Why I’d leave the Takis on the shelf

dinamitaI am no nutrition Nazi. I have been known to eat that $1.49 McDonald’s hot fudge sundae. I buy half-price chocolates after Valentine’s Day. I pick organic strawberries, but I figure for a dollar less per pound, I can wash regular apples and pears. I mostly avoid chips and fries, but I am sometimes willing to spring for the sweet potato fries.

That said, this is a post for parents. I am going to suggest leaving the Fuego Takis and Dinamita Doritos on the grocery store shelf, especially if the kids beat you home from work on a regular basis. School lunches sometimes seem to feed more garbage cans than students. (What was that soupy, red bean stuff that was supposed to go on the whole wheat pita? The kids could not tell me. They also did not even bother to take the cellophane off the red bean box. Some of the hungry ones ate the pita plain.) I know students are sometimes starved when they go home. They tell me this. I know that some of them go home and fill up on Takis or Doritos. That’s what they say, anyway.

Those hyper-red Takis look toxic to me, but maybe the powder that kills tastebuds also kills germs. I don’t know. I do know that a snack of Takis may be fine, but a late lunch of a whole bunch of Takis can’t be good for a growing kid.

To my parent-readers: You may be assuming your child eats lunch at school. You may have paid for those lunches. But most kids don’t eat the whole lunch, only the parts they like. Sometimes kids eat fewer than 100 calories off that lunch plate.

You might be better off packing a lunch. Then you can be sure the food will appeal to your child because the two of you can select that school lunch together. You also might want to fill the house with apples, even if you have to buy boxes of caramel sauce to ensure the apples are eaten. Portioning out dinner leftovers in microwavable snack boxes might be another strategy. But I want to caution parents about purchasing afterschool snacks that lack nutritive value. Those snacks may become a kid’s late lunch as well as the day’s snack.

I know how hard it is to get kids to eat right and I don’t want to lecture. I just want to emphasize that the school lunch often ends up in the trash — moreso today than in the past, since we are forcing “healthier” options at kids. Those kids who used to eat the burger and fries are often tossing the red bean paste and whole wheat pita in the trash. The new healthier school lunch may have resulted in a much greater Taki and Dorito consumption rate, while increasing lunch wastage dramatically.

This post is for parents who remember eating most or all of their school lunch and assume their children are doing the same. They shifted the lunch landscape on us a few years ago and the lunch our children are receiving is nowhere near as appealing as the lunch we received, for the most part. Wealthier districts are still serving appetizing plates, but districts that must economize are another story.

You might try packing a lunch instead for a week and see what your child says about those new, homemade lunches. I have begun to believe in opting out of state standardized tests. I also think it may be time to opt out of school lunches when finances permit. The quality of lunches depends on districts and the tolerance for those lunches varies from child to child. But I would be having conversations with my children if they went to today’s schools, making sure that lunch was not a food-light, social opportunity that ended with overflowing garbage cans.


Should Abdi and Kona eat breakfast?

garbage(A post for parents and teachers with midmorning crashers.)

Yahoo has article #234,908 on whether or not you should eat breakfast. Readers will no doubt be stunned to discover the answer is yes. But after doing cafeteria duty for a couple of days in the last week, I want to weigh in on the issue of breakfast. I have seen so much food thrown away, and much more in one district than another. The quality of school lunches directly affects how much food is eaten.

But this post is about breakfast. Should kids eat breakfast? I’ll run with the crowd and say yes, but breakfast does not strike me as a yes-or-no question. Individual children vary widely in how well they tolerate mornings without food. Certain kids crash in the middle of the morning when they have not eaten. Others power through.

Here’s the issue: Many kids are receiving breakfasts at school. Those breakfasts may be breakfast bars, cheese sticks, cereal boxes, French toast sticks or any number of options, often with fruit. Here’s the problem: Some kids don’t bother to go to the cafeteria or don’t bother to eat if they do. They toss most or even all their food in the trash. You would think that the daily 10:00 A.M. wipeout would lead to kids managing to stuff down their granola bars and apples, but kids live in the moment, and, in the moment, kids may dislike granola bars and figure the apple’s not worth the bother.

Eduhonesty: I recommend that parents of crashers feed their children at home before they leave for school. Parents can make sure that breakfast is eaten. Cafeteria personnel cannot be relied upon to do the same. They mostly become immune to overflowing garbage cans. They are also working and don’t have the time to sit down and coax the many kids who are chattering while their food languishes.

