Tag Archives: students

The Most Miserable Time of the Year


It’s a sad scene when kids who can’t read are forced to take standardized tests they have no reasonable chance of passing.

It’s even sadder when they know it.

Here’s one who has made considerable reading improvements thus far this year but still has no clue what he’s doing. (“I’m so confused,” he said.)

Here’s one on a kindergarten reading level who this year finally learned all her letter sounds. She goes through each word sounding out every s-i-n-g-l-e letter and considers it reading. When she gets to the questions, she says in her developing English, “I no know.”

This one’s crying. That one’s been staring at the same question for ten minutes. This one’s coloring in the picture that accompanies the passage. That one’s finished almost as quickly as I am done reading the directions.

“Pointless” is not even a word that begins to come close to describing the value these tests have to me and my students. News flash: they’re all going to fail. News flash again: force me to sit for three days taking a five hour test on physics and I’ll fail, too. I can tell you this without even looking at the test.

If you need an assessment of my students’ readiness for the next grade, you might consider asking me. After all, I can tell you all the things a test can’t, such as the types of scaffolds that have enabled them to make some strides this year. Or how much greater the comprehension is when text is read to them. Or what else they need to learn to continue to move forward. Or how they’re “accessing” the grade level standards but, given all their deficits, it’s virtually impossible without a lot of support and guidance. Or who has involved parents and who pretty much fends for themselves once they get home. Or who may be being hit, or who doesn’t eat breakfast, or who brings chips and calls them “lunch.”

I could tell you plenty about these kids, and plenty about the tests.

The sorry thing, though, is that no one’s asking.

A Tale of Two Classes


If yesterday was the least stressful day of the school year thus far, today was one of the most.

A blizzard Tuesday threw roads and transportation in New York into chaos. NYC schools remained open the next day. However, for whatever reasons they had, many students and staff were not at school. I was, and in my class, 7 out of 12 were present. Later, 6 first graders were brought to me because their class had to be split up in the absence of so many teachers. So, my room was filled with me and 13 kids with disabilities.

I decided that, since these little first graders didn’t know me, or anything about the room or the floor they were on, that I should buddy each one of my third graders with one of them. I created a kind of big brother/big sister dynamic so the first graders would walk in line, raise their hands, and do some work on this unique day. The results were fantastic. My third graders took to their buddies and made them their responsibilities.

I had some math work for the little ones to do – basic single digit addition for practice (on a color by numbers picture for fun). I instructed my third graders to sit with their buddy and help them if necessary. Here’s what I saw:

  • Third graders teaching different techniques for adding.
  • Third graders instinctively getting supplies for the first graders.
  • Third graders teaching first graders basic multiplication facts.
  • Everyone working efficiently.

How nice that my students finally had an opportunity to say, “I am better at something than someone. I can really help.” It gave them pride – a feeling they seldom get to feel because the work they’re required to do is often ridiculously beyond their abilities.

While yesterday was a smooth day – with relative quiet, lots of smiles, and organized chaos, today was anything but. Students returned after their day off in the snow, and things were just off from the start. It didn’t help that for two hours to start the day, they had to sit for a benchmark math assessment that frustrated them to no end. It didn’t matter how many times I told them they hadn’t learned how to do something. Those familiar feelings of inadequacy and disappointment ballooned quickly.

In fact, little true learning happened in my class today. We started with the benchmark math test. Then, we had a period for reading in which I worked with my lowest group (all on kindergarten levels). With all their bickering over a game and their frequent interruptions during the lesson, it felt like we hardly accomplished anything. In fact, I had to very sternly remind them why they were in this reading group in the first place. They saw I was angry, and they settled down and resumed working. From there, students had to finish writing the next scene from the difficult chapter book we just finished. (It sounds fun and creative, but is very difficult to do). Some of them had to finish after lunch, and between routines having been disrupted by missing school or medicine, as well as that crushing frustration of not feeling good enough, the day was very dark.

I was reminded as I drove home that failure in school – actually, the sinking feeling that one can’t be successful – begets behavior problems. It happened today. It will continue to happen as long as students like mine are held to standards that don’t support their needs, and in fact insult them. What a shame that the goodwill they had with the opportunity yesterday to feel important, big, and special with their first grade buddies dissipated over things that, in their lives and even this year, will mean pretty much nothing.

Come See Failure at it’s Finest!


