A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ray's wife speaks

For me, Ray Kurzweil is an absolute must follow. That Ray has posted work his wife, a psychologist, does with children is significant because I never really thought of Ray Kurzweil as a person who is brilliant, but as some objectified genius. One of my nagging questions as an educator with ADD is how to systematically integrate technology into my practices to increase my teaching efficiency.

Yet, at home I struggle with the reality of a High School Student who, if I did not take such a hard line on it, would be in a constant state of "gamer rage." Baseball is a replacement activity, for which my wife spends considerable sums on a private hitting instructor, baseball camps, etc, whereas the violent games are like the ring from Lord of the Rings, which turn Schmegal into Golum.

Yet at school, I see a generation of students who seem crippled by an addiction to their technological tools, I often reflect upon the scene in the movie Wall-E where the fat humans struggle to rise, while the tune from 2001  puts a bow tie on the ironic allusion. Technology is largely a contributor to learned helplessness. Even my brother Mike, an IBM engineer who wants to build drones just for fun, worries about the impact of too much screen time on children.

What's needed, Mrs. Kurzweil suggests, is a more purposeful, more thoughtful consumption of technology.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Working Smarter

My Edmodo Library

Okay, why haven't I done this before? Edmodo is my new favorite educational website. I've had the tool for over a year, but I never started using it until a few weeks ago when my ASUS Vivotab Note 8 tablets started to arrive and I started getting serious about my project of setting up a "technology center" in my classroom.

Here are 7 things I love about Edmodo:

  1. Edmodo is Free (I think), but even if it is not free, it is well worth the money ...
  2. Edmodo is social media on steroids for teachers. Teacher's can post to communities and, amazingly, teachers throughout the world respond with suggestions.
  3. Edmodo offers a safe environment for teacher - student collaboration (somehow, they vetted my credentials (required me to take a photo of my ID badge and I had to provide my work email)
  4. The library function is easy to use, has a graphical interface, and amazingly, your library can be easily shared -- check out my links by clicking above. Yay!
  5. A suite of free cutting edge classroom management tools is included.
  6. The discovery tool provided "gifts from god" -- I just played with the discovery button tonight, It offered a gold mine of resources that I can use tomorrow -- yes, I really should be sleeping, but this stuff is money in the bank!
  7. The free apps available through the app launcher are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
Okay, I have stories to tell, but I really need to get to bed. Will share when the spirit moves me.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A little irony

I almost died laughing this morning when I got a message from the COSMOS in my inbox. Apparently, I am "attracting" clients who don't appreciate what I give them. I've shared the message from the COSMOS below. Hah!

One of the themes discussed at the copier and in the halls is "a culture of entitlement" we teachers are seeing from an entire generation of students, students who expect everything to be handed to them, including "the answers," supplies, and even entertainment. My uncle Harold's favorite aphorism is always in the back of my mind: "No good deed goes unpunished." Yet, I work the hours that I do and accept my daily punishments with genuine gratitude.

By choice, I work in a pretty hostile environment. Many of my students have a long history of academic failure. I battle daily with a phenomenon I call "the Special Ed Mafia," students who have been concentrated into self-contained classrooms, where the put-downs and negative self-talk are constant and corrosive, where the silly and the absurd are celebrated, and academic performance is both envied and mocked as "nerdy" and "boring." Unlike some of my more seasoned colleagues, I confront academic failure head-on and take the time to make the calls home, because I want a response. Occasionally, I receive a favorable response.

On Thursday, a parent showed up to school and got the Counselor involved. Yesterday, I met with Mr. Kamarra and the Counselor and another Special Education Teacher, Mr. McDuff, who seems to have "better control" over Tim, who has a class average of under 20% in my classroom. McDuff and I have different approaches which were best illustrated by his comments to the parent: "School is difficult for Tim." My approach, because I am still a rookie, is that students with learning disabilities are expected to learn the same curriculum and that my job is to make the curriculum more accessible. Bottom line, I am holding students to a higher expectations than Mr. McDuff, which may partly explain why I appear to have more conflict with my students.

McDuff had seen the same interfering behaviors that I had seen, but he was brutally honest, "If a parent doesn't care enough to call, I won't make the call." As we parted, the parent suggested that I send home an answer key so that the father could help work with his son. "What a great idea!" I replied. Since I already work every problem I assign anyway, I told him that I could send the answer keys home in a sealed envelope.

Here's a little story that happened to a general education teacher this week in the room across from mine. It's a good illustration of the entitlement mindset we see every day that seems like a generational thing, Jane had a special pen on her desk that was stolen. Jane had explained to her classes that. during her first year of teaching, a student had lost the pen, and that when she found it she handed it back to him. The student replied, "That's okay, I want you to keep it so that you can remember me." Like many teachers, Jane is the prototypical generous teacher who often provides snacks, works after school with students, etc. 

This week, Jane learned that Vinh, a small, normally well-behaved 6th grader, was bragging to his friends about how he had stolen Jane's special pen. Jane was crushed. "No good deed goes unpunished," I told her with a wry smile.

When Jane confronted Vinh he quickly burst into tears. Jane had come to my room and was sharing her plan to have Vinh, as a consequence, write a multi-paragraph apology essay during after school detention. I replied, "It's a teachable moment." I recommended that Jane provide a little scaffolding to help Vinh, given his inability as a 12 year old to empathize with a teacher as another human being, learn how badly he had hurt her feelings.
1: How would you feel if someone stole a personal memento from you?
2. How will your parents feel when they learn about this incident?
3. What will you tell a friend if he is considering doing something similar?

Maybe Vinny will think twice the next time before accepting a dare. 

