A Story about a Parent


Teaching can be a pretty thankless profession lots of times. It often feels like a job where you’re just a cog in a poorly functioning bureaucracy. We get fits of inspiration and gratitude from our students, passing – if any – encouragement from our beleaguered administrations, and an exhausting evening spent doing who knows what for tomorrow and the future.

In my career, the parents of my students have run the gamut. For every family with five daughters in college, there’s the family headed by a single alcoholic father who is unable to cope with his life’s tragedies. For every mother who sends the periodic note of gratitude, there’s the mother who picks up their child in the afternoon without even a glance at me.

I don’t doubt whether these parents all love and care about their children, of course. Nor am I in a position to cast judgement on them and their circumstances. It is simply the way things are.

This year, I have thought about one of my girls with whom I feel I haven’t made much of a connection. She’s not a troublemaker, nor does she distinguish herself with an insatiable desire to please. She doesn’t violate class procedures and routines, nor does she follow them with much consistency. She’s neither defiant nor does she appear at all driven.

She is, in truth, a talented artist. She loves all mediums of art. And while she doesn’t talk or write much or initiate conversation or focus for any significant length of time, there is a human being in there. So when she finds something to be too hard, she bangs the desk and groans. She becomes upset. She starts to give up.

Only in my class, giving up is not an option. We all signed a contract to that effect. Everyone needs to do their best and always try. It’s non-negotiable. So when she’s stressing an assignment too difficult for her, I tell her, “Come on, you have to try. Don’t give up. Do your best.” Past her giving it another attempt, there isn’t much acknowledgement toward me.

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And so, back to parents. It turns out this particular girl’s mother found her way into my classroom this morning when the students were out.

“Are you Mr. Ray?”

“Yes.”

She told me whose mother she is. She asked how her daughter is doing.

“Well, she’s really sweet and respectful. She’s a really nice girl. But she is having a lot of trouble focusing.”

The look says, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

But then, the gratitude.

“Mr. Ray, last year, she came home every day and cried. She hated school. She didn’t want to come to school.”

My face says, “How horrible. That’s so sad.” Mom continues.

“But this year, she comes home happy. She says she likes school.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, I’m so glad.”

“And she says, ‘Mommy, I know I have some problems, but I’m going to try. I can do it.”

And I’m left speechless and touched. I thank mom so much for letting me know that. I feel less like a cog and more like the engine. Back at it tomorrow to figure out how to reach this special young lady.

Reality Check


Well, the time has finally come. It’s “see you in September” time. While the kiddies still have one more week of summertime bliss before they strap on their backpacks and skip along to school, we New York City teachers have our alarms set for earlier than we want. My lunch is packed, and when I’m done with this post, I’ll pack my bag, too. Goodbye, summer. Hello, reality.

I admit, I am having great difficulty approaching year six of my career with the usual renegade optimism I’ve always summoned in the past. On the plus side of things, I’m happy to remain in the same room I’ve been for the last two years. I am also tenured now, which could work in my favor. And, I’m predominantly a third grade teacher for the third straight year, so I’m able to continue to hone my skills in teaching that grade’s content.

There are flip sides to all of this, too. I’m glad to be in the same room again, but with precious few hours for me to be in the room to set up before the kids arrive, there is plenty yet to be done. I’m glad to be tenured, but the city’s new evaluation system may make that distinction moot; in the spring, no one had an answer what kind of protections tenure afforded teachers moving forward, and I’m yet to hear anything this year, either. And, while 11 of my students this year are third graders, one is not. How does he get the education he needs and deserves?

Yes, it is difficult for me to find the positives right now. Uncertainty sits like a dark cloud over the back to school proceedings. Perhaps clarity will begin to reveal itself at our meetings tomorrow, but right now, it’s a morass of concern.

All I can say with certainty is that in one week, 12 little darlings are going to arrive in the schoolyard, casting their eyes toward me, excited to be back, scared to be back, indifferent about being back. And it’s on me to harness that excitement, assuage those fears, and overturn that apathy.

