Costco Memberships and Snacks

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This post is especially for new teachers who are feeding children regularly. You probably aren’t working for a wealthy district. The kids in wealthy and middle-class districts often carry snacks in their backpacks, while kids in poor districts may not have that handy Tupperware container of apple slices or pretzels, or the ubiquitous bag of Takis.* You are probably making less money, maybe much less money, than teachers in those more financially-comfortable districts. One of the ironies of teaching I have observed: Those who make the least frequently spend the most for their classroom, or at least a greater percentage of their incomes, since poor districts often provide little or no money for classroom supplies.

I suggest teachers who are passing out pretzels join Costco or Sam’s Club. My membership always paid for itself easily, especially since I bought Costco gas and made full use of my benefits. Vacation rental cars alone have saved me hundreds of dollars over the last few years.

Those big containers of pretzels, baked chips, cereal and Harvest Snaps® have carried many students through a tough morning when they missed breakfast and had no food in the house. The jars of Twizzlers®,** jelly beans, Jolly Ranchers®, Skittles® and more make good Jeopardy or Kahoot rewards in schools that allow candy. In classrooms that allow nuts, the big jars of nuts always get a grateful response. Kids love this healthy snack and most years I was lucky enough to be able to bring in nuts as a special treat, lacking allergic kids and a school-wide rule.

Eduhonesty: Taking a short break this morning from the mega-issues.

*I hate Takis. Those flaming red chunks can’t be good for anybody. Can something this color be food? Maybe I am getting old. dinamita

**Yes, I will sign off on candy rewards. While I acknowledge the nutritional concerns, I also know that the intervention period where I gave out Jolly Ranchers® for improved typing speeds led to the most dedicated typing practice I had ever seen. Does that reward burn out eventually, losing its effectiveness? Yes, but for some kids, I never reached that burn-out point all semester. Most importantly, a kid who starts at 7 words per minute and “burns out” at 35 words per minute has reached lift-off. The foundation has been laid at 35 words per minute and practice alone should carry the rocket up from there.

In a time of many macroconcerns, I went micro with this post, but my ** paragraph above brings up a huge issue. Teachers are told constantly what supposedly works and what doesn’t work. Sometimes that information should not be trusted. Big, blanket rules often do not fit smaller situations. For example, the candy burn-out concern has solid data behind it. Reward, reward, reward and the rewards lose their impact. But for a short-term goal like launching typing skills, rewards can work wonderfully. For any skill that can be achieved quickly, rewards may be helpful. The achievement of the skill allows for a natural end to the reward, too.

Not Close to My Finest Moment

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An observation; I had a wild ride in a classroom last Wednesday — a lot of 3rd grade kids who wanted to test the sub’s limits. I had to push back, and the whole day required considerably more effort than usual. Kids stood up and walked around without raising their hands. Kids talked while I was explaining new ideas. A few kids insulted each other and I forestalled at least one fight. They mostly did the work, but they ignored a set of rules they knew well, including “Make your dear teacher happy!” Love that rule, but that rule along with “raise your hand to talk” seemed to have gone out the window. On reflection, I believe I started out too nice with a tough crowd, one of the toughest of the last few years.

That said, they were also the crowd that kept coming up and hugging me. Kid after kid wanted a hug. Even kids who pushed limits wanted that hug. The most challenging groups can be the neediest groups. They wanted to have all sorts of conversations about shoes, phones and life, although math and English seemed to be off the table.

Eduhonesty: It is what it is. Every so often maybe we should stumble into a day that makes us reflect and reminds us not to run on auto-pilot. While many classrooms can be approached gently, a few require a sterner tone from the outset.

I blew that one.

I’ll blow another one, too. One great part of subbing is you can just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, review what went wrong and go out to do better next time  — without having to worry about next week or next month with the same group of kids. You don’t have to sweat administration much either. You don’t want me? Districts all over the area do.

