All This Talk of Reform is Making Me Cranky

11/22/2010
Education Reform I found this picture at: http...
Image via Wikipedia

Today is blog for education reform day and I’ve spent a week trying to think of what I wanted to say about education reform.

I’ve been reading a lot of the other blogs participating and have been duly impressed by the level of conversation and the ideas expressed.

It is all leaving me very cranky.

I know education reform is taking place somewhere but where I work I’m not seeing it. Oh wait. Is all that testing reform and I’ve just not noticed it? If so, I’m sorry, I’ll try to pay more attention in the future.

Here are some additional reforms I’d like to see.

1. I’d like all the students in my school, my city, my state and my nation have equal access to exotic things like math books.  I’m tired of reading about one-to-one laptop programs here and there when the kids down the hall from my classroom don’t have math books but all the other 6th graders in the school do.

2. I’d like to see the smaller class sizes the City promised and was given extra money to accomplish.

3. I’d like to see the reductions in paperwork the city has been promising for years. I’d much rather spend my time gathering materials and planning than filling out forms.

4. I’d like to see my employer pay for the supplies I have to buy every year. It used to be chalk and stuff like that, now it is hard drives, cables and other things to keep the small amount of tech I have access to so my students might not fall ever further behind the more prosperous part of the populace.

I know these are small things and not what anyone is really thinking about when education reform is the topic, but if we can’t get the small things done can we really expect the big things to happen?

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Where Are All the Digital Natives?

10/13/2010
Internet Map. Ninian Smart predicts global com...
Image via Wikipedia

I keep hearing about digital natives.

I’d like to meet one.

From all I hear about them in the media, on Twitter, in education conferences and elsewhere one would think there were digital natives behind every tree in every forest.

Or behind every desk in every classroom.

Not mine.

Not any of the other classrooms in my school.

Maybe they’re all out in the suburbs.

I asked my 16-year-old son, a junior in a nice suburban high school, if he knows any digital natives. He doesn’t.

I really want to meet one.

So where are they?

I work with students who range in age from eleven to 16. I’d think that would be in the prime age-range for being digital natives, but no.

Maybe there aren’t any digital natives in the Bronx, home of the nation’s most poverty enhanced congressional district.

Maybe they’re all in Manhattan. Or Kansas.

Maybe they’re as rare as left-handed dentists.

Or maybe they don’t exist at all.

Just another figment of imagination, or perhaps just a neat phrase that inadvertently tripped off the tongue of some glib presenter somewhere and stuck.

Believing in digital natives is not as harmless as believing in the tooth fairly, though.

Thinking that all kids are digital natives means we don’t bother to teach them about digital things.

Thinking that all the kids are digital natives makes it easy to forget that there are a lot of kids from poor families who still do not have access to the most basic modern technology that most of us take for granted.

Out of the 85 or so students I teach, 26 say they don’t have any kind of computer at home. Of the 59 with computers, 14 say they don’t have access to the Internet.

Most of the remaining 45 say they just got Internet access within the past 18 months.

There may be digital natives somewhere.

But let’s keep in mind that there are digital have-nots right under our noses.

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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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Doing the Right Thing Because It Is Right, Not Expedient

07/30/2010
Remembering 9/11/01
Image by Raúl! via Flickr

I usually write about education but this post will not be about that.

It will be about courage, morality, fear and self-interest.

I was born in New York City.

For most of my life I have lived in New York City and I work there now.

No matter where I go or where I live, New York City is home.

I don’t know about people in the rest of the country or the rest of the world, but every single New Yorker knows precisely what he or she was doing when airplanes flew into the towers of the World Trade Center.

And every single New Yorker knows what he or she was doing when the towers fell.

And every single New Yorker is grateful beyond measure that there are people in this city who daily put their lives at risk protecting us.

Thousands were killed on September 11, 2001, but they were not the only victims.

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...
Image via Wikipedia

Among the thousands of dead were fearless men and women of the fire department and police departments who we had relied on to protect us.

Despite the courage they showed, they could not protect us from those planes and the results of their criminal impact though they gave their lives trying to.