Occasionally, one of "the seeds" I plant takes root, Since my call home before Thanksgiving to Jasmine's mom, who apologized for not responding to my calls because she had been in and out of the hospital with kidney problems, and apologized because she is unable to help Jasmine with her homework because of her poor English, Jasmine has been coming for after school help several times per week. My reward was seeing Jasmine doing problem after problem using the order of operations correctly, in stark contrast to Jasmine's class, where I have a majority of students who seem to barely even have a pulse. They throw erasers, highlighters, giggle constantly, or just sit there with dull expressions and seem incapable of following even the simplest instructions. Yesterday, with a half a year's worth of exasperation, I complained to the class, "This is what an insane asylum sounds like."

On Wednesday, since Jasmine had come for after school help, I was able to assign a tutor from a local high school that is one of the top high schools in the Nation. We have one of the top high schools in the Nation right across the street from my school, My school has one of the highest free and reduced lunch percentages in the area, an indicator of high levels of poverty. While working with Jasmine one-to-one after her tutoring session, Jasmine revealed to me that she would like to go to college, that after school is fun, and that she could not understand why more of her friends were not coming. The very next day, Mrs. Larime walked to class with Jasmine. They were late. When I came to the door, Mrs. Larime explained that Jasmine never reads during her class so she was having a conversation with Jasmine: I replied, "Jasmine will respond if you reach out to her."

Jason, whose dirty blond hair is always over his eyes, who never fails to hide his boredom, has also responded positively to my Thanksgiving Eve calls home. On Thursday, Jason was on the winning team with Kendra in our "Footloose" order of operations game. The students won't be able to get "Footlose" out of their heads, since it looped continuously while students went back and forth to get their playing cards. Big Al was singing Footloose. Everybody was dancing. That I was able to let the class choose their own partners and do an activity like a normal class was a moral victory. That something appeared to stick was glorious!

When I called home yesterday to celebrate that Jason had been a winner in our Footloose game, and that his improvement was noticeable, Jason's mom shared with me a gaming analogy she had used to motivate her son: In order go get better at your game, you have to play lots of games," The mom has been making Jason practice with fraction computations, and while he still is doing about four-fifths of steps correctly, that's two-fifths better than he had been doing.

Tonight, I will celebrate the holidays at my wife's company's final party in the DC area. We will be at the Washington Hilton. There will be an open bar, black jack tables, and one of the largest ballrooms in the area will be lined with carving stations, pasta stations, Every couple will get a door prize. The irony will be delicious.

I'm envy you, Daniel.

You might wonder,

"Why would The Cosmos be jealous of me?"

Quite simply, because you get to LIVE!

Your life is unique, one of a kind,
and you're surrounded by Mystery!

(There's no mystery when you are
EVERYTHING, like me...)

You get to wake up every morning
and look forward to the new experiences
I'm going to send your way!

How awesome is that?

It's like you're watching yourself star
in a movie that never ends, and you
have no way of truly knowing what's
going to happen.

And the best part is,
you get to choose your own adventure!

You can't choose how tomorrow will go,
but you can go out and plant the seeds 
that will blossom into the most beautiful
stuff you can imagine.

You just have to choose the right seeds.

Now, the truth is there are two types of "seeds"
you can plant...

The seeds that are going to bring you very
poor, unable-to-pay-you-what-you're-worth
headache-inducing clients...

OR the ones that will bring you really 
affluent, great to-work-with clients...

Who are happy to pay you what you're truly worth 
(which is probably way more than you're 
getting paid now)...


The question is, who do YOU want to attract? 

If you said the kind of people who will 
actually pay you well, and appreciate your
work, well then the next question is...

WHERE and HOW do you find those people?

Well, I have good news for you today. 

This is where you find them:


The best part is, it's totally free (as many,
but not ALL good things in life are ;-)

Just click the cosmic energy flower of your future
and grab your free ebook on how to
plant and water only the seeds that
will attract your highest paying clients:



You're too incredible to spend your
precious time working with anyone who
doesn't appreciate you completely.

This little guide will help you to sort
through the bad "seeds" and zero in
on the ones who will love your work
(and pay you generously for it)!


Now go and garden away, you beautiful, 
lucky You!

Love always,

The Cosmos

P.S. I am not sure how long this amazing free
book will be online (in the cosmic sense of time,
probably for about a nanosecond) so please 
grab yourself a copy while it's still there! 


*This note has been forwarded on to you 
by Ric & Liz Thompson as "The Cosmos" 
was not sure of your email address.  

Ric Thompson
Healthy Wealthy nWise Magazine
Small Business CEO Magazine
Internet Marketing TNT Magazine

Friday, November 28, 2014

A stream of consciousness

The musical stream flows like a rushing dream.
It whispers, ripples, pools, and plays back scenes.
With gravitas it channels memories.
Everything is washed into the sea,
Except  some sticky remnants that line the shore.

The musical stream flows like a dream
Whispering merrily, meandering along
Temporal pleasures and sad song treasures
It filters and files as memories. 

The stream is but a dream
A flow past an unseen sea
A whisper of today.

Today together

 Flows ...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My kids can't do long division. Time to try something different ...

    Partial quotient method of division: An alternate to traditional long division

If a typical 6th grade student is given the same simple fraction computation problem over and over over, one that only involves just a few simple steps, such as a simple fraction multiplication problem, eventually after a few trials most will remember the steps, be able to mirror them during direct teaching, do it on their own during guided practice, and are quickly ready for independent practice. Even if a typical student does not fully understand why each step is required, most can at least match, mirror, notice a pattern, and do a series of steps independently. Not my most at-risk class for which I am being challenged to teach 6th grade curriculum when only a few can perform 3rd grade division, even during guided practice. Independent practice? What a joke! Solving word problems? Heartburn!

