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.


Keeping My Students Safe Isn’t Easy.

12/18/2012
Gun Library

Gun Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to keep my students safe, I really do, but it really is impossible.

When it comes to student and staff safety, there are so many things wrong with the way my school is built and run that I don’t know where to begin.

Our principal reminded the staff again this week that only the front door should be used for entrance and exit, so let’s start there.

It is unlocked. Anyone can walk up the three steps, open the door, and be in the building. Anyone. Delivery people, parents, job applicants, former students. Anyone. Why not a shooter?

Up three more steps and our shooter is in the lobby facing our security desk. Most of the time we have an unarmed but uniformed school security officer sitting there. Sometimes it is just a school aide. Guard or aide, he or she is the first victim.

sfAssuming someone hears those shots, the PA system will announce a lockdown. The speakers in the library aren’t so loud and if it is noisy (I don’t run one of those silent libraries) I may not hear the announcement. I usually have my door open and he library is the first room down the hallway you face while shooting the security guard.

At the start of a lockdown every teacher is supposed to lock our door(s), then herd our students away from the door and keep them quiet. To lock our doors we have to go out into the hallway, put a key in and turn it so the door locks, then go inside and move away from the door to where the students are. That’s right, there is no way to lock any classroom door from the inside.

Out in the hall, I will be the second person our shooter sees. It has been nice knowing you.

To protect my students and myself, some people are suggesting I, and other school staffers, should be armed. I’d need to get trained, and there are bullets that break into tiny harmless pieces if they don’t hit their target. How the bullets know that the kid or adult I actually shoot in error while trying to shoot the shooter isn’t my target and should remain harmless is beyond me, but science and technology have come so far so fast I might have missed that development.

The idea that teachers or administrators, aides or APs could shoot a shooter is a Rambo fantasy that pops up every time a school shooting occurs.

There’s fantasy; then there’s the more likely reality. The shooter enters the building and pops Sgt. Perez. He’s lost some weight lately but he’s still a pretty big target. If I have a gun, I rush out of the library, take aim, and fire. I hit the garbage bin in the lobby, or maybe the nurse rushing out of her office.

If two of us have guns, let’s say our most athletic assistant principal and I, we would shoot each other (accidentally, I’m sure) before we hit the rapidly moving shooter.

Guns in school are not the answer. We’re not going to shoot our way to safety.

None of us are Rambo.

John Rambo in Rambo.

No one is Rambo.

Rambo is fiction.

Lets start, instead, with keeping the front door locked, with everyone who wants to enter having to be checked via video before being allowed to enter. Let’s retrofit every door in the building so they can be locked from the inside.

Will that keep us safe?

Safer, perhaps.

It’s a start.


I matter

09/18/2012

I used to be very shy. VERY shy. Then Angela Maiers showed me that I matter. 

It was three years ago at a major technology education conference in Washington, DC. I thought of it again this weekend because I was in DC with Angela for the first Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education.

The NECC was my first education conference and it is a huge one. Five days and tens of thousands of people. I had been on Twitter for a few months and had made some soft connections; I’d had some conversations with people and I knew a few names. At that time my handle was @spedteacher, being shy I used my job at the time instead of my name as a moniker. I was a very small presence despite my large size.

In many ways the NECC was a huge step for me. I had not yet met anyone I knew through Twitter face-to-face and I was in awe of the knowledge, the experience and expertise of the people I followed there. I was learning so much and wanted to learn more. I always want to learn more. Curiosity is my driving force. So I decided to go to NECC.

Attending NECC was an expensive proposition. Registration is a few hundred dollars; DC hotels were not cheep and were at a premium, especially those within walking distance of the convention center. When a teacher from upstate NY, who I didn’t even know through Twitter, contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to share my hotel room so we could both cut our expenses I only hesitated for a moment before agreeing. Fortunately, Ryan Wassink and I got along well.

One of the features of the NECC is what they call a Bloggers Cafe where people gather to write their blogs, chat with others and generally just process the huge amount of information being presented. In this instance the cafe was a collection of small tables and cushioned benches and couches of different heights. I would go there and sit off away from anyone else. I was VERY shy.

One afternoon I got to the cafe and it was fairly empty, I sat on a bench leaning my back against the side of the empty couch next to it. I did not yet have this blog so I was on Twitter looking at tweets about the sessions I was not able to attend. Some people came and the cafe began to fill up. There was an interesting conversation going on behind me and I was listening intently. At one point I turned around to see who these people were and as soon as I did this very pretty woman looked at me and said, “You’re spedteacher!”

