Never Let Go, Never Give Up

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

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

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

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

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

A gang sign of the Bloods

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

Some are thriving, some having a harder time.

One has dropped out and joined a gang.

I ran into him the other day after school.

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

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

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

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

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

Those modifications disappear in high school

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t let go easily either.

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

I also never give up on a kid.

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

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

“I thought that was over when I graduated.”

I smiled.

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

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

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My Four Word Education Plan!

04/21/2010
Banksy
Image by Walt Jabsco via Flickr

I was feeling very burnt out today.

The reasons why have been accumulating since I hurt my knee in the first week of school and was out for a month.

Then this morning my lesson on the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire failed and I found out that a boy who choked a classmate then used a marker to pretend to masturbate would not even get a one-day suspension.

I just love it how we teach our students that their actions have no consequences then wonder why they don’t learn to behave better.

When my last class ended I just sat down to gather the energy to go home.

That’s when two of my 6th grade students came in to get some more information prior to a class debate between advocates for the Athenian and Spartan lifestyles.

One of the girls is a bubbly, athletic and enthusiastic ball of energy, the other was S, who I have written about before.

After a half-hour the first girl left.

S and I continued to talk.

We talked about ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and also about modern family life. We chatted about predictions that the world wound end in 2012 and agreed that there probably would be a 2013 and more.

I taught her about the butterfly effect and the random but thoroughly interconnected series of events that we are all part of and affected by.

We discussed global warming, the Ice Age, the water cycle and the first law of thermodynamics (though that’s not what I called it).

Just when I needed it most, I remembered the joy I get from teaching.

In our third hour of chatting I told her about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I helped her understand how to find the area of an isosceles trapezoid.

To outside eyes each of us was taking a huge risk.

I was breaking the most basic rule of being a male teacher; sitting in a classroom alone with a just-turned 12-year-old girl. And she was sitting with me.

We could do this because we trust each other. We feel safe with each other.

The distillation of my philosophy came to me as I was telling S how I realized she was different from almost every student I’ve taught.

Whenever I ask a question requiring a higher-order thinking skill and the rest of her class stares at me as if I were speaking Klingon, she will raise her hand slowly and say, “I’m not sure, but…”

That’s it!

Philosophy & Poetry
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

That is my education philosophy distilled to its most essential point.

“I’m not sure, but…”

I want all my students – all students – to feel safe enough, secure enough, challenged enough and supported enough to take the risk that S takes.

No, I don’t mean spending almost three hours alone with a teacher.

I want them all to be able to say…

“I’m not sure, but…”

If we can get our students to that point I guarantee they will learn.

So how do we get them there?

I’m not sure.

But…

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Do We Really See What We Claim To?

04/20/2010
Distorted Reality
Image by Vermin Inc via Flickr

My last post inspired a blog post by Diane Lauer on her blog titled “Seeing with Our Hearts as well as our Eyes” I commented on her post. She urged me to post my response on my blog. Here is is:

Thank you for the honor of quoting my post. I’m glad it inspired you because that is what I — and all teachers — try to do; inspire further thought.

Part of the problem of human perception is that we use short-cuts, our minds fill in the gaps of what we think we see according to the patterns of our past experience. Those gaps are not always filled accurately and we’re not perceiving what is actually there.

It is one thing to use past experience as a guide to perceiving present situations, but it is a completely different thing when the perception is not based on any prior experience.

That is what happens with standardized tests and in any other situation where the person or people drawing conclusions based on the data presented to them do not have prior experience with the particular students whose exams generated that data.

A teacher knows her students and knows that student A has a stomach ache from the tension high stakes tests generate, that student B’s parents just got a divorce, that student C’s brother got shot last week and that there isn’t any food in student D’s home because his parents got laid off and the first unemployment check hasn’t arrived yet. The person looking at their data, the classes data, and the school’s data doesn’t know any of this and neither does anyone walking into the classroom for the first, second or third time.

Only the teacher, particularly in consultation with students’ prior teachers, has the intimate knowledge and background necessary to make the data make sense. Arguments that exam data is not about particular students and are aggregations fail because an aggregation based on defective data is as worthless as the data it is based upon.

It is the curse, or more likely the gift, of the human condition that we are not perfect and any single test may catch us in brief but spectacular moments of imperfection. That snapshot is valuable only that it verifies our being human, and it is my fervent hope that we don’t need to spend the money, time and anxiety standardized tests cost to realize that.

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Using the Wrong Camera Creates a Bad Picture

04/14/2010
Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September...
Image by George Eastman House via Flickr

It’s not like teaching doesn’t have enough frustrations.

After all, teachers go to work every day ready to inspire, challenge, guide and enjoy the children for whom we have been given responsibility.

We take this responsibility seriously.

We learn as much as we can about whatever it is we are assigned to teach.

