Echoes of the Ancient and Tomorrow

03/28/2010
Seder Plate
Image by Daniel Greene via Flickr

It’s been this way for years

Monday night I’m participating in a Seder at my best friend’s apartment and the following night he and his wife will do the same at my house.

My first Seder was 40 years ago when a group of socially aware and politically active teenagers gather to celebrate the “Freedom Seder.”

Although my grand parents were all Jewish, I was not raised in the Jewish tradition.

dying easter eggs
Image by PaperNest via Flickr

My family did not celebrate the rites of any religion, but we adopted the symbols of many.

At this time of year we would dye Easter eggs that my parents would put into little baskets along with fake grass, jelly beans, a chocolate bunny and, often, a dreidel. There would be a box of matzah in the house.

My maternal grandmother would come over to cook a meal featuring homemade gefilte fish, and chicken (bones and all) in a soup filled with carrots, celery and onion. She would also make a peppery, oniony potato kugel so dense it did not dissolve even when Grandma served it sitting in the middle of the soup bowl. (I have never found anyone else whose relatives put the kugel in the soup. If yours did please let me know)

P1040074.JPG

Image by PlaysWithFood via Flickr

While my father was still living with us we’d also have a happy Buddha or two somewhere nearby.

My parents had largely rejected the religion of their parents. That’s why we annually had a beautiful Christmas tree with hand-blown glass ornaments from in front of which we open presents before eating our Chanukah gelt, chocolate coins with Hebrew lettering on them.

There were symbols all over the place, but no one ever told us what they meant or connected them to any particular religion. If we wanted to know we were directed to several of the hundreds of books in living room.

Instead of deities, doctrine, ritual, and the other accoutrements of religions, we saw models of compassion, sharing, brotherhood, acceptance, and what I have come to identify as an echo of the ancient Hebrew sense of tikkun olam, acting to heal the world.

Earth
Image by Satoru Kikuchi via Flickr

Despite the lack of notions of God or Gods of any kind in our upbringing, our home rituals, such as they were, carried echoes of their ancient origins even if they lacked their rigor.

What we do as parents and teachers also echoes through generations.

When we teach our children, as parents and in our work in schools, our actions carry more weight than our words.

The same applies to our learning as adults. We act the ways we see modeled by others.

Collaborative principals create collaborative teachers.

School leaders who rule by coercion and threat get teachers who do the same.

Tomorrow night, and for the following eight days, I will celebrate freedom even more than I do on all days. Others will celebrate the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

When I return to work I will model leadership, collaboration, trust, ethics, taking responsibility for my actions and responsibility to heal the world.

I wish I could be around to see how that echoes through my students’ lives.

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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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Sticks and Stones… Yeah, Right

03/22/2010

It happened again.

I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Why, I’m sure she didn’t even give it a second thought.

That is the crux of the problem.

We don’t give the words we use a second thought, at least not when we say them out loud.

When we write we choose our words carefully, aiming to get just the perfect nuance, the right shade of meaning.

When we write we recognize the power of words, how choosing one instead of another shifts meaning in subtle or overt ways. We use dictionaries and thesauri in tandem to aid us in our search for precision in language.

I do, and I am confident many other writers, cognizant of the complexity of our mutt-like English language, do as well.

While Professor Henry Higgins bemoans that “One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get,” the rest of us are free to revel in the diversity of words that Dutch, French, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Saxon, German, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Italian (itself a motley collection of distinct dialects), and more have contributed to what we commonly call English.

It is that very diversity that allows linguistic precision, and it is that capability for precision that makes it so very distressing when people who should know better use words carelessly.

It is one thing to use an imprecise word when speaking, but quite a different thing when one is writing and, perhaps, has the time to choose words more carefully then read and revise by picking a different word or phrase to better convey intended meaning.

Still, despite the opportunity to do better, I’m sure the person responsible for it didn’t mean to do it.

Perhaps I should say persons because the offending term appeared in a magazine article and this magazine has an editor who might have caught the offending term and suggested an alternative.

That this did not occur leaves me to presume dereliction of duty or, worse, intent.

I will not embarrass the writer, editor or magazine by identifying them, partially because that is not how I operate, but also because the offensive phrase is so commonly used.