That woman was Angela Maiers. Angela is an award-winning educator, speaker, consultant and professional trainer known for her work in literacy, leadership and global communications. She is a big deal. She recognized me. And she introduced me to everyone else in the conversation. Then Angela asked me what my take was on the topic.

I have no idea what the topic was, but I will never forget that Angela thought what I had to say mattered.

Angela has been telling people that they matter for a long time. She talks about it, she writes about it, and she lives it.

I’m writing this to tell you that you matter, and I’m writing this to tell Angela how she mattered to me. Angela recently started a group on Facebook called Choose2Matter. She, and it, have helped me change my teaching this year.

I’m telling my students that they matter. It started the first time I saw them and played them this message (make sure your sound is on, then click the play button!)

There are geniuses here!

I asked them to tell me about the kind of genius they are. Engagement was instantaneous. They all wanted to make a Voki and tell their message about the kind of genius they are and how they matter.Everyone got right to work, thinking, writing planning.

All except one small girl who just sat there staring at her paper. I went to her, knelt to her level and asked if she was okay. She nodded yes. I asked if she was having difficulty writing. She nodded yes. I said, “you’re very shy, aren’t you?” She nodded yes. I told her to whisper in my ear the problem she was having.

She leaned over, cupped her hands around my ear and softly said, “I don’t know what kind of genius I am.”

I whispered back, “I don’t know you yet so I don’t know and can’t tell you what kind of genius you are, but my first job this year is to help you discover it for yourself and learn how to show it to the world.”

She smiled.

I mattered.

Thank you, Angela.


The Next Step

08/22/2012

Tomorrow I’ll be driving my child to college for the start of what I still call his freshman year. His college calls him a ‘first year,’ very Harry Potter-ish.
An event like this causes me to look back over the high and low notes of his schooling and I realize that his experience encompasses some of the he best and some of the worst in American education.

His public school life started in an unusually public way. His class was the class filmed for the HBO serial documentary Kindergarten. It can still be seen,12 years later, mornings on the HBO Family channel. He’s the really tall, very articulate kid, but if you watch the show, pay attention to the teacher. Ms. Johnson, now a middle school English teacher, was the first of a string of incredible teachers Jonas had through elementary school.

His first grade teacher, Ms. Pakaln, made home visits. When we had her over for dinner she remained focused on her student despite parental efforts to engage her in adult conversation. That waited until the boy went to bed.

Mrs. Schwartz, his second grade teacher, really got him. Jonas was much taller, far more verbal, and almost totally uninterested in sports, Pokemon or any of the other things the boys favored and, as a result, he had very few friends. He would regularly get teased by the 4th and 5th graders in the playground who thought he was their age and in 2nd grade because he was a slow learner. Mrs. Schwartz engaged Jonas in conversations and assured us that his social life would blossom in high school when he found others like himself. She was absolutely right.

During the year Jonas was in second grade I started substitute teaching in his district to see if I really wanted to become a teacher. I loved substituting for Mrs. Schwartz even though it embarrassed Jonas, but I especially enjoyed subbing in the second grade inclusion class in one of the other district schools. The next year, when those special ed students moved to Jonas’ school my wife and I arranged for Jonas to be in the inclusion class.

It was inclusion done the way it should be done; two of the best teachers in the school, Mrs. King and Mrs. Greenwald, both certified in general and special education, teaching all the students. When one was teaching the other was at a big table in the back where any student could go for extra help, and both general ed and special ed students took advantage of the assistance. Jonas befriended most of the special ed students, explaining that they were as different as he was, only in a different way. Smart kid.

In fourth grade Jonas had his first male teacher, Joe Galantich, a magnificent teacher, especially of social studies which became Jonas’ favorite subject. Joe also got Jonas who, by this time, was reading at the high school level. They would discuss books, especially the Legend of Sleepy Hollow which seemed to obsess Jonas.

Fifth grade was the first disappointment. His second male teacher was a rookie and much more of a jock. I strongly suspected that Jonas had already read more books than his teacher had.

Middle school was even more of a disappointment via the 7th grade social studies teacher who taught the most exciting period in American history, the Revolution and founding of the nation, through textbook readings and worksheets. That was offset by the wise-cracking Mr. Wisner, the 8th grade history teacher (“I teach history, [bleeping] social studies is for [bleep, bleep] wimps”) who somehow never bought his teacher lounge profanity into the classroom but still made the kids feel like they were being let in on some adult-world secrets.