Yes, we are providing food, but that does not mean that the food is being consumed. We are also filling landfills. I think parents sometimes trust that their children’s nutritional needs are being met. But nobody stops Abdi or Kona from dumping their breakfast or lunch in the trash. Teachers and cafeteria workers may pause to say, “Don’t you like your sandwich?” but when Kona says, “No,” that usually cuts the conversation short. Three or four adults out on a floor in a cafeteria with a few hundred kids and only one-half hour for lunch or breakfast can only do so much.

I vote for feeding some kids before they leave home.

The Sup’s a young guy


(A post for all but especially administrators.)

I am subbing in a kindergarten classroom in a school that has achieved national recognition for its excellence. This is one of those districts that cranks out National Merit Finalists and Ivy League attendees. These kindergartners can write a full page letter. Many of them can spell words like “people” and “movie.” Subbing this morning was a great deal of fun. We wrote letters, read poems, worked on literacy and talked.

At one point, a tall, well-dressed man walked into the classroom and was standing near the doorway just looking around. I left my spot on the rug and my tiny iPad users to go greet what I assumed was a dad. In fact, I was meeting the Superintendent for the district. He smiled as I introduced myself, and said he liked to walk around and look at classes. Later, he thanked me for helping out in his district. When the teachers aide looked up, she obviously recognized the Superintendent. She gave him a big smile.

in my last district, I don’t believe a superintendent ever once walked into my room. The Assistant Superintendent walked in once with a cadre from the State of Illinois, a group of outsiders come to rescue the academic disaster of that district. But I have no experience with roving superintendents. I did have a roving Principal and he was the best thing that ever happened to that school.

Maybe this man’s approach to his district has something to do with that national recognition the district has received. The best principals I ever had were in the hallways. They were out on the playing fields. They wandered into classrooms sometimes. They knew how their classrooms were operating on a daily basis. I did well with those Principals.

I am not offering some deep educational insight here. In fact, I’d call this an insight for any organization. The person or persons in charge of the organization should be out on the floor. Obviously, leaders have to sequester themselves in offices sometimes. But the best restaurants frequently have an owner who watches what comes out of the kitchen. The best retail outlets have a manager who asks customers what they think and listens to the answer.* The best schools have a Principal who knows the kids and the classrooms, a Principal who can walk into a classroom and tell the kids he needs them to give their best, and be taken seriously.

*I’d like to give kudos to a store named Marianos near my home. When the manager asked me about yogurts, I told him that he had too many duplicative fruit flavors and was missing a few signature flavors such as Dannon Coffee and Siggis Orange Ginger. Not too many weeks later, the yogurt flavors became more diverse and my coffee yogurt arrived.

One is working in software in Wisconsin

 2015-05-03 15.44.38

Where Have All The Teachers Gone?

A look at the teacher shortage in Wisconsin

Data obtained from the University of Wisconsin-Madison show the university’s School of Education has seen more than a 52% decline in applications between the ’10-11 and ’14-’15 school years. In 2010, there were 329 applicants to the school of education, for ’14-’15 there were 155.

The picture of this teacher shortage is even starker at the two largest education schools in Milwaukee. Both Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have reported significant drops in enrollment in their teaching programs. Marquette University’s enrollment dropped from 445 students in 2010 to 385 in 2014. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Education’s enrollment dropped from 2,135 in 2010 to 1,516 in 2014.

The question then becomes, why is there a sudden drop off in teachers?

Over the last few years polling shows teachers have become increasingly disillusioned about their jobs and the field of education as a whole.

Educators cite low pay, under resourced schools, increased testing requirements, loss of job protections, and unfair teacher evaluations as contributing factors to low morale. It’s no surprise schools with budgetary problems are seeing teacher shortages. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s K-12 budget, which proposes cutting $150 per pupil in coming school year, is certainly not helping with the teacher shortage.

Those enrollment drops may be canaries in our mine shaft. But I don’t know that this matter requires exhaustive research. I’d say it’s pretty simple. Teaching has never paid very well, at least in most areas of the country, but the creativity and intangible rewards made up for that lack of money. Happy kids, praise from administrators and parents, and the chance to create original lessons kept many teachers in the game, even if the pay was mediocre.

