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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dad's letter to Peggy Noonan

As I worked to finish entering my grades just now - they were due on Friday - physically, spiritually, and mentally drained, in my inbox I found a reminder of my dad's larger vision of the world, which seems lacking from political "leaders" in general. Despite the all-nighters, the after school sessions, daily lunches with students, the leaving of nearly everything in my personal life on the back burner during the school year, as a teacher, thanks to this little reminder I found in my inbox, I think I will be able to soldier on and draw whatever water remains left in this bag of minerals, and complete my dreaded, highly fictionalized "value added chart," a tool I was supposed to be using the entire year, but cast aside as non-essential because every moment was about survival, and I simply did not have the time to do it when I was supposed to be doing it.

My dad often reminds me that certain problems cannot be solved at the ground level, that it is not totally my fault that 50% of my students did not pass their state test. 83% had not passed their 5th grade state math test. Talking with dad yesterday helped me accept the reality that what I did does in fact represent value added. Still neither Ali's 200 point gain from 282 to 482 in math, nor my overall median gain of 44.6 points, nor even Ali's growth in reading level from pre-primer to 5th grade, nor his pass advance on his alternative assessment binder, nor the overall 88% pass rate for my other prep, US History, has managed to sooth my searing frustration with the overall outcomes, and the sad reality that I was not able to get more of my students to care about themselves, invest in their own future, and "lift their own weight." I remain highly disappointed by the results.

When a rising 6th grader does not know his 2's, 5's, and 10's facts, still has no concept of what a fraction means, is uncertain when to push the division button when a problem directly calls for division, consistently sequences number lines in descending order from the origin, and drool literally seems to drip from his mouth as he inanely smirks crying out, "Cease!" because it draws negative attention, and totally shuts down any learning on a daily basis, it's difficult to assign blame for all the teachers before who passed this impoverished, feeble minded child forward. Moreover, I do not feel terribly responsible for continuing the trend, when anybody could see the poor child all along should have been in a "basic skills class." Whenever I "grade" Peter's work, my connective brain pulls out a description of grading in Five Rings, written in his old age by Miyamoto Mushashi, Japan's greatest samuri. Musashi explained that fencing grade material should be use for fencing, and cabinet grade hardwoods such as cherry or maple should be worked by only the finest craftsmen. Peter, honestly, is fit to be working with firewood, not with ratios and equations that remain well beyond what Vygotsky calls "the zone of proximal development," or in other words the sweet spot for learning. At the left side of the bell curve, it's hard to conclude that the curriculum for these "broken" children is not developmentally appropriate, that trying to teach with rigor, even in a self-contained class, only leads to frustration, wasted resources, and pulls the learning down of those with learning disabilities who can feasibly be saved.

Whenever we discuss matters of education, which is whenever we speak, which is every weekend because my folks are always worried about me and I refuse to have these conversations over the phone, dad reminds me, "it's the system." Dad sees the world through a set of social lenses and invisible structures he developed while studying at the University of Chicago Law School immediately after leaving the Air Force in the 1950's. In 1984, frustrated with conclusions I had drawn about American racism after spending my entire holiday break at the Library of Congress poring over newspapers from the early 1900's, riveted by what I had discovered about the general acceptance of Eugenics, while completing a late paper about the build up to 1941 for Dorothy Brown's U.S. in the 20th Century, it dawned on me how great it would be to do as Boswell did for Samuel Johnson and write a story with a happier ending, so I began started thinking about writing what would be what eventually became yet another late paper later that Spring, and questions that have haunted me for my entire life.

30 years later, I am still consistently late with my paperwork, not a great attribute for a teacher. Fortunately, others have always noticed that I have other qualities, which is why I have empathy for my students with Learning Disabilities. 30 years later, I remain in the habit of always searching for solutions, and now, even at the 11th hour with my outcome still in doubt, lacking sleep, running out of time, what I found in my inbox has caused me to pause from my deeply habituated necessity thinking, and the consider some possibility thinking.

Yesterday. dad mentioned he would be writing Peggy Noonan. I was blown away with his argument, which I am taking the liberty of posting here:


Your article in today's Wall Street Journal correctly pointed out the growing disconnect between the American people and today's leadership of both major parties, as well as all our third parties.

