Saturday, December 17, 2016

Memories- and why I think the history of Special Education is all about me

I started volunteering in high school in a school for special students. It was a way to relieve senoritis. One day of the school week I was allowed to miss classes (I had long ago met graduation requirements)  and walked down the block to an old wood frame house that was converted into a series of classrooms.

It was a school for students with emotional disabilities- mainly autism. I recall one young boy about  7 or 8  years old who ran passed as he got off the bus.  I was concerned about where he would go.  "Don’t worry," the teacher told me, you’ll find him at the map.  And there he was perched on a chair peering at the wall map of the world when I entered the room.  “Did I know the distance from Vienna Austria, to Madrid Spain?” 


He did.  And reported  what I could only assume was the accurate mileage.  Google Earth didn’t exist.  It was years until I could verify.

The curriculum in that school mostly consisted of surviving.  Everyone was on their own page, and no one expected anyone to return to some general education program, but no one knew what to teach differently either, so we colored pumpkins in October, Valentines in February and tried to begin the day with the pledge of Allegiance end it with the good-bye song and not got bitten in between. 

In college I majored in psychology. The University didn’t have an undergraduate education program.  And anyway I was way too cool to be an education major.  It was the 1970s, the women’s movement had happened, women who would have become teachers in the '50s and '60s became lawyers and doctors, women who would have become secretaries became teachers.  I was way too impressed with my intellect to aspire to be a teacher.  I worked in different projects for different professors.   I gave rats varying concentrations of artificial sweeteners and measured how often they pressed the a bar, I worked in the very first years of Raymond Romancyk’s  Child Institute and I worked in the Preschool Program run by the psychology department to generate data on sex roles- or at least provide an easily assessible population to study.  

I learned about education in all three. From the rats I learned that individuals  will do just about anything to receive a reward that is immediate, intermittent and sweet.  From the preschool program I learned that a stimulating, safe language rich environment, is really great place to learn things and I often wondered why that seemed to evaporate after early childhood.  And from the Child Institute I learned that there was no task that couldn’t be broken into component tasks, modeled, rewarded and learned.

I used all those lessons in my teaching career.

94-142 was just around the corner.  My experiences in  special education in high school and college were the prelude to the special education age.  The large pumpkin/valentine cutting school was on one end of the spectrum of educating the difficult to educate- we don’t actually know what to do so let’s do what the mainstream does and hope it helps.  The early years at the Romancyk Institute were the exact opposite.  At least in those years, there was nothing in the instruction that was like general education.  Every task was finely analyzed,  specifically taught and tons of data were collected and analyzed. 

If anything, over the last 40 years- I’ve watched special education instruction move in all different directions, but always struggle between that push and pull between adapting a program so it is,  or at least it is a close approximation of general education program, while realizing that the essence of special education is be definition special- something that has to be much more finely tuned than the throwing the general education spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks.

 I figured out after college that what I really wanted to be was a special education teacher and I attended Rutgers University for M.ed.  There I received some very fine, instruction in thoughtful, reflective practices of instruction for students with disabilities.  I worked in a program for students with a variety of disabilities in a preschool program located in public elementary school.  My first experience of special education located back in the community school.  I learned so much and left with a firm desire to be preschool special education teacher- I was fully convinced that was by far the place where special education had the most effect on a student's life.

I left New Jersey, returned to New York City and promptly got a job teaching middle school in the South Bronx. 

But that's a story for another entry.

You have no IDEA

Sue and I on her last day of class for the university students.  The cake reads You have no IDEA how great you are!

Forty years ago I signed up to work as an assistant teacher in the preschool program run by the psychology department at Binghamton University.  The woman who was the head teacher (actually only teacher outside the unpaid assistants-we received college credit instead of salary) became a friend for life.  Our careers mirrored each others in a see saw- funhouse mirror kind of way- She was an early childhood specialist, I was an early childhood special education teacher, she became a special education teacher in the middle school high school, I became a middle school /high school special education teacher in the middle school/ high school, all this over a period of four decades. of course in the end she earned her Ph.d,  I retired- sort of.  She teaches at the university where we met and last week she invited me to talk to an intro special education teacher's program class about my experiences. Before class the students gave her the above cake, which says you have no IDEA how great you are.  The pun is that IDEA is the acronym for Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act- the legislation that makes special education- special education.

