Fighting, Just Because

05/26/2010
Broken glass
Image via Wikipedia

There were two fights in my little wing of our school today.

Neither fight had to happen. Neither fight should have happened.

Inner-city middle school students fight as play sometimes, but these were not play fights.

Students fight because their parents tell them that if they don’t fight back when someone says or does something to them, they’re wimps.

Some students fight because their self-image is so fragile that even the slightest negative comment about them is a challenge to their existence.

These students, and those whose parents are not abetting their violent ways, fight because they don’t have other strategies for dealing with problems.

My fellow teachers and I do our best to teach problem-solving strategies.

We tell the students that when someone talks about their mother it is not actually their mother, that the other students doesn’t know their mother and is making comments about some pretend mother that they all share.

I also tell my students that I am completely non-violent and that non-violence is stronger than violence.

Mahatma Gandhi

Image by dbking via Flickr

I teach them about Gandhi, how we share a birth date, and how he defeated what was then the strongest nation on earth with words and peaceful actions.

We all teach them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he fought racism with words and non-violent actions even when confronted with violence.

And I tell them the story of the only time I got punched and how I won the fight without doing anything more than taking the punch.

I was in middle school when it happened, probably about 11 or 12 years old.

I was a big, athletic kid, but I was just a kid.

One day I was the first student to come down the stairs and out into the schoolyard for recess.

As I came through the doors into the schoolyard I got hit hard, very hard, squarely on the right side of my chin.

My jaw seemed to go out a mile and snap back, but I did not crumple or go down.

I just stood there looking at the youngish man who had attacked me for absolutely no reason.

I just continued looking at the man as my mind raced to figure out what had just happened and why.

Then the man ran away.

I continued to stand there.

It finally occurred to me that the man had run away because I had just taken his best punch, absolutely cold and just stood there.

There was nothing more he could do to hurt me.

It was in that moment I decided that I would never practice violence.

And I never have.

My students always listen raptly to the story and seem impressed.

Some ask me what I would do if they hit me.

I tell them to try it, but I don’t think they believe me when I tell them I will not fight back.

I want them to realize that turning one’s back and walking away is a far stronger statement, far more honorable, than fighting to defend one’s honor.

I always hope that this story will come to mind the next time they think they need to fight.

It never does.

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Pushing Beyond Their Limits

05/20/2010
Six Flag Great Adventure from high up
Image by xmascarol via Flickr

I’ve got a great 6th grade social studies class.

They’re bright, chatty, funny, ambitious, and thoroughly indoctrinated into the hunt for grades.

It’s really sad to see, all these very sharp kids more concerned with getting the right answer and scoring 100 on tests than actually learning and making connections.

It is as if we’ve taught them to just regurgitate information instead of constructing knowledge.

I do what I can to fight that tendency.

I’m not big on tests, but a couple of months ago I started giving this class weekly assessments of some kind.

I’ve told these kids that everything in life, every moment, is a test and I’ve reinforced that occasionally by announcing the assessment after it has occurred.

Today I realized that I could not give them their weekly assessment tomorrow because they would be away on the 6th grade end-of-year trip, so I started class today with the announcement that I had good and bad news for them.

I gave them the bad news first: “There’s no room on the bus so I won’t be able to go to Great Adventures with you tomorrow.”

The students were stunned and upset. Then I reminded them that I had good news, too.

“Because you’ll be on your trip tomorrow I can’t give you your weekly assessment then…,”

Cheers!

“…so Ill have to do it today,”

Shock!

Some were angry, some very worried, and one girl looked like she was going to cry.

Even S, as close to a dream student as I’m even likely to see, reacted like I had betrayed her.

We’ve been studying the Renaissance the past two weeks or so and we’ve talked about how it contrasted with the Medieval era, how culture flourished and new styles of art, music, eating and fashion had emerged.

The past two days we’ve been starting to look at the age of exploration, discussing why people explore and looking at maps of the known world in the last quarter of the 15th Century.

Europe in 1470

Image via Wikipedia

My assessment today had one question.

What was it about the last half of the 15th Century and first half of the 16th that led to the massive amount of exploration by Europeans in that time? What else was going on that led to an explosion of voyages on sea and land in search of riches, spices, and the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia?

I was looking for my students to think about the Renaissance and how it really was a rebirth of culture. We had discussed how that rebirth was possible because of the relative peace of that era.

I wanted them to realize that the same peace that fostered the curiosity and creativity of the Renaissance also fostered curiosity about the earth and its limits.