But this post is for teachers who had a bad day last week or even a bad week. It’s for teachers having a rough year. Pick yourself up. Watch some funny YouTube. Have a glass of chardonnay or a caramel latte. All teachers have bad days. You can’t let them spook you. Just figure out your next plan. Whose seat should be moved? Whose mom will you call? How can you make a better version of the water-cycle lesson that went wrong? You can always improve.

And if you seem to have landed in a Twilight Zone episode, one in a post-apocalyptic world, remember that this episode too shall end. Another episode will begin. That episode may be filled with happy, twinkly spirits trying to make the world around them a better place, We never know the next episode. Part of the great adventure of life comes from the fact that we have no channel guide, no info buttons to push. We just go forward.

Eduhonesty: Trust yourself.

Are We Substituting Fidget Toys for Recess?

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I had recess regularly in third grade, not merely on Fridays if my classmates and I had behaved well. But recess has been under attack for years now. Those recess minutes are being redeployed to academics, especially in areas where state test scores run low.

Friday afternoon I let a group of kids out to play. Tag took off furiously. Marco Polo followed. I had to tone down the screaming of excited kids who were finally getting a chance to play. I had to slow down kids who were running at joyous, but hazardous, speeds. I don’t think anybody slowed me down when I was a kid, but if I had fallen and broken an arm, nobody would have sued the school district either. In that distant time, the idea that kids get hurt was just part of the landscape. If a kid fell out of the tree, no one pursued legal action against the park district because its trees were unsafe.

Back to my theme: Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and classroom management plans are filled with strategies to help kids burn off excess energies while they work. Fidget toys are added to IEPs regularly. A fidget is usually an object, often small, that kids manipulate while doing other things. Kids squeeze, stretch, or spin their way to supposedly better focus. For some kids, fidgets do work. For others, I believe fidgets become distractions. Certain students focus on the Play-Doh or squeeze ball, and tune out the lesson entirely.

We use stress balls, push and pull balls, spiky balls, slap-bands and tangle toys, We use puzzles. Who came up with the idea that doing puzzles during class could help learning? For that matter,  I’d ask parents and those outside education to consider the uses of a ball in young, distractable hands. Still, fidget toys when properly managed can help students focus. So can music. Some people work better with noise in the background, while others benefit from silence.

Eduhonesty: Stepping back from fidget toys themselves for the moment, I’d like to throw a big idea out here. I think we have created the need for fidget toys to squeeze, and ball chairs to sit on, by taking away play time. The need to play will burst out. Instead of handing our students blobs of dough, like distributors of methadone to recovering addicts, maybe we should just let them loose on the playground for 15 or twenty minutes in the morning and afternoon. I’m sure many students could wean themselves off fidget toys if they simply got a tag or Marco Polo break to burn off the nervous energy that builds up during the day of nonstop, pressure academics.

A little more Marco Polo and we might be able to add another baked chicken nugget to those low-calorie and often low-flavor lunches, too.

Let’s Hope This Smart Kid Does Not Turn to the Dark Side

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Readers, please pass this post on to district authorities who might benefit.

We were discussing details of an upcoming lockdown drill this morning. I’ve done lots of these. Yada, yada, lock the door, turn off the lights, get the kids quiet and out of the line of sight. Cover that little window in the door. Shut the shades. Do not open the door for anybody.

A student asked a great question, though: What if there is a fire “drill” during the lockdown? If a preteen kid can think of this, I’m sure a shooter could figure out the advantage of using the fire alarm. Yes, a fire alarm will cause authorities to come to the scene. But too many shooters in the past have obviously never intended to leave their shooting scene alive. That clanging alarm could be a perfect way to get students to flow out classroom doors.

The principal told students to stay put UNLESS he came on the intercom to tell them to exit the building.

I’d say this fire alarm issue should be directly addressed in the pre-lockdown speech.

Another note for the lockdown drill for our time: All students should be instructed to shut off their phones. Whether the rules forbid those phones in the classroom or not, phones are scattered in backpacks and pockets throughout our schools. I watched third-graders playing a game with a classmate’s phone this afternoon as school ended.