So I figured I should write something of my experiences down. I am too wordy.  This I know.  But I figured I should write everything I could think of and then glean a meaningful presentation out of my verbosity.  Whether I accomplished that, who knows, I do know that I wrote way too much for a 45 minute presentation, or even one blog entry, but I thought I would stick pieces into the blog, a few memories at a time.

There comes a time in every course, when I am hot into some very important topic – undoubtedly-gleaned from the course curriculum, aligned with both state and common core standards, structured restructured and tweaked again to showcase the very best current teaching practices and then I notice someone waving his/her hand from the back of the room enthusiastically.

My immediate response- "just take the pass and go!"
Often that satisfies the hand raiser, but there are times where that is not the response the hand raiser wanted to hear. This is what follows -͞ "No, I just wanted to ask you a question.͟"

Okay- if I’m having a good day I remember to say, ͞ "Is this about algebra, (the French Revolution, the stages of Mitosis….etc.)?"

But if I don’t , what I get is a question that goes something like this, "Miss- have
you ever dated a Black man?" Or "Do you really like teaching?"

Both questions and a thousand variations of them have the same purpose, to derail the lesson. My
response is always this, " I’m teaching math, (or history, or science) now, but if you are really interested come see me at 3:00 pm- there is nothing I like to talk about as much as I like talking about myself."

 Except maybe writing about myself.

A few years ago I was teaching summer school at a new fully air conditioned state of the art high school. It wasn’t our school but we had located there for the summer along with several other programs from the hot steamy brick buildings of the regular year. I got on the elevator with a couple of my students.

They fancied themselves thugs or modeled themselves after their favorite rap singer at least in
appearance. They weren’t, of course, they cried when their girlfriends broke up with them, trembled
with fear when I called their mothers and smiled happily when I drew a happy face on a perfect paper.

But the image was definitely gansta. Most of my greetings started with the phrase-͞ "pull your pants up.͟"

We got on the elevator one day, and we were joined by a student from a much more restrictive environment, program than ours, (code for more handicapped, or even just obviously not quite right). The young man looked at me and then volunteered the information that he liked to
look at inappropriate websites. I looked at my gansta look alikes and waited for the guffaws. But they
didn’t come.

One of them leaned over and addressed the young man in a loud stage whisper. ͞ "Dude, so do we, we just don’t tell the teacher.͟"

And the young man got off at the next floor. Then, my companions cracked up. I complemented them for their restraint and added, "that laugh if you may but it was the kind of program the young man attended, that I imagined myself teaching when I decided to become a special education teacher."

"͞But instead, you got us," one of them replied.
The door open, and I got hugged as we left. ͞"Don’t touch the teacher, don’t touch the teacher,͟ "I

“You know you love us,” they reminded me as we all went off to factor quadratics of solve systems of  equations.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lorraine the Interpreter

I think her name was Lorraine.  She was older than me. I was twenty three, so she could have been twenty-five.   My first year of teaching she worked as a paraprofessional in the program I was assigned to. She was big and black and there was something about her that scared me.  So I didn't mess with her. She had a six year old son and if he is alive and well today then he is older than the sum of Lorraine and my ages that year.   If I had to ask her to do something, I said please and if she did it I said thank you.  And that was about it.

I did pretty terribly the first year I taught.  I was filled with great ideas, I was filled with enthusiasm. I filled with recent knowledge of the nascent special education laws.  None of this made me any good at my job.  I was assigned a school in the South Bronx, just as the Howard Cosell made famous the line, the Bronx is burning, during a Yankee World Series game. The school where Lorraine and I worked, was on Fox Street.  The school was built in the 1960's but the apartment buildings around it arose decades earlier when the elevated train line first brought families from the overcrowded neighborhoods of Manhattan to the tree-lined streets of the Bronx.  And then for so many reasons, (and everyone has their own theory) it all went bad.  Building after building, on block after block burned.  Across from the  school were a series of  apartment buildings with multi-floors but no facades.  The looked like  doll houses or stage sets.  Or like the photos we had seen of Dresden Germany after the Allies had bombed it. My boyfriend turned husband and I looked at each when we went to scope it out and wondered how we had missed the war.  We lived less than ten miles away as the crow flies.