Attached are two papers describing two initiatives. The first one is what I sent to President Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq. The second is the Platform of the recently formed Unite America Party, that offers a peaceful "Second American Revolution" based on a Just Third Way version of our founding principles. When brought to the attention and adopted by grassroots America for America, these principles will, in the words of Victor Hugo be "more powerful than all the armies of the world."  (Part IV of the Platform deals with global and national security affairs in ways consistent with the first attachment that could still apply to today's mess in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and the Holy Land. I apologize in advance for sending you so much to scan and then think about, but I'm aware of your background and cannot think of any thinker and writer in America who could better appreciate these ideas.

Ronald Reagan was one of the twentieth century’s preeminent grand strategists.  He laid out his grand strategy in his first major foreign-policy pronouncement on February 22nd, 1983, celebrating George Washington’s birthday.  He emphasized “our responsibility to work for constructive change, not simply to preserve the status quo.” “History,” he declared, “is not a darkening path twisting inevitably toward tyranny. … It is the growing determination of men and women of all races and conditions to gain control of their own destinies.”

President Reagan, who started his career as a labor leader combating the threat of Communist infiltration into the movie industry, called on all American policy-makers, both Republican and Democrat, to recognize, as he put it, “the central focus of politics – the minds, hearts, sympathies, fears, hopes, and aspirations not of governments, but of people – the global electorate.” He concluded, “The American dream lives – not only in the hearts and minds of our own countrymen, but in the hearts and minds of millions of the world’s peoples in both free and oppressed societies who look to us for leadership.  As long as that dream lives, as long as we continue to defend it, America has a future – and all mankind has reason to hope.”

President Reagan was the last president to recognize justice, especially economic justice, as the key to America’s mission in the world, just as George Washington was the first.  He recognized the economic justice of broadening ownership of all forms of productive capital, just as Abraham Lincoln recognized through the Homestead Act the importance of broadening ownership of land, which in 1862 was the major source of wealth.  Above all, Ronald Reagan recognized economic justice as a universal human right, essential to political freedom. 

In 1985, Senators Richard Lugar, Chris Dodd, Russell Long, Paul Laxalt and Steve Symms and Representatives Phil Crane and Michael Barnes co-sponsored the formation of a bipartisan Presidential Task Force on Project Economic Justice to advance “capital homesteading for every citizen” as a regional strategy for countering Marxist advances in Central America and the Caribbean.  Ambassador William Middendorf chaired the task force and I was appointed deputy chair. On August 3, 1987, President Reagan welcomed the task force’s final report, High Road to Economic Justice, by declaring that, “Economic and political freedom are inseparably linked. … What better weapon against Communism than millions of working men and women owning the enterprises in which they work and reaping the rewards of technological advancement.” (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06vP84SqnS4)

The threat today is not Communism imposed from the top, but something even worse.  This is the chaos deliberately engendered by religious fanatics who believe that no force on earth can stop them, least of all the American military.  They are right in assessing the limits of the military, but they are 100% wrong in assuming that they are the only source of power on earth and heaven.  They are wrong because chaos can trigger paradigmatic revolution, the revolution envisaged by Ronald Reagan and encapsulated in the slogan, “Close the Wealth Gap: Own, or Be Owned.”

Norman G. Kurland, J.D. President
Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ)
P.O. Box 40711, Washington, DC 20016
(O) 703-243-5155, (F) 703-243-5935 (E) thirdway@cesj.org
(Web) http://www.cesj.org 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Black Widow

George Bernard Shaw's oft quoted observation that all the cool people are in Hell is analogous to how middle school students become drawn into cliques where rude behavior is celebrated, and daily put-downs directed towards "nerds" who actually want to learn and teachers who want to teach evokes nervous laughter from fellow students instead of condemnation. For students with learning disabilities, negative peer pressure, combined with years of frustration, often breeds self-hatred and false beliefs that "God hates me," or "I am stupid," or "I am just not good at Math," all convenient excuses for academic failure.

When 11 and 12 year old students with disabilities conclude, "I don't care," and their body language screams "I don't want to learn and you can't make me," where does responsibility for academic failure lie? What if, in fact, apathy has become the norm, and a true passion for learning is now actually the exception? Given, what seems to me, a developmentally inappropriate amount of one-size-fits-all pacing pressure inherent in the process, how is it possible to persuade every child that a positive academic future is important to them?