Here’s what I’m going on about; just a few simple words:

“Regular education,” or in this specific instance, “regular classroom environment.”

I am known in many corners of the online world as Spedteacher. It’s a handle that takes SpEd, a common abbreviation of ‘special education’ and adds it to my job title.

Perhaps I should call myself ‘Irreguteacher ‘ instead.

The opposite of ‘regular education’ is irregular education. A classroom environment other than a regular one is an irregular one.

All people are different. We all come with a broad selection of abilities and things we’re not so good at doing. How can it be that only a very small group of that overwhelming selection of abilities is labeled ‘regular’ and the rest are implied to be irregular?

In the text for one of the many inclusion-themed t-shirts available from his Nth Degree Catalog (The Home of Wheelchair Boy Jeans) Dan Wilkins explains the problem with the phrase ‘regular education’ much better than I can:

“One of the problems I have with the Special” and “Regular” education dichotomy is that its very existence forces us to label every kid just so we know which box to put him/her in. It gets worse. Then we take all the kids in one of the boxes and we put each of them in their own box and slap another label on it…. perhaps two…or ten. After a while we forget about the kid in each box and just see the box (and all its labels). It gets worse. Inside the box, the kid, misjudges the edge of the box for the horizon and comes to believe ‘that’s all there is…’ In the eyes of everyone, including the child, the kid and the box become one. So much for dreams…the chase is over before it begins.”

There it is.

In general, it is better to call the classrooms most students are in “general education.”

Calling them anything else should be irregular.

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I’m Confused. Are You Confused, Too?

03/17/2010
Mental confusion
Confusion by Adi Ron (2005) Image via Wikipedia

I’m confused.

I’m very confused.

For the past ten years or so schools have been working hard to raise the levels of student learning, at least as far as that learning can be demonstrated on a standardized test.

Then the other day the current President, the one whose campaign byword was ‘change,’ came out with his education plan that didn’t change the emphasis on standardized testing.

On the plus side, Mr. Obama’s plan does allow students to demonstrate learning gains in subjects other than English and Math.

That makes me anticipate standardized tests in science, social studies, music, art and physical education.

Oh, wait. Music, art and physical education were all cut to leave room for extra math and English language arts instruction.

Schools added math and language arts teachers to help raise student levels on the tests in those areas.

I think those teachers worked very hard, but others say teachers are a bunch of lazy bums who take two month vacations and spend the rest of the year eating baked goods in the teachers’ lounge, grousing about students and the administration between bites.

Many people are saying that. Newsweek Magazine is saying that. It must be true.

But that’s not what confuses me.

I’m confused by these two news stories:

Obama to governors: Raise education standards

and…

Some U-46 schools see culture destroyed by layoffs

In the first, the President told state governors that improving schools will “require more than new standards.”
“It’s going to require better teaching, better curriculum. It’s going to require better assessments,”

He went on: “So we are calling for a redesigned elementary and secondary education act that better aligns the federal education approach to your state-led efforts while offering you the support that you need.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But the second story tells how the U-46 school district in Elgin, IL is laying off 1,037 staffers, 732 of them teachers, due to anticipated cuts in state aid.

Similar cuts, and resulting layoffs are occurring in districts across the country.

Am I the only one who sees a disconnect here?

One hand is holding a speech saying we want students to learn more while the other hand is giving out pink slips to the teachers who help students accomplish that.

This is not about firing bad teachers.

This is about eliminating bilingual departments, raising class sizes, and destroying student support networks.

A lot of those cut will be the math and language arts teachers added to help raise student levels. Go figure.

“All of us have had a chance to have teachers that have inspired them to be so much better, do so much more,” Elgin High junior Kathy McCain told the school board Monday. “A lot of that will be gone next year.”

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Another Argument Supporting Public Education!

03/14/2010

There has been a lot of talk lately about the privatization of education.

This issue has come up before. This Mick Stevens cartoon appeared in New Yorker magazine in 1992.

Need I say more?

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What Will They Do Now?

03/11/2010
Breakdown of political party representation in...
Image via Wikipedia

Here we go again.

Congress is about to rewrite education law again.

I shudder every time I think about this.

535 people, whose primary interest is re-election, debating policies that will affect the future of this country for decades to come.