As new Common Core demands straitjacket expectations, while administrators plan the whole year’s lessons, and Charlotte Danielson’s teacher evaluation rubric results in 21 page evaluations that almost necessarily contain a fair number of negatives even when they contain many positives — teaching becomes less appealing. Many teachers have become disenchanted in the last decade and those teachers are talking.

“I would never tell anyone to go into teaching nowadays. They blame us for everything,” a favorite colleague recently said to me,

He’s a great teacher. My feelings have not yet become so negative, but a few years ago, I told a friend of my daughter’s that if she did go into teaching, she might want to consider teaching in a higher-income, higher-scoring area.

“They are holding you responsible for your students test scores,” I explained to the girl, “no matter what the students know when they come into the classroom. They will also tell you what you have to teach. Then if the kids don’t improve enough, they may fire or replace you, no matter how hard you worked. Your life will be a lot easier if you stay away from lower-scoring schools.”

The girl has since graduated from college and has taken a position with a software company. I don’t know that I talked her out of teaching, but I certainly did not talk her into it. Quite possibly the money in tech would have drowned out anything I might have said anyway.

A last quote from “Education Week,” published in print on October 22, 2014, as “Steep Drops Seen in Teacher-Prep Enrollment Numbers”:

“Separate state-by-state enrollment data collected under Title II of the Higher Education Act, meanwhile, suggest that the decline in teacher-preparation enrollments has accelerated in recent years, particularly since 2010. Under that collection, California, New York, and Texas, among the largest producers of teachers, have seen steep drops.”

Those enrollments are our teacher pipelines. Stay tuned. In five or ten years, I anticipate this situation will become the next crisis in education manufactured by government intervention — a genuine shortage of educators.

We still have plenty of history and early childhood teachers, but teachers who can (or will) teach coding and calculus are getting thin on the ground. High school Spanish and science positions can be difficult to fill in many locations. We will not fix that shortage of available teachers by making teaching less creative, while taking away job security and belittling teachers in evaluations, even as we add more students to increasingly larger classes.

We might make some dent in the impending shortage by increasing salaries, however.

Eduhonesty: For what it’s worth, I predict pay increases. As with the nursing shortage a few decades back, the upcoming teaching shortage will necessarily push pay up. In the end, teachers are not optional. We can’t stop teaching high school math and science. If we can’t get teachers to sign on for what we pay now, salaries will have to go up.


Opting Out

best plan ebverThe current push toward PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests aligned to the new Common Core standards have come in part as a natural response to our historical apples and oranges testing situation, I am sure. Data wizards of the past must have been regularly scratching their heads as they tried to compare Mississippi to Maine. Without common tests, that comparison could not be made, and in bygone days when states devised their own tests, no overarching, statistically valid comparison between states was possible.

Among other considerations, the Common Core was developed to help standardize data between states. I would like to pose a few questions, though. Do we need Mississippi and Maine to be comparable? If so, why? How do our students benefit? Will the benefits from that common test be worth the cost? Costs have been ignored in the Common Core experiment, yet those costs loom huge for many districts. Districts are rewriting curricula, sometimes virtually from scratch, buying thousands and thousands of dollars of new books, changing tried and true classroom lesson plans and materials, sending out entire staffs for professional development, buying new software, and re-teaching test-taking strategies across schools, among other changes demanded by the Common Core.

The costs and losses in the above sentence represent real commitments of time and money. I have worked on curriculum writing committees. The curricula I recently published for kindergarten and first grade in a near district? Teachers and administrators spent many hours, many school-day equivalents, choosing the materials expected to be presented in each grade. That time carried an opportunity cost. While developing a curriculum, teachers cannot be preparing lesson plans, calling parents or grading homework.

That re-teaching of test-taking strategies may represent days of lost learning time for students. Strategies for taking computerized, multiple-choice tests with multiple right answers for the same question are so different from the strategies needed to succeed on the old, paper-based, single-answer, multiple choice tests that schools may be spending days teaching new test-taking skills. Yes, students are learning during these days, but I’d still call those lost days. Teaching how to take new tests does not provide a great deal of actual knowledge that students can use to add to their understanding of English, math or the world around them.

