Saturday, October 31, 2009

Parent conferences

I cried all the way home. Steven's mother said I was a bad teacher. I didn't change his name in the blog. That incident happened 31 years ago and if Steven and his mother still walk the face of the earth today- I'll take the risk that I am the only one of that trio who remembers the story. What I remember about Steven is that he was the one student of Caucasian decent in the first special education program I taught. One day he showed me a hunter's license. One day he used the pumpkins I had naively lined the middle school windowsill with, as bombs. If someone had the temerity to walk the street in front of the middle school, he attempted to drop a pumpkin on his/her head. He was unsuccessful with the pumpkins, I never heard how successful he was with a hunting rifle.

Open school night came, that night 31 years ago and I was completely aware of my incompetency as a new teacher, yet Steven's mother was quite willing to discuss it with me. She advanced the theory that Steven was failing all his subjects because I was a bad math teacher. I didn't see the inconsistency. A veteran teacher reminded me that my teaching skills or lack of teaching skills wouldn't have explained why Steven had been placed in a Special Education class, 5 years before, before I had graduated high school.

But it didn't help. I cried all the way home.

And I feel the need to relive that story every open school night.

No one told me I was a bad teacher this year. I did hear a lot of stories. I did talk a lot. But I will only recount one here. (Names changed, back to the present)

I passed Kenneth and his parents as I walked down the hall. Kenneth has had an IEP since I met him in 7th grade, but as he entered high school last year, his ability to cope with academics and obtain good grades soared. He qualified for the honor society and when it came time for me to ask him about his career goals, he told me he wanted to be a doctor.

Kenneth and his family (which is doing a great job of keeping enrollment up in our school- soon there might be one member in each grade) were huddled around Kenneth's progress report. The grades in general continued to be good, but he had failed science. The junior science teacher is a tough cookie. Oh- the teacher in charge of the honor society was making a mighty fuss - how disappointing, how could Kenneth fail science, she expected so much more.

"He'll fix it," I said, "he's going to go to medical school to become a doctor so he can take care of his old teacher in her old age."

"Do you want a doctor who got a 55 in science, taking care of you?" Honor society teacher asked,

"Yup," I nodded and moved on.

"She has confidence in you, Kenneth," I heard the oldest sister say as I headed for the next conference.

I didn't cry on the way home.
(I don't know if Kenneth did)

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The teacher across the hall was a dither. Her advisee, Darlene, a quiet tenth grader who in the jargon of the Department of Education is an English Language Learner, had received a 50 or (F) in Art. Art?

A couple of weeks ago I had been told to speak with the Art Teacher, she was upset that Darlene had drawn devil horns on a mask she made. And worse she had laughed in her face when she asked her why. None of this added up. I knew Darlene, Darlene's goal always appeared to me to make herself as invisible as possible. But I never got around to asking the art teacher what happened.

But Darlene's advisor was worried and I figured it was time to get to the bottom of this little mess. So I got the Art Teacher, the ELL teacher(who luckily speaks Darlene's language) and Darlene altogether in my little overcrowded room.

And here's a paraphrased version of what happened.

Art Teacher: We did a project on symmetry and the students had to draw the other half of an African mask, that I gave them. (there was more details with discussion about color and measurement, but that was the general gist) And Darlene did a great job. So I gave her an A and told her to mount it on a cardboard and that I would definitely display it at the school show. Then she ruined it by drawing devil horns. And laughed at me.

Me: (I am not King Solomon or even Judge Judy-the best I could do) Darlene do you remember drawing a mask in Art class?

Darlene: Yes

Me: What did you do?

Darlene: I draw a mask,

Me (inspired now) Do you know why you drew the mask?

Darlene: To get a good grade,

Me: But what were you suppose to be learning?

Darlene: To draw a mask.

ok time to go to the translator.

