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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Update to Stepping up to the Plate

Poetic License: Stepping up to the Plate by Joseph Kurland, age 13...

Yesterday was tough. Working with Kendall has become like being subjected to Kendall's claws screeching across the chalkboard for every scratchy broken record, life draining, infernal moment he infects the room with his fire starting, burn baby, burn baby, fire-starting grin, while tied to the mast of a creaky, storm-tossed ship, amidst claps of thunder and zaps of lightening, to the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture, to a chorus of 6th grade chortles, giggles, and gasps.

With 9 weeks to go until state testing, nobody in the room can learn anything except how to defy, disrupt, and disengage from learning while Kendall poisons the fishbowl in which everyone must swim. I stagger out of 4th period every even day feeling totally off kilter and utterly drained of every drop of blood. Trying to direct teach a single simple concept in Kendall's class feels like being forced to lug around a 10 ton weight across a pit of tar, then up a slippery mountain slope, only to have the load crash down the mountain, destroying everything in its way.

Kendall's daily disruption has gone viral. After lunch yesterday, while leaving the teacher's louge, I noticed three or more of Kendall's followers duck walking behind their ring leader, on the way to the toilet instead of to class. Gangster style, I turned the mob around, set the timer for 20 minutes, and got everybody started on their warm-up, so that I could show them how to use the formula for Circumference. By the time I headed home yesterday after 10:15 p.m., I had nothing left, though I knew I had two IEP's scheduled, one of which I had not written and would not finish until 10 minutes before the meeting, sub plans to finish, and the gift of an Administrative Day given to me and my little friend Ali by Dr. P so that Ali could put a dent into his Portfolio Assessment before I present his binder to Dr. P on Wednesday, before our locality's auditors come to scrutinize Ali's binder on Thursday. I worked with Ali after school, we made a little progress, the late bus came, and I started cleaning up my room.

When I dropped home for dinner before returning to clean my classroom, I received some unexpectedly positive news: Joe, my son, the kid who could not hit a baseball for his first two seasons, who started playing baseball when he was 12, will be a starting pitcher, outfielder, and utility infielder this year for his JV high school baseball team. Immediately, the storm clouds seemed to clear, and I was feeling invigorated.

Later that night, I returned to finish preparing my room and started on my sub plans. I left for home finally around 10:30 pm and bought some gas. When I finally dragged home around 10:45 I took Mabel on a long walk, set a series of alarms to go off starting at 2 am, hoping to wake up and finish my sub plans and finish Ali's IEP. I eventually woke up in a panic at 5 am, having slept through several alarms, and finished my sub plans before leaving for work at 6:45am. I finally started on Ali's sub plans when I arrived at 7 am. I knew Ms. England had promised to teach my class during 1st period, but I had to prepare for the possibility that things might go as planned, so I wrote full lesson plans.

Ms. England, thankfully, took the lesson in a different direction, and read aloud Sir Circumference to build background knowledge, rather simply discussing student generated examples of circles then teaching the formula. Great decision!

Ms. Quintanelli, my Instructional Coach, located a conference room in which to set up, wrote my schedule on the white board, and I pulled Ali during 1st and 3rd period to work on his portfolio. Ever the optimist, I had Ali finish the most difficult task first, which took at least an hour longer than I had anticipated. While he was working on portfolio tasks, I was working on his IEP, and finished literally 10 minutes before the meeting. Since Ali speaks some unusual Ethiopian dialect, and since today was the deadline for completing Ali's annual IEP so that he would be given the accommodation to assemble a portfolio alternative assessment, with the approval of my Department Chair, Ms. Baine, Ali translated his IEP meeting for his mother. Desperate times, desperate measures!

After the meeting, Ali and I went back to the conference room to keep working on his binder. At 12 pm, I sent Ali to science so that I could conduct another IEP meeting. After school, we were back at it again until a little after 5 pm. There's a misconception that portfolio assessment is somehow easier or less rigorous than a multiple choice test. This afternoon, Ali, a child with a severe discrepancy between his ability to decode and his ability to comprehend big ideas, who has difficulty constructing a paragraph, described the Battle of Lexington and Concord like a movie, play by play, just the way Joe Sherman, the best History teacher I have ever witnessed work, taught it, with far more supporting details including the actors, what they did, and their motivations, at a higher level that was needed to meet the minimum standard. Rather than stopping Ali, I made the conscious decision to allow Ali do his thing and process the content like a movie, simply because it seemed the appropriate thing to do in the situation. While at times making progress today felt like sucking an ocean of knowledge through a straw, today felt right.