Like No Child Left Behind, the Common Core curriculum represents a vast experiment conducted on America’s students, and one concern leaps out at me as educational bureaucrats push for the development of a single set of more demanding, national standards. To piggy-back on yesterday’s post, the idea that America’s educational ills somehow rest in our educational standards and that we can escape those ills by fixing the standards has no basis in evidence. By making the standards harder, we seem to believe, we will make our students smarter. We have zero proof for this assumption.

For data analysis purposes, attempting to standardize our standardized testing system makes sense, but the benefits of that data have never been explained to my satisfaction. What are we getting for our many changes? Fear of these new, harder tests has spawned an opt-out movement with the potential to render U.S. test statistics even less trustworthy than in the past. Unless students are stopped from physically opting out, passive-aggressive resistance to testing can destroy the reliability and validity of test results from new Common Core testing. If enough students refuse to test, gathering accurate data will become impossible.

Students who opt-out skew statistics based on already unreliable numbers. The following snippet from U.S. News and World Report, (Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press, Aug. 12, 2015) helps demonstrate why proof of academic progress as defined by standardized test scores cannot currently be demonstrated and, in fact, is becoming less demonstrable.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — About 20 percent of New York’s third- through eighth-graders refused to take the statewide English and math tests given in the spring, the state’s education chief said, acknowledging the opt-outs affected assessment data released Wednesday, which otherwise showed a slight uptick in overall student achievement.

About 900,000 students sat for the Common Core-aligned tests in April, while 200,000 opted out as part of a protest movement against what’s seen in New York and other states as an overreliance on testing in measuring student and teacher performance.

About 5 percent of students opted out of last year’s tests.

When one in five students refuse to take a test, any “acknowledgement” by the state’s education chief that assessment data was “affected” can only be considered disingenuous, especially when followed by an assertion that student achievement shows improvement. With that many missing numbers in the equation, it’s entirely possible that state student achievement went down, not up. New York school officials are hiding the truth if they suggest anything else. The population of students who opt-out will not reflect the population who take the test. I’d hazard it’s likely that many students who opt out will be those who have not done well historically on state standardized tests, students who expect to do badly on the new test. If so, state test scores might have been appreciably lower if scores from this group had been included along with those from students who chose to take the test. I can’t know whether this is true or not, though. I don’t have the data. Neither does the state of New York.

We  seem to be in the process of upending American education in pursuit of yet another goal that will remain unreached and unreachable.

Eduhonesty: For readers who recognize the above quote from previous posts, I’ll confess I am using past material inside this post. But right now I have this blog of a hammer, and all these tests have begun to look like nails. I’ll take a break tomorrow from testing. I don’t want testing to keep becoming yesterday’s news, though.

Fixing what may never have been broken

common core math book

Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even
where there is no river.      ~ Nikita Khrushchev

Because the U.S. government mandated steadily improving results on annual state standardized tests under NCLB, we have been trying to prepare students for that one test for years. This test-based focus has become institutionalized, and the repeal of NCLB will not make that focus vanish. We remain fixed on test-score results, even as we decry the time students lose today to testing.

Urban, academically- and financially-disadvantaged schools have been attempting to use the same curriculum as higher-scoring districts, in some areas even rewriting their curricula to make expectations more demanding in response to the U.S. move toward a Common Core curriculum intended for use in schools across the nation. We are “raising the bar,” as it has come to be called, in our struggling school districts, despite the fact that many American students have not been coming close to jumping over easier bars from the past, and despite the fact that we have zero evidence implicating our current or former state standards as any part of the source of America’s academic failures.

What is happening here? Essentially, we are threatening people from the top down. “Get those test scores up! Do it or else!”

“Do it or else!” has been used effectively in private industry for years and, in the right circumstances, this management-by-threat system can work. In effect, though, what happens nowadays in education is often ineffective and even silly. In desperate efforts to push up score numbers, administrators buy 7th grade language arts or math textbooks specifically written to their state test or to the new Common Core standards – without regard for how well their students can read the books. They know the bulk of their students are reading at a 5th, 4th or even 3rd grade level, but they can’t buy a lower-grade level book. That book doesn’t have “the right material.” It’s not geared to the 7th grade test. So they hand the kids a book that many can’t read, instead.

Eduhonesty: Here’s the crazy part of chasing that annual test’s tail — we have no reason to believe that making standards tougher will improve test scores, much less student learning. Common sense would suggest the opposite will more likely occur. As bars go up, students will miss the target by a greater margin.