Even though the steps are posted, with each step a different color, the ability of most of these students to follow a simple multi-step procedure breaks down after about the second or third step, leaving many of these students smiling obtusely, sitting like bumps on a log. After multiple repetitions of the same problems, the majority can at lest perform steps one through four and are able to get to the fifth step when they must change an improper fraction to a mixed number or reduce a fraction to simplest form, a step that involves division. I give students credit for 80% of an "exit ticket" problem. I give students unlimited opportunities to do retakes throughout a quarter, but only a few take advantage of my unlimited opportunities policy. Only a few care enough about their learning to come for help after school or during lunch, so I am constantly trying to chase squirrely students down. The lack of independent learning skills, lack of stamina, and overall listlessness is maddening! 6th grade math is a life skill, but these kids in self-contained classrooms just don't seem to get it!

Long division has been problematic largely because most of these students do not know their multiplication facts. Most have no automaticity with their addition and subtraction fact families to 20, which makes computation without a calculator virtually unbearable. The root of the problem with division seems to be a general inability to follow multi-step procedures, even if they sort of get the concept of equal grouping. I noticed Lena getting stumped by the concept of how many 7's go into 63, guessing 6 instead of 9, looking puzzled as usual. After observing Grant successfully solve a fraction multiplication problem using what was a combination of guessing and repeated subtraction, it suddenly dawned on me that my "division problem" is not going away unless something changes drastically. Division is becoming a black hole, a destroyer of motivation for frustrated learners.

Time to try an alternative strategy. What I like about the partial quotients strategy is the way it allows students to chunk a larger number down even if they cannot quickly find appropriate multiples of a divisor to find "the right" quotient. Close can be good enough, Even not close can be good enough. All students need to remember is that, whatever multiple of the divisor they choose, the product cannot be larger than larger than what remains of the dividend, (or the amount that is being divided). Having studied partial quotients for a few hours, having found a few well-written notes, and having found a nice video courtesy of Khan Academy, I am ready to teach the partial quotients strategy, and praying that this strategy will prove to be a magic bullet!

On Monday, even if students can take advantage of the visual scaffolding and explicit strategy cues I have provided on their quiz, which I spent over two hours after school yesterday modifying and perfecting with feedback from a master teacher who works with intellectually disabled students (students with IQ's below 70), I expect most to still fail because they cannot perform the computations. My value added chart for my self-contained students remains mired in the red, but hopefully I can pull a few of these students up a little.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

An allusion to Robert Frost

Stopping by the creek on a Saturday Morning

These woods are ours, we know them well
Long in the suburbs we have dwelled, also
No one will see us stopping here to hunt for stones where tribes once dwelled.

Mabel knows this is our norm to escape from the suburban swarm,
Between the Potomac and Accotink Creek, on any given Saturday morn.

She snorts and gives her head a shake
She knows that there is no mistake.
The only other sound’s the stream and rustling leaves and referees.

These woods are sanctuary from the swarm, but I have promises to keep
And every day’s another step.

One step at a time. One step at a time.
I can still recite "Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening," by Robert Frost from memory. My second grade teacher, Mrs.Brown, had everybody in our class recite it, and it has stuck with me through all these years. As I walk with Mabel in the woods, I often repeat it from memory.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Olfactory Joy

Savor the garden.
Would that time permitted more
Olfactory joy

This grey and haunting November morning, Mabel briskly led a meandering path along the dappled borders of the greens, around the calming fountain, past the lillypads, down to the spring fed stream. We trudged across the pied leaf strewn bridge, up the hill to the nursery at Green Spring Gardens, and back to my Chevy truck. Today amidst the gloom, I followed pensively. Mabel's nose savored fall's scents in lusty breaths while I observed fall's colors and searched for the right words, Saturday sniff walks are my reward for her patience with my daily dark arrivals, to which she unbregudgingly brushes her door bells, snorts, and greets me with howls of joy, however late I arrive. 

It's been a brutal week with the Quarter 1 Math test having been a bit of debacle for certain squirrely students for whom the 6th grade curriculum, despite accommodations, for various and sundry reasons is not sufficiently accessible. Far too many of my students are not responding to what I would consider reasonable interventions and accommodations, Bi-weekly progress reports indicating failing grades, calls home to parents, and the future prospect of never graduating from high school have often seemed to have fallen on deaf ears of students for whom academic failure has become far too excusable. When I post my grades later today, tomorrow, or Monday, I shudder to think about how many F's will remain, despite consistent opportunities I provide to students to raise their grades. This week, I jealously observed the converse, a student in another classes being consoled by a teacher after receiving a C on the Quarter 1 Final. Why is it that my students have become numb to academic failure and remain so resistant to becoming engaged learners?

I have limited homework, maintained a consistent homework checking procedure, adjusted seating, pruned the classroom environment to eliminate visual clutter, made the content more accessible for students who have audio and visual motor processing problems by reducing writing requirements, by using color to help students distinguish procedural steps, and by adjusting my pacing. I have regularly communicated with colleagues to see what is working in other classes. I have held students for Lunch Bunch, sometimes involuntarily, but mostly voluntarily, held students for After School Detention when discipline issues have arisen, but used the time to help students complete missing assignments. have maintained daily office hours, made myself available to parents, worked one on one after school on Fridays with some of my extreme cases. How is it that so many 6th graders cannot read, write, or do simple math, while remaining blissfully ignorant of the long-term consequences of academic failure? What do I need to do to help students understand that academic failure is largely a result of lousy choices?

Fortunately for my sanity, during the last few weeks of the quarter, responsiveness to my interventions seemed to gain a little momentum. A few students in my self-contained classes finally did show a little life, particularly those who enjoy a little structure at home. I treated a few who stayed after school, after calls home to notify parents that their students were failing got their parent's attention. to a real-time demonstration of the effect of changing zeroes to A's in the grade book as I allowed students to turn in missed assignments with teacher assistance,

By the end of the week, Hector, who for some reason as a 6th grader still hasn't learned how to modulate his booming voice or learned how to refrain from routinely inappropriate comments in a classroom setting, was asking to stay with me after the other students left so that he could work with me one-on-one. A month ago, Hector mocked me after I revealed to him, "I am the silent assassin, you may have gotten away with your rotten behavior last year, but I won't stand for it -- I'll contact your soccer coach." By the time Hector left at 5pm on Thursday, Hector was starting to sort of get fraction multiplication, although since he has never learned his multiplication facts, he has difficulty finding common factors and common multiples when reducing fractions. Hector is one of the lucky ones. His parents care. His soccer coach supported him with a decision to not allow him to play until he raises his grades up.

