Category Archives: Year Five

A Question on Testing: What’s the Point?


My students – with their IEPS, modifications, accommodations, academic struggles, and all – just completed a three-day ELA test.

On day one, they did their best. On day two, they tried their hardest. And on day three, they slogged up the stairs, uninterested in and unmotivated by the prospect of facing this even one more time.

An hour and 45 minutes on day one. An hour and 45 minutes on day two. An hour and 45 minutes on day three. In all: five hours and 15 minutes across three days. Five hours and 15 minutes of silence, confusion, doubt, and frustration. Yes, they were willing to give it “The Ol’ College (and Career-Ready) Try,” but by day three, they had seen and had enough.

What will these tests show that we don’t already know? That they read significantly below grade level (by any standards, Common Core or otherwise)? That their writing ability doesn’t reflect their speaking ability or intelligence? What’s the point?

They were finished with day three by the end of day two. All they cared about this morning was that after today, this test would be done.

Do you think my students are the only ones who felt that way? Why do we subject them to so many hours? Shouldn’t, say, 20 multiple choice questions and two or three essays suffice? The kids are not interested or invested, so they’re not at their best.

Do these tests show the full scope of my students’ capabilities? Or the capabilities of others?

I think we all know the answer to those questions.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It…If You Make It At All


They’re silent. At least they got that much out of this. You can’t talk during a test, plain and simple. Even the slightest sniffle or throat clearing will be treated with suspicion.

Some of them are looking back to the passages – maybe they’ll pull it out. Sure, I know no one expects good grades on this year’s tests. But maybe, just maybe, these kids will pull off a shocker.

Or…maybe they know “What Good Test Taking Looks Like,” so they’re turning back, putting pencil to chin in a thinking pose, and underlining.

But I see in their faces that nothing here makes sense. The words are too long and too many. The questions are too boring and too many.

But they try. They’re too young to realize that, while the test is hard for many their age, it’s even harder for them.

What are they learning from this experience? You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

But with tests like these determining who’s smart and who’s stupid, how could they ever make it?

Come Together


The play each class in my school is required to present is draining. There always seems to be something else that needs to be done. Every year, we wonder how we’re going to pull it off, and every year we marvel that we did.

This year’s play was extra special. In my two previous years teaching self-contained special ed, I sought out colleagues in the same position. My reasons were these: 1) two or three small classes combine to make a stageful of kids, so that’s good, and 2) birds of a feather have a propensity for flocking together.

When the play wrapped last year, I found myself thinking it was time for my birds to fly a little higher. So I reached out to my co-teaching colleagues across the hall and asked if they might consider our classes working together on the play this year. To my delight, they said yes.

Why did I seek them out? I like the idea of inclusion in a classroom, but even better is the idea of inclusion in a school. I thought it would be a rewarding experience for everyone involved if my kids had the chance to work with students with disabilities in a less restrictive environment as well as their general ed peers. Turns out I was right.

This play featured 42 students, three teachers, and two paraprofessionals. It was an amazing collaborative effort for me and my students. Here are some of my major takeaways:

  • Originally, I asked my class who wanted to speak in the play and who didn’t. I thought back to my days in elementary school, when the shyest kids appeared on stage but didn’t speak or acted as grips, stagehands, and gophers. I wasn’t planning to push the point with the kids who didn’t want to speak, but my partners persuaded me to look at it differently. As I wrote the play, they said they wanted all of their kids to have at least one line – one chance to shine – and I realized I should want the same, even if it meant a push outside a student’s comfort zone. Rewriting the script to include everyone became a challenge I enjoyed. It meant changing the story, adding characters, and finding group speaking parts for the kids who really would have been mortified to have all eyes on them even if for only one word. The end result: everyone had a chance on the microphone and everyone was an important contributor to the play.
  • This play brought out the best in kids who rarely have the chance to shine. It turns out that one of my students has been in my plays for three consecutive years now. I experienced great joy watching him grow from someone who, in first grade, just stood on stage and, in second, was removed from the play because he refused to practice and threw a punch when his space was violated. His growth? In third grade, not only did he practice with us every time, he danced, sang, smiled, and said his line with clarity and confidence.
  • He wasn’t the biggest story. That distinction goes a boy who has been my major project for the year. Picture a boy screaming, crying, saying things that don’t make sense, rolling on the floor, hopping, and showing no inclination toward socialization or schoolwork. Picture a boy crying on stage during rehearsals because the music was too loud, the prospect too scary. No way he would ever sit for the play or participate for it, right? Now picture him smiling, dancing, singing his face off, and posing for pictures with his mom, friend, and class after the play ended. During the course of rehearsals, as my colleagues and I determined the stage was a bit overwhelming for him, we asked him if he could sit there and then come off stage to dance. Boy did he ever. He had a starring role as a dancer and showed more confidence than I can remember seeing from him all year. The untrained eye wouldn’t know he was “special”.

