too.

Schools are irrelevant because knowledge is now low hanging fruit. Everyone can reach almost all of it, most of it for free. Students not only don’t need schools in order to learn, in many, if not most, cases schools actually interfere with learning.

Schools are not working because they try to control what students will learn while, at the same time, overcrowding curricula so much that we lose sight of what essential learning really is. We increasingly have to coerce students to follow our agendas instead of their own regarding their learning, and we label them as failures when they don’t respond to our manipulations.

It is not essential that students learn about Mesopotamia. There’s nothing wrong with learning about Mesopotamia if the student is interested, and that is why teachers are not irrelevant even as school, the way most of us understand the concept, increasingly is.

Here’s the difference in a nutshell: teachers can introduce students to Mesopotamia and facilitate learning about it without grades, coercion, labels or high-stakes tests, but the structure of schools and the general understandings of what school is won’t allow it.

I think today’s session asked the wrong question. It should have been, ‘Public schooling, who’s going to pull the plug?’

No one.

I’m not sure what the purpose of education is, but the purpose of school is self-preservation and we do it very, very well.

More on this subject later.

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Goodbye Is Just A Word

06/20/2009
Skittles.
Image via Wikipedia

Goodbye is such a weak word. I had to say it a few times this week and it does not begin to express the emotions I felt any of the times.

One of the goodbyes was final and I hope the others will not be.

The final goodbye was to my family’s beloved lab/setter mutt we adopted as an adult dog just days before he was going to be put down because he’d been in the shelter for six months and no one seemed to want him. He turned out to be the most loving, human-oriented, fun and happy dog I have ever met.

Oh, he had his issues, including what is now known as the night of the exploding dog. He somehow got into the special anti-hairball food we had for our two cats (different ones than we have now). Anti-hairball food works on animals much the way prunes and bran do on humans. He ate about four or five pounds of the food. About an hour later he started exploding. Use your imagination.

Magic loved to chase bunnies, deer and skunks. We live on a moderately busy state road On Wednesday night he chased a deer across the road and was hit by a car as he crossed back to come home. He died about 45 minutes later at the animal hospital. There were tears and hugs and more tears.

A couple of years after we adopted Magic I started graduate school in order to become a teacher. One of the professors at the school, herself the mother of three then-adult developmentally-delayed sons, told her special education methods class that “If you know how to train a dog you know how to teach special education.”

On occasion I get very literal and I wasn’t sure that she actually meant that I should offer bits of desiccated beef liver as rewards for good effort in class, but in a way that’s exactly what she meant.

The best way to train a dog is to consistently reward desired behavior with a favored treat and praise. Unwanted actions are met with sharply toned rebuke and patience. Dogs, being generally Pavlovian and sharp thinkers, quickly get the idea that they should continue to sit still and not get distracted by the pretty golden retriever on his right or the schnauzer getting into a tiff with the wire-haired terrier off to the left.

If only it were that easy in special education. The ideas are the same, but students are generally more complex than dogs, and when training a dog one rarely has to deal with the bitch that gave birth to him.

The goodbyes that I hope will not be final were to the students on whom I got my first full-time opportunity to try out my professor’s theory. The students, who in sixth grade were the victims of my first attempt at having my own class, graduated eighth grade yesterday and I was fortunate to be released from my classes to attend.

At some point in that sixth grade class I told those students that I did not intend to ever let go of them, that I would be their teacher in one way or another for as long as they were in our school, and I kept my word. When they moved onto 7th grade I frequently checked on them in person and through their teachers. I knew who was thriving and who was struggling and I would offer tutoring, praise, Skittles (desiccated liver for teenagers) and an ear. Their classroom was just across the hall from mine and I made a point of chatting with their parents when they showed up for conferences. This year I had those same students in my Read180 program. I kept my word about never letting go of them. Until yesterday.

Yesterday they looked sharp and proud in their caps and gowns. There were tears and hugs and more tears. And photographs. And smiles. And Skittles.

I will never see Magic again, but I really hope those challenging but lovable young ladies and men come to visit.