The idea seems to be that if we raise the bar, students will leap higher. Why? What is the rationale underlying this belief? As the bar gets higher and higher, human nature suggests that at least some students will simply toss up their hands. Harder material will only discourage many students who have already fallen behind.

I am struck by an irony. That possibly nonexistent “crisis” of standards that resulted in the Common Core may create the very crisis that the Core was allegedly supposed to fix. A sudden shift in standards leaves many students behind, a fact documented by this year’s PARCC scores, scores that proved a true epic fail across all the states that ventured to try the new test. Many more students failed the PARCC test than had failed their state tests the year before.

Harder tests create higher fail rates. No evidence suggests that these tests necessarily boost learning. The mere fact of a harder test does nothing without remedial education and increased student support.


“It’s first grade, dammit. How far behind can you be?”


From my preceding post:

I read the last line and I think, “It’s first grade, dammit. How far behind can you be?” In these times, the answer’s much different than it was twenty years ago. We are teaching reading and math in kindergarten and even preschool. By first grade, a kid can have fallen appreciably behind now.

This issue will be creating large problems in future classrooms, I believe. We are pushing academic material down, down, down the pipeline. We have three-year-olds in public school preschool programs who are being pushed to learn sight words so they can start to read. They are being given IPads with math programs that include addition and subtraction.

Here is a 1st grade curriculum from a cozy, wood-frame school house in a prosperous Northshore suburb in Illinois:

1curr2 1stcurr1


I consider this curriculum to be age-appropriate overall, especially since the students in this school’s classroom were probably barraged with flash cards and educational computer games almost from the moment they emerged from the womb. Our problem lies in our attempts to teach versions of this curriculum to three-, four- and five-year olds who are not ready to “understand and apply properties of operations” or who are unready to tell time, or describe the relationships between two individuals within a story.

In Finland, children start school at seven years of age. Most have attended preschool, but that preschool heavily emphasizes learning through play. Academics like those above are postponed for a few years, until most or all children are ready for the material coming at them.

To understand the problems that arise from forcing students to begin hard academics at earlier ages, it’s instructive to look at reading. A number of pieces have to come together before reading can begin. Children need to know letters and their sounds — and vowels are a real challenge, sometimes even for adults when they confront unfamiliar words — and then be able to string those letters together to make new sounds. They have to understand how to connect those sounds into a complete word. They have to learn the meaning of various words, some of which will have more than one meaning. Differences in sounds may be subtle. Which witch is which? Some kids can put all of this together at three or four years of age, although that strong, early start remains exceptional. Some perfectly normal kids will not be ready until six or seven years of age to do the same thing. We have ample research documenting these differences.

Finland starts late and manages to be among the top-scoring countries on high school tests in the world. Obviously, a fierce early start on academics is unnecessary to long-term success. One question we ought to be asking ourselves is this: What is the effect of starting rigorous academics too early for subgroups within our classrooms?

I am not saying preschool academics are useless. Especially for students who are entering preschool with a noticeable vocabulary deficit, preschool ought to be mandatory. Vocabulary enrichment ought to be the focus of that preschool.

But as America becomes more diverse, I would suggest we need to look carefully at our students. Those preschool students who are becoming frustrated at their inability to read or do math ought to be let off the hook for awhile, as we backtrack and work on more appropriate skills for their ages and aptitudes. The individual child should determine what is taught — not some pie-in-the-sky district plan.

Eduhonesty: Here’s a big truth that seems to be too often ignored today. Children are naturally hierarchical creatures. From their first days in school, they are always figuring out where they stand with respect to others around them.  Who is the better soccer player? Who is the better artist? Who is the better reader?

I am afraid our challenging curricula are convincing some kids they are dumber than the average bear at a very early age. Those kids who are not among the better readers? When we push too hard, we can create a misimpression that has the potential to mess a child up for life. Once a child concludes he’s “dumb,” that view can become a self-fulfilling prophecy without interventions that may not happen, or may not happen in time.

Defiance Has an Upside

(For new teachers especially.)

I want to suggest that readers go look for the following article:

“Researchers say this disagreeable personality trait displayed by Bill Gates as a kid may predict success in adulthood”

Business Insider

Eduhonesty: Those kids who go left when you say right? Who do their homework only when they feel like it? Who ignore the rules when the rules prove inconvenient? Try to appreciate them for who they are. I (almost) always enjoyed my miscreants, even as I tried to work on modifying their behavior.
 Kitchen and whatever 010
The truth is that the best and brightest kids in the crowd are not always people- or teacher-pleasers. If you have that kid who wants to go left when you say go right, try to find alternative assignments and activities that will allow both of you to save face while that kid sometimes journeys off to the left. Some of those kids who go left will be among the most interesting people you will ever meet.