That brings me to my final point. My parents attended the play. My dad has time to do such things now that he’s retired from his dedicated service to the city. My mom is a retired District 75 principal (the severest disabilities). They both said you couldn’t tell the students without disabilities from the students with disabilities.

And that’s why I did this. It was an opportunity for my kids to be seen as kids and kids alone – never mind their low reading levels and other issues. To their credit, they had the administration smiling, the audience laughing, and their teachers beaming.

Kids are kids, no matter the label. Today my students made that point loud and clear.

What Testing Does to This Teacher


I’ve written previously on the damage I see done to my students when they’re faced with a test on which there’s no way they can possibly do well. With all the hyperbole leading up to the standardized tests they take, and because they are virtually impossible to pass if you have a disability, my students are often left to feel worthless, regardless of what strides they made heading into the tests.

We’re into it now. Around this time, benchmark assessments and practice tests are du rigueur in my third graders’ worlds. And so for me, the cycle begins anew, just as it has since I started teaching special education: Kids make significant progress on their levels and terms -> kids forced to take tests way above their levels and terms -> kids realize there’s something wrong and made to feel worthless -> kids frustrated, disengaged, unmotivated, and upset.

GOOD TIMES!

Recently, I’ve sat and watched with my downcast head in my open palm as my poor 8-year olds have been made to sit in their chairs for unnatural lengths of time, like tiny little soldiers whose feet don’t touch the floor, thinking they have a clue about how to answer the questions in front of them, but demonstrating by their blank stares and nonsensical responses that they are lost. Can’t blame them.

Every group of students is different. These third graders are not nearly as talented or interested in math as last year’s class. They also have the added “bonus,” lucky little winners they are, of taking Common Core-aligned tests. Read: lots of multi-step, multi-operation questions, each one seemingly designed, with a little more vitriol than the previous, to invalidate English language learners and students with disabilities.

Bless their stubby pencils and little hearts, they try. They show work (whether it’s appropriate to the task is another story). They wait patiently for their friends to finish so I can read the next problem. They smile when they think they got it right.

And, in their stunted spelling (learning disabilities, you know), they answer a short response question by saying, “I dink dis test is to haid.”

What’s this do to me? It makes me sad. Makes me angry. Makes me mad. Makes me question myself. Makes me worry about unrealistic expectations. Makes me pity the kids.

One colleague had the best advice about how to deal with this: “Don’t look.”

When we’re all jumping off a cliff together, that’s pretty solid advice.

fiscal-cliff-looking-peering-over-the-cliff-stock-market-technical-analysis-option-trading-etf-education

 

I’m Finished with “I’m Finished”


My intriguing mix of students this year includes a bunch of boys who feel it absolutely necessary to complete a task and then announce it to the class.

As such, throughout the first few months, nearly every task – from the mundane act of taking out a book to the serious work of completing a math test – has been punctuated by these boys with a loud, “I’m finished!*”

*Or, “I did it!” or “I’m done!”

To be frank, it’s annoying. I told them (maybe not in the most sensitive or kindhearted way) that it really wasn’t necessary to say “I’m finished!” every time they were finished. In fact, I eventually told them, “I don’t want to hear you say ‘I’m finished!’ anymore!!*” Yeah, it definitely got my goat.