I don't remember falling asleep with all my clothes on, but I was awakened by Joe's howls of gamer rage, so I invoked the "one and done rule," only managing to pry him away from that horrible Xbox with threats of pulling the plug on it forever, so that he can go to baseball practice at 7 am tomorrow morning and I can sleep in peace.

Tomorrow, haircuts, Jim's funeral, papers to grade, and a party to attend. Have no idea how I will get it all done.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Science Fiction

Science fiction was one of the interests shared with me by my late friend Jim Auden, who suddenly passed away last week. Whenever I talked about Ray Kurzweill with Jim, we would talk about science fiction works he used to read. I would go on prattling about how the singularity was near, and that neural implants were a virtual inevitability. His response was that he would not be around when that happened. I responded that he should be writing science fiction because that would be fun.

A few weeks ago, while waiting for the copier, Jim was reading a book he had seen a student reading called By the Time You Read This I'll Be Dead. After Jim responded to my inquiry about how he liked the book and I asked him to tell me about it, I shuddered and made a comment that I prefer not to dwell on the subject of suicide. Jim's arguments in favor of a right to die with dignity bothered me, but I have never taken a strong position on the issue, as my focus always goes back to what can be done with the gift of life, as I am by nature an optimistic person, and always get back to the question, "what are you going to do about it?"

The subject of death came up a few times in our conversations recently. Jim had mentioned to me that he had not been sleeping that well, and I recommended that he do a sleep study, since my bi-level BiPap machine is what keeps me functioning during the day and probably keeping me alive. Jim's reply was that taking care of his health was not a priority for him. Kurzweill, on the other hand, according to the article mentioned above, takes over 150 pills per day and hopes to live long enough to become immortal. Given the code Kurzweill has created and work on natural language, amplified by the power of Google, similar to the way the "code children" evolved fromthe work of the character Aaron in the television series, Revolution, I wonder whether Kurzweill's objective has already been achieved. Having cut my teeth during college on Icelandic kennings, and having connected with Boethius' thoughts on facing the executioner as described in Consolation of Philosophy, I have concluded that through words we are able to connect with timelessness, and wonder whether, on some level, life and death is but an illusion.

A few weeks ago, at an in-service led by Mr. Sherman, who teaches U.S. History to 1865, who I co-teach with. Mr. Sherman recruited Jim, who co-taught with him last year, along with current History teachers to be his "plants" as he demonstrated how to use Town Hall Meetings to engage learners. Joe Sherman facilitated a Town Hall Meeting with all of the other teachers to discuss which was the most important technology ever developed. Jim had the winning argument that day, that the printing press enabled spread of knowledge, making many other inventions possible. Clearly the majority were thinking along the similar lines, as one person chose the alphabet, and I chose the Internet, although other notables included agriculture, the wheel, and clothing. The leading arguments were all tools that amplified the human ability to communicate at points in history that Kurzweill and others I have been reading might describe as phase shifts.

Time to bind up these wounds and get to back to the work of preparing young minds for an uncertain future.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

More changes of state

Yesterday, during the middle of 1st period, Dr. P summoned the entire staff for an impromptu staff meeting to deliver some unexpectedly sad news. As the staff gathered, the administrative team monitored the classes from the hall. Everyone wondered what was happening. Had we received a bomb threat? Were we all getting fired?

My mindset was at a total mismatch to the situation, considering the gravity of the moment. Although Dr. P maintained his typically even-keeled expression as we entered the auditorium, concerned looks and worried comments from other teachers who noticed that something seemed out of place should have been a cue that, perhaps, I needed to be a little more concerned. However, I was looking at the day through the visor of a sports gladiator preparing for just another game in a long season, feeling particularly indestructible. "Bring it on," I mouthed under my breath to my friend Louise Lawyer, sitting behind me, who will be retiring this year.

