Category Archives: Elementary

Waiting to be told?

By Tom

After our new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, stepped into a public school last week, perhaps for the first time, she told a journalist that the teachers seemed to be “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

Maybe they were, but I doubt it.

If they’re anything like me, they have a pretty clear idea of what to do.

Last week, for example, while DeVos was visiting a school, I was teaching in one. And I spent most of the morning helping my fourth graders finish their reports and come to logical conclusions.

Their reports were about Native Americans in Washington State. From the early days through the settlers. After a short discussion the consensus was clear; the only logical conclusion was that America stole Indian land.

It was hard to argue with that conclusion.

Later that day I was working with the afterschool “ELL Homework Club,” a free service we offer to our many recent immigrant students. The last kid in the room was picked up at 5:10 by a mom who was born in Pakistan and fled to Thailand, where she had kids before moving to the U.S.

The mom was apologetic. Her appointment with a refugee counselor ran late. We talked for a while and I told her about my experience working with some teachers in Pakistan a few years ago. We agreed that her daughter stood a much better chance of getting an education here in the U.S. than back in Pakistan.

That said, she was worried about recent events.

After listening to her concerns I felt the need to apologize, “Please know that I, along with teachers everywhere, welcome you and every other immigrant. We’re glad you’re here and we value the diversity you bring to our school community.”

She seemed glad to hear that, and a little surprised.

No, Mrs. DeVos, I’m not waiting to be told what to do. I know why I’m here. I’m here to explain the dissonance between past and present; the contradiction between what we should have learned and what we aren’t doing. I help ten-year-olds understand how a nation that barged in and took land from people who lived here for “Time Immemorial” now arbitrarily denies access to legitimate refugees.

My job is to help them understand our nation’s sad, sloppy slog toward progress. How a nation that had slavery fought itself to end it. How a nation that imprisoned Japanese-American citizens liberated Europe and shut down Auschwitz.

But there’s more. I work with America in the present. The America I see in my classroom. Kids whose families long ago came from England, Ireland and Italy, and kids who came last year from Libya, Vietnam and Pakistan.

I know exactly what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to teach.

School Choice

I’m getting a new student tomorrow. I haven’t met him yet, but I’ve met his discipline record, and it’s staggering. He’s packed more misbehavior into his short life than most of us commit in a lifetime. Not only that, but academically he’s at least three years below the rest of my class.

Before school I’m going to meet with my new student, along with his mom, the principal, the assistant principal, the dean of students, the school counselor, the learning support team and the para-educator who will work with him one-on-one throughout the entire school day. We’ll review his IEP and work with the behavior plan established at his old school in a way that fits the resources and capacity of ours.

How do I feel about my new student?

It would be easy to resent his arrival and fret over the possibility that he’ll disrupt the carefully constructed learning community that I’ve established. I could easily wonder “Why me?” and look for every opportunity to kick him out of the classroom, perhaps for good.

But I’m optimistic. I sincerely want the best for this little guy, and I honestly believe that my classroom will be the best place for him.  I want to work with my team to make this situation successful. I want desperately for him to look back in ten years and see his fourth grade year as a turning point.

And trust me, he will.

Coincidentally, our next Secretary of Education will spend tomorrow explaining herself to the Senate Education Committee. She’ll tell them about the wonderful things she’s done as a billionaire philanthropist in her home state of Michigan.

Most of those things involve pushing the agenda of school choice. School choice advocates want to increase the number of charter schools and they want parents to use vouchers to enroll their children in private schools using tax money that would otherwise have been used for a public school education.

Charter schools and vouchers can be great for those families who take advantage of them. Although many don’t, some charter schools outperform non-charter public schools serving the same population. Some private schools do, as well.

But not everyone gets to go to those charter schools and private schools. And sometimes those schools decide that certain students “aren’t a good fit” for their school. And those students get to go back to the regular public school, a school that has no choice but to accept that student and goes out of its way to accommodate him or her. The kids who do stay at those schools stand to benefit when the “misfits” leave. Their classrooms are quieter and there’s nobody slowing them down.

And if that wasn’t unfair enough, the charter schools and private schools then get to brag about how their schools are outperforming the nearby public schools. Even when they aren’t.

