Tag Archives: students

Welcome to Your New Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Shaved My Head. What Do You Think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, kids.

A Fresh Start for Our Routines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m thankful for…

…having a job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Resource: How to Preview a Book

The upcoming reading unit is designed to help students develop routines for being more studious readers. In my room, this means starting off the unit by setting end of year goals (post to follow). It also means providing tangible reminders of the necessary pre-reading activities in which one should engage in order to get ready to read.

I provide each of my students with a pocket-sized laminated card (on a fun, bright color) that leads them through the steps of previewing a book. This card becomes the first thing they take out of their book baggie each time they read. The hope is they eventually internalize its steps and mentally prepare for books consistently.

Feel free to save the image to your computer and use it for your own students!

A free resource for your students to develop independence and meaningful pre-reading habits.

The Report Card Wow Factor

Getting a report card is no fun when you have no chance to get a good one.

Wow, we’re coming up on report cards already! And, wow, we’re still grading kids with disabilities by the same standards as everyone else! So that way, of course, they can see how deficient they are in what they’re supposed to know, thereby adversely and badly damaging their confidence, self-esteem, and desire to put in an effort in school.


I know I’ve written about this before, but can someone please elucidate the very fine reasons for presenting a hard-working child – who won’t likely ever be on grade level because of a cognitive disability – with an unsavory report of grades multiple times every year? What is the inherent message? Choose any of the following:

“Hey, Johnny – you’re really not good at anything.”

“Hey, Sally, if you’d only try harder you might improve.”

“Hey, Billy, all the work you’ve put in this year – pretty worthless.”

“Hey, Annie, you’re a joke.”

And on and on.

I believe, if grades have to be given – and in a standardized system everything absolutely, positively MUST have a number (preferably a punitive one, duh) – then the grades should be given on the basis of student effort and improvement.

Do you know that last year, one of my third grade students improved from a kindergarten to a second grade level in reading? Yes, really. And do you know that on his report card, he got a 1 (i.e. “significantly below grade level”) three separate times? Yes, really.

“Hey, kid – I think what you’ve done is amazing, but sorry, you’re still a 1.” What a message. What a killer. What a way to turn a kid off to school.

If you’re a teacher, you should believe this: it is not the destination that is most important, but the journey. We want our students to grow, challenge themselves, and improve. So then why are we reducing everything to a grade? Doesn’t anything else matter?

There’s a Problem Here

If you work in one of the 45 states that adopted the Common Core standards to start this year (and chances are you do), then you are probably aware of one major glaring issue regarding the implementation of the math standards.

That is: how can we teach this new, deeper style of math when it supposes that students have had previous years of training and learning in a similar style?

Common Core supporters will say that’s exactly the reason we needed these standards, but that misses the point. The point is that until a class of students has received Common Core instruction from Kindergarten to the end of their careers, it’s not going to make sense. So, my students, who are brand new to the Common Core way of math, are starting out way behind where Common Core supposes they should be.

This should have been a discussion before Common Core was green lighted and rushed into our classrooms. It might have gone something like this:

Logical Thinker: “Here’s the thing. If we start Common Core in every grade this year, it can’t possibly work for all students.”

Skeptic: “Of course it can.”

Logical Thinker: “No, it can’t. Think of it this way. We’re going to ask third graders, for instance, to do math based on what they would have learned in second grade. Only thing is, they didn’t learn Common Core math in second grade, so they don’t have the prerequisite skills to do the Common Core math in third grade.”

Skeptic: “You know what? That’s a good point. And that’s going to be true for all grades, except…”

Logical Thinker: “Kindergarten. If we start Common Core with them this year, then they can do Common Core in first grade because they’ll have done it for a year. It all builds on the previous year so kindergarten is the only grade we can really start with without totally demoralizing kids, teachers, parents, and administrators.”

Skeptic: “This actually makes sense.”

