Insight on Bullying

I believe I had an insight today. An earlier post (May 18th) talks about a special education student who has been having problems in my class. A couple of boys have picked on him. I noted that he has poor social skills, a contributor to the problem.

But I think I have teased out another factor. This kid is so very low, effectively unable to read and write. That makes him noticeably lower than all the kids in the class. Unfortunately, a couple of my boys have probably been waiting for years to have someone below them on the academic ladder. I have students reading at a first and second grade level in this seventh grade class. It’s no surprise that my special education student’s problems have come from that group. The sad fact is that when you have been feeling dumb since early elementary school, finally having the chance to make someone else feel dumb probably has great appeal.

Wind Direction

It’s kind of sad when the teacher goes to to check the wind direction before going to school. I’m not actually sad, though. The wind is from the North and ends from the NW — solidly good for me even if the sun may unfortunately be blazing away through my wall of windows.

The Storm that Never Came

I work in an old building without air conditioning. My windows are propped open almost all year round since we overheat that one wall of rooms all winter while some other locations freeze. Come spring, the greenhouse effect is fierce.

On the positive side, I get fresh air all year long, a real advantage considering the number of sick kids with whom I am always sharing my air space.

But I am busy plotting a way to work outside right now because I am pretty sure we won’t be able to stay inside. That room has gone over 90 degrees occasionally and, in warmer months, frequently goes above eighty degrees. So I take them outside with a worksheet. This is hardly optimal teaching — but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances, especially when the storm does not come. I had been counting on that storm. I had intended and planned to be inside so I’m not really set to do anything creative outside. Outside work is much harder to manage, too, since they are so easily distracted. But the weather has betrayed me.

School districts with money have some big advantages. One is control of their infrastructure with the ability to remodel or even build new schools. My daughters needed sweaters in middle school and high school because of the air-conditioning. This is a real asset for teaching and learning.

Because I work in a district that has a real shortage of money, we can’t get that control of our infrastructure. It’s a bit aggravating to think about (so I usually don’t) but the fact is that those sacred test scores that everyone worries about so incessantly — those scores are harmed by the days when my classroom soars into the eighties and above. Even if I can get the kids to work, they whine all day despite my cheeriest efforts and are just generally miserable.  I have a colleague in another part of the building whose classroom sometimes falls into the low fifties in the winters. She wears gloves in the classroom on those days. I would find a warmer spot in the building and move my class, but she just makes-do. In the end, a teacher has to weigh the cost in time and distractions from relocating against the effect of the temperature on student behavior and focus. These extreme temperatures are hardly conducive to learning in either case.

Isn’t it boring in the bathroom?

Isn’t it smelly? A colleague found out a couple of her skipping students spent the whole day in the boys bathroom.I hope they at least emerged for lunch.

Eduhonesty: Among the 5,394,453 plus reasons why not all of America’s students will be college ready, I have to say this one is at least funny: “I spent too long in the boys bathroom.”

A Too Seldom Discussed Peril of Inclusion

Inclusion above refers to the practice of putting special education students in regular classes and then providing them with adapted work.

I have one of these students. For all intents and purposes, he can neither read nor write. So he gets special assignments. One example: The others read the chapter and answer questions. He gets to draw a picture of the material, except mostly he won’t. I think he resents being different. Maybe he just doesn’t want to work.

A classroom is a fishbowl, though. All the other students see this student getting what seems like an easy ride. Some of them would prefer to color instead of reading and thinking, too. So they clumsily appeal to my sense of fairness.

“Hey, why does he get to do that? I want to color!”

“Why doesn’t he ever have to do anything?!”

“That’s not fair!”

Then sometimes worse things happen. A student or students will clumsily try to get the class to drop the subject.

“Stop it! She has to give him special work. He can’t do the regular stuff.”

“Yeah, leave him alone. He can’t write.”

I’ve tried to get the class to understand the situation while this student was out of the room with mixed success. Most of them are much nicer now. Most do not complain. But a few are still making fun of this kid, even if not directly, and the kid is now hostile to them. I missed the initial dynamic but I’m pretty sure one of the regular students made fun of my special student a couple of days ago. The special education student then told him (pretty sure it’s a him — I don’t know who it is but the girls are nice to this boy), “Triple fuck you!” That I heard.

My special student is having a hard time. It’s almost the end of the year. There’s little I can do. I’ve already spent a bunch of class minutes on sensitivity training with almost complete success. But a lot of class time was spend on sensitivity training and almost is not good enough. I still have a couple of 7th graders who are not with the program. In the meantime, this kid’s pretty miserable. He makes a lot of his own trouble by glowering at them — his social skills are very weak — but obviously the regular students are behaving unacceptably.

Here’s the bottom line: My special student feels like crap sometimes. The fact that everybody else can do things he can’t is obvious to him. He can see them write the paragraphs he can’t read or write. So he lashes out at them. But then some of them lash back. The whole thing’s ugly. I know that some people would blame me, would say the teacher has to stop this! But thirteen year olds are natural pack animals. I’ve done a lot to try to manage this situation. Unfortunately, my special education student is often rude to the other kids and the dynamic is just trouble. He’s mean, a few of them are mean back and I’m left to think the whole situation is just absurd, even as I devote more class minutes to managing it.

I have no special education training. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve gone to the internet, other teachers and outside experts. But I don’t understand how to help this kid. In the meantime, he’s not with teachers who have the education and experience to help him. He’s also with a peer group that’s making him feel stupid — even when they are being nice — in the same way that standardized tests are making him feel stupid. Being surrounded by people who are all better at something than you are can’t possibly feel good.

Inclusion is truly running amok.

