The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

02/10/2013

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.


Learning a Universal Language

01/20/2011
Angry Talk (Comic Style)
Image via Wikipedia

I just learned a new language.

I used to run a British pub in New York City where we used to joke that we spoke about a dozen languages: American English, British English, Irish English, Australian English, Singapore English, Nigerian English, Indian English, Scottish English, Welsh English, South African English, Canadian English and Spanish.

I’m not yet fluent in my new language, but I’m learning it very quickly, probably because I am exposed to it so frequently.

New York City is the world’s most linguistically diverse place and this language is all around here, but I bet it is in your town, too. It’s probably in your school, maybe even in your classroom.

It was in my library today.

What language is so pervasive that it is common in New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas; in Omaha, Nebraska, in Adelaide, Australia and anywhere else there are enough people to have a middle or high school?

The language of anger.

Angry Sphynx
Image via Wikipedia

Anger a language? You bet!

Everything anyone does, wears, doesn’t do or doesn’t wear is a form of communication, a language.

Today some kids communicated by pulling a whole bunch of books off the shelves of my library and scattering them around the room. I wasn’t there at the time, but when I came back I understood their language right away.

Those kids were speaking anger, much more a universal language than Esperanto could ever be.

What were those kids angry about? I can only guess; being in school when they don’t want to be, being in the library with a rookie teacher from a different academy (we have seven in our school) who was covering the class for an absent colleague; and, likely, some stuff happening at home or elsewhere outside of school.

Everyone connected with school these days seems to have plenty to be angry about.

Teachers are angry about budget cuts, standardized tests, and people with no educational background criticizing their job performance and telling them how to do their jobs better.

Principals are angry that their jobs depend on raising test scores for all, but raising them for the most challenging students at a faster rate despite uncontrollable external factors including poverty and budget cuts.

Students are angry because their school building looks and feels like a prison, compliance is the response expected, and everyone they come into contact with in school is focused on short-term results.

By the way, many experts say the focus on short-term profit making was one of the major factors behind the recent economic collapse. If that is true, the current focus on short-term educational success will likely lead to a collapse in our field, too.

It’s just one more thing to be angry about.

Anger Is the Swiss Army Knife of Emotions T-shirt
Image by Mike Monteiro via Flickr

Or is that the opportunity we’ve all be looking for to make some real changes in how school is done?

That’s what anger is, an opportunity to make changes.

It is not easy to change things even slightly, much less radically, when everyone’s happy.

But when everyone is angry the door is wide open.

The question is, will we take advantage of the anger or spend our energy trying to repress it?

I’m angry about the probable answer to that.

You should be, too.

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I’ve Failed, and I’m Almost Glad I Did

12/06/2010
A black and white icon of a teacher in front o...
Image via Wikipedia

Today was my last as a classroom teacher

My classes are being taken away from me.

My principal has lost confidence in my teaching ability.

So have I.

Oh, I do okay with my high-flying 7th grade class and they were distraught when I told them that I would not be their social studies teacher anymore. There were tears, some of them theirs.

I did not do so okay with my low-level 8th grade class.

I completely failed as their teacher.

I can make all kinds of excuses: there are 35 of them; all their other teachers struggle with them; they were a ‘bad’ class last year and more difficult students were added this year; and more, but the fact is, I did not reach them in any way.

Oh, there are one or two students in the class who I connected with, but not the other 33. My lessons were flat, my class management totally ineffective. A good day was one where the books flying around the classroom was the biggest behavior problem.

I had a double period with them today and they were oddly well behaved. Some of them even worked, but only three had the draft of their exit project written report due today. They did not know it was our last together.

They are not learning and I was getting more and more frustrated.
Tomorrow they will have a different social studies teacher. So will my other classes.

I have long championed the value of failure as part of the learning experience and I already know one of the ways this failure will benefit me (more on that in a moment), but it still does not feel very good to fail and I’d much rather have been a better teacher for those 8th graders and my three other classes.

Then again, had I not failed I would not have the exciting new opportunity presented to me.

Tomorrow I start my new job as the school’s media specialist.

I will be taking over the library and trying to drag it into the latter stages of the 20th Century.

I’d rather drag it into the 21st C. but the budget and some Department of Education regulations won’t allow it.

Even so, the late 20th C. is a big step forward from what we have now.

Now I know nothing about being a librarian.

TL09 View of School Libraries
Image by vanhookc via Flickr

Nothing.