Teacher-free Friday

Kitchen and whatever 537(Readers need to read the preceding few posts to follow this thread.)

Technically, I was the teacher. A classroom needs a certified teacher. I was there, just incidentally serving as a one-on-one aide to one of the children who regularly sat in that room. A couple of students had been redeployed to regular classrooms and teachers reported they were very happy out there. I am not surprised. Tantrum-land must feel scary sometimes. Another aide told me how frightened one of the missing students had appeared when he was first moved into that special education classroom. Those two boys can be hell on wheels, and apparently there had been a third boy at that time, a boy who now has been placed in an outside school.

Today the boys were fine. Each boy had his own aide. We separated the boys almost from the outset. The aides knew their jobs and I was impressed. One boy spent the day out of the room, so I can’t comment on that effort. The other boy worked on numbers and letters as he occupied himself. His aide understood that if you told this boy to go left, he would probably go right, and possibly while shrieking. So she offered him choices. Would you like to do this or that? She did not make him stop and focus on one thing. She worked on letters while he studied bugs, for example. She responded to nonverbal cues. She did not demand that he make eye contact. The boy prefers nonverbal cues and he is lucky enough to have a (former) aide who understands his signals. Unfortunately, this aide used to work with him one-on-one, but she is now only being pulled in for emergencies like this Friday.

I worked on letters and numbers with the cognitively-delayed girl I was helping. I changed a couple of diapers. I talked and played. We colored and fed monsters on the IPad. We watched Peppa Pig and talked about getting dressed. We talked about birds. We looked at pictures and talked about what different facial expressions meant. We laughed. We practiced running while holding hands. We went to art and molded clay, making lots of long snakes/sticks to go above and below the bushes/fires I sculpted. I had a great day, but how can you miss with only three kids and three aides on a day when the kids have art?

I think the first part of this post should be about elementary and special education. People sometimes assume that teaching small children must be simple. How hard can it be to teach the alphabet? How hard can it be to teach simple addition? I’d like non-teacher readers to imagine twenty-some six year olds all in a small room. Getting all those kids to sit on their square on the little rug takes awhile. Getting them to stay focused takes longer. Especially at first, while routines are being taught, teaching elementary kids definitely resembles herding cats. Every classroom will be different, too. While certain techniques will work in all rooms, the routine from 2015 may not work in 2016. Each class group will have its own character, its own strengths and challenges.

Special education can up the challenges exponentially. What if Andrew can’t sit? What if Andrew can’t concentrate? What if Andrew can only hear in one ear? What if he never bothers to tell anyone that he did not hear or understand a word from the last five minutes? What if Andrew’s brain does not seem able to produce understandable sounds? Andrew may understand what was said, but be unable to reply. What if Andrew loves to scream? What if Andrew naturally wants to go left when anyone asks him to go right? What if Andrew is trying to make intelligible words but often can’t quite get there — and he does not handle frustration well? What if Andrew takes many, many repetitions to learn a new idea? What if Andrew has bundles of quirks, such as the need to arrange materials in rows and an inability to make eye-contact? At what point do we determine that Andrew has fallen onto the autism spectrum? At what point do we decide he may need special education because of this fact? How much attention deficit is too much attention deficit? Certainly, many kids with problems like those listed above do not need special education. They may need extra help with an aide. They may need time with a speech pathologist, physical therapist or social worker.

Special education placement will always be more of an art than a science. Even when placed in special education, results will vary from district to district. A child with Downs Syndrome will naturally merit placement, although not necessarily a separate classroom. Some districts will mainstream that child, placing him or her in with other students in a regular classroom.

The right teacher in that self-contained, special education classroom will be a crucial component in students’ educational progress. I have known great teachers, teachers who approached each child with love and understanding, working to get that child to achieve as much as possible within whatever limits their disability imposed. These teachers understood that what worked for one child might not work for another child, and tried to find the keys to unlock individual learning.

