Thursday, September 29, 2011

Just Say "No!, Mr. Governor!

 On the news, President Obama says he is giving the states the option to opt out of the 2014 requirement for the No Child Left Behind expectation that every child in America will score in the Proficient range. Did that requirement shock you? It should! Kind of hard to imagine that EVERY child in America is above average. I do not mean, of course, that we should not try to teach every child as if he or she had the power to be proficient.

I have a good friend who was diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school. She does indeed have a learning disability. But she was told at almost every turn that she could never learn enough to take the SATs or go to college. Luckily for her, she had a teacher who advocated for her and arranged for her to take the SATs. Luckily for her, one college saw that she was an intelligent person who deserved a break. Very few people in her life cared that she wanted to attend post-secondary school. They automatically assumed because she was Special Ed, that she could not manage it. She will graduate from University at the end of the year with a degree in Museum Education.

One thing NCLB did do was make school districts care about students like my friend, who has the intelligence to learn, but just needed someone to care about teaching her. NCLB made districts care about the minority students and their intellectual well-being. They need to care about under-represented students who may have been shuttled off much too easily to Special Education classes simply because they don't speak English well.

What NCLB did not do, however, was take into consideration that there are many students in this country with limited intelligence. Students who will not be able to reach the prescribed milestones in the years their other peers do. Those who will need 8 years to be able to read on the 3rd or 4th grade level, some of them because of the nature of Special Ed today.

The trend toward inclusion is wonderful for those who are marginally compromised in their disability. It exposes them to challenging work, the same as their peers without learning problems, and it expects the regular ed teacher to be able to always teach them in appropriate manner, with appropriate materials, testing them while using all of the accommodations their IEP calls for. If you think this is actually happening, think again. With NCLB, the teacher must concentrate on the achievement of the students who are currently scoring Basic and push them towards Proficient. The teacher has no time for the advanced or very slow children since it's all about moving students to the Proficient level.

On the other hand, there are students with IQs of 47 sitting in regular ed classes, who are not being served at all well by inclusion. These are the students who are reading at a first grade level sitting in a fifth grade classroom, students who might be able to count to 100, add to 20 and subtract with aid. These students also spend only 2 hours a day in the Special Ed class, sitting in the regular class for Social Studies, Science and Writing. Taking tests on grade level subjects that the regular ed teacher has had to design for them on their first grade level. Yeah, right. But the NCLB says that schools are not serving them if they cannot score in the Proficient level according to what other children their chronological age are expected to know. Teachers would not mind if these students were tested on their IEP levels. Most teachers would welcome accountability for Special Ed kids on those terms.

No wonder there are cheating scandals associated with State testing in Georgia and Pennsylvania! Schools in high poverty areas have enough trouble teaching kids without disabilities. An overwhelming number of children in these areas begin school at Kindergarten with no preschool experience. They have little idea about books,  a very small vocabulary as compared to middle and upper-class kids their age, and may come from houses where heat and food are scarce. Their families function in survival mode with little hope of ever getting ahead. Many parents turn this into a push for their child to get the best education possible so they can get out of the cycle. but more parents are so overwhelmed by their circumstances, that educational issues have taken a back seat to mere survival. These are the students least likely to succeed.  Superman rescues the former, not the latter children.

It is the exceptional child who can succeed in this environment. The exceptional ones are solid gold in public schools. They are also the students that the charter schools recruit. Charter schools don't want special ed kids or kids that are behaviorally challenged. They leave their education to the public schools. They send them back to the public schools when there is no way to help the charter reach Adequate Yearly Progress. Then they become the public school's problem.

Why in the world would a state that supports the idea of a public education, opt in for NCLB given these circumstances? I hope it is a no-brainer for the governors to say, "We're opting out." Lord knows we need the break!

Still learning!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thank you, Sister!

My school experience was fairly unremarkable. I went to 12 years of Catholic school in Philadelphia. Eight of these years were spent in a huge school of 2700 students. There were 6 classes of each grade, from first to eighth. Inside those classes were way too many students for those who may have had any learning problems.