I started to add a last paragraph here, thanks to a fellow teacher who belongs to a favorite educational organization. I’d like to highlight the line I started with: In the traditional lockdown drill.  I looked at the word “traditional” and realized that said it all. Our shooters nowadays have sat through those drills. They probably know everybody is against the wall in the corner.  They know the doors are locked, the lights are out, and the little window is covered with some anonymous black paper precisely because that room is occupied. Frankly, no door knob will stand up against real firepower. We just sat everybody in a convenient clump for anyone who walks in that door. A police officer had told my colleague to get the kids OUT. If you are on a first floor and the windows open or you are near the door, the best move is likely to send everybody out to run to a prearranged site some distance away.

This is for principals and superintendents everywhere: Having all teachers do the same thing has to be suboptimal planning. Marco in the middle of the second floor may need to follow traditional instructions, but Sarah at the end of the first floor hallway probably should take the kids and make a fast run to a prearranged destination the kids know, such as a local library or firehouse. If we are going to have lockdown plans, these plans need to be PLANS, not tired repetitions of annual drills that our shooters maybe sat through ten times.

For teachers: I’d make a cute little strip of student work to put in that window. The black or blue plain paper strip has to be a dead giveaway.

Anonymous Data Walls Please! Don’t Tell the Kids Who They Are!

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To administrators everywhere: If you want to put up the data wall with copper ink for students whose MAPTM scores improved 1-5 points, silver for those who improved 6-10 points and gold for those at 11+ points and above, please make sure those walls remain anonymous.

Don’t even let the kids know.

If you tell Jaime he is #112, he will tell his friend Jorge or somebody. Kids don’t keep secrets. Even when they know they are supposed to keep secrets, they share with BFFs or prospective BFFs. Even when trying to keep secrets, young kids cannot be trusted.

“It wasn’t my mom’s dog “Rufus” who bit me. I fell down the stairs. (Custody fight underway.) I was just in Rufus’s space.”

Tricky of those stairs to leave semi-circular puncture marks. (The kid’s fine.)

To anyone who has bought into the idea that competition will spur greater efforts, I’d like to say that t’aint necessarily so. Competition works for some kids. Pitting the seventh graders against the eight graders in a mixed-grade classroom game of flyswatter can lead to a fierce, cheering game that helps everyone in the class learn. The best race I ever ran was against a girl who had been bullying me. But kids are not standardized factory inputs or outputs. Telling students to please sit down will get the crowd down, yes, but those same words can get a few kids to leap out of their seats.

I know this from teaching: When kids keep landing on the bottom often enough over a long period of time, some of them give up. Those data walls are dangerous to certain kinds of kids. That kid who lacks resilience and who believes that he is “bad at math” does not benefit from a wall that proves his point to him.  I had a third grader tell me today that she was “bad at math” For proof, she presented the fact that she usually got Bs. That kid who truly takes failure to heart may feel bad every time he looks at that data wall. One kid might only hang onto that bad feeling for a few minutes before he starts to think about lunch and chicken nuggets, but another may dwell on his sadness, barely tasting the day’s nuggets while he considers his latest “failure.”

The kids at the bottom sometimes shut down. Mindset pep talks do not always prevent these shutdowns. Making data into a competition has advantages for many students, but not for students who are running short on resilience and perseverance. Every time a data wall goes up, if that wall allows a student to locate his or her position toward the bottom of the data, we may be sucking away a little bit of resilience, too.

We cannot measure resilience and perseverance, but anyone who thinks these traits have been equally distributed between kids needs to pull out the I.V. line to the Koolaid. Data walls can be motivators. They can also be attacks.

Eduhonesty. I honestly don’t see why we have to keep showing kids the data in big, cheery, decorated walls with stars, glitter and gold paint. But if we do, we absolutely should be keeping that data anonymous. We ought to be asking ourselves, too, if our discussions of the data with individual students provide the benefits we desire. More importantly, measured against those benefits, what are the actual costs of hammering home those numbers?

P.S. I want to pose one more unrelated observation because I don’t think I will get around to writing a post on the topic. I’d bet our data walls are discouraging efforts in many gifted children. That student who always comes out on top of the wall? What exactly is that student’s incentive to work harder?

