Saturday, December 7, 2013

Take the “I” out of Special Education


It must be my old age. But many years into teaching, the things that stressed me most my first few years just seem so miniscule now. It pains me to watch younger teachers learning the lesson that not everything is in your control and you need to accept the things you cannot change right at that moment. Even in special education, it’s rarely the kids that send a teacher home crying, it’s unsupportive co-workers. Now that I can navigate the always shifting personalities of a school better, I still don’t understand why elders in our profession make it so difficult for new teachers.

A change is coming, I can see it, a special ed “oasis,” where me-focused individuals hid is crumbling.

But I fear they are sucking the life out of everyone around them before they go.

If you’re truly here for the kids, don’t you want to see this teacher succeed, along with all her students?

If you’re here for the kids,
why do you let old school policies and outdated thinking dictate how your school is run?

If you’re here for the kids,
why do you keep telling me how busy YOU are?

And it trickles down to all staff members who are suppose to be collaborating in classrooms.

If you’re here for the kids,
why are you talking about YOUR report?

If you’re here for the kids,
why ignore a teacher who asks you about how you’re working with a student?

If you’re here for the kids,
why are you talking about YOUR feelings and your supervisor?

If you’re here for the kids,
why are you talking about YOUR schedule?

During my undergraduate student teaching in general education, I had a funny moment where I was caught off guard by my clinical supervisor’s criticism. My supervising teacher continually gave me nothing but praise. After keeping a running record of my comments during an observation, the clinical supervisor pointed out that I used a lot of “I” statements. Like, “I need your homework handed in” or “I need you to do this task for me and then come back to me.” I had never realized this. It was something I was naturally doing. It sparked an interesting discussion about how you want students to do things, but not because they’re just doing it FOR the teacher. They should be doing things for themselves, not for YOU.

I think those who are working in special education need to take a close look at how many “I” statements they are using these days and really ask ourselves if we are truly “here for the kids.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Charlotte Danielson is not evil?


(As long as teachers can still use their intuition)


“Learning to trust your instincts, using your intuitive sense of what's best for you, is paramount for any lasting success. I've trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life. And the only time I've made mistakes is when I didn't listen.” – Oprah Winfrey

The other day I just happened to catch an NPR Radiolab piece on “Choice” and being “Overcome by Emotion.” Essentially, the hosts were discussing if we were all completely rational beings, like Spock from Star Trek, would we have an easier time making choices throughout our day. In theory, you think of course, but in reality it’s our emotions and intuition that keep us out of a circle of rationality. When you finally remember your favorite cereal from childhood, you are saved from the endless oblivion of choices in the supermarket aisle.

After sharing a series of interesting stories related to emotion and choice, Jad Abumrad came to the conclusion that, “one way to look at a gut feeling is that its kind of a short-hand average of all of this past wisdom.” (Quote is at 12:30)


Teacher Knowledge
I had a light bulb moment. As teachers, so much of our day is piecing gut feelings together. What separates a good teacher from a bad teacher is strong implicit knowledge of what good teaching looks like and how to implement it. Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle refer to this as “teacher knowledge” in their work on teacher action research. Listening to the NPR piece on the reality of intuition, I was excited that there was neurological evidence to support the notion that what teachers know is particular to teachers and is important in educating children.

But then I thought, “oh, no!” This does not jive with all these “teacher effectiveness” buzzwords I have been hearing lately.

Or does it?

Teacher Effectiveness Confusion
My first experience with the Danielson framework was while working with a student teacher last spring. She came to me concerned about using “low-inference evidence” to support her work with our students who were emergent communicators with multiple disabilities. I immediately thought, “you want evidence of what my students say, only? Hmm, most of them are non-verbal… how’s this going to work?” The student teacher gave an example of grading student papers without knowing who they were, so that you would not be biased. I thought, “great, my students cannot write and definitely do not independently do worksheets.”

This was what I was thinking of as I combed through the New York City’s Department of Education (DOE)’s website for implementing the new teacher evaluation system based on the Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, also known as Advance. (Because everything needs to have its own name in NYC, can’t just be APPR like the rest of New York State.) I was looking for a better understanding and I cross-referenced the DOE’s info with the Danielson Group website and other web resources.

A Danielson Framework Surprise
I have to admit that I have come to the conclusion that Charlotte Danielson may not be as evil as we have been led to believe. It seems that its our state education departments and local school districts in their rush for accountability that may be corrupting the important work of documenting what good teachers know and do.

Shockingly, I have to say that this particular PowerPoint from the NYC DOE was actually quite helpful. I appreciated that their definition of low-inference included what students say AND do. I also got the impression that this was about improving administrators’ practices, as well as teachers. I went looking for evidence that teachers had to be robots teaching to a strict norm, but I only found it on district websites about “norming,” not in Danielson’s actually work, like here.

Teacher Knowledge and Danielson Working Together?
I started thinking: is Danielson’s work finally what we as teachers have been looking for in order to prove our implicit teacher knowledge? I have always felt good teachers should have nothing to fear about being observed; could this be a tool that could confirm that we are effective teachers?