It is not surprising that the students in a special education program in a neighborhood that was such a conglomeration of stresses, were difficult.

The man in charge of the program, was ill suited for the job. He constantly pointed out my short-comings but had no constructive advice. (That is the kindest way I could put it).  I cried most nights.   But one day he made Lorraine cry too.  I went to her.  I comforted her.  I imparted my best words of wisdom.  "Don't cry- he's stupid."  Actually I probably called him an asshole.   I wouldn't say we became fast friends, but we were allies, we were on the same side and she was my interpreter.  She explained the things that someone living ten miles away, not completely in the suburbs, not completely in a segregated community, but ignorant of that world nonetheless, just didn't get.

Like one Monday morning after a weekend when the thermometer never dipped below 95 degrees, we chatted about our weekend.  I felt annoyed that I had spent it huddled in the bedroom where our one feeble air-conditioner unit was located.  She spent it with a six year old in an un-air-conditioned city housing project apartment. "How did you survive?" I asked.

"You walk around in your underwear, run the fans full blast, and take lots of cold showers,"  she explained.

And then there was the "n" word.    Again, my public school education was not necessarily in schools that were completely segregated.  Just the programs we were in were.  But I learned some rules.  And one was, that the "n" word should never be used for any reason.  A half century later I still won't type it.  But the "n" word flew through that school with a frequency only slightly less than the usage of "and" and "the."

Lorraine found me frustrated after a period of trying to restrain its usage.  By that time, Lorraine had happily taken on the task of educating Teacherfish.    "Don't look so sad,"  she said,  "that's just what we call each other."

I thought about Lorraine all summer.  It was hotter than hell here and now we have multiple air conditioning units and far more expendable cash to find alternative solutions to huddling in the bedroom.  I hope Lorraine does too.  I hope she retired as a teacher with a big teacher pension and her middle-aged son is thriving as well, but I also thought of Lorraine when Isaiah called all of us racists this week.  The "n" word figured significantly in his rant. Isaiah arrived in our highly academically oriented high school where I work half time.  Not because Isaiah is academically gifted, his IEP  assigns him to the Intellectually Disabled category, but because the Department of Education feels it is educationally advantageous to place students with IEPs in this highly competitive program.  We'll see how it works. Its been a difficult week for Isaiah and those around him.

One of the twelfth  graders in the program who got to overhear the discussion asked when did the "n' word replace the "er" at the end with an "a".  For the record I had no meaningful response to either Isaiah or the twelfth grader.

Four decades later I still need Lorraine.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Last year I went with the Union to Lobby Day.  Our esteemed governor was too busy with the Charter Schools to meet with us but he sent an aide.

I told the story of Mohammed.

When Mario, the esteemed governor's father was running for governor (its a family thing), he ran a campaign ad filmed in a small family grocery store.  His parents were immigrants who found their American Dream  at a grocery store not far from the school.  Not so far from our homes either.  

When my co-teacher asked Mohammed if he wanted to own a chain of groceries like many of the students in the school aspired to, Mohammed shook his head, "my father doesn't want me to stand on my feet fourteen hours a day like him, he wants me to go to college and have a career."

Mohammed came early everyday, and took down the chairs.  Mohammed stayed late everyday and helped clean up, put the homework answers on the computer, bailed me out when I got stuck on the computer, and tutor anyone who came by for help.

I told the governor's aide, all I wanted from the governor was to fund public education so Mohammed would  have the opportunities that his father did.

Yesterday Mohammed graduated.  He was afraid his parents would not be able to make it, so he asked my co-teacher if we could go.  We did.  So did his parents.  Mohammed won the science award, he won several big scholarships.  

Outside we hugged and said goodbye.  

Mohammed thanked me for everything I did. 

No, thank you Mohammed.

You made it all worthwhile.