My natural tendency, given the mandate that I must produce results, was to utilize the median as the "best measure of center" in order to make instructional decisions of how best to marshal my resources of energy and time. I thus cast out my outliers and strove to build a critical mass of caring students by shifting resources away from those who showed they were incapable of caring and investing my time and energy to students proportionally based on receptivity. Considering the 38 point median point gain from my class's 5th grade state testing to their 6th grade results, a cohort which had a 17% pass rate in the 5th grade, given that 100% of my students who tested this year showed some growth, and over half of them passed, I think, once again, my numbers speak for themselves. Still I am in no mood for celebration because I am highly disappointed that certain students failed.

I realize that there may be unintended consequences of the quarantine strategy, which I adopted because, at the midpoint of the school year, given the chaos being introduced into my room on a daily basis by a few little monsters, I felt that the many were unable to access the curriculum. I did what I felt I had to do. Certain students arrive as "damaged goods," lacking skills or any self-respect or respect for others. Unless something changes drastically, these damaged children only become increasingly hardened in their identities as monsters. When my efforts to intervene only seemed to backfire, I retreated. Yesterday, I dubbed one little girl, whose father cried earlier in the year during an intervention meeting arranged by the Counselor, "the Black Widow." Elise could never look me in the eye after making a disparaging, disrespectful comment. One time, she claimed that I had "slammed the door on my hand." Another time she complained, "you spit on me." Kendell, who carried himself around the school like a Mafia Don now resides at a military academy. Pablo, once again cried crocodile tears on Thursday, "Please, please Mr. McKurland, I'm sorry," as I removed him from class after another student complained that Pablo had hit him as he entered the classroom. Peter, the other day, was unable to independently complete a worksheet with 2's, 5's, and 10's multiplication facts, and recently labeled his coordinate planes from 5 to 1 on the x+ axis, from -5 to -1 on the x- axis, from 5 to 1 on the y+ axis, an -5 to -1 on the y- axis, despite being provided a number line. I learned to not waste too much time with him, because both he and I knew that the curriculum was inappropriate for him.

I was given the opportunity by Administration to give over half of my students an extra week of remediation, which was offered because a number of students had done poorly on their Reading Tests -- we tested our remediation group yesterday -- I rearranged my room to put those who had tested in one spot, and clustered those who had not tested in threes. One student, who at the beginning of the year I described to his father at Starbucks as "the Poster Child for Learned Helplessness," started coming to my room every afternoon after scchool. With my help, Alan changed his grade from an F to an A. Another student, Justin, who hated math at the beginning of the year, whose parents I got to know after coming to his house a few times earlier in the year, finished the year collecting ratio data from a cup of Lucky Charms as well as a cup of Jolly Ranchers, which he used to create circle graphs and bar graphs, having changed his grade from a low C to an A over the past two weeks. He wanted more opportunities to practice! On Wednesday and Thursday evening, I worked with Ali at George Mason Library -- his attitude had slipped the past few weeks, and I was worried that I could no longer count on him to pass. Ali responded. Ms. London and I will take him to McDonald's if he passes! I can't wait to get the results!

Ulysses,who tested with the rest of the other 6th graders a week earlier, finally got the concept that he does not fit in with the cool kids, Kendel, Pedro, and Peter. Definitely, I made a difference.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The King of Second Chances

Curious Link Between Handwriting and Cognitive Development

On Friday, my wife Karen and I ate a celebratory dinner. We had already planned to attend my sister-in-law's birthday dinner Nam Viet Restaurant in Arlington, but after Dr. P came to my room to assure me that I would have a job in July, and also assured me that I would also be able to teach during the summer program, the dark cloud that had accompanied the awful Human Relations letter declaring my pending termination at the end of June seemed to physically lift. After receiving that last most threatening letter, I went "dark," ignoring what seemed a career death spiral, while single-mindedly preparing my students as best as I could, a group of students, most of whom remain firmly on the bubble. Another bit of good news came from Ms. England, who offered the option of backing up state testing for students who might benefit from an extra week of preparation.

Last year, after taking over a class midway through the year, I had an epiphany: I discovered, largely by accident, that if I offered "the gift of hope" to students accustomed to academic failure, most would accept my offers of a second chance, particularly after I personally spoke on the phone to almost every parent on my roster. Last year, after I told students, that just like Big John Thompson, former Coach of the Georgetown Hoyas during my college days, I didn't care where students started, but only cared where students finished, most seemed to get the message that they could help themselves by getting help.