It was a horrible crime and watching the towers fall was a horrible and sickening sight.

WORLD TRADE CENTER ATTACK
Image by Coast Guard News via Flickr

Fear is a debilitating thing. More on that in a moment.

After the towers fell hundreds, perhaps thousands of men and women: police officers, fire fighters, ambulance workers, sanitation workers, and construction workers from the city and many elsewheres near and far worked long hours searching for possible survivors.

When it was clear that there were no survivors left they searched for remains so that they could later be identified and buried.

Raising A Truck: Early Stages of Clean Up at G...
Image by Viewmaker via Flickr

They moved tons of rubble, breathed tons of what turned out to be highly toxic dust that hung in the air for weeks.

These men and women showed courage, too. Disaster sites are dangerous in ways those of us who have not worked in them cannot fully grasp.

These men and women worked for weeks, breathing that toxic air daily.

Now, nearly ten years after that date that will echo for decades, these men and women are getting sick.

They are suffering unusual rates and forms of lung disease, heart disease and nerve damage that did not show up immediately.

There is little doubt that these diseases are the result of their work at what quickly became known as Ground Zero.

Survivors of those who died in the attack have received monetary compensation for their losses of income, companionship and parenting from those who died in the immediacy of the attack.

Those people who rushed in afterward to search for survivors, remains or relics of the lives that were have losses, too. They have lost their health. Many have been told their lives will be truncated by the diseases they now have.

Morality demands that the rest of us take care of those who take care of us.

That same morality demands that we take care of the health needs of those who searched through the destruction at Ground Zero.

This does not seem to be a difficult concept to understand yet Congress doesn’t seem to get it.

Morality demands that one do the right thing even when it is not convenient or easy.

ESPECIALLY when it is not convenient or easy.

NYC - Ground Zero Cross
Image by wallyg via Flickr

Congress has put politics ahead of morality, ahead of doing the right thing for those men and women who sacrificed so much so willingly.

Congress has refused to pass the bill that, if enacted, would pay the health care costs of those men and women.

We are not talking really big numbers here. The costs of this health care would not approach the billions of dollars given to banks or the billions of dollars given to automobile manufacturers.

But it should not matter if it would be that expensive. Taking care of these people is merely the right thing to do.

Congress should be ashamed but they are not.

Congress does not have morals. Congress members operate on the basis of self-interest and on their fears of not being re-elected.

If you are a teacher, teach your Congress member how to recognize moral obligation and what to do about it.

If you are not a teacher write a letter or make a phone call.

Write lots of letters.

Make lots of phone calls.

Get Congress to act now.

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This World, That World and Some Other World

06/28/2010
Le Monde Flottant... The Floating World
Image by L’Ubuesque Boîte à Savon via Flickr

I don’t like the term ‘real world.’

It is often used in sentences like ‘Every lesson in school should relate to the real world.’

Formulations like that make me think schools are like the Floating World of ancient Japan or the artificial world of the holodeck on some Star Trek spaceship.

Schools are the real world, just as much as slums or split-level suburban homes are.

As different as slums and split-levels appear to be they have much in common just as the schools in slums and in suburbs have much in common.

An American slum building and a split-level each provide some manner of shelter from the elements, a place to sleep, plumbing, and some separation from what it occurring outside its walls.

The schools in poverty-riddled slum areas also have much in common with the schools in the wealthy suburbs. This comes as a surprise to some people who prefer to focus on the differences between them.

In fact, almost all schools in America have much more in common than whatever differences may exist.

They all have classrooms and teachers.

They all have textbooks.

Sure the textbooks might be newer in one place than they are in another, but when you get right down to it a textbook is a textbook and they’re all pretty terrible.

And when you get right down to it a school is a school and they’re all pretty terrible.

But they’re not terrible because they belong to some world other than the ‘real’ one.

There is just one real world. It just looks different in different places.

Perhaps you are wondering “if the real world looks different in different places why do the schools all look pretty much the same?”

That is what I wonder about.

I recently listened to a graduation speech. I’ve listened to quite a few graduation speeches.