As I walked around the room I realized that no one was giving me the type of answer I was expecting.

Many students were telling me why people explored and the rest were describing conditions of war, poverty and pestilence common in Medieval times.

I restated the question in different words.

No change in their answers. Even the one or two who realized this was the Renaissance time-period did not make the connection.

I stopped the assessment.

I explained that almost everyone was heading off in the wrong direction, that I knew they knew what was actually going on in the 1490s and beyond, but that they were giving me details of an earlier time.

Only now do I realize they were telling me why people have emigrated in the past century, something many of them have done.

In the middle of the class I knew that they had not made the intellectual leap I thought they would.

Most of the kids were angry that I had stopped them from continuing to write their answers, even after I told them they were going off in the wrong direction. After all, they had worked hard putting their ideas on paper.

The more accomplished students in the class were angry because I had asked them such a complex question.

I told them that I thought they could make the intellectual leap I was asking them to, but perhaps I was asking too much. I reminded them that after a few years teaching intellectually challenged students, I was still learning how to teach and assess intellectually gifted ones.

Then I told them that if they get every question right every time, they’re not being challenged enough; that they would not know what they were capable of until they failed at something because they had over-reached or had been over-challenged.

I explained that I assess them constantly and already knew that they got what was different about the Renaissance, that they understood many of the reasons men and women go off into the unknown.

“I know what you know,” I said,  “Now I want to discover what you’re doing with what you know.”

They thought for a while.

They looked at each other.

They looked at the floor.

They looked at me.

Finally one tiny girl spoke up.

“I remember at the beginning of the year you told us you would be very different from any other teacher we’ve had.”

I smiled at the memory.

“You really weren’t kidding, were you?”

“And I’m going to be your social studies teacher again next year!”

Smiles all around.

I think it was my proudest moment in my teaching career.

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10 + 1 Not To Miss

05/16/2010

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

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

If you are tagged, follow these rules:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one more…

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

Challenge:

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

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Perfectly Qualified. Or Not.

05/14/2010
no original description
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been married almost 27 years to the same woman and I just realized she is perfectly qualified for a career I’ll bet she’s never thought of pursuing.

She’s out of town on business today so, of course, I’ve been thinking about her.

I think about her when she’s here, too, but a different though came to mind this morning.

She has this odd little behavior that, when I’m in a good mood, is charming.

She loves to cook and is very creative and accomplished at it, but she often uses the wrong tool for things.

For example, she usually uses a spatula to lift chili out of a saucepan or pot.

Yes, her chili is thick and she does a good job serving it onto plates using a spatula, but it would be far more efficient with a spoon, slotted or otherwise.

Sometimes she uses a spatula (it is her favorite tool, it seems) to serve something for which it doesn’t work at all.

This all reminded me of something and I realized that my wife is highly qualified for an important job, especially as it is being performed lately.

She could be an education policy maker.

Add in that she knows little or nothing about education history and she meets all the criteria of most of the people doing that job today.

I wonder how it pays?

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I Like To Watch

05/07/2010
Magnifying glass and reflection
Image by ◄bl► via Flickr

The last time I got to watch another teacher teach was when I was a student teacher six years ago.

Back then I really didn’t know enough to observe what was happening and understand what I was seeing.

Today I finally got the chance to watch an excellent teacher teach a social studies lesson.

This was very useful to me because I now have the background and experience to really look at what was going on — and what was not happening —in front of me.

I wish this had happened a couple of years ago.

It is happening now because my principal says my one teaching weakness is my classroom management. He is being kind.

Very kind.

Classroom management is something I completely understand in theory and I even know the dance steps, but I can’t seem to keep from tripping over my two left feet.

I know I have to set up good procedures from the beginning and stick to them, but I never seem to have the right ones.

This year has been especially difficult because I was out the first month of school with my knee injury and the kids had lots of opportunity to develop bad habits. I also was teaching general education classes for the first time.

The best thing about watching another teacher work is that I am able to compare what I saw to my own practice, and I am man enough to admit that compared to Mrs. A, I have absolutely dreadful class management skills.

Realizing that is the first step to improving.

Mrs. A was masterful in the way she not only managed a class with several difficult students but actually got those 8th graders to think independently in the process.

I came away with lots of management techniques and a new process for analyzing photographs, posters, and other documents.

I also came away with a strong desire to watch other teachers teach.

There is a current movement to greatly increase the amount of time teachers-in-training spend student teaching and I am all in favor of that.

But I also think that a few years after being certified all teachers should be required to observe one or more colleagues for a few days.