In my first grade class there were 8 row of 12 desks to hold all of us. 96 children in a first grade classroom. Picture it. How in the world did the nuns teach us anything? I remember word lists sent home that we had to memorize, as a prelude to reading. I often confused s-a-w and w-a-s, and w-h-e-n and w-h-a-t. I remember my Mom giving me hints in order to figure out the words. When I became a teacher, I asked my mother how in the world did I learn to read? She answered, "I taught you to read! The kids that didn't have their parents' help were left back in first grade or went to public school."

The discipline of the classroom made for children who were quiet and compliant. I was so afraid of my first grade nun, that I wet my pants because she told us we could not go to the bathroom unless we raised our hand and she called on us. She didn't see my hand among the 95 other hands in the class and I couldn't hold it. I remember being totally embarrassed, walking home to my brother's taunts at lunch time. Luckily my mother is a reasonable person and didn't make a big issue out of it.

Until I went into 6th grade I had not yet realized that you could have fun in school! I had looked at school as someplace that was scary and tense. A place I neither enjoyed nor detested. Until Grade 6, that is. Sister Christine Marie was an unusual teacher. She put on music on Fridays and encouraged us to paint, sketch or color whatever the music led us to imagine. She taught us about modern art and played the guitar. She had two brothers in religious orders who regularly came to visit, telling us of foreign places and bringing little gifts for us. Sr. Christine Marie opened up a world I had not previously known could exist in school, a world of creativity and adventure.

Seventh grade brought even more profound revelations about school. Sister Frances Bernardone ran her classroom in a manner in which you WANTED to be good. She rarely had behavior problems in class even though I think she was a brand new teacher. Once she was absent and we behaved badly for the substitute teacher. When she came back, there was no yelling or punishment, just disappointment in how we acted for the sub. Her quiet disappointment made us feel as big as an ant. We never misbehaved again!

Sr. Frances would greet us in the schoolyard every morning asking us to stump her with a joke or riddle. Every day began with a joke! We learned all manner of things and when one of us would try to get over on her, she'd query, "What are you thinking? Do you think I fell off the Christmas tree in this habit?" She regaled us with tales of daring teenage escapades with her brother, like the time she and her brother took their father's car for an unauthorized midnight ride. She pushed us with comments about junior high meaning taking greater responsibility for learning. She made you want to learn all you could, to please not only her but yourself.

She was the reason I volunteered in High School to tutor in a school in West Philly. I wanted to try and see if I could be the kind of teacher she was. Little did I know, she taught in the same school as I tutored in and once I discovered that, I actually got a chance to thank her for her inspiration. I think of her often and was saddened to hear of her early death a decade or two ago. Generations of school students definitely missed out on her innovative and loving techniques.

Hopefully I have been able to inspire others as she has done for me. Thanks, Sr. Christine Marie and Sr. Frances Bernardone, for all you taught me - much more than the curriculum.

Still learning!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why schools don't make AYP