Graduation speeches have a lot in common with schools and textbooks, they’re all pretty much the same and they’re all pretty terrible.

Listen to a graduation speech in the South Bronx and listen to one in South Salem and you’ll hear the same notes of thanks and relief, the same platitudes, and the same exhortations to create a better world, some other world where things are more, grander, greater and finer.

That world doesn’t exist.

That world will not exist.

Nothing will change even when it seems everything is changing.

Nothing will change especially when it looks like everything is changing.

The other world today’s students are supposed to create will look very much like this one just as this one looks very much like the one my generation was supposed to create when we graduated 40 years ago, and very much like the one my father’s generation was supposed to create when he graduated 60+ years ago.

My guess is that 60 years from now the graduation speeches will still sound the same and those graduates are supposed to create that better, grander, world.

And they won’t either.

This is not an accident.

This is, despite all the platitudes about how education changes the world and is a way out of poverty, etc., precisely what our system of education is designed to do: keep things pretty much the same and pretty terrible, at least for the great majority of people.

This is what schools do: they perpetuate the present from generation to generation.

Oh sure, things change. Many schools have gone from blackboards to white boards to interactive white boards, but they’re a lot like textbooks and graduation speeches, pretty much the same and pretty terrible.

They’re terrible because though they give the impression of being very different they each focus the student on the front of the room and remind the student of who holds the power in the classroom.

And schools in the South Bronx and South Salem (and South Carolina and South Dakota…) give the impression of being very different but they all remind the student of who holds the power in society and how they’re supposed to sit still, listen quietly and raise their hand to participate.

This is as true today as it was 100 years ago and 200 years ago.

This is why the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

And none of it is an accident.

And it is all pretty terrible.

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Better Students? Not My Job!

06/08/2010
Dr Kildare 002
Image by Tinker*Tailor via Flickr

Can You Name Five Famous Teachers? Four? Three?

I bet you’d have no trouble naming five famous lawyers.

Go ahead. Try.

Easy, wasn’t it?

Naming five famous doctors is a breeze, too.

I bet you can even name five famous living economists.

Teachers?

Famous teachers are hard to come by.

Is it because teaching is thought of as women’s work? Perhaps.

Is it because teachers don’t toot their own horns? That, too.

The problem with not tooting our horns is it makes us easy to ignore, easy to disregard.

How many teachers are at the table when education policy is being formulated and debated?

How is it that all the decisions about teaching and learning are being made by people who are not teachers?

I recently asked my teacher groups on Twitter to tell me how they’ve made a difference in the lives of children and their families.

I was looking for examples of the sorts of things that teachers do that don’t show up on those infernal standardized tests.

I got a few of those:

But mostly teachers told me the 140-character-or-fewer stories of how teachers made a difference in their lives.

There are few famous teachers but we all have teachers who affected us deeply, not necessarily academically. They got to us in ways that helped us grow, helped us become better people.

Much of the talk about education these days is about how America is falling behind, how students in Kansas can’t compete with kids from kids from Korea, Kenya or Katmandu.

Teachers are blamed and exhorted to create better students.

Sorry, that’s not my job.

Better students come from homes with parents who around to read to and talk with their children instead of having to work three jobs to feed and clothe them.

Better students come from better communities that are able to support libraries and where the development of children is everyone’s concern and a kid may have only one mother and one father but is blessed with a dozen or more ‘parents.’

If it is not my job or any teacher’s job to create better students, what is it that we do?

In all honesty, as much as I love history, it is not important to me that every student knows how the enmity the American revolutionaries felt towards King George III affects our lives today (do you know?).

What’s important to me is that every student knows how to tell fact from fiction, not confuse opinion with authority.

It is important to me that all my students can wade through the pervasive media environment and know how to form and communicate a reasoned opinion and cast an informed vote.

No, we don’t want to create better students.

We want to create better adults.

Better adults become better parents. Better adults create better, more caring and supportive communities.

All those critics who want America to have better students, you’re setting your sights far too low.

We all know, low expectations cause poor performance.

Need proof?

Just look at our politicians.

We don’t expect much from them.

And when it comes to education policy, not much is exactly what we get.

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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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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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