Ms. McGillicuty, the exceptionally skilled 6th grade math teacher, helped Jonas overcome his prior struggles so he could earn his first A in the subject. It would also be his last as the following year he returned to his more usual low Bs and high Cs in math.

Our district is known for its very strong arts program and the middle school art teacher stood out as one the best of those three years. Ms. Mahan’s streaked hair, feathered earrings and tattoos taught him and us that great teachers come in all kinds of packages.

It’s funny how I remember the names of all of Jonas’ elementary school teachers but only the names of the few good ones from his middle school experience.

High school proved 2nd grade Mrs. Schwartz right, Jonas’ social life blossomed. He had too many good teachers to name them all but two or three stand out.

It took a school trip to France for Madame Pence to get Jonas who, at one point, exasperated us even more than his low grade had by proclaiming, “of course I don’t do well in French, I don’t speak the language.” pointing to his excellent English marks as proof of his contention. On that trip, Mrs. Pence and Jonas were equally astounded that he emerged as the main translator for his classmates as they wandered independently in Paris. His functional French was far better than what he was able to show in the class quizzes and exams. His confidence rose so much that he has chosen to continue studying French as part of his college program.

Jonas’ high school English experience started off with a teacher who gave his honors class the following homework assignment: “Make a list of all the characters in Hamlet.” That’s it. A list. No thinking required. To his credit, Jonas refused to do the assignment, pointing out to his teacher, probably more politely than I would have at his age, that Hamlet, like every other play, had a cast list at the beginning. The rest of the year did not get much better.

Fortunately, that was the worst of it. His other English teachers stoked the intellectual fire somehow still burning in him.

Simona Moldovan was Jonas’ 11th grade English teacher as well as staff advisor to the drama club in which Jonas became very active. She engaged him in high-level conversations that thrilled him but frequently left the rest of the class far behind. She is particularly responsible for my son’s professional ambition; in a parent-teacher meeting she told my wife and I that his becoming an English teacher “would be the greatest repayment I could make to my profession.”

The other especially positive English teacher was the one he had this past year. Thomas Burns, arranged to have Jonas teach all the 12th grade sections a lesson his and Jonas jointly prepared. When the hoped-for discussion failed to materialize as anticipated during its first iteration, Mr. Burns said “welcome to your first first-period class, Jonas. If you want to be a teacher you’ll need to get used to this.” Mr. Burns also helped steer Jonas to his alma mater, SUNY New Paltz.

SUNY New Paltz

Jonas starts there tomorrow and I haven’t seen him as jazzed about school since the first day of kindergarten.

A big thank you to all of Jonas’ teachers. Whether remarkably good or remarkably mediocre, you helped him become the confident, articulate, socially conscious and well-rounded person he is.

I can let him go tomorrow knowing he’ll make some mistakes, screw up at times, and be better for the experience because despite occasional struggles and the few inept teachers, his love of learning is intact and he will soak up knowledge everywhere and from everyone.

A chip off the old block, he is.


What Would Gandhi Do?

04/17/2012
Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), polit...

Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), politischer und spiritueller Führer von Indien. Ort unbekannt English: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and spiritual leader of India. Location unknown. Français : Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), Guide politique et spirituel de l'Inde. Lieu inconnu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In its infinite wisdom, the New York State Education Department has increased the length of the state ELA and math tests by 50% this year. Now three days each instead of two.

They say that the increase is due to a need to field test questions for future exams based on the Common Core standards.

In other words, they are using our students, our children, as guinea pigs.

Any other field of science requires informed consent before experimenting on human subjects. I’ve never been asked if I consent to the state experimenting on my son. The state is either arrogantly flouting standard scientific procedure or they’re saying my son, and all the other students attending public schools in the state are not human.

Either way, they’re wrong.

I suspect that if asked, they’ll say that sending our children to public schools implies consent.

That’s nonsense.

It is the same as saying that by taking our children to doctors we’re implying consent for them to be used in chemotherapy studies.

I’ve spent part of the past week, and part of a week in February, working in the library of the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan as part of the state-required internship for the MLS degree I am almost done with.

The students at the Ethical Culture School don’t take state tests. Their parents spend $38,000 a year to buy out of them. Yes, somehow, their children get educated and everyone connected with their education knows precisely what each child is learning.

Not many of us can afford to spend $38,000 a year per child for an education that exempts them from state testing that has nothing to do with improving student learning and that also conducts experiments on those students. We have to find a different way to get our sons and daughters out of the grip of the edu-business of standardized exams.