No Child Left Behind

Why can’t schools make AYP? Let me count the ways.
10. Remove reading and math support teachers from the school because they are making AYP.
9. Remove the assistant principal because they are making AYP.
8. Remove the auxiliary teacher because they are making AYP.
7. Instruct the Special Ed kids only in Corrective Math and Corrective Reading.
6. Insist that the schools have 95% attendance or better, disregarding flu season and inclement weather.
5. Change the structure of the support staff in the central office. Dismantle the offices and department heads for Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies, and the Arts. Make all of the new hires generalists and then send them out to a school to counsel the science, math, reading and social studies teachers on how to teach specific topics in their fields of expertise. Require the former reading teacher to give staff development to the math specialists in the region. And vice versa.
4. Test the students every 6-8 weeks to see if they are improving in the achievement scores. Make each test be taken on computers. Allow one week every 6-8 weeks to review all the students’ mistakes, to reteach and retest them so they can pass the next Benchmark test.
3. Increase the disparity of the various school systems by relying on property taxes to fund the schools. In this way, schools in poor neighborhoods are guaranteed less funding for their schools.
2. Rely on this one test and attendance of both staff and students be counted in the AYP equation. Do not take into account that teachers can get pregnant, have operations, catastrophic illnesses, accidents, etc. and have to miss school because of circumstances beyond their control. Count their absences against the school for attendance.
1. Require that the students identified as Special Ed. Perform at or above proficient on their grade level of the State test. Hello? There is a reason why the children are designated as needing Special Ed services! If they carry that designation, then it has been determined that there is something preventing them from performing at grade level and Federal law requires that I teach them at their instructional level, not grade level. Schools who have not made AYP six years in a row are considered failing schools. Why should my school be identified as failing to educate the students when all grades have improved their test scores except for the Special Ed kids?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Violating an Agreement

 "There is a mutual agreement from both parties not to make comments about each other that are "malicious, wanton, or reckless in nature or...reasonably foreseeable to injure" their respective reputations. The non-disparagement agreement covers the members of the School Reform Commission and employees of the District, but not outsiders including the mayor." according to the , August 24, 2011

That being said, I am not exactly sure that this will violate that agreement but I am writing it anyway.

As someone who has been teaching for 36 years, I have almost seen it all I'd guess. Curricula have come and gone, strategies have been touted and disfavored, the neighborhood has changed in economic advantages/disadvantages, children's attitudes have gotten increasingly hostile, principals have come through the door each with his/her own style and requirements, district superintendents have come and gone in the same manner as the principals, and I have lived through at least 5 or 6 School District Superintendents.

I thought Paul Vallas was bad as Superintendent, with all the patronage that went on in his tenure. During the latter years of my teaching career  the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of Student Assessment) was born and the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Act was voted into existence. I have no quarrels with the PSSA, as it forced all of the school districts in PA to get on the same page regarding curricula. I do have a problem with NCLB, as it laid the foundation for vast amounts of funny business foisted upon us by  superintendents desiring to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)

The many 'reforms' I have witnessed have come and gone. It seems that every ten years or so another professor somewhere 'discovers' an educational disaster and sets about fixing it. The worst reforms have been in Reading/Language Arts. Some of the trends are: Three reading groups, word lists + phonics + spelling; No reading groups, inventive spelling, emphasis on the individual, no phonics; Back-to-Basics bare-boned word list, phonics, spelling; Guided reading with both whole class instruction and reading groups with spelling and 'word study'.

Guess what? We are still having major problems with the students' reading abilities and are due for a second round of yet another reform strategy. I can honestly say the majority of the students at my school read better and do math better than when I first walked through the school doors. We had many more children failing and many more doing well, but it is the middle group which has enlarged. That middle group, which can go either way academically, is huge now as compared to 1982. While both the upper and lower groups have shrunk, their former inhabitants are now in the middle - not quite proficient and not quite failing. What we do with this group will eventually govern how the school is viewed as working or failing. Although our school is on its third year of NOT making AYP, we feel that we are on the move forward. But that might not count for anything in the long run, as making AYP is the be-all and end-all.

With the arrival of Paul Vallas as superintendent in Philadelphia, the job of teaching has become particularly disjointed and unappealing. Going for a one-size-fits-all curriculum, he instituted programs that served no one well and were headed by his relatives and friends. The Voyager Program for after-school tutoring had way too many pieces to be effective and was not 'rigorous', a word frequently used in education and hated by teachers. The Math tutoring program, the Princeton Review, was too computerized and touted methods diametrically opposed to our Everyday Math curriculum.  Everyday Math is an effective program but needs extensive staff development for the teacher as it presents concepts in a manner in which the teacher was not taught. There is a steep learning curve for the teacher but if you can stick it out and truly follow the methods, you will be rewarded by students who can think mathematically. During this period of Vallas' tenure, the teachers' professional development in Everyday Math disappeared or was severely curtailed. In addition, Vallas' choice of Regional Superintendent for our region was a verbally abusive man who walked noisily and carried a big stick. He was loved by few.

