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, 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.