"I just worry that maybe I did something wrong," Lou replied with a grave expression.

Why shouldn't I be confident, I thought to myself? 4 hours of sleep the night before was plenty. I had an effective start-up routine, a solid lesson plan for teaching area and perimeter which had engaged even my dysfunctional 4th period class, had turned in my schedule recommendation letters that morning to the Special Education Department Chair, albeit a day late, and was reasonably well-prepared for my 12 pm meeting with Dr. P, the school's Testing Coordinator, and my Instructional Coach. Although my U.S. History to 1865 alternative assessment binder for Alah had invited scrutiny from our locality's auditor for some minor matters of form, as well as questions the auditor had raised with me about whether word banks would be considered valid by evaluators on April 7th when they review Alah's binder, Ms. England and my Coach had me in a position where Alah and I knew we could both be successful, despite my feeling that the odds were stacked against us. With a student fully committed to the process, I was envisioning hoisting a skull and crossbones flag. "Life is a game, this is fun," the little voice in my head told me. Chaos around me, for some reason, has always calmed me.

Having awoken with the decision to utilize Tony Robbin's "global metaphor" strategy from Lessons in Mastery to re-frame the the delivery of bad news of progress reports to my 1st period class, as just the results of a few games in a long season, as just my way of preparing students for the big game 11 weeks way, with Interim Reports a week away, I had placed mints on every desk. While students quietly worked on their warm-ups, I had "We will rock you," by Queen, playing in the background. When Ms. England calmly summoned me with her characteristically warm smile, promising to watch my class, "Good news! Looks like you have extra time to complete your warm-ups," I encouraged my class.
After all of the teachers and staff had been seated patiently in murmuring auditorium waiting for a few stragglers, Dr. P informed us that Jim Auden, our colleague, who had been a Special Education Teacher at our school since 2001, had unexpectedly passed away of unknown causes the night before. We all gasped, as the room fell eerily silent.

After school, later in the day, when Alah and I went to the teacher's lounge so that I could by him a soda before we got down to the "bidness" of doing his Friday history assessments, as I glanced at the empty coffee carafe on the counter, I reflected, "So that's why there was no coffee in the Teacher's Lounge today."

Mr. Auden, who once responded to my question of why he did it, insisting that he had all the money he needed, had quietly been providing coffee for the entire staff. It bothered my sense of justice that Mr. Auden was paying for everybody's coffee, on some level, in silent protest. What bothered me most was that I had never noticed anyone else, other than me, cleaning the coffee pot.

Personally, while I appreciated Jim's kind gesture, I had stopped drinking the coffee after my first week. Frankly, it tasted terrible. The calcium deposits in the coffee maker needed to be flushed, and years of bitterness had soaked into the plastic. Preferring the taste of my Nestle's Clasico instant coffee to Mr. Auden's Maxwell House in a blue can, feeling a little uncomfortable with a dysfunctional dynamic, I preferred to make my own instant coffee.

My old friend and former mentor, Gene Scales, at Allied Plywood once told me that he never came to work to make friends, but that if a friendship developed, he was okay with it. I've always had the same attitude about keeping work and friendship separate. When it comes to work, I maintain a low-key, non-judgmental exterior. While I greet others with a genuinely warm smile whenever I make I contact, because I genuinely like people, make no mistake, I am all business. I play to win. If I make a friend while conducting business in my typically calculating fashion, as if I were playing a game of chess, I am genuinely surprised and appreciative when a friendship develops, because making friends has never been my purpose when I wear a tie.

Funny, the business of education is all about nurturing and caring. What an oxymoron! From the day I met him, in contrast to me, Jim Auden had been cultivating me as a friend, looking out for me at every turn.

So today, I have been unable to conduct any business because, frankly, I feel it would be totally inappropriate for me to simply move on without pausing to reflect and appreciating everything Jim did for me. Deep down, I feel guilty for never reciprocating sufficiently. I feel empty because, not one to reveal my deepest feelings to a colleague, not once did I communicate to a friend the extent to which I appreciated everything he had done for me, but instead maintained a poker face, because that's what players do.

