Tag Archives: elementary school

My Vision of an Ideal School

I recently completed an assignment in which I detailed my vision of an ideal school. If you ever had the opportunity to visit, this is what it would be like.

Click to enlarge and see what my ideal school is all about!

You will find our idyllic school situated among lush, green hills. Behind the gates of our campus, you will enter a unique space established with children, learning, and social and environmental consciousness at the core of everything we do.

At the gate, you will provide your information to the security guard and have your picture taken. After you park your car in the lot (located adjacent to the solar panels that power our school), you will follow a path that leads you to and through our garden. I hope you have time to meander because there are so many delightful sights to behold. On the path, your eyes will be drawn to the stepping stones vividly painted by our students under the tutelage of a local artist. Take time to enjoy them, but also revel in the natural beauty of our award-winning garden. Give our students the credit: when our school first opened, students in our gardening club designed the garden, selected plants and flowers and planted them themselves. They also learned about the engineering and landscaping required to build a garden. Today, students, staff, and parent volunteers continuously maintain the garden. If you time your arrival right, you will see our food services staff collecting ingredients from the garden in order to prepare lunch. Or, you might see students adding scraps to the compost pile. The garden is watered with waste water from our building.

Proceeding through the main entrance of our modern school, you will be inspired by the beauty of our lobby. Not only does it serve as a bright shining beacon in a physical sense, but it showcases to all visitors how amazing our students are. The endless natural light that floods the space through our floor to ceiling windows will awe you. You will be drawn to the mural that spans the entire length of the wall opposite the windows, a product of a partnership between various local artists, our art teachers, and our students. It depicts scenes that highlight our core STARFISH values (see A Focus on What is Learned). You will be fascinated by the student artwork that greets you: sculptures, paintings, and photographs are all there for everyone’s enjoyment and enrichment.

Passing through the halls of this vibrant, engaged community of elementary-aged learners and leaders, it will be obvious to you that there is a fervent love of student-driven learning cultivated in our school.

Our Classrooms

To understand how our students thrive, you must first understand the physical arrangement of our classrooms. What may look like a mishmash is actually designed with students’ personal preferences – and right to choose how they want to learn – in mind. There are single student desks, tables to accommodate multiple students, couches, beanbag chairs, floor space, office chairs, and exercise balls. Rather than seeing traditional completed student work on the walls, you will see work in progress on the walls. Whiteboards cover our wall space and students use them during discussions to collaborate and record ideas. Their to do lists, sketches, and thoughts are as inspirational and stimulating a classroom display as you will ever see.

Our first floor houses all classrooms, the main office, and the cafeteria. Our second floor features our science lab, art studio, auditorium, and gymnasium.

Our Students

Students in every classroom collaborate extensively on micro and macro levels. Within their own classes, they work together on math problems, literary and art analysis, composing music, group presentations, and more. Students work in ways they find comfortable: at desks, standing, lying on the floor, sitting on a couch, using paper and pencil, or on iPads, laptops, and cell phones. As long as students are working productively and not interfering with their peers’ educations, we encourage their comfort in place of outdated ideas of how students “should” work. Our classes are inclusionary. Students with disabilities are students first and foremost. We believe every child has the right to work, play, and be with other children, and here, they are.

Classes on each grade collaborate on multidisciplinary projects such as designing gardens and playgrounds; addressing social issues in the school and communities (local/regional/national/global); highlighted by monthly charity drives; and advancing school-wide awareness of environmental issues. As students prepare to thrive in a global community that is increasingly more closely knit, students in the same grade use safely established, staff-monitored school social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) to communicate and collaborate. Our one-to-one iPad-to-student ratio makes this possible, and the collaborative process extends outside of the school’s walls because students interact outside of school hours. In school, students sit on committees and report the ideas and concerns of their class to the representatives of other classes. These meetings form the basis of how students proceed in their collaborations.

Students take a great deal of responsibility for assessment of themselves and their peers. Our teachers expertly guide students to identify positives in procedure, thought process, and outcomes and to also critically consider weaknesses and how they can be improved. Student-generated rubrics and checklists, always designed collectively by each class and based on state standards, guide these processes.