After I sent Hector home at 5pm because it would be getting dark outside, I broke for a quick bite at Thai by Thai, which recently opened in the Bradlick Shopping Center, What a delightful surprise it was to enjoy a hot bowl of noodles in such a tastefully decorated little restaurant. I hope they make it, as I was the only one in there, There are simply not enough quality restaurants in Springfield. What a huge disparity between the quality of their food and decor and their prices. Another example that the economy sucks and nobody has any money! Instead of returning back to school which I typically do to eliminate as many risks as possible, I went home and took Mabel for a long walk along the creek behind the Audrey Moore Recreation Center. She excitedly pulled me further than usual in the cool October twilight. Thankful I was that I had managed to pop my back and was able to walk my dog through the woods without much of a limp, after had I limped home late Wednesday evening barely able to walk.

Unfortunately, far too many of my students in my self-contained classes do not enjoy reasonable parental support, or suffer from an inability to persist or handle the truth that how they have been approaching their responsibilities has not been good enough. On the second day of testing, I had Jasmine call home because she could only answer a few of the 27 questions, I finally reached her mom, who apologized for not returning any of my calls and requests for a conference because she has been in the hospital suffering from kidney problems. Both she and her husband, she apologized, do not know enough english to help her daughter with homework. Jasmine's mom wants to conference with me on Tuesday during my Teacher work day. Of course, I will accommodate her. All throughout the 1st quarter, I have been begging Jasmine to stay to work with me so that I can help her, because I have seen enough to know she can do better, Now, maybe Jasmine will begin to stay a little more consistently. Dontae was on a roller coaster all quarter. Perhaps he felt that if he tried to be nice and stay and come for help every once in a while it would be good enough, while I bent over backwards to make his time enjoyable, but I wouldn't stand for it when he threw paper wads at his friends while I was teaching a lesson. He responded to being held from participating in Dance Club until he served his time in After School Detention by quitting the club. Habitual failure is a hard habit to break.

Legal precedent exists for schools to withhold supplementary aids and services to students in cases where no clear educational benefit is evident (Board of Education v. Rowley 458 U.S. 176, 102 S. Ct 3034 (1984). At my school, the culture is to provide the maximum support and opportunities, and the result is our school performs on par with schools with students who enjoy far higher socio-economic status. "[Rowley] held that IDEA's appropriate education" requirement includes a process and an opportunity to benefit." (Turnbull, H., Stowe, M., & Huerta,  N., 2007). Thus, we have procedural due process to guarantee FAPE (a free and appropriate public education, but procedural compliance is not good enough.

I feel the burden of noblesse oblige, a concept I wrestled with when challenged with descriptions of "sublimated idealized selfishness" in Lord Jim. which I read as a senior in high school. I don't know if dad has already given his speech to the War College, but his opening line, an allusion to Diodorus Sicolus, is something I reflect about often. Somehow, I need to help students understand that, ultimately, they are responsible, and that I don't give grades, grades are earned, and that grades have lasting consequences.


Turnbull, H., Stowe, M., & Huerta,  N. (2007). Free appropriate education: The law and children with disabilities.  Denver: Love Publishing Company.

Board of Education v. Rowley
458 U.S. 176, 102 S. Ct 3034 (1984)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why did no one flag UNC’s bogus classes? A Response

Why did no one flag UNC’s bogus classes?

Before I get down to the business of submitting grades, I find it appropriate to respond to an article I read about a scandal that occurred recently at the University of North Carolina about credit being awarded to students for bogus classes. Mary Willingham, a Learning Specialist at UNC, blew the whistle on a practice that was occurring over an 18 year period, largely to the benefit of UNC's athletic program, which was able to keep its players eligible for college sports, a multi-million dollar industry.

Here's the insanity that drove Ms. Willingham to the point where she was willing to upset the apple cart:

MARY WILLINGHAM: They’re coming in with reading levels of fourth, fifth, sixth grade. There’s even some who are reading below a fourth grade level.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: You are saying that some kids who are admitted to the University of North Carolina, one of the best public colleges in America, with a fourth grade or even in some cases lower than a fourth grade reading level?
MARY WILLINGHAM: That’s correct. Makes it pretty hard to go to college, doesn’t it?

Maybe I should be outraged by the inclusion of most of the students in my 6th grade math classes, which will require students to demonstrate 6th grade standards, but I am not. Students who have a reading level of DRA 3, or what a typical Kindergarten student in the Spring might score, are not all that atypical. Makes it pretty hard to do 6th grade math, doesn't it?

Maybe I should feel a little like the child who point out that the emperor was not wearing clothes, but I don't. Despite the standards requirement, it is no secret that large percentages of students are progressing through elementary school without knowing how to read, write, or do arithmetic. It wouldn't surprise me if the numbers were as high as 30%, the same percentage that probably won't graduate from high school, the same 30% figure cited in Nation at Risk.

Given the population that I work with, how is it that Dr. P has been able to achieve results, not on par with other Middle Schools with similar demographics, with similar percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, but with some of the most affluent schools in my school system? Perhaps the most innovative thing Dr. P instituted started as an anti-gang initiative, out after school program. The after school program makes it possible for me to get access to students and do remediation after the final bell rings -- we have late busses 3 days per week. The culture of the school is for teachers to stay "voluntarily" after school for 1 day per week. Last week, with the end of the quarter approaching, and most of my students failing, I made myself available all 5 days, and I helped students who wanted to pass complete assignments.