It bothers me that I was not a better friend to Jim. If it were not for Jim, I doubt I still would be teaching today. I would likely have been toiling away, in quiet desperation, in some low level clerical or retail position, drowning in debt, feeling resentful and unappreciated, feeling cast aside by Marymount University's Professional Development School wondering whether I had been blacklisted, feeling like a poker player playing a losing hand, but still listening to Tony Robbins, still hoping to find some strategy for digging my way out of a deep hole, but possibly considering personal bankruptcy. Instead of enjoying marital bliss, maybe my financial problems would have been just too much.

One day in 2012, just before Christmas vacation, I had picked up a substitute teaching job from a robo-call after finishing a long-term sub position in a Cat-B position where I had taken over after a teacher literally abandoned her classroom -- fortunately, I did not earn a contract, because Cat. B is not for me. Jim literally chased down Dr. P to have him observe my teaching, which led directly to my opportunity to take over a 6th grade math classroom last year at this time, a class that ended the year with a 93% pass rate on the state testing. Luckily, I had stumbled upon the right fit.

That morning, Jim observed me telling fart jokes, such as "gas, always funny, and "there was something in the air," I repeated as the punchline, while swinging the door open-closed. That day, I had closed with a tall tale about Jethro, a high school student who had ripped a stinky fart, as everyone roared with laughter. Jim was impressed at how the class responded to my repertoire of cuing strategies derived from Responsive Classroom and Chris Biffle's Whole Brain Teaching Videos, which Shannon Melideo had introduced to me in her class on Lesson Planning. That day, feeling the end was near, I had decided to not worry about how others were perceiving me, to just be myself, to have fun, and just play. "What did I have to lose?" I thought to myself. Seeing something unusual in me, Jim did something he had never done before. He recommended directly to Dr. P, his mother's close personal friend, that Dr. P needed to hire somebody.

I never communicated to Jim how much I appreciated how he had stuck his neck out for me. When it comes to friendship, my voice long before I ever met Jim, had become muted.

We live in a cruel world, and the teaching profession had been particularly cruel to me before I met Jim. Jim gravitated to both me and Lou Lawyer because of a philosophy we shared that is often at odds with how the business of education is often conducted. I think Jim would agree with me that, in the business of education, appearance, process, and Type A personalities are typically overvalued, curriculum pacing is typically inappropriate, and unique styles of thinking are typically under-appreciated.

In my view, the most vital thing a Special Education teacher must do is endeavor to overcome the learned helplessness of students who lack the strategies and self confidence to wire their own brains for success, being too quick to cede that responsibility to others. Only through the calculated cultivation of self-reliant, rational thinking, can educators counterbalance the tyranny of "social proof" and despotism.

John Locke in 1690 in The Second Treatise on Government, argued that revolution against monarchies, in particular James II, was justified because the social contract had been broken. Locke argued that everybody had a natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and that nobody, even the King had an inherent right to do what he pleased and infringe upon these rights without the consent of the governed. Today, over 300 years later, Americans too often cede their natural rights because of sheer ignorance.

Yesterday in Mr. Sherman's class on U.S. History to 1865, Mr. Sherman challenged the class of 6th graders to interpret a passage from Locke which had inspired Thomas Jefferson as he overcame writer's block in drafting the Declaration of Independence. The smart, funny, popular Landon, had chosen an incorrect interpretation. Alah, on the other, a student with a decoding problem, who never raises his hand, had chosen the correct answer, refusing to budge, even though just about everyone in the class was supporting Landon's position, because he knew that he was right.

I wish I could have shared that moment of triumph with Mr. Auden. Jim would have appreciated the miracle I had witnessed.

Later in the day, I ran into Lou, who was at wits end with Alah's defiance, which had gathered momentum after she criticized him for logging off improperly. Alah, who I know cues off facial expressions, was unaware that Lou had just lost her best friend, and that emotion was coloring how she was responding to him.