A Focus on What is Learned, not What is Taught

Rather than through tests, we seek evidence of learning in the actual work students do on an ongoing basis: their projects, presentations, journal entries, conversations, etc. Teachers and students adapt accordingly based on that most critical feedback. However, at the end of every unit in math, reading, writing, science, social studies, and foreign language, students do take “traditional” tests. Importantly, though, their grades are not used in a strictly summative sense. Rather than use these tests as a conclusion to a unit and an opportunity to say a student either “got it” or did not, we use them to guide our next steps. So, students who demonstrate difficulty with concepts are invited to attend early morning programs that focus on their misunderstandings or troublesome concepts. All of our teachers work with groups of four to six students. For morning groups, students are assigned to a teacher based on the teacher’s personal specialty. Groups are flexible from unit to unit. Our goal is not to have students do well on tests. It is, instead, for them to master content. The timeframe in which this is accomplished is of secondary importance.

At this school, our closely vetted, highly qualified teachers act more as guides toward learning than just imparters of knowledge. Teachers are expected to help students learn, and so you will never hear the excuse, “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.” Teachers respond to the needs of their students as they arise and adapt their approach to the curriculum appropriately. This structure reflects our greater overall commitment to safeguarding the emotions and esteem of our students because we aim to make sure every student has the fullest opportunities to do their best. We value cultivating strong relationships that lead to confidence and risk taking.

To that end, we promote an idea called, “Awards for All.” We don’t reward high grades because inevitably only some students will ever win! We like to catch students doing STARFISH things. Our recognition focuses on character rather than achievement, and we celebrate students for being supportive, trying when something seems too difficult, exhibiting a positive, can do attitude, showing respect toward all, providing friendship, displaying integrity, sharing, and being helpful. These are attributes to which all students can aspire, and they give us common language to talk about our students’ development as people.

We’re in this for the Kids

If it seems like there is a lot of talking as you walk through our school, there is. Constituents engage often in productive dialogue about learning and growing. Our students are excited about learning and so are our teachers. Grade level teams have common preparation periods multiple times weekly, allowing time for teachers to mine their collegial resources. A weekly book club meeting over lunch allows teachers to discuss a common text, be it school-wide (in which meetings are conducted simultaneously in smaller groups, with greater collaboration occurring through traditional methods like jigsaws, as well as web-based methods like wikis and blogs) or grade-wide (typically a complex student text read and discussed by grade-level colleagues as a way to consider methods of teaching it to their students). Meetings are structured in a way to promote productivity and limit non-task specific talk. Procedural protocols are established and used at every meeting.

It is the administration’s job to support the fine work of the teachers and the students. Just like students and teachers, the administrators engage in frequent dialogue about best practices and ways to continue improving and promoting the school’s culture. Like students and teachers, administrators are also expected to engage in multiple two-way conversations around meaningful feedback that makes others better. Administrators make every effort to spend as much time as possible everyday in classrooms. Interactions between administrators and teachers are often direct and honest. They are professional and nonthreatening. Everyone knows why they work here as a member of this team: to make our students better. With this always in our minds, conversations are productive. We waste as little time as possible.

When problems arise, stakeholders are asked to come to the table with potential solutions. Various options are considered before any decisions are made. Ultimatums do not exist here because everyone works with the same vision and goals of making sure every one of our children, regardless of perceived inability or difficulties, gets access to the best possible education they can while they are with us.

Students also have responsibilities toward each other. As an example, our experienced fifth graders love being paired with a kindergarten buddy for the year. Think of it as a big brother/big sister mentality. The “bigs” help the kindergarteners in many ways. They help them find important places like the medical office and bathrooms. They help them learn school procedures. Once a week, buddies eat together in the lunchroom, drawing together, playing games, or just talking. Bigs visit the kindergarten classrooms to read and be read to. They help with math. It is a rewarding experience for all children involved.

