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

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.