Major challenges await. It’s impossible to know the form they’ll take. But, there’s a trend evident in each of my first five years: by the end of the year, magically, everything has fallen into place. It always seems impossible that that will happen. This year is no exception: it seems impossible now, but it will be reality by June.

 

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk: A Poem about the Metric System


If you teach the metric system, there’s a mnemonic device to help your students remember the prefixes from milli up to kilo.

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk is used to remember the order from largest to smallest: Kilo, Hecto, Deka, Deci, Centi, Milli.

And so did King Henry.

And so did King Henry.

Long ago in my student teaching days (I had a lot more time on my hands), I wrote this poem to introduce the mnemonic. Feel free to use it with your students.

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk by Matthew S. Ray

One upon a time, in the country of Metricland,

There lived a king named Henry, and one thing he couldn’t stand

Was regular white milk – whole, low fat, or skim.

Only chocolate milk ever appealed to him.

 

He’d call on his servants, “Bring me my milk!”

“And don’t get it on my robe made of silk!”

“And make sure it’s chocolate, not white, and not red!”

“If it’s not chocolate, then OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!”

 

So every day he’d wake up with a glass of the chocolate treat

Sitting on his nightstand with a plate of cookies to eat.

He’d gobble them down, then swallow the drink,

Then get up and walk down to the bathroom sink.

 

When he turned on the faucet, instead of water there would be

Chocolate milk a-flowing from a chocolate milky sea.

After brushing his teeth, he’d start on his path,

To his chocolate bath tub for his chocolate milk bath.

 

While bathing in chocolate, Henry would sit with a straw

Drinking up the bath milk and the filth that he saw.

He drank up the whole bath: soap, milk, and all.

And one day was his last bath, it was King Henry’s fall.

 

The queen came in that day and no, she couldn’t stand.

Lying dead in the bath tub was the king of Metricland.

Never again would he wear his robe made of silk:

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk.

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King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Thoughts from the Beach


It’s easy to sit on the beach and tell myself it isn’t time to start thinking about the upcoming school year. But watching the waves crash, one’s mind covers many topics. On this particular day, mine has me looking toward September and yet another year brimming with challenge and opportunity.

Perhaps the headline story for those of us who work in New York City is our new Danielson-based teacher evaluation system. It replaces what many observers felt was an arbitrary system that left too much out of the equation and evaluated us solely as satisfactory or unsatisfactory in the classroom. Under the new system, teachers will be evaluated on 22 domains. In addition to instructional practice, there is impact on student learning, professional contributions, and so on.

We mostly agree that this type of system presents a fuller picture of us as professionals. Everyone will be able to present artifacts to support their cases for effective or highly effective ratings. Those who receive ineffective or developing ratings will receive support, but if improvements aren’t made, termination becomes a very real possibility.

In practice, this all seems fair, and it all makes sense. The problem is that everyone is learning on the fly because the process of enacting the system is, as Diane Ravitch often says, akin to building airplanes in the sky. I attended professional development in my school and with the district superintendent. There were a lot of questions but very few answers. This is unsettling.

I have said, though, to people who are worried, that anyone doing their job has little reason to fear the change. If the system plays out as it should, we will be receiving prompt, specific feedback after observations. Anyone who is already reflective will see the benefit of this. Anyone who doesn’t will resist and create difficulties for themselves.

Practically speaking, in a school my size, implementation is going to be a major challenge. For now, though, I’m optimistic.

The next challenge is the one that always faces me: the students. I’ve written on this blog before – and people who know me know this is true – that I always give my incoming students the benefit of a clean slate when they first enter my class.

The same applies for this year’s group, even though some of what I witnessed last year from them behaviorally and academically is a bit worrisome. Don’t get me wrong. I can handle behaviors, but the expectations are so high – Common Core and whatnot – that based on what I know about these kids academically, I am in for an exceptionally trying – but I hope, ultimately rewarding – year.