**I said this while standing on a chair. I wasn’t sure how to make it any clearer.

The night of the day during which I climbed upon a chair to announce in my own way that was finished with “I’m finished!,” I contacted my para. I told her this nonsense needed to stop. It was bothering me and in turn making me angry at the kids.

Of course, I knew they were doing it because they were excited to accomplish something properly and they wanted validation. But they weren’t understanding that calling out, “I’m finished!” all day long was not the way to go about things.

With this in mind, I asked my para to talk to each of the offenders and figure out some kind of secret signal among them. When they gave her the signal, it would be like saying, “I’m finished!” only it would be quiet and not interfere with the other students*.

***Or with dear old teacher’s sanity.

The next day, unbeknownst to me (wink, wink), my para did have a conversation with the boys. She told them she thought them calling out like that was bothering me, so that maybe they should just tell her when they’re finished. But instead of saying it, they should just make a checkmark in the air. (She told me the plan privately and said the kids were pumped about it. So was I).

As the day went on, I noticed a quieter room when tasks were completed. I pretended not to notice the “air checks,” but all the same I did remark, “Wow, I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘I’m finished!’ today. That’s great.”

It went on like that all day, until finally, one boy couldn’t stand it any longer. He had to tell me that it was a secret they had with their para that they were keeping from me, but that they all agreed on a signal to use instead of saying, “I’m finished!”

I feigned amazement. “You mean you’ve been keeping a secret from me all day?” They had, they said. “Hmm,” I said. “Wellllll, it is working, and it seems like you’re still saying you’re finished even if you’re not saying the words, so I think maybe you should keep doing it.” And so they did.

Last week, my quietest girl raised her hand to tell me something. When I went over to her, she said, “I’m finished.” And wouldn’t you know it, the formerly loudest boy, the leader of the “I’m finished!” movement, said, “No! You’re not supposed to say, ‘I’m finished!'”

When kids say it now though, it’s okay because it isn’t incessant. It’s only for the major tasks – like publishing a writing piece or indicating their ready for me to collect their tests. The verbal, “I’m finished!” has stopped, and so has the silent one.

Finally, we’re finished with “I’m finished!”

 

Welcome to Your New Class


Teaching 12:1:1 special ed means having to be flexible with who is in one’s classroom. Aside from a steady stream of pull-out and push-in services, there is frequent movement across rosters for a variety of reasons. Just this year, I have moved one student into an inclusion class full-time, had another start attending math lessons in inclusion, had one switched out and switched back in, and had another one moved to another 12:1:1 with a different make up of students.

As often as kids seem to be going out of my class, it usually seems more are coming in. Last year, two came in. The year before, one came in. And today, for the first time all year, one came in.

Luckily, the transition was made simpler by the fact that this girl had spent a few days in my class for math already. She reported back to her other teacher that she felt comfortable and able to learn in my class, so she was certainly eager to join full time. When she arrived with her desk midway through the morning, I was just a touch surprised that a change was already happening, but we made space quickly and welcomed our new student.

Of course, she is learning our routines on the fly, which is difficult for her. I’ve got kids and support in the classroom who can help her with that, and in time she’ll pick everything up to the point that our procedures will be second nature.

It worked out that, at the end of the day, we had about 15 minutes left. I took the opportunity to do something fun with the class. Typically, it’s a great first day of school activity, but it makes sense to do it anytime a new student joins.

The premise: everyone sits around a large piece of paper, with their names in front of them, holding a marker. You go around the circle and each person says something about themselves, such as, “My favorite thing about school is lunch.” Everyone who agrees with the statement draws a line from their name to the speaker’s. In the end, you wind up with a web showing the ways everyone in the room is connected.

It’s always fun to listen to students react as the suspense is lifted as to what everyone will say. When one student said, “I like puppies,” a collective “Aww” arose and markers drew lines without haste. When my para said, “I love to read books,” an exciting “Ooooh!” rose from the collective voices and kids jockeyed for position to get their lines drawn.

And when I, speaking last and seated next to the new student, said, “I am so thrilled our new student is in our class!” everyone said, “OOOOOOH!” and drew their lines with wide smiles.