I’m keeping lots of bags of Skittles around just in case.

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Where Am I Headed?

06/13/2009

I’m about to end my fifth year of teaching.

When I started teaching I was told that the first year would be the hardest and it would take three years to start getting a handle on the job and after five years I would be hitting my stride in the classroom.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way for me.

For sure, my first year was the hardest. The principal at that pre-K to fifth grade school changed my job four times in that year. I have a background in journalism and other forms of writing and was hired to be a push-in writing teacher for one 4th grade and one 5th grade self-contained special education class. That was the third job I got to do that year and for only three months at that. I started as a 4th grade SPED classroom teacher, switched to fifth grade under very difficult circumstances at Columbus Day and stayed in that position until Thanksgiving when I finally started to do the job I was hired to do.

In March I took over a fifth grade class of emotionally disabled students. In my first day in that class the one girl took off her clothes and said she had been sexually molested in the room’s closet by one of the male students in the class. The room did not have a closet and the accuse boy was nearly catatonic. June couldn’t come fast enough and it was only through the support of colleagues and a magnificent mentor (thank you again Oksana Kulynych) who got me involved in the region’s Teaching American History program.

My colleagues in that school were very surprised to see me return in September. I did and was now a push-in math teacher in a fifth grade MR class and the push-in science teacher in a second grade. I managed to stay in those positions all year, somehow incurring the wrath of my principal along the way. At the end of that year I changed schools, as did about 75% of the other teachers there.

I became a sixth grade common branch special education classroom teacher at a middle school. I got hired a week before school started and had to learn the curriculum for ELA, social studies and math very quickly. The next year, my fourth I had the same job. In that year I finally was able to stay with a curriculum long enough to begin to feel comfortable with it. At the end of the year I felt like I was finally starting to be a good teacher.

All this time I was almost continually being trained to be an American history teacher. I participated in every available opportunity to learn more about the subject and how to teach it, but it seemed that the more training I got the further away from actually teaching American history I got.

This year, my fifth, my job changed again. I spent this year as a full-time Read 180 teacher. About three weeks ago my principal told me that because of shifts in the school’s population I would not have a full program of Read 180 and would have to teach something else. Science or social studies, did I have a preference? I said I could do either as long as I could do them the way I was trained, that being hands-on and multisensory. He said absolutely and it would probably be 7th and 8th grade social studies. That means American history. I was thrilled.

Today I got my program for next year.

I’ve got some Read 180 and social studies, but its 6th and 7th grade, not 7th and 8th.

Sixth grade social studies is an orphan, disconnected from what comes before and what follows. In 4th grade students study New York history and in fifth the students learn about Native Americans, the European explorers and the start of European settlement. Sixth grade starts with geography and moves on to ancient Egypt and Rome, followed by modern Asia – usually Japan or China –before winding up with a usually rushed look at Africa. In 7th grade they study American history from Jamestown until the Civil War.

Not only do I get to teach three totally unrelated curricula, I don’t even get my own classroom in which to do it. I will have a tiny Read 180 room totally inadequate for the demands of the program, and I will share a classroom with an ELA teacher.

I am not happy about what looks like it will be a difficult year. More than that, I’m unhappy that in my sixth year of teaching I will have my 11th different curriculum to learn, move classrooms for the ninth time, and still not feel like I’m becoming a better teacher.

I am happy that my principal thinks highly of me but I wish he didn’t think I could do anything. I don’t want to spend the rest of my career plugging holes. I want to learn one curriculum deeply instead of a dozen across their surfaces. I want to work with colleagues teaching the same subject in the same grade instead of not being able to attend the meetings because I’m the one with the oddly patched together schedule. As much as I treasure my PLN on twitter I’d also like to have one in my school.

I hadn’t planned on job-hunting this year, but I think I need to start.

Damn it.

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Professional Development Meme 2009

06/12/2009

Usually the end of the school year is a signal for me to change.

I change my alarm clock so that it does not go off at 4:25AM, and I try to train my body not to wake up then (or earlier) anyway.