Let me make it a little clearer.

There are 535 people who will create the laws that will govern education for the next generation. Of those, 100 can, at best, think only six years ahead and mostly about their own self-interest. The other 435 can also think mostly about their own self-interest, but their vision is limited to two years ahead.

The starting point for their debate will be the latest iteration of the now 45-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind.

That law is almost universally regarded as flawed; the only disagreements have to do with what those flaws are, how they rank in importance, and how much teachers should be blamed for the law’s failure to accomplish its aims.

Forgive me my skepticism, but I can’t see any reason to expect any good to come out of this.

Even if conditions were perfect, it is highly unlikely that Congress would write a law that makes sense for special education students, their parents, or their teachers.

Conditions are far from perfect.

Both political parties are damaged and more interested in making the other lose than in creating good policy.

Lawyers or accountants, not educators, head more and more school districts, including most of the biggest districts in the country.

Tight money means great pressure to reduce the cost of special education services to school districts and their taxpayers.

Consider the political implications of this: Some people had teachers they loved but everyone had teachers they hated.

The only people looking out for special education students are their parents and their teachers—the two groups most marginalized in current discussions of education policy.

There have been seven re-authorizations of ESEA since its inception in 1965, creating almost 100 different programs affecting special education, many with contradictory requirements.

There is no reason to expect anything better from the 2010 revision, should one somehow make its way through Congress.

Flock of Pigeons

Image by cypheroz via Flickr

Probably the best that special education can hope for is allowing multiple methods of assessing the learning of special education students.

A crumb tossed to the hungry pigeons pecking wildly.

We should rise into the sky and express our gratitude the same way the pigeons do

Plop. Plop.

_______________

This blog is the first in a series of three I’m writing as part of the Classroom Insiders panel at We Are Teachers. Please visit to meet the two other special  education bloggers  on the panel and read their posts on this same topic. Our other series posts will appear on April 8th and May 6th.

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Parents, Parents and More Parents!

03/07/2010
Parents
Image by mohammadali via Flickr

I think I’ve finally recovered from Thursday night.

Thursday night we had our snow-delayed evening session of parent-teacher conferences.

A couple of years ago, when I was a special education classroom teacher with twelve students it was considered a major victory if the parents of half showed up.

I spend a total of five hours split evenly between day and evening sessions, talking to a total of three or four parents.

I’d get all my paperwork filed. I’d read. I’d socialize with parents waiting to see the general ed teachers.

Now I’m teaching two general ed classes social studies and three special ed classes reading, a total of about 95 students.

Thursday night I met with 31 sets of parents. In two and one-half hours.

That averages to about five minutes per child.

Averages lie.

I spent less than two minutes with the parents of my sixth grade students.

“Your son/daughter is very bright, a pleasure to teach. Do you know about the 6th grade year-end trip? Excellent! Do you have any questions? No? Well, it’s been a pleasure to see you again.”

Out the door.

Next!

Eighth grade parents took longer, a lot longer.

“No, I couldn’t give your son/daughter a passing grade when he/she scored below 50 on the midterm exam.”

“No, I don’t know why your child did so poorly on the midterm. Perhaps because while I was teaching the material, and again when I was reviewing it, he/she was throwing pencils across the room or shouting out the window,”

No, it doesn’t mean he/she will fail the year. Right now the students are working on their exit projects. These require a well researched written report, a visual presentation like a slide show, and an oral presentation that includes the visual. Ii is a big deal, the students get dressed up for their presentations.”

“No, I didn’t assign topics. I wanted each student to choose something he or she is interested in. Something they feel passionate about.”

“His/her topic? I’ve lost track of what he/she is doing the project on. It started out being one thing, but he/she’s changed her/his mind several times.”

“This is the first you’re hearing about it. We chose topics in January and the written report is due next Wednesday.”

“Yes, this is a graduation requirement. No project, no graduation.”

“Yes, I told the class that. The principal told the class that. I told them again. Several times.”

“Yes, I keep asking about it, and I required a draft by President’s Day weekend, but only six students gave me one and your child was not one of them.”

And so on.

Then there was the parent who complained that the 90 I gave her son lowered his average to 93.75.

“Count your blessings, ma’am.”

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