Logical Thinker: “Of course it does. So we start with kindergarten in 2012. Then do kindergarten and first in 2013. Then kindergarten through second in 2014, and continue implementing it in waves until the 2012 kindergarteners are at the end of their career.”

Skeptic: “Okay. I get that. But what about all the kids who don’t get Common Core? We’d just be failing them.”

Logical Thinker: “No, we wouldn’t. Implementing something like this requires logical thought, and that’s why I’m here. We will fail them only if we cause them frustration by expecting them to do math they can’t be expected to do. You can’t build a building without a foundation. Where is their foundation?”

Skeptic: “Yeah, that might be a problem.”


Driving off from work yesterday, I spotted a goofy looking teenager waving excitedly through my passenger window. I recognized immediately who it was – one of my favorite students from four years ago – and waved back. I was trying to enter traffic so I couldn’t stop, but the fleeting greeting gave me a chance to reflect on that year with what is certainly one of the most special classes I’ve had.

That brings me to today. What a horrible day for parking. I was marooned on a street several blocks away. At the end of the day, trudging to my car under the weight of a chest cold that had my students asking me, “Are you OKAY???” after every cough, I was a mite exhausted. I approached my vehicle, and who should I see bounding down the street shoveling pizza in his face but that same bespectacled teenager from yesterday.

He obviously hadn’t lost his wry sense of humor. An anecdote from the past: when he interviewed me for a project in fifth grade, he dramatically pulled out a pen and pad and opened with, “Sooooo, can I call you Matthew?” That still cracks me up and it’s one of my favorite stories!

Taken aback today by how tall he’s become, I said, “Man, you’re almost as tall as me!”

Without missing a beat, he said, “Well, I am 13.” Classic.

Much to by amazement, he is looking at prospective high schools for entrance next year. He’s a great kid and I certainly hope and expect he will become something special.

After our brief chat (13-year olds are terribly awkward sometimes), I got in my car all excited to have seen one of my old charges making good. And then, a rapping came upon my passenger window. My instinct was to tense up, but I figured it could be someone looking for help – or telling me to move – so I loosened the grip on my steering wheel and looked. And what do you know? It was another student from that same amazing class!

This was one of my success stories, in fact: a boy who was embarrassed by his Chinese lineage in an overwhelmingly non-Chinese neighborhood and school. His English was markedly improved by the time he left my class – and my Chinese was markedly improved as well. (May I say again, by the by, “Xie xie” for that!) He’s doing well, too. Also heading to high school next year. He filled me in on some other kids from that awesome class and made me laugh when I told him something about one of his former teachers. His response: “Who?”

I’m grateful that’s not the response these two superstars have when they think of me.

Dear Parents – A Principal Tells it Like it Is

Here is a phenomenal back to school e-mail sent by a principal willing to put his neck out in order to speak the truth! His courage is admirable and his honesty is necessary.

September 4, 2012

Dear Parents,

On behalf of the teachers and staff of the Wantagh Elementary School, I would like to welcome you back to school. I anticipate that the 2012-13 academic year will prove to be an exciting year.

We are all enthusiastic about the arrival of our new superintendent, Mr. D’Angelo, and the promise of a fresh vision for the academic well-being of our school district. Also, Mrs. Chowske will be joining our WES staff, functioning as our school’s Elementary Supervisor [aka, Assistant Principal]. The future is bright as we move forward with the implementation of our Writers’ Workshop program expanding into our fourth grade and kindergarten. This year we will also initiate a new K-5 math program called enVisionMATH. This program not only meets the national Common Core standards for Math but does so with enhanced technological experiences for our children.

One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.

Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.

Standardized assessment has grown exponentially. For example, last year New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subjected to roughly 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state assessments which does not include state field testing. This year there will be a state mandated pre-test in September and a second mandated pre-test in January for allkindergarten through fifth grade students in school. In April, kindergarten through fifth grade students will take the last test [assessment] for the year.

