In a Time of Fish in Trees

On vacation out here, but I thought I’d offer a quick post for today. The pin on the bottom says, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.”GARDEN ETCI am grateful to my readers, the kids I met this year, and all the people who keep struggling to get education right. I am so glad for all of you, for the people who know that fish don’t belong in trees, and who are trying to make school work for our many kids, all our kids with their different talents, interests and inclinations.


Can you call me if you see her hanging out with boys?


(Readers, please pass this on to new teachers and others who might be interested if you have a few minutes. I’d call this the first summer post for newbies.)

I found an article in my Facebook feed titled “24 ACTUAL Things Parents Said to Teachers That Will Make Your Head Spin.” The article includes “He’s only bullying people because he’s more developed than them” and other funny quips and comments.

One comment stopped me, though. Can I call mom if I see her girl hanging out with boys?

Yes, I can. I absolutely will. Feel free to ask me. I may call you anyway.

I have taught middle school for most of my teaching career. Seventh grade can be especially hazardous. The year starts well. Marie is listening and doing her work. Then in November, Marie’s gaze starts scooting over toward Danny. Sometimes by December or January, I have almost entirely lost Marie in a seething sea of unpredictable hormones. Marie may break into tears if Danny talks to another girl in the lunchroom. She is likely to be distracted, trying to text him across the room if I am not watching.

When Marie skips class to sneak off to an empty gym with Danny, I am not doing my job if I am not calling home. One year, our middle school had five pregnant girls toward the end of the year. The nurse was beside herself. Another year, I ended up trapped between the social worker who wanted the abortion, the Catholic mom who did not, and the girl who wanted to finish school and was too scared to have that baby.

This post is especially for new teachers who are not yet calling home on nonacademic matters. I recommend you call. You might pick an academic concern — For example, “I noticed she has not been taking her book home lately.” You can use that as a focus for the conversation, slipping in that perhaps Marie’s interest in Danny is distracting her, causing her to lose track of academic responsibilities. Obviously, you can’t call for every little flirtation.

But teachers often see trouble coming before anyone else understands what is happening. Put yourself in mom’s shoes. You would want to know.


The art of the seating chart

Toward the goal of teaching as much as you can as fast as you can, a well-designed seating chart can be a teacher’s best friend. The right seating chart forestalls many problems. Conversely, the wrong seating chart will kill you by degrees.

If Claudia is sitting next to her boyfriend, the game’s probably half lost. Claudia and her boyfriend will be distracting each other as soon as your back is turned. If Ezekiel’s sitting next to the girl whose cuteness renders him mute, the game’s mostly lost. The talking probably won’t start for awhile, but you’ll be lucky to capture a few minutes of Zeke’s attention during class. Exceptionally chatty girls should never be placed side-by-side unless no alternative exists. Students need to be strategically deployed with the end goal of nipping social conversations in the bud.

Some teachers begin school with alphabetical charts and that approach has advantages. Setting up structure immediately helps create a classroom tone conducive to learning. However, having emphasized the importance of seating charts, I am now going to recommend that teachers wait a few days before assigning seats. I usually let students pick their seat partners and classroom position for a couple of days at least. I learn who wants to sit near the front of the room and the teacher and who doesn’t. I learn the group and friend dynamics within my classroom. I learn where the conversations are going to break out. I learn who the quiet kids are. Sometimes, I may catch the first whiffs of bullying, giving me a chance to shut down harassment before it starts.

Once I understand the dynamics of my classroom, then I build my seating chart. I separate talkers. I use quiet students as buffers. I bring students who may need special help up front so I can help them without making them conspicuous. I separate students who are not going to focus on learning when they are seated near each other.

Charts are an art. I suppose I should add a few caveats here. Not all talkers need to be separated. On occasions, I have left friends together because they work together unusually well and help each other enough to compensate for a slight uptick in chatting that may result from that placement. If Claudia just arrived from Honduras last year and her boyfriend is translating for her and helping her learn English, I may try out the seating arrangement with the two together.

The end goal is learning.

For the newbies: Don’t let the kids talk you out of your plan. If you thought Mary and Kayla needed to be separated, you were probably right, despite Mary’s entreaties. As soon as you start flexing rules or plans, some students will begin trying to make you flex all the rules and plans. The time loss can be considerable and the benefit to you nearly nonexistent.