Zip Code Should Not Be Destiny #42: Paraprofessionals

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I have worked in poor and middle class schools and subbed in wealthier schools. My next observation is admittedly anecdotal, but I think I’m right and I’m sure my observation matters. Wealthier schools can afford paraprofessionals to help disadvantaged students. Financially-disadvantaged schools have to cut costs somewhere, and noncertified staff often get cut.

Teachers are required by law. Aides and paraprofessionals remain optional unless required by an IEP, and the district writes the IEP. Parents may be involved but if no staff member suggests an aide, parents may not understand the benefits of bringing up the issue. In poorer districts, an incentive exists to avoid requiring that aide. Instead of an aide, an IEP may be filled with requirements for the classroom teacher, such as the following:

·        * Advance notice of transitions

·         * Scheduled sensory breaks

·         * Test breaks with opportunities to move

·         * Use of a scribe or oral testing

·         * Agenda check list for checking in with teacher, counselor or other staff member

·         * Peer-to-peer tutoring

·         * Special seatpads, rolling chairs or sit-upon balls

·         * Picture calendar or schedule

·         * Minimal use of open-ended statements or questions by teacher

·         * Speaking more slowly

·         * Preferential seating away from distractions

I chose familiar fixes for my above bullet points, often seen in classrooms and previous IEPs I had filed away in drawers. For a robust list, I will recommend  https://adayinourshoes.com/printable-list-of-strategies-sdis-for-your-iep-meeting/, which contains over 100 possible management strategies as well as other helpful links. Kudos to Lisa for a genuinely helpful website. If this post resonates with you, reader, I recommend https://adayinourshoes.com.

Here’s my point though: Many of those fixes are complicated or even impossible to implement consistently in a class with around thirty students. How slowly can the teacher speak while trying to get through a demanding curriculum? How many other students will tune out when she starts doing her slow-speak? Never mind that the teacher may be criticized by administrators for not asking mostly or all critical thinking questions. Short questions of fact are frowned upon in the current climate.

Aides help fill in the gaps between IEP demands and teacher efforts. They break down assignments into smaller pieces. They allow oral testing to happen in the hallway. They act as scribes. They keep track of scheduled sensory breaks and speech therapy appointments. They help ease transitions. In so many little ways, aides can make a pie-in-the-sky IEP work, mostly by making sure provisions are fulfilled when the classroom teacher simply does not have the time or environment to put provisions into practice alone.

Eduhonesty: Another post meant to attack the idea that “throwing money at our problems is not the answer.” Again, money may not be the answer. But lack of money, the lack that has forced some districts to lay off most of their paraprofessionals at year’s end, creates problems in poor districts that do not exist, or do not exist to the same degree, in wealthier districts.

I have subbed in paraprofessional positions a fair amount this year. For one thing, the suburban teacher’s retirement system in Illinois limits teacher subbing to 500 hours per school year before Draconian penalties are inflicted on any poor person who did not track their hours. Aide hours don’t count toward the 500. For another thing, my favorite district pays parapros the same amount it pays teachers. Parapros may work a little longer with lunch and recess duties, but I like recess. It’s fun to play cops and robbers (Yes, they still play that.) and Frisbee. It’s a compliment when the autistic kid asks if you would like to go for a walk.

I have a couple of less prosperous districts where I substitute. I hardly ever fill paraprofessional positions in those districts; they don’t post paraprofessional positions. I look at the available subbing opportunities as the days go by and I am clear: Wealthy districts frequently look for aides to help teachers and students in their districts. Poor districts hardly ever do. Maybe they don’t put in for substitutes for absent aides, but I have worked those financially-disadvantaged special education classes. In particular, one-on-one aides are employed far more often in districts where the budget is fat and the property taxes high.

Do we need to “throw money” at financially-disadvantaged districts? No, we don’t. But we might try to create a funding system that allows already financially-handicapped districts to hire more paraprofessionals. Their most vulnerable students are paying the price for our inability to own up to the fact that more $$$$$ = more paraprofessionals = a better quality education for many of America’s kids.