There's not much I can do for those unwilling or unable to accept my help, despite calls home, contacts with the Counselor, etc. I'm still not sure what to do with a student I have with an IQ of 71. Truly, I'm not sure where the "discrepancy" is. How did Ariel qualify for a Learning Disabilities label? He can't read, can't multiply, can't divide, and can do little to no work independently, but I am his Case Manager this year, and I'm responsible. In all likelihood I will have little choice but to continue the charade, despite his 32% class average, and try to find some way to demonstrate some progress. Ariel avoids working with a teacher, despite his involvement in the after school program. Danger, danger, Will Robinson. This one should be fun.

The language barrier makes it difficult to reach students so I farm out calls to my spanish speaking students to the Parent Liasson. Sometimes, my broken Spanish is good enough, but I can only communicate with parents who speak enough English or who are invested in their children's education and get the point that a call home from a teacher and multiple progress reports indicating that their children are failing are causes for concern. I showed students who stayed after this week on multiple days what happens to their averages when zeroes in my grade book are changed to A's, B's, or even C's, especially since I have a weighted grade book, where a missed project might constitute 10% of their overall grade. The Warmups were crushing grades, so I cut problems by at least a third, and helped students do the problems before they turned them in.

Of the three students whom I told needed to stay Thursday for After School Detention because they were throwing paper wads at each other and giggling while I was direct teaching procedures for adding and subtracting fractions (a 5th grade standard), only one actually came. Hector, who weighs at least 250 pounds, I think was able to dominate his teacher last year with bad behavior, along with Big Al, and Dontae. Through the Parent Liasson, I was able to contact Hector's mom, and we conferenced a few weeks ago, with the Counselor translating. We contacted Hector's soccer coach. Hector cannot play until he gets his grades up. This week, Hector raised his average from a 34% to a 75%, good enough for a C. Dontae, on the other hand, chose to go to Dance Club, then had the audacity to tell the Ms. Drake that he would come to me afterwards. I replied, "No, that's not okay." Big Al went home sick on Thursday morning, but came to Mr. Lee's class, where I was co-teaching, and asked for all of his "missing work." On Tuesday evening, I finally reached Big Al's father and we had a 15 minute conversation about why Big Al is failing my class, his bad behavior in my class and all of his other classes, and what we could do about it. I learned that in Sierra Leone, Big Al's dad wore uniforms and had to treat his teachers with respect. I offered to meet up with him from time to time to drink coffee, Both Big Al and Dontae will stay with me on Thursday, not by choice. I get the impression that the Special Education Mafia ran their classes last year. Hopefully, I can push back enough to enough progress so that I will get to keep my job.

Dawn's mom eventually responded to my 3 phone calls after her husband fixed her i-phone. She came in to conference on Monday. As a result of our discussion, during which Mr. Lee and I described what Dawn was doing in class, Dawn's mom decided to put her back on her medication. Here was a child who had sold 71 pies, but lost some of the paperwork and money, and usually wasted the first 10 minutes and last 10 minutes of class, and most of the time in between. My message was that Dawn was struggling in math and had been unresponsive to everything Mr. Lee I had done to intervene up to that point, because math wasn't important to her. Dawn expressed a desire to join the Yearbook Club, and her mother and I replied that she needed to maintain at least a C average to participate.

The results of that intervention shocked me. I have always been highly skeptical about medication, but the next day, Dawn focused in class, she was learning, and was noticeably subdued, so I asked her, "Did you go on the medication?". On Friday, I worked with Dawn one on one with her after school on her Quarter 1 Study Guide, and I showed her a way she could use her calculator to help her do long division, which one needs to be able to do to change an improper fraction to a mixed number. Dawn raised her grade from about a 51% to about a 77% , On Monday, Dawn mentioned that she wanted to go to the Yearbook Club. "Of course!" I replied.

Kendra, on the other hand, was unable to reach her mom. Her mom's phone does not accept messages. I have tried all quarter to reach home, but none of the numbers work. Kendra cannot even reach her. What to do? What to do?

Is it any wonder that the grade charade continues into major universities, which have huge financial incentives to allow the charade to continue? The grade charade begins in elementary school, and continues on with most going along with the charade because of inertia.

Obviously, the problem is bigger than me. I will do what I can and get back to work and be professional about how I handle my business. I jokingly refer to myself as "The Silent Assassin." Students who cross me learn the hard way not to disrespect me, because I always handle my business, even if I do so quietly, with my pen. My Interventions Notebook has been an effective tool. CYA,

Saturday, October 11, 2014

People are not robots

I don't have a cache of food and supplies buried in a bunker in preparation for the robot apocalypse, but I do what I can to make learning accessible for students with learning disabilities. For Billy Valenzuela, whose average is below 50%, the thrill of winning the windup toy race I held, the product of a prayer for inspiration for how to connect the abstraction of rational numbers to real life, in a fun way, seemed to resonate in how he performed on his Fraction / Decimal / Percent quiz: his score, 11 out of 12.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

And I'm the stable one

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. My wife Karen's company is moving to Texas. We've known that for about a year, but today that eventuality became a little more real. Tonight, I came home to find Karen preparing me for "Open Enrollment," checking whether our doctors would be covered, because as of April, she will be out of a job. When we go to the final blowout holiday party in December, the mood at the Washington Hilton will be odd, to say the least. The last few holiday parties have taken up the entire ballroom at the Wardman Park Marriott, complete with "Casino Night," where I got to play blackjack with "free chips." This year's party will be the biggest yet.

Considering how turbulent my career change has been -- last year, after thinking I was in the clear, I received notice that my one year contract would not be renewed. It feels a little ironic to suddenly be the stable one.

Meanwhile, my classroom has had a few behavioral interventions courtesy of our designated 6th grade disciplinarian, Ms. Smith, and I finally moved our "Galaxy Expectations" out of the corner where I had hidden it, after about her third friendly suggestion. Truly, Ms. Smith's room design suggestions were on point, and I have used the LD friendly redesign as a documented intervention.