This year, with my own self-contained classes, as well as a number of teamed classes, I had another epiphany: I cannot force a student to care, even after I repeatedly reached out to parents to build a relationship. As I explained to my class today, after once again showing Pablo the door because he and Kendall were disrupting a test preparation session, with Pablo demonically begging to be let back in, I explained that I could offer my time after school, I could show students how to solve math problems in a variety of ways, I could reward students with sips from "the cup of success," I could offer all sorts of accommodations, but unless they decided that doing math problems was important to them, nothing I could do would make a difference.

A few with parents with whom I have managed to build relationships, but far fewer than I would have liked, have been amenable to my feedback. Once again, I am seeing students overcoming debilitating patterns of learned helplessness, thanks to "the gift of hope." Only students with hope are ready and willing to accept direct instruction. Those without hope, such as Pablo, whose mother disappeared from his life when he was a small child, only to return years later, are not willing to make the investment of time and effort.

With Ms. England's offer an extra week, I submitted a list of nearly half of my students as being "on the bubble." About half of those whom I did not put on the list I am confident will pass. The other half not on the list I did not feel were on the bubble.

The 6th grade curriculum can be overwhelming to students who are not automatic with their math facts, who enter the 6th grade without an ability to visualize how fractions, decimals all relate, who have never mastered place value concepts, and who have been bombarded with procedures, procedures, procedures.
Those with auditory processing disorders, disorders of visual motor integration, or emotional problems, not to mention poverty and everything associated with that, including reading levels 2-4 years below grade level, often become accustomed to academic failure, and rather than working harder, actually give up. With me always being accessible to students during lunches and after school every day except Friday, I cannot fully understand why more did not take advantage of my offers

With a few making it impossible for the many to learn, I had to make tough decisions this year and do what I could to salvage the year for those who cared about their academic success by quarantining the "viruses." By documenting disruptive behaviors and encouraging other teachers to do the same, we were able as a team to collect enough data to show that certain students were being defiant across the board, which justified removal, suspensions, etc.

A few who always came for after school, and always came for lunch, behaved for much of the year like "feral kids," which made it difficult for others to come in and learn, even when the tutors from the local magnet high school for science and technology would come. Why did I put up with them? One student, Sheen Estevez, as well as his "frenemy" Ulysses, would bounce off the walls, escalate their voices, and one time I caught Sheen chasing Ulysses around the room with a pair of scissors. Ulysses often complained that his dad treats him like a dog, and makes him sleep on the floor. He worried all year that he was going to be homeless in May, the uncertainty eating away at his ability to maintain self control. Sheen worried that his mom was going to beat him, and once started the day by showing his bruises. But they kept coming, and now things seem to be changing for the better.

The field trip to DC seemed to help Justin connect with me, as I came to understand his personality better when he ate a "fossilized scorpion" lollipop. Another thing that helped was when I ran into him while he was fishing at Lake Accotinck and I was walking Mabel. Justin hated math at the beginning of the year, but I could see how smart he was in Mr. Sherman's social studies class, when he had a high level of interest. Justin has accepted the deal.

I had coffee at Starbucks with the father of one student, whom I described as "the poster child for learned helplessness." Andy had a full time aide throughout elementary school because of his ADHD. After the meeting at Starbucks, Andy's family staged an intervention. Andy has been in my room nearly every day for the past two weeks. Andy learned that I really meant that I would replace 4 F's for 4 A's, with teacher assistance.

Why handwriting? The other day I was explaining to students that, when reading a problem, students need to be like a caveman hunting rabbits: they need to see the rabbit, not the grass. As a 6th grade teacher, having witnessed a "crop of students" with high levels of learned helplessness, clearly not enough emphasis has been placed on developing the brain circuitry needed to construct their own representations, and as a result too often students are unable to "see the forest for the trees" and identify what the question is asking them to do. Students who throughout their entire educational experience have been forced to "learn" an overwhelming array of facts and disconnected procedures, through generally closed-construction test questions, tend to be terrible problem solvers. With History being removed from state testing, I can foresee an opportunity to re-calibrate and integrate disconnected Social and Physical Sciences with Core Math and Language Arts Curricula, through a more open-ended project / discovery model, opening up over the summer. Perhaps next year students will be able to do more open-ended projects, and apply math, writing, and reading procedures in an exciting way. Although such a model would certainly be messier and far more difficult to control, students would have more opportunities to be creative. Students need more opportunities to not trace shapes, but to be messy, to deal with uncertainty, and work on things that interest them.