 

Shoveling Snow in the Hallway

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I have never been punched or slapped, but I know teachers who have taken blows for the team. I know kids who landed those blows and were back in same hallways a few months later, much to the dismay of nervous teachers. If the alternative school refuses to take you, or throws you out, where does a middle-school student go? Sometimes, back to the neighborhood school! Most of those kids blew up under stress, but one or two just decided to punch a teacher.

I remember a colleague who was suspended for weeks after he broke up a fight, A student’s parent complained he had pulled the combatants apart too roughly. Being small in stature, I have always stayed away from physical fights, but after that suspension, my larger colleagues joined me. Teachers are not obliged to break up fights, only to call for help immediately.* Security in my building did not always come quickly, especially if they were working the other end of the building.  In fact, a few times in my experience security did not come at all.

Eduhonesty: Consider this post a tip for new teachers. Stay out of the fight. My colleague’s career never recovered in our district and he ended up quitting and relocating. I imagine he is warmer and happier, but still… You may not wish to take advantage of all those exciting teaching opportunities in Arizona, Nevada and South Carolina,

*Teacher/fight legalities resemble those of snow shoveling. Generally, you cannot be sued for not shoveling. You can be sued for shoveling badly, however. If you leave ice, you can be taken to court for injuries resulting from a slip on that ice. In the same vein, you will not get in trouble for not wading into a fight, but if you do get involved and someone is hurt, you have opened yourself up to possible school and legal entanglements.

A Happier Post — Trying to Take Advantage of the Sub

blog5The happiest posts are always kid posts. So here’s a question from the Land of Substitutes: Who teaches elementary students to try to take advantage of the sub? The teacher’s plans usually say something like, “This is a great class!. Clarissa and Tom are good helpers.” A long page of details, sometimes with specific times, follows. The daily routine is often explicitly spelled out on the board.

Nowhere in the plans does the teacher tell me about the apparently regular 10 minutes of free time that students tell me they receive as a break throughout the day. Nowhere does she mention that she usually lets them go early to recess and gives them extra snack time. I am told the seating chart the teacher obligingly supplied is apparently seldom used. “She lets us sit wherever we want most the time.”

Clarissa or Tom may try to clarify.
“Well, she doesn’t let us sit wherever we want most of the time. But she does sometimes!”

I just stick to the plan.

“The plan says we do math until 9:30,” I answer. “I think we do not have time for extra free time today.”

P.S. A sign someone has worked in elementary education for a long time: An aide was explaining to me that she had to leave lunch duty early and I was in charge of her job. She then said, “Lunch ends at 12:10.” She looked around the room to see that the kids were behaving and the crowd was in control. To make sure I understood what she had told me, she pointed at the clock and added, “Lunch is over when the big hand is on the ten.”

I don’t think she even noticed what she said. I just smiled and nodded. Yes, when the big hand reached the ten, I would leap into action and flick the lights. I might even belt out the clean-up song. One perk of elementary education: If you like singing, you can always channel Mary Poppins and burst out in song.

 

A Glimpse of Grade Inflation and Its Opposite

IMG_1270Suddenly I realize that I have over 400 pages of a book now without a single concrete reference to grade inflation. How did that happen? I can’t claim I made a concrete decision to duck the topic. I did not exactly ignore grades. I have described the “50%-floor” grading concept that allows students to receive 50% on the papers they never turn in. Yes, more than one school I know has flirted with this system, the rationale being that students do not give up because they can always catch up.

But grade-inflation itself? I realize I have accepted grade inflation. The “C” of my youth has become a “B” and even sometimes an “A.” I will admit I have contributed to the problem. I have given points for completion rather than accuracy. I have given grades that weighted participation highly enough to ensure a strong effort could never result in less than a “C” or even a “B.”

The pendulum has been swinging back towards mastery-based grading. Lately we discourage participation and effort grades. We may even base an entire final grade on test and quiz results. I can understand and support the shift. An “A” math student should be able to do the math in his or her textbook. An “A” English student should be able to write a coherent and well-organized essay. An “A” science student should understand scientific method, at least by middle school.