ELL Teacher: (In Darlene's native language) But what was the purpose of drawing the mask?
and I won't belabor the point- but we didn't get any farther in the native language than we did in English even when I carefully drew the letters H B R and Q and asked her to identify the ones with symmetry.

In the native language Darlene continued to describe what must have been her very perplexing experience.

Darlene: I draw the mask and I think the art teacher like it. She give me a paper to paste it on. So I paste it but the glue move around and it make the paper dirty. So I draw ears on the mask to hide the dirt. And I draw very carefully so both ears are the same on both sides.

Art Teacher: So why did you laugh at me?

No verbal response- just smiles and quiet giggles.

And then the ELL teacher explained that, that's what Darlene does when she doesn't understand what she is being asked.
The Art Teacher thought that was strange.

Now, I've sat in conferences, meetings and bars all over the world, smiling and nodding as someone spoke to me at length in a language where I could only catch one out of every eight or ten words. Maybe the Art Teacher has the confidence to
say she doesn't understand, or insist on find someone to translate.

Not me I sit and nod and smile.

Luckily the bell rang, the Art Teacher agreed to change the grade, The ELL teacher encourage Darlene to speak up when she doesn't understand and I shooed everyone out of my little room.
How did I get stuck in the middle of this?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Theories of the Universe

Things I would expect to hear on the school bus on a field trip.

-99 bottles of beer on the wall
- Its my turn to hold the PSP
-Are we there yet? (this one often heard when we are on the apex of the Queensborough Bridge)

What I heard today

- It depends on the DNA they can extract
-Austropithicus may have been a direct ancestor of modern humans
-The Greek alphabet sung to the ABC tune

No I did not fall asleep. Even if I had, I doubt Austropithicus has an id location anywhere where it could be retrieved by my dreaming self.

I joined the sixth grade on a trip to the Hall of Science. Their teacher was absent and I filled in. So there I was on the school bus listening to Bernie expound to Kenneth (and in Kenneth's defense he never lost interest). Bernie had a set of notebooks in which he collected things that interested him- like Fibonacci's Sequence, the epoch's of earth's history and something called the Gaia Theory.

So this, I think is what Genius must look like. I showed off Bernie and his notebooks to the 12th grade math teacher (the closest we have to a genius on our staff) and anyone else I could find, once we returned to school.

I know what to do with the other side of the IQ bell curve. Bernie - that's a whole other story.

"I was like that growing up," a staff member I shared the story with, told me. "I was interested in learning about theories of the Universe."

Me- I was interested in learning how to use eyeliner.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scaffolding. That's the educationalese word of the day.
Let's take a math problem, for example. Graph four points on a coordinate grid, draw the line that connects two corners. Find the length of the line. Now pass in the paper.

What do you get? A bunch of blank papers? A bunch of points scattered over the paper? And/or numbers plugged into something resembling a formula?

Not of course if I'm in the room- because I cheat Wait, I mean scaffold. Forget the fact that no one wants to give me the time of day on a non test day- come the quiz I am a hot commodity
First of all I write the problem very neatly, so I used to teach third grade, high school juniors also get confused by unaligned numbers, misshapen letters and lines that defy the rule of physics that says two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. I give hints, before I even leave the board. And then I flit around the room like a butterfly on roller skates, trying to get to everyone who suddenly feels like I might be the most useful person in the world.

So at the end of the period, just about everyone has gotten the points plotted, found the diagonal and one way or the other discovered the midpoint.

"Sometimes you have to scaffold," I tell the teacher. "If you fail everybody all the time you end up hating the kids, yourself, math and the whole universe. "

She nods in agreement. "But what about the real tests, when you can't scaffold?" she asks.

Knowing when and how to remove the scaffold, that's the art of teaching. Have I mastered it? Probably not, maybe tomorrow I will take off the roller skates.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Busy Room

We used to call it the Resource Room. Not that there were that many resources. Well maybe there were. Because everyone would send their half chewed, first pages filled in, out--of date workbooks, to us because they just knew we could use it. And we never knew when we might be able to use it - so we kept the unloved donations- stacks of them.