One good time to group

The text of the following email is from my former math department chairperson, an example of a reasonable use of small groups. Consider this a teaching tip for new teachers, I guess. After the big rainstorm when five kids in the class did not come to school, using the internet to reteach may work well. This requires careful planning to set up review sessions for other students at the same time.

“The link below provides a series of tutorial videos that would be appropriate to assign to students to watch who were absent. You could document that as an intervention and say that it was provided for students to view on their own time or make time available during the school day for students to view it while you move forward with other students.

Eduhonesty: A few issues are embedded in the above post. Five absent students? If that sounds like too many from a rainstorm, I’d like to observe that, in my former district, bad weather could easily create such absenteeism. Especially if students walk and mom and dad have already left for work, those students may decide to stay home. When older kids are responsible for getting younger kids to school, everybody will stay home. Despite recent Yahoo articles about the perils of children walking to and from school alone, the fact is that many, many children walk to school all the time, especially those who don’t qualify for free bus service.

Among other targets the state set for us this year, schools in my district had attendance targets. My homeroom won the special treats for best attendance a number of times and we enjoyed the special cookies and little water bottles. Attendance numbers were posted on cheery boards in the hallway. The very fact that we received treats in a year when measures against recreational eating felt almost Draconian speaks volumes, though.

Attendance fails, especially at the high school level, create academic fails and my district has been struggling with the problem as long as I can remember. Other impoverished and urban schools fight the same battle. I thought my chairperson’s post with this link offered a helpful suggestion that could be used for grouping. Individual students can also be sent home with helpful links. When possible, links can be emailed or texted to parents.


Music hath charms

Music soothes the savage student, not to mention other students and their teacher. My iPhone has synced itself into a mess of contemporary music this year. I don’t even know what I have.

list of songs

I do know that music works for me, but I also recommend caution to new teachers out there. Letting students go to YouTube can be risky. Often, students don’t even know they are making inappropriate choices. Many are oblivious to curse words and unacceptable topics. Others know full well that f-bombs are about to fall, but they want to see how the teacher reacts.

I duck the content problem through song lists. My students write down songs they would like to hear. I vet the lyrics and listen to samples before I make purchases. (I do buy the songs. Stealing material off the internet would set a poor example.) Sometimes I have to explain why a song did not make it onto the classroom’s latest CD. We can’t play a song about partying and getting wasted, I explain, even if the language is clean. It’s useful to look for videos, too; I never would have bought that song from Shades of Grey if I’d seen the music video first, a mistake on my part, even if the lyrics passed scrutiny.

I’ve written before about the scary quality of some lyrics our children are listening to today, but this post focuses on a different topic. I get great mileage from my CDs.

“If you are quiet and working, I will put on music,” I say. I wait for compliance. Sometimes students help me.

“Be quiet! She won’t put on the music!” They say to classmates.

I strongly recommend music lists.

Finding the unique

“The greatness of art is not to find what is common but what
is unique.”

~ Isaac Bashevis Singer (via Bob at

I think that applies to greatness of teaching as well. What makes “Josue” unique? That’s the question and, locked in that question, we find the key to helping Josue fulfill his own personal quest. The best teachers cultivate those sparks of uniqueness, those flares of divergence.

The divergent are often a handful in the classroom, but I have fewer — if any — real disciplinary issues with this group when I go with the grain. If “Manny” can’t follow, I try to let him lead. If Josue wants to take science toward skateboarding, I try to find the applicable science that relates to the skateboard. Of course, some days you just have to force kids to go with your flow: Order of operations is neither malleable nor optional.


Eduhonesty: For new teachers, I offer this advice: Try to enjoy them for who they are. Love them if you can. Support them as much as you are able. And go with the grain of the wood as often as possible.

Looking through the cracks

To retain or not retain — that is the question. Should we flunk our underperformers? If we do, should we hold them back? Or send them on the next grade with a hope, a prayer and — if we listen to the research — extra tutoring? Academic studies favor social promotion, usually adding the caveat that the socially promoted should receive extra tutoring when they enter the next grade. Unfortunately, that tutoring may not happen or may be wholly insufficient: Two extra hours of instruction per week cannot begin to cover the losses from years of failure and near-failure. I’m not sure 10 hours a week could hit that target, but ten hours might be plausible for quick learners.