Everyone will progress, and regardless of what drum-beating non-educators think of that, that has to be our goal. I always aim for the standardized tests to be a footnote to the year, but so much has changed now that I may have to, as well. All that means is being extra creative about giving them some kind of confidence that they can accomplish what is basically impossible. Just like I can’t be expected to outrun an Olympic sprinter, kids on kindergarten reading levels with disabilities can’t be expected to ace tests that are, to begin with, above their grade level.

And now I’m ranting. So it’s probably best for me to finish this post and go back to looking at the ocean. Enjoy the summer while it lasts, friends.

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Nice to Meet You (Face-to-Face)


I had a great thrill this week. I finally got to meet face-to-face one of my favorite people in the online educational community, Pernille Ripp.

Pernille has been a friend and collaborator for two or three years. I don’t remember how we found each other on Twitter, but I remember bonding with her when Wisconsin was devolving into a union-workers’ hellhole. Pernille was down at the Capitol frequently, voicing her opinions and fighting for what she believes in.

That’s how she rolls, and I’ve always admired that about her. She is outspoken, upfront, and committed to her values. We’ve Skyped, e-mailed, and talked on the phone, but it’s a different element in person. Our conversation over dinner was passionate and interesting. Being able to sit with Pernille for a few hours was a wonderful experience.

In the past, Pernille and I had some brief hypothetical conversations about someday working together, maybe opening a school. Let me tell you, our students and colleagues need more people like her. So, Pernille, if that offer still stands, you know where to find me.

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Be True to Yourself


Some people are subject to the whims of the winds. They change positions like their underwear. They say one thing when they mean the other. They say they’ll do this and then they do that. They tell you what you want to hear while thinking what they know is what they should be saying. They seem to be more concerned with being popular than being right.

In a school, it can be hard to be principled and grounded, but it’s necessary. When we’re talking about children’s lives, the popular and easy opinion very often does not result in the best situation for them. So it becomes imperative to stick to one’s beliefs and stand one’s ground, regardless of who presents opposition.

Conversations with colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates should always be framed around what’s right, just, and sensical. When we compromise our values, so many stakeholders stand to lose so much.

We have to be able to remember what’s important. It’s not being popular or having an easy path to take. It’s about standing by your beliefs when you know, no matter what others say, that the less popular road less traveled is the one that makes all the difference.

It’s Okay to Be Disgusted


There’s news out of Florida on the testing front. If you haven’t yet heard or read about it, I feel obligated to warn you: it’s grotesque.

It’ll probably turn your stomach a little. It has the potential to raise your blood pressure a few ticks. It might bring a scowl to your face.

But don’t worry. It’s okay to be disgusted.

There’s a boy named Michael. He’s nine, and in Florida, that means the special time in his life has finally come when he takes Florida’s standardized test. Sounds like another anti-testing sob story, and you’re not disgusted yet? Keep reading.

Michael is your typical kid in so many ways, except for the following: he’s blind and he’s mute.

Now, I’m not by any means saying someone who can’t see or speak is incapable of deep thought, comprehension, or success. Obviously we know that isn’t true. Nor am I saying Michael himself, in his unique situation, is totally helpless or hopeless.

But here’s the thing about Michael. In addition to being blind and mute, he has a very limited mental capacity. Michael’s brain is literally incomplete. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

Let that soak in for a minute. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

But just because he’s at that special age where tests are the only way to show any kind of competency, Michael had to take the test.

No vision, no speech, no complete brain. Yet still, bless his heart, a test taker.

Now’s the time to be disgusted.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Michael didn’t do too well on this test. Am I holding him to low expectations? Am I saying he can’t do certain things? Am I saying he won’t ever be college and career ready? Uh, yep, I am.

Michael has lived and will live his life on drastically different terms than most. I’m not a doctor (just a know-nothing teacher), but, barring incredible medical advancements, I imagine he’ll never bathe himself, dress himself, feed himself, write his name independently, or articulate an opinion. I’d also have to guess he could never comprehend the testing instructions or a reason for it. His life will probably never be comparable to his peers, except for the fact that he is held to the same academic standards as everyone his age.

It’s okay to be disgusted.

But it’s those who let this happen who should feel the most disgusted. For they are the most disgusting.

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.