Soon, we will roll out an internal Intervention Database, which will provide us a common platform for sharing testing data, and our history of interventions. Meanwhile, in preparation for our go live date, I've created an Intervention Notebook, in which I have students sign up for Lunch Bunch and After School time. Our Intervention database will be the ultimate CYA tool. Every parental contact, every move I make to hold students accountable for their learning, will provide evidence that I have handled my responsibilities diligently.

Today, after Silent Sustained Reading (SSR), before passing out Progress Reports during our Enrichment and Remediation (ER) time, I shared with my class how much I enjoyed the opportunity to read, how I rarely get the chance. I shared a snippet from A Scientist at the Seashore in which the author marveled at the uniqueness of our situation is on Earth, as a planet with water, in a universe in which water is scarce. Then, I explained why I feel education is so important to me.

I described how, when I was 3, my mom had chased me around the house with Hop on Pop, and how she had done the same to my son Joe when he was 3. I shared how my grandfather, at age 17 had jumped ship in San Francisco Harbor and swam to shore across the shark infested waters of the Bay, and what happened to my mom when she was 7, how after Pearl Harbor, the men in black suits and fedoras knocked on her door in the middle of the night to take her father away, how her mother a few weeks later had loaded everything the family owned onto a pile and burned all their possessions, how in the desert camps my mom had read every book in the library because there was little else to do, how upon arriving to Japan, the family had endured a 3 day train ride, where the trains were so packed that the adults had to go to the bathroom in their pants, and the children were passed overhead, how when the family finally arrived at their destination, they were robbed of all their possessions, including their shoes, and how, with only a few years of formal education my mom earned a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska because she wanted to do from the moment she set foot in Japan was to find a way back to America.

I also shared my embarrassment of being led out of school in handcuffs and having to call home from the the police station, how at age 15, I made the decision that I was going to Georgetown University, and if I hadn't changed, I might have ended up dead or in jail, just like a few people I had known growing up. Then I passed out progress reports, which were mostly D's and F's, many below 50%, with lots of missing assignments. I projected a progress report with the name deleted, and substituted a fictitious child from my fictitious 4th grade class to explain how Johnny Smith had a D, but Johnny had been coming to make Quiz Corrections every day at lunch, which I had not yet entered, In one week, I told them, when I project Johnny's Progress Report again, that D will probably be a B. "Those who fail in my class," I concluded, "fail by choice. For those who choose to dig their own grave, and allow themselves to fail, I will be the first one to kick dirt on them, and I will put a tombstone overhead -- Here lies Johnny. He lived and then he died. For those who choose to come for help, I will reach down and be the first to pull them out. I will reach down and help raise up those who want to be raised up. Who wants to be raised up?" Every hand went up.

This week, as a matter of desperation, I've found creative ways for reaching the unreachable, bridged barriers of language and culture, used bribery, excitement, every trick of the trade. As a result, my room is starting to get packed during lunch and after school. Big Brian Hernandez, inspired by the nurturing, Paulina, who only showed up for 3 of my summer session classes, who I had warned that she better not miss school unless she was bleeding, barfing, or dying, found the inspiration to finish his Poster project which had been due the first week of school. Then, I cut the number of problems on two of his warmups, and helped him go from zeroes to 100's. From a 34 percent average, Brian raised his grade over 20 percentage points today-- still an F. Big Brian will continue coming.

I learned that Edwin, whom I had written up after one final straw -- I turned around to notice that his sweat pants were around his ankles, with the rest of the children giggling -- has an older sister. Marlena is a super responsible young lady. One day, I noticed Edwin talking to her in the lunchroom after school, and on a whim, stopped by to ask for her help on the way to a conference with Edwin's father. I've been bribing her with chocolates and jolly ranchers ever since, because she has agreed to help Edwin raise his grade from a 43% to at least a 75% by the end of the quarter.

Meanwhile, Dontae huffed and puffed after being sent from Dance Club to my room because he is on my D's and F's list, and gave up on his quiz corrections, so I promised to find a day next week when I can work 1:1, just with him.

Dawn continued to flit, and once again got nothing done.

Wednesday's Fraction/Decimal/Percent test prep session was a disaster, with Johnny behaving even more out of control than the protagonist in Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key, one day after I had run into him and his family in the parking lot at Giant, and I peered in for a glance at his mom, his grandma, and his three siblings, and falsely believed that our chance encounter would bear fruit in my classroom. On Wednesday, Johnny was subversively insulting big Al, and Big Brian, who would bellow loudly at every insult, every puckered kiss, every flicked bird, every adult humor comment about their miserable lives, always when I had my back turned, always too silently for me to hear. Always, I found myself reacting to the uproar that followed in Johnny wake. When Johnny snuck over to Jamie's desk and showed her the picture he had drawn of her -- all the kids at Jamie's table were complaining loudly -- finally, I had him. He begged me to not tell Mr. Farmer about it, "Mr. Farmer and me are tight," I replied. We talk about everything.

Yesterday, I woke up at 3:30 to write my Self Reflection, in preparation for my Yearly Goal, and was praying expectantly for an answer for how to make rational numbers relevant for my reluctant learners. Then the lightbulb went on. Suddenly, I thought of holding a race with wind-up toys, and I launched my lesson with a  wind-up toy race, which was hilarious, especially when the ladybug went in circles, and the dinosaur practically crawled. Billy Valenzuela was so excited when his caterpillar won. For the first time in awhile, Billy Valenzuela was on fire! He was getting it. The children all got the point that rational numbers include integers, but also contain fractions and decimals, which call between the hashmarks. It all made sense.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ratios Graphic Organizer

Helena is a student in one of my self-contained classes with a severe auditory processing disorder and extremely low reading skills. Helena is unable to read large numbers because she has not been able to master place value and base 10 concepts. She has difficulties with simple addition and subtraction and has little knowledge of multiplication fact families. After reviewing her Cumulative file last week, I have a better understanding of why she often appears so utterly confused, she is processing very little of what I am saying.