I wish Betsy DeVos (and her boss) nothing but the best. She is, after all, about to be running the federal department that oversees my profession. And he’s going to be president. But I want both of them to remember that public schools are not just the default choice for those waiting to be rescued. Public schools are, and always have been, thriving communities that enthusiastically and effectively serve every kid who happens to live nearby.

Including my new student.

Teacher Dreams

imageIt always starts with a dream. A real dream; not an aspiration or goal, but the kind you have when you sleep. One year it was a poorly-executed field trip to Manhattan (with fourth graders) and another year I had a class of forty but no classroom. I was expected to teach them out on the lawn.

In this year’s late-summer teacher dream I was giving a practice spelling test to my kiddos and the third word on the list was “sh*t.” It was a difficult situation, especially trying to come up with an appropriate context sentence. I remember silently cursing the publishers from whom we adopted the curriculum.

My annual awkward teacher dream is how I know my summer is winding down. The next phase involves completely going over my plans for the year. Then there’s the “Leadership Team Retreat” where we revisit our School Improvement Plan and chart out corresponding Professional Development. After that there’s a few days of moving furniture and putting up bulletin boards, some whole-staff meetings, a slew of online, state-mandated health trainings and before I know it, kids.

But let me back up a bit, to the part where I go over my plans for the year. One thing I’ve noticed is that as the years go by, I find myself changing things less and less. Back in the day, I would practically reinvent myself every summer. Different homework plans, new classroom management programs, alternative seating plans, you name it. But now, thirty-three years in, I find myself merely tweaking.

When I first noticed this trend I felt lazy. Is this what it feels like to be burned-out old-timer? Perhaps. But maybe it’s what it feels like to be a competent veteran. I think about the major changes I used to make – classroom management, for example – and I honestly don’t feel compelled to make any major changes. Not because I’m afraid of the effort, but because it worked last year. And the year before that.

Change is good. But so is repeating something that still works. I guess the challenge is trying to figure out what to keep and what to tweak.

And believe it or not, the only thing I’m going to totally overhaul this year is my spelling curriculum.

I wonder why.

Thirty-Two Down…

factor_tree_32Wednesday was the last day of my thirty-second year teaching. Besides a flurry of part-time teenage jobs, I’ve never really done anything else and I honestly can’t imagine a different career.

Despite my apparent longevity (or stagnation) I am not the same teacher I was back in 1984. I’ve learned a few things, sometimes the easy way, but mostly the hard way. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  1. Get good at classroom management. It’s not the most important thing we do, but none of the important things can happen without it.
  2. Relationships matter. Especially your relationships with the principal, the office manager and the custodian.
  3. Don’t pull maps down past the line that says “Don’t pull past this line.”
  4. Don’t lose your school key. It’s a huge mess.
  5. Take your job seriously. It’s about the most important job you can imagine.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You aren’t as special as your mother said you were.
  7. Stay in shape. That’s good advice in general, but this job definitely has a physical component. I’ve seen teachers let themselves go only to have their careers cut short.
  8. You can’t change people. I’m not talking about students; changing students is actually our job. I’m talking about other people, like colleagues and parents. It might be nice to change some of these people, but you can’t.
  9. This is not a competitive job. Trying to be the best teacher is a waste of time and energy.
  10. The reason we have assessments is to improve instruction. It’s not the other way around.
  11. Don’t go to work when you’re sick. Don’t call in sick when you’re not.
  12. The kids who need the most love are the hardest kids to love. And you should sit them towards the front.
  13. Go to most of the staff parties, but don’t bring your spouse; they won’t enjoy it. And don’t get drunk.
  14. Don’t expect anything productive to happen when you have a sub.
  15. Work hard, but sustainably hard. You’re not being paid to work 70-hour weeks, and doing so will have a negative effect on the 35 hours for which you are being paid. Know when to quit.
  16. Grade papers immediately. Student work does not become more interesting over time.

And finally,

17. Support your union. Those are good people.

It’s been a great thirty-years. That doesn’t mean every minute of every day was bliss, but it does mean that I can look back knowing I’ve done something important with myself. And that’s saying something.