And who was the last to draw her line? Our new student, feeling like she belongs, even after only one day.

I Shaved My Head. What Do You Think?


A couple of weeks ago, I finally did something I had toyed with for a few years. I went to the barber and had him give me a buzz cut all the way down to a 1. That’s pretty short. It’s 1/8 of an inch. It was a scary and exciting experience sitting in that chair, but once the deed was done, I knew it was the right call. Even the previously hesitant barber had to admit my new look wasn’t all that bad.

One of the worrisome parts of lopping off your hair is wondering what kinds of reactions it will bring. Well, it turned out, family, friends, and colleagues all had nothing but love for the buzz. But what about my students?

When I saw them the first day with the buzz, the boy closest to me let his jaw drop to the floor, stood up, and pointed to my crown and said, “I LIKE THAT!” You little bucket filler, you. Throughout the day, kids smiled widely as they seemed to be saying and thinking, “I can’t believe he did that…Wow!” It was kind of fun to watch the reactions of students current and former.

Just when everyone had gotten used to the new look, I decided it was finally time to go all the way. So the day after Thanksgiving, I got out the shaving cream and razor, lathered up, and shaved it all off. I looked back in the mirror at my chrome dome and said, once more, “Yes, this was the right move.”

Again, I had to anticipate reactions. It turned out most people were far less shocked by the shave than they were the buzz. But it was the students who, by far, said the most interesting things.

When I picked up my students in the auditorium yesterday, I sat behind them quietly so they could have the surprise of my shiny head.

One spotted me and did a double-take. His eyes grew wide as he looked from my eyes to my head and back. He was flummoxed. He must have been wondering, “Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing?” Finally, when he could summon the words, he said, “What…what did you do?” Not exactly a resounding affirmation of my smoothness, but the reaction is worth remembering.

I had a lot of, “Ohhhhhh!” when former students saw me. Others had nothing to say but showed their surprise in their not-so-discreet faces.

One student today, kind of out of the blue, as if he was first noticing a change on my skull, said, “Why did your hair stop growing?” Haha.

And then of course, there was my other student who, in the middle of a reading assessment, had to stop just so he could ask, “What happened to your hair?” I said, “What do you mean, ‘what happened?’ I shaved it off!” He thought about it for just a moment, and before I knew it, his hand was giving my head a pat just to see what it was like.

But, I think the best line came from one of last year’s students – the boy with the paper clips – who spotted me in the lunchroom today. Last week, when he saw the buzz cut, he said, “IS THAT YOU, MR. RAY? WOW.” This time, though, he was a bit more shocked although no less determined to ask me about the look.  I had to laugh when he questioned me, saying, “Hey! Mr. Ray! You got…YOU GOT NO HAIR?!?”

Ah, kids.

A Fresh Start for Our Routines


In the days leading up to the Thanksgiving break, I noticed my students were falling off in following the routines of the classroom. Ours is a tiny room so it’s important that certain procedures are followed so no one gets hurt. Their refusal – or is it forgetfulness – caused me quite a bit of angst.

Students have been sliding across the floor on their knees to get to the meeting area. They are lining up willy-nilly. When packing, they traverse the room haphazardly, making multiple trips to the corner behind the door to retrieve items. There is too much chaos and too much potential for harm.

No doubt, much of the blame lies with me. Either we didn’t practice enough or I let things get out of hand before realizing we had to step back and start over.

So today when we return to school, I’m going to start reviewing our classroom routines and have the kids practice them. I’ll present it in a positive way so they’re excited to practice. It will be a good refresher for us all.

It’s a point I’ve made before thanks to the ideas of others: routines need to be practiced at the beginning of the school year and throughout.

What we lose in instructional time due to practicing routines will likely be made up in the future with less time being wasted by students meandering about.

It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m Thankful For…


The education edition of the traditional, “I’m Thankful For…” game:

I’m thankful for…

…having a job.

…having a class of sweet kids even though there are only 10 of them and it sometimes feels like there are 30.

…having an awesome para who “gets it” and is totally committed to the job.

…having great people around me who are both good friends and good colleagues. They share resources, ideas, and laughs.