The arrival of our just-departed Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, brought a new Regional Superintendent as bad as the last. It seemed that Ackerman replaced the Regionals with people made in her own image - mean, dictatorial and full of their own power. They rule by intimidation of the principals and teachers, rewarding those who do their bidding and embarrassing those who have the audacity to question. We lost a good principal to those tactics. Jury is out on this new principal, but I hope she has the guts to stand up for her teachers and for what is right and not just go along with the edicts of the Region.

Ackerman will not be missed by many, although her supporters are vocal, they are few. She earned the nicknames "Queen Arlene" and ":mean Arlene" honestly. I hope her Assistant, who is now our Acting Superintendent has learned what NOT to do, as the teachers as well as the principals were no friends of his predecessor.

I look forward to a new school year with much trepidation due to the changing of the guards and the fact that we did not make AYP again. Will the bell toll for good or evil? Time will tell.

Have I violated Arlene's agreement? I guess I'll find out soon enough.

Still learning!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Mothers

I watched a young mother on the trolley with her 3 year old. She sat her son by the window but insisted that he sit down on the seat rather than look out the window. As soon as she sat down, she called someone on her cellphone and proceeded to chat with them for the next 15 minutes or so. Sitting across from the two of them and slightly behind, I had the perfect place for watching interactions. This mother sat with her back to the child!

After about 5 minutes, curiosity got the best of him and he knelt on the seat in order to be able to see out the window. "Look!" he exclaimed with glee, "A truck!"

Mom paid no attention as he patted her on the arm. He tried again. "Mommy! Mommy! A truck right there!"

"Shut up!" she replied, clearly irritated. "I can't hear."

He was quiet for a few more minutes until he spotted a fire engine. You could see his whole body react to the sight of the big red hook and ladder. He broke into a big grin, bouncing on his knees and patted the window. "Mommy! A fire engine! A big fire engine! Look! Look! Oh! a firemen waved ! Look Mommy! He waved at me!"

How could you resist that plea? The child was clearly overcome with joy at the response from the firefighter. "I told you to shut up!" she screamed as she smacked him, "Sit down! What do you think you are doing! I can't hear. I told you that. Sit down and shut up or I'm gonna smack you again!"

The little guy didn't even cry, as though he were accustomed to this reaction and sat down for a few minutes. As his mother had finished the call, instead of putting the phone away, she began to play a game at this point. The little guy eventually got up on his knees to look out the window but didn't talk to his mother again.

Same trolley, different day.

A trolley pulls up to the stop and a young mother gets on with her son, about 3 years old. She has obviously just picked him up from daycare - his fists are clenched around some colored pages upon which he has drawn some scenes.  She is also on her cell phone. "I'll call you back when we're home," she says, "We're on the trolley now. Can't talk."

She sat her son by the window but insisted that he sit so he could look out the window. As soon as she sat down, she took the papers her son was holding and proceeded to chat with him about them for the next 10 minutes or so After she was satisfied that he had told her everything about his day, she instructed hime to look out the window and find squares. "Look at that big box the man is carrying" That is a square!. Can you find a square?"

The young boy looked dutifully for squares as Mom helped him. "Look at the building. Do you see any squares? Where are they?"

He excitedly poinnted out the various geometric shapes his mother requested. She praised him each time he found one and gently corrected him when he didn't. "That looks like a circle, but see the shape? It's a little flat in the middle. We call that an oval."

The entire time they were on the trolley with me, they conversed. He asked her questions when she told him it was his turn to question her! I was delighted with the whole process. Not once did she glance away, hoping that he wouldn't say anything to her. She was totally focused on him, as it should be. They talked about what happened at school, where they should go on the weekend, who has more dogs - Mom-Mom or Aunty?, what color the cars were, how many cats sat on the step. It was amazing!