And I’m not even close to being done. In fact, I’m shooting for fifty. So that’s thirty-two down and eighteen to go!

The Homework Debate. Again.

Homework-1By Tom White

It seems like every few years we go through this. Parents and teachers who hate homework tell us how bad it is. And teachers that don’t hate it keep assigning it. Students, of course, mostly don’t like it and mostly do it anyway. Mostly.

So which is it? A waste of time that keeps kids from enjoying their childhood and keeps families from doing Fun Activities together? Or an essential extension of the school day, providing practice and reinforcement of the skills and knowledge students learned during their time at school.

It’s probably both. Or either, depending on what the homework actually consists of. Continue reading

Shopping Mall Schools and Department Store Schools

Cambridgeside-GalleriaBy Tom White

There’s a large shopping mall near my school that functions the way many schools do. Although the stores all share the same parking lot, utility service, and roof, they all operate independently. They employ workers on their own, set their own prices and treat their customers as they see fit.

Likewise, many schools have classrooms that share the same general space, serve the same community and teach to the same standards, but have little else in common. The students have different routines, use different books, and do different projects and assignments.

I also teach near a department store. It operates somewhat like the larger mall, with separate departments that focus on specific products with separate workers who understand those products, yet the entire department store is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

Department store schools have separate classrooms that focus on specific grade levels or subjects, with teachers trained to teach in those specific classrooms, yet the entire school is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

My school is definitely a shopping-mall school. Continue reading

Washington State’s Cursive Bill

roachSenator Pam Roach introduced a bill last week in Olympia that would require schools to teach cursive writing. According to her, reading and writing in cursive is “part of being an American.” I don’t know about that, but as a third and fourth grade teacher with over thirty years’ experience, I do know a lot about cursive writing.

And what I know tells me that this bill is doomed. At least I hope it is. Continue reading

High-Cap SLPs Should NOT Align with Grade Level Standards

I teach a class full of fourth and fifth grade students who are all identified as Highly Capable. They are all above grade level in reading. A handful are on grade level in math. Half are accelerated one grade level in math. A third are accelerated two grade levels in math. One student is accelerated three grade levels in math!

At my fall conferences each year, I interview each child, asking about their strengths, their weaknesses, and their goals for this school year and for the future. I ask what the adults in their life can do to help them.

While the students talk, I type as fast as I can, taking notes on all their answers. I admit, I guide a few students toward choosing certain goals. Then I turn to parents, asking them what they would like to add. Often they say, “Nothing, really.” Their child has said everything they intended to say.

I use a template for those interviews that has the date and the name of the student and all the adults in attendance and all the questions ready before I start. As soon as each conference is over, I print two copies—one for the parents to take home and one for my files. Once the conference week is done, I send the whole file electronically to my Highly Capable coordinator.

Those interviews are my Student Learning Plans for the year.

I just read “Feds: IEPs Should Align With Grade-Level Standards” on disabilityscoop.com with the US Department of Education statement that all IEPs should conform to “the state’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled.” There is some leeway, though, for the students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. For those students, states are allowed to establish “alternative academic achievement standards.”

Why should I care about the federal guidelines for Special Education? After all, I don’t teach SPED! The truth is, though, in most states, gifted education is part of Special Education. (Both groups of students fall under the category of “exceptional children,” after all.)

So I look at the guidelines and make one change: There is some leeway for students with the most significant cognitive differences—students whose intellectual abilities are the farthest from the norm. For those students, states are allowed to establish “alternative academic achievement standards.”

Obviously, it doesn’t make sense for me to use grade level standards to write learning plans for students who are working above their grade level. I can write learning plans that target higher grade level standards. Or I can go sideways and write SLPs that address the issues my individual students most need to work on this year—organization, time-management, interpersonal skills, team work.

I am so happy I am allowed to do this.

Now if I could just get individualized report cards that lined up with the levels my students are working on. Or if I could have my students take their SBA tests on their academic level, not their grade level …

Mathphilic

Recently I read a New Yorker article about Brian Greene’s multimedia project, which paid tribute to some of Albert Einstein’s discoveries. It was launched on the centennial celebration of his general theory of relativity. Brian Greene is one of the more famous string theorists due to the popularity of his books which have included Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe among others. He is a brilliant physicist and mathematician. In the article the author relates a story about Greene being set to the task of figuring out how many inches it is from here to the Andromeda galaxy by his father… when he was five. Not typical five-year-old work. Which then segues into a “consolation” for mathphobics that even Greene struggles to comprehend the homework assigned to his children in third and fifth grade.