A thought for parents of special children: I understand why parents want their kids in the regular classroom. They dreamed of that classroom. They want their child to have the most “normal” school experience possible. But normal is not necessarily best. The advantage to self-contained, special education classrooms is that students in those rooms are not always forced to compare themselves to academically-advantaged peers. Students inevitably make comparisons. Sizing up one’s position in the social and academic hierarchy is so natural that I doubt there’s any way to prevent students from going there. My student is lashing out because he’s figured out he’s at the bottom of that invisible totem pole.

In general, I’d say students who cannot read and write should not be in regular classes. Yes, I can adapt the materials. I can provide test adaptations. I can grade by different standards. I can work on student sensitivity. But in the end, my student feels lost because he is lost.

I can create successes for this boy, but I can’t disguise the fact that he can’t read his textbook, much less understand it, and I can’t always keep a couple of boys from glancing over at him with contempt. Because this is a regular class, the room is full. Regular classes may have over thirty students. That self-contained special education classroom, in contrast, would have maybe 12 students and probably an assistant. Someone could sit down with my student and work on his phonics. I don’t have an assistant and this boy needs much more repetition and explanation than I can give him in a regular classroom. Inclusion is cheating this boy, as it cheats many other students like him.


A cynical thought on inclusion

Courts and parents have created the move to widespread inclusion. Parents seeking to fulfill their dreams for their children have used the courts to force schools to put children in regular classrooms. By law, schools must now put students in the least restrictive environment that is appropriate to an individual student’s needs.

But what is that least restrictive environment? Frequently nowadays, it is the regular classroom. In my view, responsible administrators should have done a better job of making and documenting the case for special education classes, but they haven’t. I cynically believe that they are not likely to do so either.

Some administrators probably believe the current situation is for the best. Idyllic studies have shown benefits from inclusion, given conditions and staffing that often don’t exist in the real world. Inclusion does seem to work with a paraprofessional to help and a special education teacher in the background to modify materials and provide extra guidance. But I did not have a paraprofessional and the special education teacher could not spare hers. The special education teacher never did anything beyond sending my special education student to class. He sometimes he arrived late, missing the first few minutes explanation of the material, since he had to cross the school to get to my room and he did not much want to arrive there in the first place. That’s the real world. Poor districts always run as lean on staffing as they can possibly manage.

The most important reason why I think administrators support general inclusion is a financial one: Inclusion saves money. Special education teachers and their paraprofessionals are expensive. Bigger classes = fewer teachers. Four regular teachers can teach 150 students, depending on classroom caps for student load in the district. Four special education teachers can only teach 48 students, again depending on negotiated or legislated student loads. It would take three times as many teachers to teach 150 special education students if these students were all placed in special education classes. The benefit to the district is obvious. A district saves money every time it “mainstreams” a special education student. That district can easily justify itself to parents, who naturally want to believe their child can function adequately in regular classes.

One victim of this fraud regularly came to my class last year and drew pictures.

Eduhonesty: We did wrong by that boy. He should have been in a much smaller classroom being taught simple reading and writing. I don’t know if that boy can learn to read, but I know his only chance will be intensive small-group or one-on-one instruction, with a great deal of reinforcement provided. At its worst, inclusion may cheat that boy of his chance to learn even rudimentary reading.


Do We Have to Do Both Sides?

For students everywhere: I put work on both sides for a reason. Yes, you need to do both sides. More importantly, if the homework is hard, that’s why you need to do that homework.  My responsibility is to make sure I’m not sending home things that you have never seen before, things that are genuinely outside of your understanding. Your responsibility is to strain your brain a little. If you can blast the homework out without thought in just a few minutes, I probably wasted both your time and mine.
(Reinforcing math computations and simple grammar rules is an exception to what I just wrote.)

In general, you don’t learn from doing easy stuff. You learn from doing the stuff that takes thought and effort.

I need a hobby

Other than grading papers and trying to motivate middle schoolers whose greatest goal in life is to beat level 7 and kill all the zombies.

Obed’s Eyes

Names have been changed here to protect the unmotivated.

Some background here: I regularly have been professionally developed this year, sent to help develop a huge masterplan for our school. At some of these meetings, a representative of the state presents material and guides us in creating our plan. She is older, maybe sixtyish, with well-coiffured gray hair and impeccable taste in professional attire. The jacket or outer layer slims her, the jewelry and accessories make her look financially comfortable and unflappable, a picture of professional success. I do not mind this woman. I don’t really care about her one way or another. She is not particularly interesting, especially since I regard the state’s need for a monster plan to be a real waste of time and effort. All these people making all these plans that require all this data that no one will ever see — these people might be teaching, planning instruction, or administrating instead of endlessly creating (and then recreating when the state changes how it does things!) information required by bureaucrats. It’s an awful waste of time. Even if the plan is useful — which it is — we could come up with a better plan, more tailored to our actual needs, if we were freed up in our own school to work on specific school problems.

But I realized this week-end that to Obed — a student of mine — I am that woman from the state. I don’t know what he sees through his enigmatic eyes. He’s so expressionless. But I am sure that he sees me the same way I see State Lady. I don’t interest Obed. The material I am presenting does not interest Obed. He enjoys school the same way I enjoy this state-mandated professional development. For me, it’s an opportunity to visit with coworkers I like. For him, school is his chance to hang out with friends. I’m more than willing to help my Principal, but I regard the state’s requirements as mildly aggravating, the masterplan as a fundamentally inefficient use of time with a real opportunity cost. Obed is willing to do some of my work — enough to pass — but he regards that work as a waste of his time. He does not care to actually learn the material presented.  He never plans to go to college. I am State Lady in his eyes and I do not know how to change this.