This post is only peripherally about retention, though. I want to briefly visit another topic. So Napoleon has failed or nearly failed his classes, quite likely not for the first time. At least one possible rescue ought to go on the table immediately, one that inexplicably may not be raised for discussion.

For parents and teachers: If Napoleon failed or has been skirting failure, please consider special education. When a parent demands that a child be tested for special education, the district must comply. Absent that demand, sometimes testing never happens. For one thing, the barriers to entering special education keep getting higher. I don’t want to start addressing those issues — they’re huge — but the amount of proof required to move a student into special education may shut the process down before it starts, especially as districts keep adding responsibilities to the teaching day. My 27 days of meetings this year take a lot of time away from possible parent calls or social worker discussions.

One of my students just entered special education. Her mom had mentioned she thought the girl needed extra help and I thought so, too. I talked to special education teachers. They told me the same thing they have been telling me for the last few years: Tell the parent to insist that her child needs to be tested. The amount of documentation a teacher requires to get that ball rolling is so daunting now that I suspect only parent interventions are likely to work in some districts. She’s not my only student who I think needs help. I have one more mission before year’s end, if I can put it together in the time that’s left.

For some kids, special education may be their only chance to graduate from high school and possibly move on to higher education. My colleague down the hall has been educated and trained specifically to work with academically and behaviorally-disadvantaged students. She has classes with eight or fewer children in them and a paraprofessional to help her. She can sit down and focus on one child, providing intensive instruction, while other children work with the paraprofessional. For any kid who is struggling to pass, year after year, my colleague’s class offers a chance to succeed.

Eduhonesty: Economic forces are in play here, something teachers and parents don’t always understand. Districts have a big incentive to keep children in the regular classroom. That special education teacher costs as much or more than her regular education counterpart, probably more since special education endorsements require quite a few college credits — this varies by area — and greater numbers of college credits usually lead to higher pay. Depending on law and contracts, one regular teacher can teach the same number of students as three special education teachers. Putting a child into special education thus represents a financial commitment that poor districts, especially, may prefer to avoid.

I need to observe that educators and administrators tend to be ethical people, dedicated to providing the best education possible to their students. While an obvious financial incentive exists to keep students out of special education, parties to the process are extremely unlikely to falsify testing data. Still, financial factors may lead to data interpretations designed to keep students in regular classrooms. A few years back, I had a student tested for special education. The man who tested her determined that her I.Q. was 78 — 3 digits too high to qualify for special education. She needed a 75 to qualify. But while psychometricians generally regard IQ tests as having high statistical reliability, the fact is that the standard error of measurement for IQ tests is commonly considered to be about three points — the very difference that might have gotten my student into special education. That test can easily be three points off. They didn’t let my girl into special education. (Bilingual education saved this former student, but that’s another story. She did graduate. She may be stranded in a Spanglish world, and she can’t spell or do math for beans, but she diligently attended school, receiving enough credits to walk the stage.)

Am I rambling here? To go straight to my point, many of our failing kids will benefit from special education; however, parents and teachers may need to force the issue. Parents — don’t trust the schools to tell you if your child needs special education. If you suspect learning handicaps, demand that your district test your child. Teachers — the mantra of this time has become, “All children can succeed!” This cheery sound bite sounds appealing but fictions often do. Not all children can succeed in regular classrooms. If they could, we would never have created special education in the first place.

Lost and struggling students deserve to get the help they need. These small classes with individualized attention allow some students to learn when regular classes do not. My colleague down the hall has dedicated her life to teaching reading to students who need extra help to put the letters together. Parents and teachers sometimes hesitate to seek special education placements for fear of labeling a child slow, but special education often proves the best possible world for at least some of our boys and girls.

Leonard Cohen put it perfectly in his song, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

It’s all about light, the light of learning. We are here to help our children learn to love learning. We do that best when we don’t force them to go faster and farther than they are ready to travel. We do that best when we hand them books they can read with a teacher who understands the pacing and parameters they require. We do that best when we accept and love them for who they are.

For “Rick” — who lives where he works

“Rick” is my union rep. I haven’t used his services, but he takes his union position seriously. He doesn’t gossip. He’s smart and funny, a middle-aged, African-American man who eats what he wants against medical advice — trying every so often to fix his excesses with a salad or two — and sometimes says what he thinks. He’s got a gift of quiet. He listens. Every so often, he shares his thoughts.