I change my wardrobe to shorts, sandals and polo shirts I could never wear at school because they have logos for Bacardi, Bass or Bishop’s Finger.

I try to forget, at least for a week, that I’m a teacher; hard to do this year because an alleged friend has issued a challenge to me in what seems to be a teacher professional development game of Can You Top This?

I can’t.

The friend, Karen Chichester, a very dedicated high school special education teacher in the lowest depths of Michigan, has set a summer personal development agenda for herself that would take me several years to complete. I would tell you what her goals are, but I don’t type fast enough to list it all before I have to return to school in September.

Bully for her.

She would not let it go at that. She had to challenge me to do the same and sent me the rules of the game. Just for the record, it is not her game. The well-know sadomasochist Clif Mims (@clifmims on Twitter) developed the following meme and posted it to his blog (MY first goal will be to find out what a meme is).

Directions

Summer can be a great time for professional development. It is an opportunity to learn more about a topic, read a particular work or the works of a particular author, beef up an existing unit of instruction, advance one’s technical skills, work on that advanced degree or certification, pick up a new hobby, and finish many of the other items on our ever-growing To Do Lists. Let’s make Summer 2009 a time when we actually get to accomplish a few of those things and enjoy the thrill of marking them off our lists.

The Rules

NOTE: You do NOT have to wait to be tagged to participate in this meme. (But I’m tagging Sandra McCarron, Carol Johnson, Kate Olson, and Luciano D’Orazio)

1. Pick 1-3 professional development goals and commit to achieving them this summer.
2. For the purposes of this activity the end of summer will be Labor Day (09/07/09).
3. Post the above directions along with your 1-3 goals on your blog.
4. Title your post and link back/trackback to http://clifmims.com/blog/archives/2447.
5. Use the following tag/ keyword/ category on your post: pdmeme09.
6. Tag 5-8 others to participate in the meme.
7. Achieve your goals and “develop professionally.”
8. Commit to sharing your results on your blog during early or mid-September.

So here goes.

My goals:

1. My first goal will be to find out what a meme is while learning all I can about integrating technology into my teaching. I am starting work on this goal within hours of the time classes end on June 26th when I’ll board a train for Washington, DC to attend the National Educational Computing Conference for the first time. This goal is so important to me that I am paying for the convention registration, transportation, hotel and everything else myself. I expect to come away with enough new information, ideas, hands-on experience and resources to start on my second goal.

2. Come September, I’ll be spending part of my time teaching American history to 7th and 8th grade students. The New York City Department of Education, largely in the large personage of a smart and garrulous fellow named Phil Panaritis, has been training me for this role for the five years I’ve been a teacher. My goal is to learn the scope and sequence of those two curricula, to design a sequence of multi-sensory lessons that integrate technology into the teaching and student demonstrations of learning, and gather artifacts\, maps, and other items to pique student interest.

3. Thanks to my membership in ASCD, NCSS, and a few other organizations I have a pile of books sent to me that is threatening to topple off the two chairs on which I’ve piled them and bury at least one of our animals. I am not likely to read any of them because I will be reading books that I have purchased and not yet read starting with Teaching for Intellectual and Emotional Learning (TIEL) by Christy Folsom, Polk: the man who transformed the presidency and America, by Walter Borneman, and Ship Ablaze: the tragedy of the steamboat General Slocum by Edward O’Donnell. Fortunately, the train ride to DC takes about four hours, so I’ll finish one of these on the ride down and back.

4. I will read a novel. I used to read a lot of novels, but now I seem only to be able to read one a year. I don’t yet know what this year’s will be, but I hope I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants last year.

5. I plan to lie down on a bed of grass and watch the sky drift by. This is something I did when I was nine or ten because it made precious summer days seem to last forever. I know that does not sound like a professional development goal, but I’m giving myself the freedom to have freedom from needing to fill every moment productively. Filling every moment productively does not allow time for reflection, imagination, and whatever else drifts in to fill the void I hope to have in my mind cause by concentrating on the smell of the grass, the color of the sky and the laziness of the clouds.