Helena's difficulties with processing auditory information have made it difficult for her to read and write problems involving ratios, much less use ratios to solve problems. She has not been able to consistently put words and amounts in proper order, even with simple ratios where amounts are given. I plan to provide her the graphic organizer below as instructional scaffolding. I am hoping that, by providing her with visual strategies, I might be able to help her overcome some of her auditory deficiencies, 

*** Read and Write Ratios, Then Use Ratios to Solve Problems

1.       Read and write ratios (two item comparisons)

a.       Ask, “What am I comparing?”

                                                               i.      Identify which two items are being compared (Word A to Word B)

                                                             ii.      Translate Word A and Word B into Word Form (words in a fraction).

b.      Ask, “What amounts are known?”

                                                               i.      Identify the amounts known and their order

                                                             ii.      Identify and solve for any missing parts. (Hint: it often helps to create tables to organize data)

                                                          iii.      Translate the amounts known to Fraction 1 and / or Fraction 2 in the same order as Word Form

2.       Use Fraction 1 (amounts known) to solve Fraction 2 (parts unknown)

a.       Compare numerators of Fraction 1 to numerators of Fraction 2

b.      Compare denominators of Fraction 1 to denominators of Fraction 2

c.       Multiply or divide both numerators and denominators by the same amounts to create equivalent fractions

d.      Label the solutions with Word A or Word B (the missing part of Fraction 2)

Friday, September 26, 2014

News from an old friend

One of my old friends shared with me an email he fired off to the Chair of the Counseling Department at a local high school this past Monday evening, after his son, Steve, had been abruptly handed a schedule change this past Friday. Upon hearing about how upsetting the sudden schedule change had been to Steve, Sam's wife contacted the Counselor. On Monday, from her job, Sam's wife had been communicating back and forth with Ms. Foley, Steve's counselor, but was getting nowhere with the lady.

Sam became a little enraged after his wife shared with him over dinner Monday evening that that the Counselor, Ms. Foley, had replied to her that, "at this point, it would be impossible" to move Steve back to his original math class. Steve had finally found a Math teacher with whom he could connect, one who engaged learners with math games, had a sense of humor, and was responsive to students, and now, without any warning, he had been randomly moved to another class. Steve was feeling as if he had received the perfect Christmas present, only to be told, "Oops! That wasn't for you."

Sam immediately fired off an email to Ms. Foley's supervisor, Mrs. Strawberry, and cc'd it to Mrs. Strawberry's boss, Mr. Randall, the Principal. On Wednesday, Mrs. Strawberry, Ms. Foley, and an Assistant Principal conferenced with Steve and found a way return Steve's schedule back to its original configuration.


Hi Mrs. Strawberry,

Thank you for taking the time to explain your need to “level the classes.” However, Steve did not have a problem with his schedule until Ms. Foley, without warning, removed him from his English class while he was writing an essay. Steve was extremely happy about his schedule and the relationships he had established. My wife was extremely happy with all of Steve’s teachers, with whom she exchanged information on back to school night. Nobody on our end had any problems with Steve’s schedule, despite some of our concerns with how challenging it is. Steve was all in. We were all in. Don’t the personal relationships and feelings of Steve, which are so important to us, carry any weight in your decision making process and how you go about “leveling your classes?” Sorry, but as a parent, I’m feel as if my son has been steamrolled.

From my perspective, this “out of left field” change was handled rather crudely at best, with zero discussion, and at worst is potentially disastrous for Steve. I cannot stress strongly enough my belief as a parent and an educator that this change is not in the best interests of my child. Therefore, I will not consent to any changes in his schedule this late in the game from where he was originally placed. What I don’t understand is why you can’t simply reverse the changes and go back to his original schedule, which was already perfect?

If you feel a need to meet face to face to discuss the matter further, as you know, it would be rather inconvenient for all of us, as we are all rather busy, but I’m sure my Principal would grant me the time if I requested it because the welfare of my child is so important to me. Steve’s Junior Year is, perhaps the most critical year he will have before applying for colleges, so I’m hoping you’d be willing to reconsider your decision with Steve’s best interests in mind.

Thanks in advance for your consideration,

Sam Oleska,
Deep Woods Elementary School

5th Grade Teacher

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Intervention: the New Buzz Word

Response to Intervention (RTI), a major point of discussion while I was in Marymount University's graduate program, has become institutionalized. Teachers are being required to leave a document trail of "lower-tier interventions" before a student can be disciplined, reported as failing, or routed through Special Education. Nothing new! What's different with a new Superintendent is the level of school-wide focus, and the roles of administrators who are focusing on discipline, and how these new roles are affecting what I do for classroom management to ensure that I am doing everything I can to ensure academic success, and the level of scrutiny we all face as teachers to ensure that are being dutiful in following procedures. In response, I am becoming the King of Intervention.

Back at Allied Plywood, throughout the organization one of our mantras was "CYA," the main proponent of which was Gene Scales, who taught me well as a young apprentice. I would characterize "Intervention" as glorified "CYA." As a Special Education teacher, governed by a procedural compliance framework, procedural compliance is the fishbowl in which I swim.

Students I serve this year range from the self-motivated, vivacious Angelica, who has a 95% average in Mr. Lee's team-taught class, whose Math About Me poster I will save as an exemplar, because it is truly for the ages, to the diabolical Johnny who with his death stare reminds me of Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining, an 11 year-old child whom I hope does not have access to a cache of weapons -- he has a below 40% average, has never turned his poster in or most of his other homework assignments, has still never adjusted to the routines of the class, and has already been removed once for giving another child the middle finger, and once, just Thursday, while I was introducing Ratios, for punching another student in the side while getting up to get materials.