But now we are no longer Resource Room teachers, somehow we morphed into Special Education Teacher Support Services Teachers. Maybe we just lost all our entitlement to even second-hand resources. And we are supposed to be out in the world. And we are- all day. There might not be anyone in the school who hasn't heard me complain that I walk the halls and stairwells so much I should be skinny. But even the chickens come home to roost eventually and 2:30 found four of us squeezed into our little overcrowded, stacked with stacks, half room- half special services office.

The room was humming. At the desktop computer the new teacher sat trying to negotiate the quirks of the frumpy IEP program. Its unnerving to enter anything into a program without a save button.
And the student's file would not come up if she typed the full name into the find box, but somehow I knew typing the first two letters of the name would make it appear. (As I write this, I can't imagine why that worked or how I figured out to do that).

The science teacher wanted help with lesson plans, the testing coordinator was trying to locate the 10th grade PSAT applications and Serina wanted a resume.

Serina took me up on my suggestion to apply for a volunteer position at the Day Care Center.

"But, I can't work there," she reported, "I need a resume."

So I suggest she come to our room and she took me up.

I wrestled with the old laptop- the one that seemed so quick and small two years ago, but is twice as bulky as my current netbook and now can best be described as mad slow. And somehow or another I got a resume template to appear. A half hour later- low and behold a professional looking document proclaimed that Serina was an experience baby sitter who almost had a high school diploma.

"This is an import day," It's not everyday you get to produce your very first resume.

So we all shook hands and Serina took five copies and left the busy room

Sunday, October 4, 2009


September's over, I actually consider grabbing my sweater when the fire drill bells ring now. Lenasha has been hunting me down- the seniors are required to do some community service. I have been trying to arrange something with the day care center across the street. Thirty years ago when I suspected I would not make it through my first year of teaching a special ed middle school class in the South Bronx, I applied for a position as a head teacher at the very same center. I honestly don't recall if I was offered the position but I do remember deciding to stick it out with the Board of Education. So now as I approach my 55th birthday I have enough years to retire this summer. Scary on so many levels. Anyway twice before the fire drill bells have dumped us all onto the streets of Southern Queens, and both times I tried to find the director of the day care center, unsuccessfully. Friday, another fire drill (perhaps unsanctioned- but nontheless effective) sent us out again onto the streets. While the staff took down the license plate numbers of cars that refused to heed the handheld stop signs a news helicopter circled overhead, perhaps looking for a better story than middle schoolers respond to yet another fire drill in early autumn. I took the opportunity to yet again find the day care director who perhaps wasn't yet born the first time I entered the center decades ago in search of a job.

Successful at last, the director agreed to interview two senior girls (after she carefully interviewed me about the nature of our high school- I suspect she worried we were an alternative hs for some sort of trouble kids). I passed the number onto to Lenasha - the ball's in her court now.

I am waving the white flag on the IEP issue. The instructions I got from the liason person appear to be correct even if the are contradictory from previous practices and the document currently posted on the Department's website. So back to the computer and our cranky IEP computer program.

A word about the 9th grade inclusion class. Our original plan had me spending only a couple of periods a week in the inclusion science class since the science teacher is so strong and the numbers are actually reasonable. However when I did drop by my experience felt like that old self contained special ed middle school class that I wrote about way up at the top of the posting. As the decades rolled by the names and protocol changed. No longer do we pigeon hole students into a separate class in a separate wing (or basement of the school) nor do we label students Neurological Impaired or health compromised. Now we put them in the same Regent bound curriculum and bar them from high school diploma if they cannot master the abstractions of quadratic equations or memorize the Greek prefixed names of the mitotic cell division. So no matter what the IEP says I am showing up more often even though I've given up aligning my schedule withing the union contract. Good thing today's NY Time magazine article says that anxiety prone people are better when they are kept busy at work,