“It’s all about strategies—‘Come up with a strategy’— and my kids are, like, ‘I don’t have a strategy, I just know it.’” Really? He has time for infinity, but can’t seem to piece together strategies for how students can learn to work with numbers? Continue reading

Positive Behavior Supports

This year my district adopted Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), so our teachers got several days of training. In August I attended an unpaid PD day, mostly as a show of support for my new principal. (Remember my article last year “TPEP Is Killing My Principal”? He resigned in the spring. He’s now working for a small private school—and looking a lot more relaxed.) We had a second day of training right before school started and a third in September.

The feds recommend PBIS on their site (http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html). One goal of the Department of Education is to decrease expulsions and suspensions. After all, students who are out of school for discipline issues are not likely to make academic gains while they are gone.

On one hand, PBIS focuses on teaching and modeling correct behaviors and offering tons of positive support. On the other, it mirrors RTI in that it helps schools identify Tier I, II, and III level behavior and the types of interventions appropriate at each level.

My class helped make videos of how to behave on the playground, in line, and even at the sinks outside the bathrooms. They love watching themselves show off how to do things right! Our school now has common expectations for the halls, lunchroom, recess, cafeteria—with the entire staff is using the same language, from the four expectations to the numbered noise levels.

common_expectations

voice_volume

Unfortunately, this year we are struggling with a number of Tier III students. So far PBIS isn’t a magic solution for those students.

Our principal, counselor, and interventionist are dealing with emergencies all day, every day. Experienced, seasoned teachers are strained and strung out. Teachers that last year I encouraged to go out for National Boards are equally strained and strung out. As much as we want to fix everything immediately, it’s impossible to effect big, systemic changes overnight.

Under PBIS, my classroom is both a time-out space for students to write reflection sheets, and it’s a haven for emergency evacuations. Late in September, while I was working with my math group, I looked up and realized there was a bunch of “littles” in my room. The dozen second graders had entered so quietly I hadn’t noticed! They were sitting crossed legged in the front of the classroom, hidden by the big fifth grader desks. Their teacher had sent them to my room for safety.

I peeked my head out the door. Three administrators stood there, observing one small student. The administrators said it wasn’t safe to bring my class through the hall to lunch. I had to find another solution, for them and for the second graders suddenly in my care.

How can we solve the problem at our school? We’ve met with district administration and our union president. Multiple district administrators have spent extended time at our building. We’ve received extra support in terms of additional trained personnel. We are working on problem-solving every way we can.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to do small things that might make appreciable differences.

I have one little guy who is a frequent flyer in my classroom. Call him Greg. He comes in often to fill out a Time to Reflect sheet. He’s not very cooperative. He’ll knock over a chair or make rude noises.

But I saw him in the office with an ice pack a couple weeks ago or so. I said, “Oh, honey, what happened?” He told me he hurt his eye. I said I was so sorry and gave him a hug. He melted into me. The principal gave me a surprised look—that was not his normal interaction with adults. But she said, “Good for you, Jan.”

A few days later I saw him in the office again. I said, “Hey, Greg, how’s it going?” It turns out he’d earned a reward and was in the office to collect. I told him how proud I was of him and gave him another hug. He clung to me again.

Now whenever I have a few extra minutes I stop by Greg’s classroom. I kneel by his chair. I ask him to read to me or show me what he’s writing. (His teacher is delighted that I’m giving him this extra support—I did check!)

This week when I said, “See you later,” Greg said, “No.” Surprised, I asked if he didn’t want me to come by any more. It turns out he didn’t want me to leave.

Ok, Greg is not a Tier III kid. He’s a Tier II. But he’s the one hard-to-manage kid who’s frequented my classroom. And if I can be one more adult building one more positive relationship with one more kid in my school, it can’t hurt.

And I also bring brownies for the staff room.