An open invitation to politicians, education “experts,” testing lovers, and other assorted nincompoops.

~~~

WHO:

Come see LIVE, REAL-LIFE kids frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, disinterested, annoyed, and upset. If you’re lucky, you might see one cry! ALL TYPES OF CHILDREN with ALL TYPES OF DISABILITIES! Some can barely read! Some can barely speak English!

WHAT:

Taking tests: tests for baseline data, tests for post-data, tests for multi-billion dollar corporations to use as experiments, and more! Reading, writing, math, and more, MORE, MORE!!!

WHEN:

Any time they take a standardized test, be it formative, baseline, benchmark, summative, state, city, national, or otherwise. (Check your calendars – MANY days available for testing throughout the year!)

WHERE:

Special education and ESL classrooms around the country.

WHY:

Damned if I know.

~~~

RSVP to your political representatives, school administrators, and peers.

But Do They Get It?


So, in a sense, we’re getting it. But, in a sense, are we really?

The literacy program we use mandated our current read aloud, and it’s a descriptive, wordy doozy. On the guided reading leveling scale, the book is a level O. My students’ reading levels range from C through M. It’s clearly a book that is way beyond – WAY beyond – most of my students’ independent reading levels.

But, it’s mandated, and so there’s no discussion. The point is, I, and every other teacher in New York City required to teach by the Common Core standards – those one-size-fits-all pie in the sky edicts that don’t account for ELL status, disabilities, development, home experience, or reality – have to figure out a way for our students to “get” this work.

In the current literacy unit, we are focusing on how characters’ actions tell us what the characters are feeling. The book, as all teachers should know, is the conduit through which we teach the skill. But in a class like mine, where the background knowledge is so lacking, and the language barrier between their own vocabularies and the book’s so distinct, it’s absolutely impossible to not teach the book unless I want a group of bored out of their skull third graders on my hands.

So I do teach the book, and I work through it slowly with them, stopping to explain, clarify, and answer questions. There winds up being plenty of talking during our read alouds. And fortunately, all our conversation enables us to get to a discussion about what the characters are doing and what this tells us about them.

This is all very teacher-led. The kids offer opinions and, with their best efforts, speak about what the characters do. But without my leading questions, prompting, and coaching, they would have great difficulty connecting all the dots and coming up with an inference or main idea about the characters’ feelings. Our conversations are enjoyable, though, and together we are able to work on understanding that characters’ actions tell us how they character feels. In that sense, we get it.

But come the time when the students have to read these level O texts independently, say, I don’t know, on some horribly unfair standardized test, there is little chance they will be able to make their own assessments and connections. Does that make me a bad teacher? Our lessons are going well, and they’re enjoying them. They’re learning the skill. But to transfer it to independence in texts that are, as I said before, WAY beyond their abilities, well that’s a whole different ball of gooey, muddled wax.

Which makes me wonder: is there a point to any of this? If there hands are forever held, do they ever learn to do anything on their own? Which makes me wonder: is this kind of work what we should be doing in my class? What’s the value in it past a decent conversation? I’m not sure I know.

The How and Why of It


Here’s a rundown on my class this year.

  • Kindergarten through second grade reading levels despite being in third grade.
  • For many, minimal, if any, parental support at home.
  • Witnesses to domestic violence.
  • Transient living situations.
  • Crowded living conditions.
  • Habitual lateness or absence.
  • Lack of accountability outside the classroom.
  • Medical conditions, disabilities, medications, and lack of proficiency in the English language.
  • Poverty and poor nutrition.

Take into account everything else that holds influence over school and what we do in my class. I ask:

  • How can my students be expected to pass the upcoming tests?
  • How can they prioritize them?
  • How can they be held to a standard that belittles their truths and realities?
  • How can they be made to feel they’re less than? Worse than? Not as good as? Not as worthy as?

The unfortunate, simple answer to the question, “How can they?” is, “Well, they just can.”

And so, the next question becomes, “Why?”

To that question, I’m still waiting for an acceptable response.

Some Try, Some Fail, and All Suffer


Over the past, literally, four days, I administered an end of unit reading and writing assessment to my class of 12 students with disabilities (11 of whom receive English as a Second Language services).

This assessment featured: two passages that were both two pages long, a bunch of multiple choice questions after each (some with two parts, where the second part built upon the first), a written constructed response for each, and a written extended response that required using both passages. Is it any wonder it took us, literally, over 4 hours to finish?

The reading was dense (regardless of me reading each passage twice). The questions were wordy. The writing prompts were confusing. Without even looking at the finished products, I’d venture that most, and probably all, of my students showed no understanding of what is expected (not by me, mind you, but by the geniuses who come up with this arbitrary and overwhelming stuff).

They all told me it was too hard. Some of them asked me what they had to do. Many of them told me they didn’t know what to write. A lot of them copied straight from the passage (regardless of how many times I said, “Make sure you put it in your own words.”)

And three of them cried.