We were talking about the new retention policy, which appears to be another version of “we don’t retain nobody, nohow.” As noted in other posts, I understand where this policy originates. The research supports social promotion. The socially promoted have better outcomes in school and life overall. That point’s no longer debatable, even given the sometimes shoddy nature of social science research.

Here’s what Rick said, though, in a viewpoint that deserves cyberspace and cybertime:

“The thing is, those people in the Board Office, they go home at night to Lake Forest or places like that. They don’t live here. They’re just passing the problem on and it’s no problem for them. They don’t see these teen-age kids who didn’t make it through high school and who can’t find a job. I see them. They are standing on the street corner outside my house. They have nothing to do. They’ve got no way to make money. They’ve got no prospects.”

Rick is a big guy and he carries a natural authority. But he’ll admit to being scared of those kids on the street corner. Those kids don’t have a lot to lose, he tells me. The numbers here are hard to tease out. Crime statistics for the area baffle local residents and have led to a number of articles on the trustworthiness of crime statistics reported by police departments. Our crime statistics, like our graduation statistics, are honestly hard to understand when you are viewing them from the local stage. If 500 people finish at a middle school and 200 graduate from the high school across the street, when the graduation rate is over one-half of students, what happened to the missing bodies on the stage?

Regardless of the numbers, I can see why Rick is worried. Gang activity runs rampant in this locale. Drug abuse has become standard fare. What do you do if you have no education, no job and no legitimate job prospects? The underground economy offers one way to scrounge up cash. We had a middle school student murdered a few years ago when he flashed a bunch of money at some older peers. I’d guess that money came from drugs. I don’t know for sure. I know I held crying teachers who had known the boy, helped them down long, sad hallways. I watched a school mourn a kid who had already begun moving toward that street corner, regularly skipping school and ignoring classes.

What happens when we pass Napoleon on from eighth grade to high school when he is reading at a fourth grade level and doing math at a third grade level? Statistically, we improve his odds of long-term success, according to the studies. But what are those odds of success? Mostly, they range from poor to abysmally awful.

How costly is the decision to drop out of high school? To quote the PBS article “Dropout Nation,” (,

Consider a few figures about life without a diploma:


The average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of $20,241, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (PDF). That’s a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate, and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.


Of course, simply finding a job is also much more of a challenge for dropouts. While the national unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent in August, joblessness among those without a high school degree measured 12 percent. Among college graduates, it was 4.1 percent.


Among dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24, incarceration rates were a whopping 63 times higher than among college graduates, according to a study (PDF) by researchers at Northeastern University. To be sure, there is no direct link between prison and the decision to leave high school early. Rather, the data is further evidence that dropouts are exposed to many of the same socioeconomic forces that are often gateways to crime.

In Rick’s view, when we pass those kids along, we pass along our problems to the community — and he’s right. Those high school students who can’t read, write or multiply often drop out of high school. Year by year, our lowest performers may be digging themselves into deeper holes until we finally offer them an out, legally allowing them to exit school. Then many of these kids enter the underground economy, the only economy where they can make enough money to support their lives and habits.

Rick watches these kids on his street corner while administrators determining district retention policies drive safely home to comfortable, suburban houses in areas where the majority of high school kids move on to graduate from college.

A sad job loss that is probably good luck in disguise

My colleague is one of the walking dead. (See the March 26th post.) Her zombie status has created much discussion among the living and the dead. She is a first year teacher and her score came in under the number the district had used to define proficient. Proficiency has been defined as 2.72 and above. My colleague received a 2.70.

These are social science numbers, the opinions of observers. In one professional development I attended, an auditorium of teachers was asked to determine Charlotte Danielson rubric numbers for teaching as they watched videos. I vividly remember one video that broke down with about 1/3 of the auditorium giving a “2” and 2/3 giving a “3” for the same video. A scattering of teachers bestowed a “4” on that video. These numbers are in the eye of the beholder. That missing 0.02 has zero statistical validity or reliability. But a first year teacher just lost her job based on that number. The Danielson group would never support using their numbers in this fashion; they will tell you that first year teachers naturally will have lower numbers. Teaching proficiency is learned on the job.

I worked with this teacher all year. She busily created new materials for her students. She adapted materials. She shared. She worked extremely hard.