Alah and I finished testing and cleaning up the room around 6:30 pm. He had been trying to call home for a few hours. Later, we learned that his mom had been turned away at the school. Somebody had told her that Alah had already left. Because it was dark, I drove Alah home. During the ride, I shared with Alah that Lou is my friend, and asked as a favor to me, to please apologize to Lou on Monday, even if he did not really mean it, because it was the right thing to do.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Gearing back up



The Washington Post has had a number of articles recently which have helped me both appreciate the climate of the school where I work, and appreciate the challenges I face. Results matter. As educators, wrestling with data comes with the territory. When I finish posting this, I will get down to grading, something I have been avoiding for my entire 4 day snowcation, but I am running out of time. Students have a right to know how they are doing. The culture of the middle school where I work demands that I get progress reports to students roughly every 2-3 weeks. Parents are supposed to sign these, but what I have found is that these reports often never make it home. Instead, for those who care about how they are doing, students tend to use these to identify tests or quizzes that they can make up, and to help them identify missed assignments.

We don't have data walls, a practice which is fairly common in elementary schools, although we do have a "Value Added" spreadsheet and a "Data Sorter." Communication of results is done differently by different teachers. Individual progress reports, as a rule, are sent home every few weeks. We are expected to make frequent calls or emails home, if necessary, well before the end of grading periods. I prefer to treat everybody as an individual. If nobody is getting it, that tells me that my teaching has been ineffective and that I need to make changes. The thing I avoid doing is blaming students.

The place to start making changes, in my case, has been classroom management, as "disadvantaged students" such as Pablo, Kendell, and Peter came out of the Winter Break seemingly determined to disrupt everything I was doing, and make it impossible for me to teach. Fortunately for me, my devil's trio were disrupting classrooms across the school, and fortunately for me, my strategy of collecting behavioral data was adopted across the board, because all of their teachers were facing the same problems. The data supported suspensions and other disciplinary actions, and slowly the adults have been taking back control of our classrooms.

Another thing I needed to do was to improve my classroom transitions, especially entering the room and getting to work immediately, sharpening pencils, utilizing the routine suggested to me by Dr. P. When I found students continuing to mill about, I decided to lock the door, line up students before class, and explicitly remind students about my expectations for how we enter the room before I let them in. A few habitual offenders, some of my girls from my first period class, commented how much they hated coming to class -- I took that as progress, because despite their complaints, I was able to work with them during the entry period.

With my students, it takes longer to teach concepts than it does with typical students. Given the pacing pressure I face, I am being constantly challenged to streamline what I teach. That need to teach efficiently came to bear while teaching our measurement -- students needed to be able to convert from smaller to larger and larger to smaller units. When I had attempted to provide context about the different kinds of measurement, such as length, weight / mass, capacity, etc., as well as the two main systems of measurement, the U.S. Customary (Standard) Measurement System, and the Metric System (System Internationale), I read selections from a wonderful book called Millions To Measure.
Similar to the way my 3rd graders made it initially impossible to read quality children's literature when I was a new teacher, Kendell shut me down. So I backtracked.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, I focused on the mnemonic BUM SUD (Bigger Unit Multiply and Smaller Unit Divide). By reducing teacher talk and increasing student practice time with an easy procedure for using a completed measurement equivalents chart and calculators to convert measurements, I was able to get students engaged in an activity where all could experience success. Even Pablo was enjoying success before he was removed from my room because he had been suspended.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Attitude Adjustment, a mantra of the Lord's Prayer

Don't moan the darkness,
Praise the light. Give gratitude.
Every footstep praise.

Last night, Les Brown, one of my heroes, somebody I follow on Facebook, posted an admonition on Facebook to avoid people who are toxic to you, because some people are just bad for you. Given the population of students that I work with, I responded, "What if the toxic person happens to be a 12 or 13 year old student of yours?"

This has been a week of tears for a couple of girls. Diana was in tears after I exclaimed: "You're done, submit the test." after Diana was disrespectful to both me and a teacher who shares my room while she was at Lunch Bunch to finish a district test in math that she had been working on for 4 days -- she did not know the material. She was not alone. Four other students who were trying to finish that test, after 4 days, and another student with whom I was working 1:1 with his portfolio assessment for history, had their opportunity to finish taken away because Diana decided to begin mouthing off to two teachers. Diana, who rarely says anything, but just sits there with a dull expression on her face, began spewing venom. Since the other teacher was in the room, I walked her to the office and found the School Counselor. She started bawling. Poverty crushes souls. As an old truck driver I once knew might have observed, Diana was like a crab in a boiling pot, pulling down any crabs trying to escape the boiling water.