On day one, a boy refused to even take a guess at a multiple choice question. “I’m scared,” he said. “Just put anything, it doesn’t matter,” I told him, to no avail. His eyes reddened and welled with tears, and the tears dropped onto the floor as he looked down. His neighbor leaned over and said, “Come on, just circle A, B, C, or D.” Hoping to show him that everyone was in the same boat, I told him to watch as I surveyed the class: “Who thinks this is hard?” It didn’t matter to him that all hands went up. He was crippled by anxiety.

On day three, my student who is by far the most significantly behind in reading and writing, refused to write anything. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Regardless of how many times my para and I told her or encouraged her, she wouldn’t do anything but put her head on the desk. In the end, she cried as well.

Today, I wised up and had the students highlight what they needed to do. I read the prompt to them several times and directed them how to turn back to the passages. One girl repeatedly said, “I can’t,” and “I don’t know,” and, “I need help.” I explained to her it was like a writing test, so I couldn’t help. “But it’s hard!” “Yes, it is,” I agreed. Again, I polled the class to see who thought it was hard. All hands went up. Then I said, “Put your hand up if I’m helping you.” No hands went up. It didn’t impress her. She wrote nothing and will take a zero on that part of the assessment.

What did I learn about my students from this? Nothing I don’t already know. The notion that they are asked to do work that is totally inappropriate to their current abilities was clearly reinforced.

What did my students learn? Maybe what they’re going to find out eventually anyway, as long as our education system doesn’t adapt to valuing all abilities and the differences among our students: They’re worthless.

Why do we do this to them?

My Little Wordsmiths


This has probably been the most challenging start to a school year that I’ve had in my six-year career. Challenges are waiting on all sides: a new teacher evaluation system and its components, push-in and pull-out services in flux due to demands on the providing teachers’ time, failure by the city to provide supplies in a timely fashion, and for me, a class that doesn’t quite seem to be jelling behaviorally.

Despite it all, there is incremental academic progress. We can now round numbers to the nearest ten and hundred (at least with more consistency than there had been). We are better in our routines. And we are having discussions about books that are way way WAY above our reading levels (Common Core and the whole one-size-fits-all deal, amiright?)

The most exciting development in my class has, in actuality, come about due to those Common Core texts. As part of our new evaluation system, we were asked as to identify a couple of goals for ourselves. One of mine was to increase students’ vocabulary through reading “grade-level” and “rigorous” texts. So starting with our first book of the month selection, I began pre-teaching rich and wonderful vocabulary words, pinning them up in the room, using them in my speech, and encouraging my students to do the same, as well as in their writing.

I am definitely a word nerd. People often ask me what words mean and admonish me for, “always having to use SAT words.” So it is particularly splendid to hear and watch my little darlings expanding their vocabulary with some legit words.

Some of their favorites: superb, efficient, error, the idiom “dark day,” scribble, gasp, and overwhelmed. They are using them in unexpectedly accurate and creative ways. Some examples:

  • Upon showing me completed math work and me checking it, “Is it superb?” followed inevitably by, “Can you write superb?”
  • Upon noticing a mistake made my be, a peer, or themselves, calling out, “Oh, error!”
  • Upon me having to erase something I wrote because it was sloppy, “That’s scribble! Error!”
  • Upon noticing someone is upset or struggling, or just that the general mood in the room is not as chipper as we’d like, “This is a dark day.”
  • Upon searching for ways to describe the detectives in the book we’re reading, “They’re really efficient at solving problems.”
  • And just today, during the heat of a particularly aggravating series of moments during which all the math we’ve done for six weeks seemed to vanish into thin air and I pretty much lost it, “Mr. Ray, you’re overwhelmed.”
  • One more. As we lined up to leave today, it must have been obvious how exasperated I was. So one of my wittier boys said, “Mr. Ray, you look exhausted.” “I am,” I said. His reply? “And overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with anger.” How can I not smile? One of my colleagues heard it and cracked up.

It’s truly amazing to be a part of this. We’re talking about kids reading and writing 2 and 3 years behind grade-level. But they’ve added a repertoire of words to their vocabulary that they’re learning to use appropriately. It’s been slower to get them to use the words in their writing, but when I suggest it, they’re overwhelmed with excitement. They love it. One girl came up to me during reading today to show me that she found the word “gasped.” It was for her, like, The. Greatest. Thing. Ever. She even felt the need to shake my hand to congratulate herself.

Oh, and by the way, since everything now needs to be tested – because what better way to spend our time than with tests? – I am administering pre- and post-tests before and after we read the chapters from which these words are pulled. As I get the hang of teaching the words and making them commonplace, I am finding that most students know none of the words prior to me exposing them to the class, and that when I administer the post-test, most students know all or most of the new words.

A class of word nerds may be just what I need to keep myself afloat. That’d be superb.

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.

photo

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.