Our Families

Family members play a significant role in our school community. They are visible throughout the building and perform a variety of roles supporting our students and school. Often, you will find parents and grandparents in classrooms, assisting in everything from paperwork and filing to facilitating conversation between students to working one-on-one in academic content. We encourage parents to bring their unique talents and hobbies to school so that we all can benefit. They collaborate with teachers in afterschool clubs that match their interests. Students who participate in afterschool have a menu of clubs from which they can choose, including: math, science, language, creative writing, drama, environmental, children’s rights, bookmaking, chess, computers, music, gardening, and photography. Family involvement in the building increases family engagement in our children’s educations, which helps promote and foster their accomplishments. We are all very much invested in our school as a conduit for the improvement of everyone in it.

Our families also play a large role in making sure our Fun Fridays happen as smoothly as they do. They assist with organizing and distributing a calendar in September that details the theme of every week’s celebration. They also coordinate reminder efforts to make sure everyone is included in the fun. On Fridays, everyone in the school community dresses based on the theme. Weekly, we have the opportunity to dress based on something students are learning about: fairy tale characters, Revolutionary era loyalists and patriots, presidents, ancient Egyptians, community helpers, scientists, and more. Once a month, we all dress in the color of the charity we are supporting. Everyone looks forward to Fridays because our bonds of community are strengthened.

When you visit our school, we think you will see for yourself what makes it so special. The investment and inquisitiveness of our students, the dedication and professionalism of our staff, the care and involvement of our parents, and the whole culture that permeates our entire organization, combine to make a truly unique school. We hope you will visit us soon and take the opportunity to explore, learn, create, and celebrate with us.

What it Takes

What does it take to be a teacher? Many know. Many think they know. I’m not above admitting that, seven years in, I’m still figuring it out. Here’s what I’ve learned this year:

Consistency is key. My students, like many others, need a lot of repetition to internalize ideas and concepts. That means they need the work in a given unit modeled for them in a certain way. Then they need to practice with guidance in that same way. Then they need to practice independently in that same way (and be held accountable when they don’t).

Here’s some real world application. We are coming to the end of a unit on 2-digit addition, which at times requires regrouping. There are several strategies to demonstrate two-digit addition, all of which require several steps. One of my big takeaways this year is just how difficult it is for my students to remember steps to math problems. That means lots and lots and LOTS of practice.

The language given to the students has to be consistent. The procedures and thought processes have to be, too (steps written on a chart help). When drawing pictures to represent numbers, I’m learning the placement of each ten and one has to be consistent, too, down to the number of ones I will allow in each column. When we all speak, write, and draw in a common language, everyone has a better chance to succeed.

Just throwing material at the class and hoping it sticks is a fool’s errand. Sadly, there are people who haven’t yet learned this.

Students want to be challenged, and even more so than they realize. Not until last year did my principal observe that my lessons were up to the “rigorous” standards we are expected to uphold. She also told me I need to push the students more and expect they could do more. I always felt I had high expectations, but this year I have really ratcheted them up.

They’re only in second grade, but a colleague and I began teaching our classes how to use outline templates to prepare to write an opinion piece. The outline is such that they have to look at abbreviations and remember what to do in each section. They have to remember that solid lines are meant for full sentences and dotted lines are for key words. Then, they have to transfer their work to paragraph form.

You’d be amazed at how they’re doing.

With all the consistency mentioned above – repetition, common language, practice – tomorrow the class will write their own outline about something they want, as independently as they have in the last two weeks. It’s exciting to see them using a tool that I probably didn’t know about until fifth grade. They love the structure and predictability of it, and they understand that their work is improving.

I know more than I knew, but there’s still more to know. Maybe once I was a brash, cocky, 24-year old know-it-all who rode into my school thinking my graduate studies and natural genius had me prepared to teach at a level yet to be seen. Nearly 7 years later, having been humbled many times by administrators and colleagues, but most importantly, by my students, I know that it’s on me to work my fanny off to make sure they’re receiving the full benefit of their education (and that I’m meeting the demands of my job).

While I’m happy to offer suggestions to others and share “what works,” I also am happy to take a colleague’s great idea and make it my own. I’m not beneath running across the hall or next door and saying, “I need help with this.” I’ve learned that teaching is an infinitely humbling experience, and there’s no room for cockiness. No matter how well things might be going at any given time, there often seems to be something that will come along and make me rethink, reassess, reevaluate and ultimately, regroup. It keeps me fresh, energized, and motivated.