During the first week of school, Dontae was ready to "drop" Johnny, and started toward Johnny in a menacing fashion, with Johnny smiling like a chesire cat, before I redirected Dontae outside for a cool down conversation. Big Al, as students were leaving the classroom asked, "May I tell you something?" after I asked Dontae to stay after class for a short while to continue our conversation, a pause that allowed Johnny to leave the classroom unmolested.

I responded, "Is it urgent?" Big Al responded by describing how Johnny had been threatening other students in the hallways.

When I called and spoke to both Johnny's and Dontae's mothers later that afternoon, I received two entirely different impressions. Before calling, I glanced at the Student Information forms that both students had returned. My call to Johnny's mom raised my heebee-jeebies. Immediately after Johnny's mom responded to my report of an incident by telling me that she had received a text that, after Johnny left my room, that "he had the crap knocked out of him" and that his foot had been seriously injured, and that she had to take Johnny to the emergency room, we had a sudden power outage, the phones died, and I was unable to reply that Johnny could not possibly have been hurt by Dontae after leaving my classroom. I had kept Dontae after class because I could see he was still boiling. Later, I had seen Dontae outside in the hall cooling off with big Mr. McDuff. Immediately after the mysterious power outage, I went to the office to discuss my predicament, and was advised by the Mr. D, the Counselor, to email the mother back and copy Mr. Farmer, himself, and our 6th grade disciplinarian, the multi-talented, kind-of-scary, soft-spoken procedural expert, Ms. Smith, who speaks softly but is the de facto authoritarian for the 6th grade. The next morning, the burly ex-marine, Mr. Farmer, Ms. Smith's boss, greeted me at the door, hands on hips. He was wondering why I had gone directly to him, and why Johnny's mom had left messages on his answering machine that she had taken Johnny to the emergency room. I reiterated the facts, which seemed to assuage his concerns, somewhat, but not entirely.

My call to Dontae's mom left an entirely different taste in my mouth. I called Dontae's mom immediately after school. When I looked at the handwriting on the form and the description of her child, I was impressed by her penmanship and her description of a funny, happy child. My point was that Dontae would not be able to access the curriculum if he continued to hold onto his anger during my class. Dontae returned the next morning wearing a warm smile, and has been an engaged learner ever since.

Yesterday, on a Friday, Dontae asked if he could stay after school for help. For Dontae, I made an exception to my Friday rule since he had missed the lesson on Ratios, since I did not want to lose the momentum he was gaining, and since he is not currently passing my class, and gave him a private lesson on how to read and write ratios, and how to use ratios to solve problems. I handed him a multiplication chart while teaching him factoring procedures, as writing ratios in simplest form is part of the standard, and he seemed to benefit from that accommodation. Dontae shared with me how he enjoys working with his mom in the kitchen, which made the exercise of using ratios meaningful to him.

Johnny's pattern of disrupting my classroom, as well as some difficult but less severe cases have been accompanied by an increased level of scrutiny of my classroom management. as Ms. Smith and Mr. D have been in my room on a number of occasions to observe students with behavioral concerns, and Ms. Glenn, the Chair of the Special Education Department. mentioned, "I heard from Ms. Smith that you were having "behavior problems," since I had a relatively high level of referrals during the first two weeks.

"No, I am just being quicker to document my interventions this year," I replied, which seemed to satisfy her. Having been in an out of my room observing all year, Ms. Smith has given me considerable feedback about things I can improve. Wisely, I have been listening. When Ms. Smith speaks, I listen. It's grad school all over again.

Ms. Smith has provided me considerable guidance in redesigning of my classroom. In response my room has become uncluttered up front, all of my vocabulary resources have been shifted to the back wall, and my classroom procedures have been shifted to a bulletin board. The spaces for hanging student work created by Sianan, who had occupied my room previously, have all been taken down. Yesterday, I set up a special cool down desk in the back corner, just for Johnny. Ms. Smith's latest suggestion, a card system, a common elementary school procedure, which is being employed by Ms. Santiago in the room next door, is one I am struggling with, as it originates from the behaviorist approach to learning, and I frankly hate it. I think I will simply leave this suggested unimplemented, as it was just a suggestion, not a directive.

On Thursday evening, after Johnny surreptitiously punched Arman in the side while walking to get materials, I attempted to call every student in my two self-contained classes. Amazingly, I reached most of my parents from my self-contained classes. I am not fluent in Spanish, but I was able to beg parents to speak in English -- I would say, "Su ingles es mejor que mi Espanol. In one case, little Jose, who has done little of the homework in my class, served as a translator for his mother. Yesterday, Jose completed the classwork, mostly correctly.

Yesterday, Ms. Smith helped me clarify the distinction between "Lunch Bunch," and "Lunch Detention," since Carlos, who was in my room for Lunch Detention, was not making the connection that being in my room was a punishment, and had visited the snack machine, and was all smiles. My difficulty was that I had 5 students from Mr. Lee's class, some who were there by choice, and some who were there not by choice, but all were there working diligently. My other students, about 5 from my self contained classes were there not by choice because they had not been doing their homework. The difficulty I was having was that my focus tends to be on helping students who want to be helped. My room is set up so I can move my rolling chair freely around the classroom. I use multiple white boards when I work alongside students. I don't think about the punishment aspect at all.

In order to punish Carlos, a lower-tier behavioral intervention that I am using as part of the chain of documentation Ms. Smith and I will use in the beginning of October, before we let Carlos's parents know in October that nothing we tried during September is working, Ms. Smith suggested, I will need to punish Carlos 1:1, which in the short-term will punish me and all the other students since I won't be able to have others in the room to work with them. The next time Carlos requires me to punish him, which will be Monday, since he was breaking pencils yesterday, I think I will schedule his punishment for next Thursday after school, since my office hours are Monday and Wednesday.

I get this Intervention thing. I know what to do. CYA.