No worries; I’m fortunate to have some of the best school librarians in the country offering to help me out.

Through Twitter I have ‘met’ Shannon Miller from the Van Meter, Iowa schools, DM Cordell, a retired school librarian from upstate NY, Beth Friese from Georgia, Melissa Techman from Virginia, and Susan Myers from South Carolina. I am sure they will get me off on the right track.

What one does as a media specialist is undefined and seems almost unlimited, but I think it will have a lot to do with helping students make connections that will be as important to their learning as those librarians will be to mine.

Today one door slammed shut.

Tomorrow a different one swings open.

I will go through it smiling.

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Oops, there I go again…

08/25/2010
White Tiger Mouth wide open!
Image by kabils via Flickr

I need to learn to keep my mouth shut more often.

This is doubly so when my ‘mouth’ is my fingers typing here, on Facebook or, most important, on Twitter where  I am known as Spedteacher.

Here’s what happens when I don’t.

I hate when that happens. But it is completely my fault when it does.

So now I’ll be easy to find on most Tuesday evenings starting at 8:30PM NYC time.

#spedchat is for teachers (and not just special ed teachers, either), parents, administrators, students and everyone else with any connection or interest in special education issues.

Topics proposed for the first chat on August 31st are:

  • How can parent-teacher relations be improved?
  • What do grades mean in special education?
  • Is inclusion working for general and special education students?
  • How do we get general education teachers to understand? (the current leader in the voting)
  • How have school budget cuts affected special education?

You can participate in the decision about what the topic will be by voting here.

To participate in the chat just log onto Twitter ( if you don’t have an account you can get one free, here ), then search for the hashtag #spedchat.

For a better explanation of all of this please visit my co-conspirator and #spedchat moderator Damian Bariexca’s excellent blog.

I hope to see you Tuesday.

I’ll probably get myself into even more trouble.

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Chaos and Injury, What a Year

06/26/2010
Pelham Bay Park (IRT Pelham Line) by David Sha...
Image via Wikipedia

My school year started with injury and chaos and it is ending the same way, only this time I’m not the one who is injured.

On our last full day of the year my school schedules a Field Day at a very large park a short subway ride away.

The ride over was uneventful, just what you want a subway ride to be, especially when you’re shepherding a large group of students.

The injury occurred on the basketball court. Somehow one of our 7th grade boys fell hard and hit his head on the asphalt. A large lump formed immediately. Ice was applied and an ambulance called.

At last report he was resting after having had convulsions.

The chaos comes from every teacher in my academy having to switch classrooms before next year starts. This is not typical even though it will be my fifth move in the four years I’ve worked at this school.

I am envious of those teachers who simply lock up at the end of the year and walk away leaving the room only requiring minimum effort to get the room ready for September’s students.

Not only have I had to move rooms every year I’ve taught, I’ve had to learn a new curriculum or two.

Next year I’ll be teaching 8th grade social studies again, but I’ll also be teaching the 7th grade for the first time. I’ll be teaching general and special education classes. My principal wants me to develop a technology-based literacy-heavy approach to the curriculum.

I’m happy about all that.

The 7th grade class will be this year’s 6th graders who I enjoy so much. The 8th grade class, this year’s 7th graders, is generally considered a class to avoid if you can.

I can’t, and I’m agonizing over how to approach them.

I’m being advised to be very strict, to set clear procedures with high standards of behavior and enforce them rigorously. This includes making them line-up silently before entering the class and behaving with maximum comportment once inside.

I am not a very strict person. I’m very relaxed in an energetic, intense way. I am far more inclined to tell students what I expect and help them try to grow to reach those expectations.

I’ve got to admit that this approach has not worked well for me and, as the saying goes, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome leads to insanity. I’m afraid it will also result in diminished learning opportunities for those students who already have large educational deficits.

So strict it will be. I have all summer to practice my teacher stare, to learn how to project my voice better while learning that new curriculum and figuring out how to use technology to teach my students.

I’m also taking additional training in social studies content, on how to use my interactive white board to teach social studies and on grant writing.

So that’s how I’m spending my summer “off.”

Oh, I do get to take a trip. My wife and I are going to spend a week in Santa Fe.

For that week I’m going to try to forget about students, forget about curriculum, forget about planning and forget about gathering materials and resources,

Why doesn’t anyone believe me when I say that?

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Teacher Gets A Final Report Card: B-

06/16/2010
Students holding report cards.
Image via Wikipedia

It is report card time again.