Can you guess which child will sail through school? Can you guess which one will know shapes and colors before he gets to Kindergarten? Can you guess which child will be willing to try new things or have a discussion? Can you guess which one will have a great vocabulary when he gets to school?

It's not hard to figure out the answer.

When my youngest daughter was four years old, she had to visit the doctor on a day she was under her grandmother's care. Mom-Mom was not sure where the doctor's office was, but her granddaughter was able to tell her where to turn and what was coming up next because we talked about it on the way to previous doctor visits. Mom-Mom was impressed that a child could give her such excellent directions. She was only able to do it because she was an observer as we traveled, something I encouraged.  Her first words read were the street signs on the way to kindergarten. Words like Locust, Spruce, Market, Chestnut, Walnut, Arch, Vine, Haverford and even Westminster. The only one that stumped her was Wyalusing!

Since the advent of cell phones and game boys, we have enabled a generation of kids to get by without having face-to-face conversations or observing their surroundings. This just doesn't happen on public transportation either. How many parents buy vans or SUVs with DVD players? Put the kids in their car seats and boosters, turn on the DVD and drive without having to talk to the kids. They don't have to look out the window to notice shapes, colors or the number of cats on the steps. All the entertainment is electronic.

How sad! What have we learned by depending on all these pieces of modern technology?

That discussion is dead?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"You must enjoy your summers off!" she said.

Still learning! I do, in fact, enjoy my summers, but not because I take a break from school. Every teacher I know thinks about school all through the summer. Right now I am taking an online course in Universal Design for Learning, a concept whose time has come. It makes you think about the problems kids in your room will have before you write your lesson plans and plan to present lessons in ways that will reach ALL the students in the classroom. Making sure you teach to multiple learning styles and assess using those styles is a daunting task, but one that will ensure all of your students will master the State Standards.

I usually teach to multiple learning styles, but am just discovering technology that will make my goals a reality. Text-to-speech, webquests, animation, powerpoint for kids, cooperative/collaborative projects are but a few of the resources I need to be taking advantage of more often. I am already formulating lessons for things I know students will have a hard time grasping in reading and math. I will probably continue to do this throughout the summer.

A ride on the Steamboat SPASH, out of Lambertville, New Jersey will place me in unfamiliar territory where teaching is concerned. Last year I taught a few sessions on macroinvertebrates and healthy streams. This year I have been asked to teach water quality to a group of high school kids - not my ususal or preferred age of student. I researched possible topics and have decided on monitoring the water quality (temperature, pH, turbidity and dissolved oxygen levels) in the Delaware River. We will take samples and do the testing right there on the boat! Should be hands-on enough and easy to do in the 20-minute lesson time alloted.

And that's not all! I have been invited to be an Ambassador for Little Kids Rock in the Philadelphia area. We go for training in Montclair, New Jersey for a week in July. I have been a teacher for Little Kids Rock in my school since 2008. A weekend workshop opened up a whole new world for me and my students then. I learned ways to teach guitar, keyboard and drums to my 5th graders in a way that gets them playing songs almost immediately. The class that just left me were the most advanced LKR class I have ever taught! Music means so much to kids, especially when there is no music program in the school anymore. So I am sure all the ideas I glean from that week will also be milling around in my head.

I am planning a visit to Buffalo this summer to see my friend Andi. It's been way too long since I last saw her and we have a lot of catching up to do. SHe has a lot of books and stuff for my class, so even this social visit is school related!

Hopefully Vic and I will go somewhere at some point this summer. It's so hard when I work 10 months and have off two, but those are his two busiest months for the boats. *sigh* We did get some together time at Chincoteague in the Spring before the season started. I think I'd like to do that again out-of-season. Too expensive in-season!

And then I am trying to so a little to fix up the house every weekday. I give myself weekends off! Also driving Karen back and forth to work. October can't come soon enough, when she can drive her own car. Of course, she has to buy one first...