…being part of a staff that raised over $3,000 in a week to support staff members in need following Hurricane Sandy.

…those precious early morning minutes before anyone else arrives, when I’m the only one on my floor, when all is quiet and still and I can be as productive as I planned to be.

…the steady stream of “Good mornings” that begins soon thereafter.

…the group of students from last year who make it a point to stop by my room most every morning even though their classroom is two floors up and they really have no reason to be on my floor.

…the fact that when I walk into their classrooms (or the classrooms of other former students), everyone screams my name, work pretty much stops, and their teachers only smile, never complain.

…the fact that I have this wonderful Thanksgiving holiday break to spend with family and friends, doing what I feel like doing, enjoying the season.

…the fact that you read my blog and support me through it. Thanks to all of you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Sandy Closes Schools, Sandy Opens Schools


Most teacher folk I know are outraged that, as a result of the five days NYC schools were closed due to Hurricane Sandy and the need to meet a minimum number of attendance days (per New York State law), three days (plus a half-day) that would have previously been non-attendance days have been switched. In other words: kids will be in for four days they normally wouldn’t have.

I can definitely see both sides of the issue here, but I want to go over some of the many factors that exist.

Before I do, though, I must give credit to Arthur Goldstein, who wrote this excellent letter to UFT President Michael Mulgrew. I draw plenty of inspiration from his words as I share my thoughts on the situation.

Some arguments and some points:

This isn’t fair. That’s what some said to me when they found out. In a sense, it’s perfectly fair. During the week of the Sandy closures, I sat in my warm apartment watching the news, thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t affected. Sure, it was a tense week, as I was out of contact with many people who I knew were in trouble, but materially, physically, and emotionally, I lost nothing. For me, it was really a “week off,” though like I said, hardly a vacation. In this spirit, it’s no skin off my back to go to to work on those days.

The other side of this, though, is all those NYC DOE employees who were affected by Sandy. I’d be interested to know just how many total employees live in the Rockaways, lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Beach, or on the south shore of Long Island, all areas that were badly hit. Unlike me, these people didn’t have the luxury of relaxing inside as the storm and its aftereffects raged. No, they spent their week doing all different kinds of things: witnessing their homes burn down; being caught in neck-deep flood waters; shivering in homes without gas, electric, or heat; sleeping in shelters; watching sewage come up through their sinks; and much, much worse.

For them, Sandy week was not a week off. It was a week from hell. Many of my colleagues who felt the worst effects still managed to make it to work everyday, even though they were displaced from their homes. They shouldn’t have to work the extra days. They never got the time off I did.

So, what are you doing this February break? In my youth, the mid-winter recess meant we were going to Florida for our annual visit to the grandparents’ house and all the fun that entailed. Many students look forward to the break as I did because it means a trip somewhere. Now, despite the Mayor believing that many parents rely on schools to keep their kids under watch, don’t think for a second that if families already have vacation plans, they won’t be keeping them. I actually think we’ll see a large dip in attendance February 20-22: days that were previously part of the break but are now attendance days.

But I have all this paper work to do. June 4 was to be a clerical half-day, so that our morning could be spent teaching and our afternoon be spent completing report cards and cumulative records in preparation for the end of the year, which also brings with it reorganization of classes and record exchange. The time allotted for this work is precious. In my school, we basically all sit in our rooms in silence and get it done. And it’s wonderful.

This June 4, kids will be with us all day, meaning one less 3.5 hour block to do extremely important work against a deadline. My only guess is that on Brooklyn-Queens Day, which is a non-attendance day for students, we will be given time to complete records, only under more pressure because it’s later in the week.

Like I said, I see all sides of this issue. In a perfect world, my dear colleagues in school and out who suffered the worst – people who lost homes or are continuing to gut and rebuild – would not be required to work these three-plus extra days because they never had a day off anyway. But where do you draw the line? How do you determine who fits the criteria?

I don’t believe kids should be kept out of school, but I also don’t believe this is as cut and dry as the law says. This storm is unprecedented in our history, so exceptions and nuance must apply.

I have no simple solution, only these thoughts. What real ideas and solutions do you propose?