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The Light In Their Eyes

06/05/2009

I’ve written about how some of the teachers in my school seem to be afraid of using technology in their lessons, what I see as the reasons for that fear and the implications our awareness of those reasons could hold for our teaching.

We held a lengthy academy meeting yesterday afternoon, taking advantage of time set aside for that during a full day of professional development sessions. We talked about the color of polo shirt that will be part of our uniform, our intention to enforce wearing of the uniform, and how we would go about that.

We also talked of our desire to form partnerships with the parents of our students, how we would have a parent breakfast one day, a dinner one evening, and a regular schedule of family events like picnics, bowling parties and more. My academy, now teacher administered and making decisions though consensus, is forming a cohesiveness planning for next year that has been missing all this year.

One of our tasks has been to create a brochure to give to the fifth graders in our feeder schools to interest them in expressing a preference for our academy over the five others in the building. I did the drafting and my colleagues did the tweaking, and it turned out pretty well.

Things were going so well in our meeting that I decided to give my colleagues their first lesson about integrating technology in teaching. I fired up my trusty Macbook, launched
Firefox and went to http://www.wordle.net/create. I then pasted the text of our brochure into the textbox and hit the “go” button.

Wordle takes text, drops out the most common English words like ‘the’ and ‘it’, then takes the rest of the words and creates a design in which the most repeated words are larger and more prominent than the words used less often.

This is what appeared:

NWAwodle

I bet you get a good idea of what our academy is all about.

My colleagues’ jaws dropped. Then, when they realized how simple it was, I saw the light in their eyes.

Now its my job to keep it there.

Its going to be a fun year.

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Why Do Schools Sabotage Students?

06/03/2009

I am fortunate to work with some very dedicated teachers who are strong advocates for their students. Today one of them, a woman you’d never guess is only in her second year teaching, came to me in anger and distress. Here’s the story.

There’s a girl in her self-contained special education sixth grade class, let’s call her J, who is hard-working, polite, helpful and persistent; in short, a great student to have in one’s class.

J is the oldest of four children in her family. Last week J’s mother lost their apartment, rendering the family homeless.

J moved in with her aunt.

When she still had a home, J lived close enough to walk to school. Not anymore. J’s aunt lives a long bus ride away from the school. Because she is a special education student J qualifies for door-to-door school bus transportation to and from school, but it being June, the city is not about to alter the complex bus routes and schedules to include her.

Our district covers a lot of territory and many students in our school commute on city busses. That’s how J has been coming to school since becoming homeless. While all of the other commuters ride for free with a bus pass, J’s aunt has been paying the daily $4.00 round trip fare.

J’s teacher has been trying to arrange a bus pass for the girl.

She had J’s aunt write a letter telling how J now lives with her and providing her new address. The letter asked that a bus pass be provided.

The woman in charge of giving out bus passes, a kind and friendly school aide, said no.

The letter was not notarized. We need to see a copy of the aunt’s lease. We can’t just issue bus passes, there are rules we have to follow.

J’s teacher pointed out that the woman has a desk drawer full of bus passes and could easily pull one out and sign it.

No. I can’t just give bus passes out because I feel like it. Paperwork needs to be done.

Meanwhile, another day passes, another $4 spent, and J’s teacher is not confident in the aunt’s financial situation. She comes to me to vent and enlist my support.

“I told Mrs. Z that she regularly gives out new bus passes to students who say they lost theirs when we both know they’ve sold it to another student. Why can’t she give one to J?”

“This girl is going through hell but comes to school ready to learn every day and we’re throwing road blocks in her way.”

“Why can’t she just issue the bus pass now to help J stay in school and get the paperwork fixed after that?”

“What is wrong with this system. Why do we say we want students to come to school every day and then make it so hard for this one to get here?



There are 18 days left in the school year. 18 X $4=$72. I start to reach for my wallet to make a contribution.

“I’m not going to let you pay for this. And I’m not going to pay either. That’s what they want us to do, reach into our pockets again and again to solve the system’s problems. Why should we have to do that when this problem is so easy to solve by just signing a bus pass?”

Why indeed.

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