Excessive testing is unhealthy. When I went to school I was never over-tested and subsequently labeled with an insidious number that ranked or placed me at a Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 or Level 4 as we do today. Do you want your child to know their assigned ‘Level’? What would the impact be on their self-esteem and self-worth at such a young age?

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society. Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security.

Additionally, what should be shocking to you as a parent is that state and national databases are being created in order to analyze and store students’ test scores – your child’s assessment results and your child’s school attendance! Do you realize that the state has mandated that classroom teachers must take attendance during every math, ELA, social studies and science lesson – everyone, every day for the entire school year! Those records are sent to the state and become statistically part of the teacher evaluation process. It will no longer be enough that your child ‘was in school.’ Rather, if he or she was at a band lesson or out of the room for extra help in reading and a math lesson was taking place in class, he or she will be noted as absent from that instruction. That will be factored into the teacher evaluation. Thinking of taking your child to Disney World for a week during the school year or leaving a day or two early for a long weekend skiing? Think again! Those absences will be recorded as illegal, missed seat time and sent to the state – as mandated by the state.

This is all part of the massive, multi-million tax-payer dollar teacher evaluation processes started by our Commissioner of Education, our governor, and our state legislators and fully supported by statisticians employed by the state and assessment-making companies. No one in Albany is selecting to see the end of the journey; that 98 percent of the students graduating from Wantagh Schools go on to two- and four-year colleges. Their myopic view is focused on the ‘parts’, not the whole. Who will eventually suffer? Your children!

The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics. The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.

You have the greatest impact on your child’s school performance. Each teacher only has your children for 180 days per year and for less than six hours per day [minus lunch and recess times, art, music, and physical education classes]. It is our expectation that as partners in your child’s education, you will be doing your part as well. As part of any evaluation of student performance, Albany must simultaneously be asking parents the following questions:

Does your child read at home each day for at least twenty minutes?

Do you read to your child every day?

Are math facts gone over daily until they are known automatically?

Is there a quiet location in the house for homework time and do you check your child’s homework each night?

Is your child sent to school ready for the day with a good breakfast following at least eight hours of sleep?

Are after school activities monitored so that your child is not ‘overbooked’ and their stamina compromised?

Is your child in school daily [except when they are sick] and not taken out of school for any reason other than illness?

We will continue to have field trips, assemblies, and special school events but some events will be curtailed or rescheduled with an eye toward prudent times during the school year to maximize student seat time. However, it is unmistakable that we have entered into a new era of educational practice with higher stakes than ever before.

I look forward to working with you and your child as we start our new school year because….together we make a difference.

Thank you.

Don Sternberg, Ed.D.


Collaborating through the Challenges

At my school, we are using, by my count, three brand new programs – one each in literacy, math, and phonics. To say it is overwhelming is something of an understatement. Each of my colleagues has something to say, some of it positive and some negative, about the new materials.

As we try to figure out the most effective ways to use the shiny new products, I am experiencing more collaboration with grade level colleagues than I have in the past. There is a steady exchange of graphic organizers, lesson plans, and ideas. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that – despite being the only one in the group teaching self-contained special ed – the island I’m usually on is not so far from the mainland anymore.

I’m in my fifth year of teaching now and am first taking steps now to collaborate with a broad range of colleagues. Part of what makes it so rewarding is that it is totally grassroots. The ones who began the collaborative push did so of their own volition and on their own time. I was a little late to the dance and have to find ways to contribute more.

I don’t use every material passed along to me. However, if nothing else, a seed is planted in my head to help me consider my own next steps. Perhaps we use different formats – or write with a different degree of detail – for our lesson plans, but being provided a basic framework means I have a starting point. There is less work for everyone involved, and all that’s left to do is adjust plans to meet student needs.

I think it’s a tremendous step that this group has taken it upon itself to work together to lessen the burden and challenge of a wholesale change from what we’ve always known. There’s definitely a benefit to my students and colleagues.