Kids need to be challenged and stimulated, but they need to be able to do it without being chained to their seats and desks. I’ve always believed it is perfectly okay for students, without asking, to get up to access materials in the room, get a better view of the board or demonstration, stand while working, lay on the floor while working, whatever. Too often, kids think the classroom is the teacher’s, not theirs. I think it’s important to make it clear to them they don’t have to feel restricted to their designated spot.

To go with this, it’s okay with me that kids need breaks. I mean, hey, they’re seven. (Perhaps when my parents read this they can let me know if they think I could have sat the way kids are expected to now when I was that age.) Sometimes, my students put down their pencils and I say, “What’s up?” “I need to rest a little.” “Okay, no problem. Is a minute good? I’ll let you know when a minute’s up.” A minute later, if I say the minute’s passed and the child says they’re still not ready, I have no problem saying, “That’s fine, take another 30 seconds.” By then they’re ready to go again.

I do have a lovely little tool I like to bring out at least once every morning and afternoon, and I’m going to insist you go sign up (for free) so your class can benefit, too. There’s a brain break site called GoNoodle, and we love it. The kids get a movement/singing/dancing break through Zumba and other interactive videos. It’s always a highlight of their day. A few great things about GoNoodle: 1) the kids love it, 2) it’s very fun to watch them enjoying it, and 3) they get themselves right back to business after a break.

That’s about the sum of what I’ve got for tonight. It’s been a good year so far, with lots of learning experiences (only a few of which are listed here). It’s the learning that helps me continually strive to improve.

Out with the Old Word Wall, in with the New

Now that it’s been EXACTLY five months since my last post on this blog, here I am with some fresh thoughts for the new school year. But first, how was your summer? And, since I haven’t been here since March, how was your spring? Has it been that long. Yep, it sure has. Last year’s class really took a lot out of me and I struggled to find much to write about. Or, I struggled to find the energy and enthusiasm at the end of the day. Or both. For whatever reason, this blog – and all of you, dear readers – fell to the wayside. I’m sorry and I’m going to try to do better.

So, it’s a new year, and that means it’s time for a new outlook. The good news (or perhaps the best news) is that for the first time in a long time, I only have one grade in my class. Please stay that way. The other best news is that, also for the first time in a long time, I don’t have a testing grade. Though I do love third grade (the math is so fun and the kids are really developing as humans), I’m excited to be back in second. Really, it’s my first year as a full on second grade teacher, but I’ve had bridge classes with second graders three times. It’s a transition and a challenge, but it could be a lot harder. It’s also in my favor that service providers and previous teachers have given me such positive feedback about my incoming class. The reviews are in, and they’re fans.

My plan is to expand on all this and more throughout the school year (as I used to so steadfastly in my younger years), but for now, I’m going to focus on what has emerged out of the blue as one of my big initiatives for the year.

I won’t lie: for a variety of reasons, I strongly dislike having a sight word wall in my room. My room is teensy tiny, and devoting a wall to 26 letters and a growing list of words under each just overwhelms my space and sensibility. The thing becomes hard to look at after a while. A mishmash of sentence strips doesn’t do much for anyone. Biggest, perhaps, is that the kids mostly don’t know how to use the word wall. It’s basically there because it has to be. I’m not a fan of that kind of thing.

In our classrooms early this morning to work on setup and organization (school starts next week), a colleague and I shared a conversation over the dilemmas of the sight word wall. Although my to-do list had on it, “Put up word wall letters,” based on our conversation and brainstorm, that WON’T be happening. As a result of our discussion, the sight word wall space has been repurposed, converted into two separate but related boards, and the sight word wall itself is being moved to a more appropriate, convenient place (or places, if you prefer). It’s a lot to take in so let me walk you through it.

First off, the sight word wall, despite the garish display it tends to be, actually can serve a value when properly utilized by teacher and students. To be sure, my students absolutely need to have the words as a reference. So, the sight word wall will remain, but it will be in a different form. Rather than be up on the wall lording over all the little readers and writers, each cluster of desks is going to have a word wall displayed atop it. This way, everyone has words right in front of them. It will have to be updated weekly, which can become a management issue, but as it’s a new concept, that’s something that needs to be fleshed out. In addition to the communal ones on the tables, each student will have his or her own word wall. It will contain the words of the week as well as any words taught in guided reading, or that the student wants to include. (Differentiation and student choice alert!)

