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?

Main Idea: The Details are In the Bag

In my school, one of the big pushes this year is helping students analyze what they read to understand main idea and details. In reflecting upon my past as a student, I can’t say I remember ever receiving explicit instruction in determining main idea and details, and that being able to analyze them came about as a result of experience as I grew.

Be that as it may, for students so young (like mine) and with so many challenges (English language learners, disabilities, texts above grade level and certainly way above theirs’), explicit teaching is necessary. But the skill is challenging to master independently, and so, non-traditional approaches to teaching it are necessary.

This all came about from a brief in-house PD I attended this week. We were presented with a variety of tools to help students conceptualize main idea and details. Included, of course, were the usual graphic organizers. They help, but they’re too abstract to start with. So I was happy to see a couple of new and concrete ideas that I could use to help my students begin to tackle this crucial literacy skill.

By far, my favorite idea was one that necessitated a hands-on approach. It was visual and helpful and served as an engaging entry – and subsequent anchor – for our work on main idea and details.

The premise is simple and it makes sense. A large zip-seal bag represents the main idea. Inside the bag are items with something in common. For my students, I showed them a bag with a marker, a highlighter, a dry erase marker, a pencil, a colored pencil, a Smencil, and a pen. They realized these are all writing utensils. So, why were all of those items – a.k.a. details – included in that one bag – a.k.a. main idea? Because the details all tell us about the main idea.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

From this very concrete representation, with my charges on board, I began to segue into something still somewhat concrete, but requiring a bit more thought and effort. We read a chapter out of our book and I emphasized that all the details in the chapter would relate back to specific main ideas. After reading, I started them off by telling them the main idea of the whole section: “Roots grow underground and do many things.” From here, we were able to pick apart the details of each paragraph and arrive together at a consensus as to what the main idea they supported was. A small bag represented each paragraph’s main idea, and we placed each bag inside the big one to show that all the information we read related back to one overarching main idea.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs' main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs’ main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

We’ll continue doing things like this, exploring other ways to understand how details work together to support main ideas. The hope is that with enough varied exposure to the concept, students will internalize the skill. That’s the…idea.



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.


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?”


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.


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.


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.