Tasked with the goal of helping every child succeed is challenging my creativity and my ability to suspend my disbelief. As I learn to chunk the elephant down so that I don't continue to overwhelm 12 and 13 years old with force-feeding them entire elephants on a daily basis, I will dig into my magic back of tricks and pull out the 2/10 strategy, find something to praise about a difficult student 2 times a day, for 10 days in a row. We shall see. We shall see. I will pull out a strategy from Tony Robbins: fake it till you make it.

Thank God it's Friday. "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, they Kingdom come, thy Will be done as earth as it is in heaven. Give us our daily bread, our bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not unto temptation, because Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen." Today, this will be my mantra.

When I received the death notice of somebody I did not really like, it brought up a log of negative emotions, and I felt a little guilty. Today is a great day to bury a 35 year old grudge.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

32 degrees and rising

Ice glistens on trees,
Schools have a two hour delay --
Another reprieve.

The inevitable can only be delayed for so long. I think I will sleep for a few hours. Then I will get two Individualized Education Plans (IEP) ready for meetings. Tomorrow at 11:30 pm, immediately after my difficult 4th period class, I will lead an IEP Meeting.

I did my first one on my own on Monday. The Department Chair was not there. The Assistant Principal came late and left. Thanks to a dear friend who will retire this year, who helped me at the 11th hour pull everything together, the meeting went smoothly.

Tomorrow, I will launch a new unit on Measurement with my 4th period class. Materials are copied, but I'm not clear about how I will go about teaching procedures for converting measurements. I will review the standards I am supposed to be teaching. I hope I do not sleep more than 6 hours. That would be disastrous.

International Baccalaureate (IB) Auditors will be on site tomorrow.

Feeling a little overwhelmed. Need to chunk it down. Need a little rest. A little rest will do wonders. Wake up swinging. First things first. No other choice.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Wittman: ‘Holy Crap’ Let’s Not Celebrate Being Above .500 « CBS DC

Wittman: ‘Holy Crap’ Let’s Not Celebrate Being Above .500 « CBS DC

Click on the link above for some great sports talk radio!

When I was in elementary and middle school, before doing my newspaper route, I would always start my day by reading the sports page of the Washington Post. When I went to the library, I often chose biographies of my sports heroes, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens. Nobody had to tell me to "choose a variety of genres."

What I love about sports, as much as I have always enjoyed competing is the drama, the characters, the moral fiber needed to become a great athlete and win a championship. When my friend Bobby Richie and I used to shoot baskets in his back yard, we would always pretend to shoot the winning basket, and call out the play by play in our best announcer voice. That was fun.

So many attitudes I have about teaching come from lessons learned from sports, how to win graciously, how to learn from losing, how to prepare, how to put myself in a winning attitude came from sports. My music training under Ellis Chasens didn't hurt. My expectation was that I would win.

When students celebrate earning a C, my response is typically, what can you do do even better the next time? If students fail, I tell them that I don't care about grades, what I care about is how well they show their work, how well they prepare. I tell them that, if they do a great job of preparing, their grades will take care of themselves. That is the message that Coach Wittman expressed today on Lavar and Dukes on 106.7 the Fan. Listening to Coach Wittman on the Fan, I was pumping my fist while parked in front of my house. Chad and Lavar have developed great rapport with Coach, and helped me feel even more connected to my local basketball team.

Imagine John Wall winning a championship in DC, wearing a Washington Bullets jersey ... I hate the name Wizards, what a travesty! DC should float the name change by having the team play wearing classic Bullets jerseys in a game -- throwback jerseys! My buddy who coaches a championship football team, who I struck up a conversation with because he was wearing a Wizards jersey, agreed, a John Wall Bullets Jersey would sell.

Time to go back to school. Can't leave my class unplanned. I won't let down Dr. P. Plus, I have a mountain sized chip on my shoulder from all those who said I couldn't. Dr. P has challenged me to do my job and differentiate so that all children can be successful, and I plan on rising to meet the challenge. Yes!