This overdue shift to mastery-based grading seems a move in the right direction. I have read too many sad stories about students who entered college and promptly got academically clobbered, only to remark, “But I always got As and Bs in high school!” Fictions don’t prepare students for real-life challenges.

But I also think we ought to pause to consider the effect of our midstream, changing policies on students who suddenly find themselves failing or near failing. During that last year of my formal teaching, when I was required to give all those Common Core tests with questions that almost none of my students could read or answer, when I was required to base grades almost entirely on tests and quizzes, I regularly heard a version of the “always got As and Bs” line. How did these students reach seventh grade testing at a third-grade level or even lower, while still having received A and B grades in elementary school? That’s an excellent question, far too gigantic for this one post.

I will make only one observation: I made many of my students feel absolutely stupid that year, despite all my best efforts to keep them in the game, despite all my work on growth mindsets, despite the burritos I bought them at Saturday tutoring, despite all the test retakes I let them take after we had gone over their latest results, despite all the effort by parents, siblings and other unofficial tutors, despite all the encouragement I could dish out, despite all the techniques I found to keep student interest up while simultaneously plunging those students in over their heads daily.

Eduhonesty: If we decide to truly tackle grade inflation, I will support the effort. Honest grades will benefit our students more than petty fictions that fall apart as soon as “Sam” decides to take English 101 in college. But I hope we will also remember that the transition year for our kids will be a lot like falling into a real version of that nightmare where you discover you have skipped a class all semester that you forgot you signed up for, a class with a final in the building you can’t even find.

 

 

 

Seeing What We Want to See – ADHD

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I find this post scary. I had an “AHA!” moment a few minutes ago and I think I am right. I know I am right. I don’t like what I see, either.

ADHD diagnoses have been skyrocketing in the last few decades. At first, ADHD diagnoses netted few services and little extra help. Over time, we have been adding to our toolbox. We may give you fidget toys now. We may let you listen to music or walk around the classroom. We may suggest your parents see a physician, hoping you will be medicated.

We try to do our best by our “Derricks.” It’s almost always Derrick, and not Maria. Boys own this educationally-challenging category.

ADHD — so common that the label almost seems benign. But what if we are not seeing ADHD? What if we are seeing anxiety disorders instead? The symptoms can be remarkably similar, at least in terms of attention. Derrick may be unable to concentrate not because he has concentration issues — but because he’s scared of Chapter Four. If he did not understand Chapters 1 – 3 and barely passed those chapter tests, why should he hold out hope that Chapter 4 will be different?

I am sure some of our ADHD students genuinely suffer from ADHD. But my classroom experience of being forced to continually throw students in over their heads suggests another possibility: What if we are cultivating Generalized Anxiety Disorders in students who cannot perform up to the Common Core levels we are demanding — but who are given no option or way out of those Common Core demands? When almost every test and quiz I am REQUIRED to administer results in failing grades, I know I am making my classes anxious. I am fighting against that anxiety and propping up self-esteem every step of the way.

What happens when I lose that fight?

If we are cultivating Generalized Anxiety Disorders in children, what will become of these children as adults? We like ADHD diagnoses, I suspect, because this disorder is commonly considered to be biological, inborn and not our fault. But Generalized Anxiety Disorder, while affected by genetic factors, has a strong environmental component. Like post-traumatic stress disorder, events in daily life create the pathways to trigger the psychological response that ends with an everyday life lived in fear.

Sitting here in a version of The Twilight Zone, I offer up today’s frightening food for thought.

Eduhonesty: Credit to Dr. Fred Johnson and his book Proactive Discipline for Reactive Students: A guide for practicing effective classroom behavior management. He suggested this idea and I ran it through my past experiences. My heart sank. I can even sort out students — the ones I know are ADHD, and the ones who I suspect have been running scared for so long that scared has now become their way of life.

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To ask a question I have posed before: What does it feel like to be the student with the fewest stars or the lowest score?