Next, the space formerly occupied by the sight word wall will continue life as not one word wall, but TWO. Wow. Since the texts we read are so crazily complex, we think it’s best to move ahead with word walls full of delightful vocabulary that come from the texts. And instead of being there just to be there, they’ll be there as major foci for our students.

Why two, you wonder? Well, on one side there will be words for everyday use (little nuggets of gold like, “ideal,” “usual,” and, “plenty.”) The hope – and, to be fair, the expectation – is that students take these excellent and valuable words and transfer them to all facets of their literacy. Hey, that reminds me of the superb job my students did last year with just that sort of thing. On the other side will be words for content. These are words students need to understand in order to understand topics about which we’re reading, but that may not transfer too well into the rest of the world. As an example, last year, we read a book that used the word “culvert.” It didn’t make sense to expect students to use this word outside of book-related topics, but it was definitely important to their comprehension of the story.

The word wall will look something like this, and it’s possible, if not likely, that each wall will be sectioned for nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. I’ve got a bug/garden theme going this year so I’m saying, “Our Vocabulary Grows.”


Click to enlarge.

There’s no secret here. I am a word nerd and I love when kids get excited about new vocabulary. I can really envision this new setup taking off and benefitting the students more than any old sight word wall will.

For more inspiration:

10 Great Word Wall Strategies for Classrooms

Let the Games Begin! and Let the Games Continue!

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.

It Snows, and We Go

Yeahhhhh...no it isn't.

Yeahhhhh…no it isn’t.

This will be a brief little rant before, for the third time in 2014, I venture out into what the mayor of New York calls “hazardous” or “treacherous” travel conditions because my job requires it. See, I’m a teacher, and while all indications are generally that New Yorkers should stay indoors and only head out in emergencies, schools are still open because, as the new adage goes, “Kids have to eat.”

They do, of course. And if I’m a new mayor – Bill de Blasio – or schools chancellor – Carmen Fariña – doesn’t it sound great for me to show how much I care about the students’ wellbeing? Sure it does.

I’m not callous or ignorant enough to argue against this. There truly are kids who rely on school for their most complete meals of the day. But, there are other facts that can’t be ignored:

  • The logic behind warning about hazardous and treacherous travel conditions for “all” New Yorkers extends to our littlest ones, too. They’re walking on sidewalks still covered in ice (since no one seems too worried about enforcing the law about property owners shoveling their sidewalks in an appropriate amount of time). They’re riding buses on slick roads when officials are cautioning people to stay off the streets.
  • Many parents think it’s ridiculous to send their kids out into weather-related danger, so they opt to keep them home. Our snowstorms this year have resulted in roughly 65% student attendance across the city. Most teachers with half a brain know that if more than a third of the class is out, you put a hold on any new lessons.
  • Thousands of teachers are being put in harm’s way, too. I have colleagues who travel 20 miles to get to work. Even for me – I’m only five or six miles from my school – it’s an adventure. The main street by my apartment has not been a priority for plowing in any of the storms this year. It’s a mostly downhill trip from my building to the highway, so for about a mile, I’m crawling along (if I’m not skidding along). Furthermore, teachers who drive and work in dense areas, like I do, are contending with deplorable parking conditions on the streets as it is. There are mounds of snow that turned to mounds of ice and on a day like today, with all the new precipitation, getting out of those spots will be even worse.
  • Full-day storms like that one we’re expecting today, actually don’t just impact the morning commute for students and teachers. They affect the afternoon commute, too – you know, when everything’s even worse. No one ever seems to remember that. (This might explain why after-school programs haven’t been canceled, either).

Anyway, it’s getting late. Normally I wouldn’t be up for another 10 minutes. But, I was up at 4:10 today, expecting to hear that cooler heads prevailed in the Ivory Tower – I mean mayor’s office. I don’t know why I ever thought that.

Safe travels, everyone. Especially the kids.

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.



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!


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!!!


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!)


Special education and ESL classrooms around the country.


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?