I know I’m ready to sacrifice some prep periods to do that.

Are you?

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Academics or Life Skills? Yes! No! Maybe!

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

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

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

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

My answer: Yes.

My other answer: No.

My third answer: It depends.

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

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

Vague?

You bet!

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

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

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

Not much clearer, is it?

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

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

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

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

It is time we stopped looking for them.

___________________

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

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Public Education: Start Again?

05/04/2010

My Twitter friend Stephen Diil in his blog Public Education: Start Again wrote:

I pose that question again to you. Everyone is either  an investor, client or an employee of one or more public education systems. If you could start from scratch, with no idea how it should look, who would it serve? How would it serve that audience? When and where would it serve it?What a lovely notion, the idea of starting all over.

Stephen challenged me to respond. I did. Here’s what I said:

It is a stimulating intellectual exercise that, I’m deeply afraid, has little or no relationship to reality.

Oh, some district somewhere will take the plunge and try to start fresh without any of the old assumptions. Let’s even assume that they can convince the teachers to go along with, better yet, be part of planning the renaissance. Imagine that, administrators, teachers, and maybe even some entrepreneurs working together and moving in a common direction; I can almost see the sun shining through brilliant rainbows and bluebirds chirping the good news.

Double Supernumerary Rainbow

Image by Proggie via Flickr

But wait! We still have to convince the parents.

Parents, it turns out, are deeply suspicious of any major fundamental re-imagining of school. This is the main reason that charter schools, for the most part, are just more intense, sometimes more focused versions of your everyday public school.

It seems parents like the 10-hour schooldays because it provides that much more free childcare coverage for working moms and dads, but as soon as ideas like student choice and child-directed education start flying about the parents fly off the handle and out the door.

Okay, but this is an intellectual exercise, not a pragmatic one, right.

I repeat that because if it were a discussion of pragmatic reformations of education we’d have to account for all those pesky poverty-stricken inner-city kids who, while desperately in need of open space and access to nature, have little safe access to it.

It is, in fact, in the inner cities and, paradoxically perhaps, the rural areas where all discussions of education reform trip over themselves and fall.

In inner cities there are just too many kids to scrap the current system and start over. No one in their right mind is going to put the million or so school children in NYC out onto the streets whilst the school buildings are torn down to create new educational open spaces.

Farmland in the Catskill country, in New York ...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The rural areas have lots of space but not the concentration of students to make use of it the way it might be used elsewhere. That students who live in open space will need to be bussed to other open spaces for educational purposes is mind-boggling.

So, if it won’t work in inner cities and won’t work in rural areas, who will benefit from this re-imagination of education? Why, it’s the wealthier suburban kids whose schools, for the most part, are not the real problems we think about when we think about the problems of or caused by public education.

One can no more restart the education system than one could restart fire service, policing, sanitation services, the military or any of the other similar major social-service agencies.

Change in education, like in most aspects of life and public policy, is and will remain far more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Tis a pity, for sure.

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Finally, Something BADD To Say

05/02/2010
spinal fusion model 2
Image by Dillon K. Hoops via Flickr

Yesterday, May 1, was Blog Against Disablism Day.

I wanted to write something good, something intelligent, perhaps something engaging as my contribution to the effort.

Nothing came to mind.

Then I picked up the New York Times this morning and read about Dayniah Manderson.

Ms. Manderson and I have a lot in common. We are both teachers. We both teach in the east side of the Bronx. We both teach 6th graders.

When the elevator in my school doesn’t work I haul my cart and carcass up the stairs.

When the elevator in Ms. Manderson’s school doesn’t work she can’t do that.

My cart, at its most full, weighs about twenty pounds.

Ms. Manderson’s weighs just under 300 pounds.

Ms. Manderson has spinal muscular atrophy and her “cart” is her electric wheelchair.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy is something one is born with.

Children born with Type I usually die before they turn two. Ms. Manderson has Type II. People with that form of the disease rarely live past 30.

I don’t know how old Ms. Manderson is. It doesn’t matter so much because she is doing a lot with whatever time she has.

But this essay is not about Ms. Manderson.

It is also not about the principal who told Ms. Manderson that if she were hired as a teacher the students might “throw her down the stairs.”

No, this is about the other principal. The one who looked at Ms. Manderson and saw a teacher with potential, not just a person with paralysis.

I don’t know that principal’s name, but he or she got it and is one less person we have to convince not to engage in disablism.

Small victories need to be celebrated.

Next!

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