I propose education civil disobedience. We should just keep our children home on testing days. Or if we must send them to school so we can work, teach them to refuse to take the exams.

Yes, it can have a disastrous effect on a school’s AYP if not enough students take the exam. If it happens in one school no one will notice.

If it happens in all the schools in a district people will begin to notice.

And if it happens in a lot of districts our educational leaders will have a decision to make.

They can try to enforce the laws and punish parents, students and schools for the boycott.

Or they can take their ball of data and go away.

At least for a while.


I Don’t Know and I’m Not Ashamed To Admit It

03/30/2012

I’ve done a lot of different things in my life and I ask a lot of questions.

Curiosity tears down walls

Curiosity tears down walls (Photo credit: Rosa Say)

As a result, I know a lot of stuff. But no matter how much I know, there is far, far more that I do not know. There is so much that I don’t know.

Today my not knowing was repeatedly displayed to my students. Due to an unusually crowded evening schedule this week I am even more tired than usual, but that isn’t why I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Actually, I knew that I didn’t know; I just don’t know how much I don’t know.

Third base.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know today: How prisoners give themselves tattoos; how audio tracks get attached to digital videos; and how to take the write-protection off a flash drive that somehow got write protected. Our tech guy also didn’t know that one; I didn’t ask him about the other two.

I can’t wait for opportunities to show my students how much I don’t know. Most of them think I’m pretty smart for an adult, but they’re between 11 and 14 years old, so they’re not surprised that I don’t know a lot of stuff.

They’re just surprised that I admit it.

Its been about 45 years since I was in middle school. Even though those were my favorite school years I still remember one teacher who, whenever one of us would ask a question he could not answer, would chastise us for not sticking to the lesson and for having too much curiosity.

Too much curiosity?

101 Uses for a Dead Cat

101 Uses for a Dead Cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may have killed the cat – I remain a skeptic – but it is a wonderful thing for a human to have. My curiosity is what I like best about myself.

The best tool teachers have is curiosity, theirs and, especially, their students’. Its been about 15 months since I moved from being a classroom teacher to being the librarian in the same school. I’m working harder but enjoying it more. Today I finally figured out why: I don’t have a heavy, mandated curriculum, no scope and sequence, no texts, no tests and no timeline.

I have the freedom to go where a student’s curiosity takes us.

Sure, I have things I want to teach, but I get to allow the students’ interests, the students’ questions, their wonders and their curiosity determine when and how I teach those things. I get to let my students’ education be what mine has largely been, bottom up, driven by the learner’s curiosity and passions instead of the top-down pre-determined, marketplace-driven curriculum the rest of the teachers have to deliver.

I bet we could solve a lot of the dropout problem, raise academic achievement and reduce behavioral issues if we can only get the rest of the school to teach the way a good librarian, and even this one, does.

We’ve tried all the other ways. Isn’t it time to try something different?


Paranoia in Education Strikes Again!

03/26/2012
cover shot of Children of Paranoia

cover shot of Children of Paranoia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I work for a paranoid school district.

It doesn’t trust students.

It doesn’t trust teachers.

It doesn’t trust administrators.

It doesn’t trust parents.

It doesn’t trust the public.

It is afraid that students will learn things that aren’t in the curriculum.

It is afraid that students will learn things that haven’t been approved in advance.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of the internet.

It is afraid that its teachers are not capable of teaching responsible use of social media.

There is a lot of good educational content on YouTube and YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let students access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let teachers access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let school administrators access YouTube in school, not even YouTube for Education.

It doesn’t let principals override the filters that prevent access to those and other useful websites.

This can only be because it does not trust us. Any of us.

It does not let students, teachers or school administrators access Facebook in school, even though there is a lot of educational content on Facebook.

Even though we are required to teach students how to use social media responsibly.

Soon we won’t even be able model social media use for students.

The City is going to ban teachers and students from interacting over Facebook.

It doesn’t trust us.

Not at all. I bet the City would love to figure out how to stop teachers and students from interacting in the supermarket, the Laundromat, the shopping mall.

Heck, they’d probably even like to find a way to keep us from interacting in the classroom. Everyone knows how much trouble we can get into there.

There is an old adage that says you should treat people the way you want them to be. If you want young people to act like adults, treat them that way. That’s what I try to do in my library.

But the NYCDOE treats me and my colleagues like little children.

They are illogical.

They are insulting.

Or am I being paranoid?


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