Dissecting the mess from this week:

I liked the teacher who quit, but I’d say she was not the right long-term substitute for this position. She was trying to do too much whole-group instruction, I believe. When she told all the kids to go to the rug for circle time, she hit major obstacles. Her two screamers did not handle transitions well. When they were engaged, they did not want to be forced to drop their activity. She did not know how to manage those transitions well. She expected students to behave and pay attention.

Yes, learning to follow directions is a useful school and life skill. But we are talking about two early-elementary school children who were in special education in part because they did not possess the following-directions skill. If they had been following directions on command in their elementary classrooms, they would probably never have ended up in this special education classroom to start with, at least not at their young ages. Their knowledge levels had not yet fallen catastrophically behind their peers, not in the first grade.  Their behavior was the challenge.

Those boys often could not handle an activity well once the transition to the new activity was accomplished — sometimes because they knew too much, not too little. At least one of those boys reads sight words very well.* He had problems sitting. He had problems listening. He was highly unlikely to sit quietly while other students slowly figured out those words. This boy who could already identify the sight words being taught should have been working on comprehension, not identification of those words.

These kids should mostly not have been taught the same material at the same time. Their individual needs were too different. What makes a great special education teacher? (Or any teacher perhaps.) To put it in a nutshell, I’d say the skill required is recognizing areas of academic need and individual behavioral issues, and working within those parameters to help a child maximize his or her potential. In a class with mixed behavioral and academic issues, children cannot usually be taught as a group, not if some students have already moved far ahead of others academically.

I read the last line and I think, “It’s first grade, dammit. How far behind can you be?” In these times, the answer’s much different than it was twenty years ago. We are teaching reading and math in kindergarten and even preschool. By first grade, a kid can have fallen appreciably behind now.

Eduhonesty: I think I’ll end this post shortly although I have more to blog on this classroom. But I want to focus on one point: This class demanded individualized instruction. One of those two boys had recently lost his one-on-one aide. The school will function better if he gets that aide back. For one thing, when that boy decides to make a run for it — as he did a few times while I was there — someone needs to be readily available to chase him. The teacher obviously can’t be running out of the classroom.

I’d say the biggest problem in the room I observed this week stemmed from a lack of continuity in that classroom, combined with the long-term sub’s sometimes clumsy attempts to gather her kids together for whole-group instruction. She was trying furiously to teach, and I’d add that to the list of difficulties — and as a cautionary note about always believing what the textbooks say. The books will tell us that children in first grade have short attention spans and need to shift from activity to activity so that they don’t lose interest. If transitions are killing any readers out there, though, I’d say that longer, flexible activities might be useful. Partial-group transitions would have helped that sub out. Fewer transitions would have helped her. Scheduling also becomes critical. Put the Hungry Hippo game before lunch, for example, and not before an academic activity that’s a lot less fun than Hungry Hippo.

That fact that the sub has quit creates a new problem. All children, and special education children in particular, benefit from routine.  Teacher number three with routine-set number three will be a tough sell to these kids. That teacher will be walking into a classroom that will likely resist her at first, as students try to hold on to the routines they know. The Principal needs a skilled, new teacher fast, but we are deep into February. I’d say her only shot will be a retired teacher willing to take a contract for the remainder of the year. I wish her luck.

*The other boy was out of the classroom so much that I can’t speak to his reading skills, which might be equally good.

The Teacher Quit

Kitchen and whatever 538Read the last three posts first if you have not seen them.

She quit this morning. Another teacher in the building took the class for the day. I continued to act as a one-on-one aide. I did volunteer to teach the class tomorrow if needed. I still don’t feel quite ready to take over early elementary school classrooms. That job’s a lot harder than it looks and my expertise starts around the age of twelve. I will step into the breach briefly, though. I do know the kids and the routine. I would be teacher number three.

Class was much more peaceful today. Academics were replaced with more playtime, even if that play involved a lot of numbers and letters. Fewer hard transitions happened, too. If a boy wanted to keep doing what he was doing, we let that go. We had a few different activities going at the same time. We played with bubbles. We read books. We took physical activity breaks.

We had Freddie moments, but the screaming was minimal and the violence nonexistent. Separating the boys helps enormously. Letting them play more helps. They benefit from high levels of physical activity, I am sure.

One more day tomorrow and then I will attempt to pull my many speculations together. I expect I will end up giving real kudos to the Principal whose attempt to keep the ship running smoothly almost worked. She’s great in a crisis.