Here is the saddest email I am likely to see all year, sent in the middle of spring break:

I know I should be relaxing, but of course I am thinking about work. I have 2 five hour long train rides this weekend, so I will have time to get something done…hopefully.

I know that you were starting the new vocabulary. I didn’t get to it last week, I was trying to get kids caught up on grades and such. If you know the vocabulary, send it to me? Please and thank you.

Also, what else are we covering? Possibly Monday we meet after our PLC? I just need to make sure I am prepared for an IEP meeting after school Monday.

Well I hope both of you are relaxing over break!!!!

My young colleague is more professional and forgiving than I am. I would give the administration that canned me over that nonsensical 0.02 about 0.02 minutes of my time over spring break. I don’t think I’d give them an adapted lesson plan, either, whether I adapted the materials (she will) or not. I trust my colleague to do her best for her students and I’ll be at those meetings she wants, helping her figure out what we are teaching next. I’ll also send her a recommendation and list of possible districts where she should put in applications. Our loss will be someone else’s gain.

In another world, first-year teachers get mentors. My colleague finally received that help more than halfway through the year, but that help came after the first of her two major evaluations. She received little help navigating the evaluation process regardless. My colleague made a mistake I have seen other young teachers make: She worked days, nights and week-ends to provide quality instruction for her kids while neglecting politics. Politics can take the best of teachers and administrators down.

Eduhonesty: That young woman worked so hard. She did a great job, too, which is why many district teachers are talking about this injustice. The guy across the hall was livid when we discussed the 0.02 fiasco. But I tried to calm those waters with an observation that I still believe: Losing this job may be one of the best things that will ever happen to my colleague. The job that our administrators were waving in front of her all year, amid threats about underperforming reflected in invented numbers — nobody in their right mind would want that job. With luck, she will be making much more money next year — in a much kinder and supportive environment.

Tracking today’s time

MAP is over for now. I think I am going to count the minutes from my Student Learning Objective or “SLO” tests, though.

What is a Student Learning Objective (SLO)? SLOs are content-specific, learning objectives aligned to curricular standards. As part of the SLO process, today I was obliged to give all my classes tests which cover the material we are going to teach this quarter. Most of the material on these tests has not yet been taught. I reassured students repeatedly that today’s tests would not be part of their grades. I recommended they try to remember questions when possible, since the tests would be repeated as their final exams at the end of the quarter. I reiterated that I was not going to hold them responsible for not knowing vocabulary and concepts they had never seen before.

One major purpose of SLOs is to provide evidence of a teacher’s instructional success. If all teachers in a department give the same exam, teacher results can be compared at the end of the quarter. Comparisons are normally averages, the mean improvement of students in given classes. SLOs are losers for some subsets of teachers. Special education teachers, for example, have student groups who normally do not attain the same overall averages for improvement as their regular education counterparts. SLOs can also be losers for teachers who do not draw strong class groups from the regular population. Any teacher knows that some classes are academically stronger than other classes. Picking the right class or classes may be critical to the SLO process when not all classes are included in the data.

TIP to new teachers: Pick your strongest class! Don’t let anyone tell you that your lowest class “has the most room for improvement.” Your lowest class is your lowest class for a reason. If that class had regularly been pegging a full year’s academic progress or more overall, they would not be your lowest class. Your best bet to show improvement will come from those kids who have already surged to the front of the pack. Learning comes more easily to these kids. That’s why they are already outscoring their peers.

Eduhonesty: I’ve gone sideways here. I wanted to explain why the SLO minutes are being included in my count of standardized testing minutes. While today’s tests were not national tests, they represent a full day of testing in which I gave my students tests filled with information they had never seen before, tests that were not part of their grade. I am doing this so that the administration can make comparisons of progress at the end of the quarter.

Total minutes spent giving SLOs today: 225 minutes or 3.75 hours. The true time loss would be a bit more, since tests preclude making progress on other material. Students who finish do reinforcement work or help with class projects while we wait for slower students to get done. No new material was presented today. In fact, no lecture happened at all, although a fair amount of individual tutoring occurred here and there during testing.

Standardized testing and test prep time for the week so far: 9.92 hours

To add another component to my time management study here: Total meeting time for today ran 150 minutes, or 2 1/2 hours. Meeting time for the last two days (some of which I missed due to testing) ran 135 minutes. Total meeting time for the week so far then adds up to 4.75 hours.