I give one to each of my students and my students give one to me.

I started this earlier this year and I did very well in the first quarter.

My students tell me that in some ways I improved as the year went on. In other ways I did not.

As in the past, I let each student decide what criteria was important to them and how they would grade me. I do this so I don’t impose my idea of what is important on them.

On my first report card I got very favorable grades. This time the students were more discerning.

“We always learn something in class (Progress: 75%) but you need to be more tough (Discipline 40%) Overall grade: 65,” wrote one boy.

“You as a person: A+. You as a teacher: C-. Surprise tests are never a good idea,” a girl explained.

But another student wrote, “You always prepared us for tests, you always spent extra time with me when I didn’t understand something.”

Two students said I get out of control sometimes, and two others asked how I manage to keep myself under control all the time (deep breathing I learned in yoga class).

Many students offered suggestions for how I could improve:

speak more clearly.

explain more, even when we don’t ask questions.

give more work.

be a tougher disciplinarian.

control the class better.

get a different job.

Other students appreciated that I:

gave choices about assignments.

assigned a lot of projects.

played music and served food from the countries we studied.

am open to criticism.

don’t hold grudges.

Today I also told my 6th grade students that I would be their homeroom and social studies teacher next year.

Only two people shouted out “OH, NO!”

Three girls hugged me. Two boys hugged me.

When report cards are what you seek you see they come in all forms.

One troubled boy tried to throw a chair at me.

Another boy stopped him.

In my mind, that’s a B- average.

Lots of room for improvement, indeed.

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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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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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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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I Screw Up & Come Out Ahead

02/23/2010
Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, at Place ...
Image via Wikipedia

I believe in failure.

I believe in taking an intellectual risk and falling flat on my face.

I believe in taking something apart in order to learn how to put it back together the right way through a process of putting it back together the wrong way first.

I believe in failing by doing something you shouldn’t have and learning the hard way why you shouldn’t have done it.

I failed today.

I did the wrong thing and had it go as badly as it possibly could have.

Even so, it may have been the best thing I’ve ever done in my continuingly evolving struggle to connect with my 8th grade social studies class.

My school, like the rest of the schools of the New York City Department of Education, has an ironclad rule against students using personal electronic devices like games and cell phones no matter how smart they are. This was repeated to us in a staff meeting after school yesterday.

Please don’t respond to this post with information on how the computers students all carry in their pockets can be utilized in the classroom. I’ve heard it. I believe it. I just can’t convince the NYCDOE to change their policies. I’ve tried.

So here’s what happened.

I’m in the middle of teaching my eighth grade social studies class, a class I’ve had a lot of difficulty engaging.

It is sixth period, right after lunch, usually the worst period of the day for all teachers.

For a change, my usually extremely rowdy class is actually working at creating cost-benefit analyses of the late 19th – early 20th Century investment NYC made to build schools.

I’m walking around the room, checking progress, helping enhance understanding and all that good teacher stuff, and then I spot it.

Way in the back, where the rowdiest students sit, it is strangely quiet. Two of the boys seem to be staring into their lap, the sure sign they are looking at a verboten screen.

I can move surprisingly quickly and quietly for a big guy and I’m on them in a flash.

This is where I make my big mistake.

I reach down and try to snatch the phone out of the hands of the boy holding it.

In the process the phone flies and breaks when it hits the floor.

The boy who was holding the phone was distraught; it turns out the phone isn’t his.

I calm him and say what turns out to be the magic words:

“I take responsibility for my actions. I will pay to replace the phone.”

Silence.

I say it again.

I tell the boy to go tell the assistant principal what happened.

I repeat my pledge to replace the phone to him, and he tells me to go talk to the principal.

I tell him that I will replace the phone and he tells me what I already knew: I screwed up when I tried to grab the phone.

He warned me not to do it again, I assured him I wouldn’t and returned to my class.

I walked back to that back group and the boy who was holding the phone said, “Are you really going to pay for it?”

I repeated that I take full responsibility for my actions and that I would pay for the phone.

“Wow.”

For the rest of the day, different students wandered into my room and asked me to repeat what I had said.

Each time they shook their heads and looked at me with a mixture of awe and puzzlement.

Finally, two kids came to me and pulled me aside.

“People think what you did was dumb but what you are doing about it is awesome.”

Then they shook my hand and walked out.

Cost of the phone: $200

Benefits from the screw-up: immeasurable.

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