We come in early or leave late. Some hardy souls do both.

We take work home most nights and we bring the work back in the morning.

We take work home most weekends.

We bring the work back on Monday.

We teach our curriculum, but we do more.

We model behavior.

We resolve disputes.

kleenex anti-viral commuter freebie
Image by fsse8info via Flickr

We listen.

We provide shoulders to cry on and tissues to dry the tears with.

We buy the supplies that the taxpayers don’t provide but that our students need.

We buy snacks and lunches for the kids.

We feed mouths as well as minds.

We feed spirits as well as bodies.

We help build our nation.

We help build all our tomorrows.

Okay, so maybe not all of us.

I know there are teachers who have given up but still show up and collect a paycheck.

I know there are some teachers who should not be in a classroom.

There are even some who should not be allowed near kids.

How many? I don’t know. No one knows.

That’s not really true. Other teachers know.

We know because we are in the building with them.

We know because we see them teach, or not teach.

We know because we know what a good teacher looks like, how a good teacher works, the things a good teacher does.

I don’t want to work with bad teachers, with teachers who have given up, or with teachers who never should have been given the job.

No good teacher wants to work with those people. They just make our job harder.

We’re the ones who have to clean up their messes, help their students succeed in spite of the teaching they got last year.

Should incompetent teachers be fired? ABSOLUTELY!!

I’m a strong union supporter, a proud (at least most of the time) member of the United Federation of Teachers, but I still say bad teachers need to be fired.

I also know that almost no one not in a school on a day-to-day basis can spot a bad teacher if one should fall from the sky and hit them on the head.

You see, there is no real external measure of good or bad teaching.

Some of my students made great progress last year. That doesn’t make me a great teacher and more than that some of the students in the same classes didn’t make any progress makes me a bad teacher.

Things just happen that way sometimes.

I’ve seen teachers seem to work wonders one year and not be able to motivate any students the following one.

The only things that changed were the students. One year you get a self-directed driven group and the next you get a class that makes slackers look hyper-motivated.

You take a snapshot of the first class via a one-shot standardized test and that teacher looks great. Take the same shot the next year and that same teacher seems incompetent.

The problem isn’t the teacher. The problem isn’t even the students.

The problem is the camera.

Old Camera...yuk
Image by MaestroBen via Flickr

Teaching isn’t the kind of thing you can capture in a snapshot.

That applies to bad teaching as much if not more than it applies to good teaching.

Judging the quality of teaching from a one-shot snapshot standardized test is like reviewing a movie director’s career based on one frame from one movie.

Yes, there are bad teachers, but there are many more good ones.

The problem is that most people aren’t using the right lens, the right camera to get the contrast right.

What’s worse is that most people are happy to use that standardized test still camera.

Making a movie is just too hard, too much work, I guess.

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What Would I Invent?

04/08/2010
United States Patent Cover from a real patent ...
Image via Wikipedia

The Question: If you had unlimited resources, what product would you invent to help or aid your special education or learning disabled students?

I am the grandson of an inventor, so when Classroom Insiders assigned this topic I thought it would be easy to come up with something I’d want to invent.

Apparently I got passed the wrong set of genes for this.

Part of the problem is imagining having unlimited resources.

The idea of having unlimited resources is one I have a hard time wrapping my mind around.

I teach in what has been identified as the poorest Congressional district in the nation.

Despite the astounding rate of asthma among my students I still have to use chalk because I don’t have a dry-erase board.

And I have to buy the chalk.

By the end of this week, all the classrooms in my school will have SmartBoards, so I guess that will help, but my blackboard is a lot bigger and much easier to use because someone bumping into it doesn’t require time-consuming realignment with a projector.

Then there is the other side of the problem for me; the notion that there could be one product that would help or aid all my special education students.

This notion of there being one solution to every problem seems endemic in education.

Even our President has that fantasy.

I don’t.

I know that among my 100 or so students there are a wide variety of needs.

Trying to come up with a single product to help all of them is like inventing Lipitor and using it to treat cataracts and cancer as well as cholesterol.

It can’t be done.

Or can it?

After giving the problem a lot of thought…

and conducting extensive research…

after considering and rejecting many alternatives…

and after hours of emptying my mind and meditating through the power of computer solitaire, I have finally come up with what I think is a workable idea.

Were that Bill and Melinda Gates would take all the money they give Edutopia and turn it over to me.

Were that I would have access to the best engineers, the best materials chemists, the best labs and the most advanced manufacturing facilities the world has to offer.

Would that all the conditions be perfect, the stars in optimum alignment, I now know what I would invent and manufacture.

That silver bullet everyone dreams of…

a magic wand.

Magic wands
Image by Tyla’75 via Flickr

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This blog is the second 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. The final posts in this series will appear May 6th.

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