What Low-Inference Really Means
It turns out low-inference does not just mean grading papers without knowing who the students are, but can be something like using a checklist during your lesson to document that students are meeting specific IEP objectives. Low-inference has come to have two meanings in education: low-inference observations of what our students are doing by teachers and administrators and low-inference observations of what teachers are doing by administrators.

Because I am a special education teacher, I initially thought that everything I do is high-inference, such as observing children’s movements and facial expressions and drawing conclusions, and I became defensive. Actually, everything I do in my teaching is a series of low-inference (ie. evidence-based) actions that over time have formed my intuition. This is exactly why experience counts in teaching. As teachers, we need to think about it as taking evidence-based action, which will provide low-inference evidence for administrators. We need to specifically identify the parts of our practice that causes us to form opinions and determine next steps.

To eliminate confusion though, I wished they would have just used a simple phrase like “objective evidence” instead of “low-inference evidence.” The definition of “inference” inherently means, “a conclusion or opinion that is formed because of known facts or evidence.” (Merrian-Webster Dictionary) Conclusion is in the word, and it is confusing as to whether there is supposed to be low conclusions or low evidence. A low “conclusion from evidence” evidence?

Support for Teacher Intuition
Initially, I associated the Danielson framework and teacher evaluations as an attempt to eliminate teacher intuition. Low-inference was another buzzword for rejecting teacher knowledge. But low-inference is about being specific, which I think we as educators really cannot fight. We can no longer simply say that our teacher knowledge is immeasurable, but we need to be sure that the tools that are being developed accurately reflect the murkiness of teaching young minds. We need to let our implicit teacher knowledge shine, by investing the time to understand the Danielson Framework of Teaching and use it to support our profession.

So I leave you with the two questions I have arrived at today:
1.)   Are the Danielson Frameworks of Teaching an accurate way to demonstrate implicit teacher knowledge?
2.)   How can we be sure that the Danielson Frameworks are used accurately given the complexities of teaching students with special needs?

I hope you can help me by sharing how you answer these questions and I will continue to blog as I shape my own answers.

It is time for all teachers to channel our innermost Captain James T. Kirks, because as rational as Spock was, he and the rest of the ship would have been lost without the gutsy Captain James T. Kirk in command.

Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on. – Captain James T. Kirk

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reflecting to Begin Again: Life of a Teacher


It is not until the new school comes creeping up that I feel I am really ready to reflect on the previous year. It takes a few nights of good sleep and no stress to put everything in perspective. When you’re teaching, everything is in the moment. Danielson may be looking at my lesson plan, but any real teacher knows, it’s all about how you handle everything in your classroom besides the lesson plan. Switching gears to reflecting is always tricky, but so important.

I remember in college, during my teacher prep program, how many times they stressed keeping a teaching journal. Several years in, I still cannot figure out how a teacher finds the time to do that. If I wasn’t actively seeking ways to improve my practice or planning, or researching social services for families, I was trying to get to a yoga class or meet up with friends to keep the work-life balance. I’m always jotting notes on my phone or sticking a post-it with one sentence in a folder, but a whole journal entry? Weekly?! Monthly?! Yikes.

What I have held myself to is writing an end of the year reflection. I finally sit back, take a breath and admire the work my students and team have done over the past 11 and half months. Reflection clears my mind, helps me set my goals for next year and gives me that itch to get back in the classroom and do it all over again, but 10 times better of course.

Since most of my students are non-verbal or have very limited communication, I feel I owe it to them to document all their work for prosperity. When you have the experience of being someone’s last teacher, going back and adding the moments together helps to explain why some kids get a shorter time in this world then others. That’s why its truly special education.

Challenges of Misclassification and Class Size

What makes teaching exciting is that every year you meet a new set of students, even if in a self-contained classroom you keep some students, the combination is never the same from one year to another. The school year prior to this past one was great with a slightly smaller class I felt like the data and organization queen. I was an experienced teacher hitting my stride. I feel best when I am working my hardest and everything starts to gel. Systems are in place, students are following routines and learning, paraprofessionals and therapists are enthusiastic about what they are seeing and becoming a part of it all.

This past year, I ran straight into 12 students who were all over the map in terms of their needs and learning styles. Data went out the window as I spent the fall struggling with classroom management. In special education, where not all learners are on the same cognitive or communicative level, that meant coming up with 12 individual systems. While teaching lessons and writing IEPs, I also had to spend time with each individual finding out what makes them tick and what would motivate them to buy into our classroom. Bonding is the most important part of classroom management, especially with students with significant disabilities. (Dr. Jan van Dijk’s work is so helpful in making connections.)

A big problem for teachers in New York City though is the number of students who are misclassified. So often, a 12:1:4 ratio classroom for children with the most significant, multiple disabilities becomes a catchall. (And yes, NYC(pg 24) puts 12 students who need the most individualized attention in one classroom.) Children who don’t quite fit anywhere else or who were placed there in kindergarten are never given the opportunity to move to a less restrictive environment. As a teacher, you get caught between trying to meet these more academic learners’ needs by focusing on specific emergent reading skills and leaving my other students who are working on early communication skills in the dust. Yes, you can do both, but with 12 kids its impossible to do it all well. I have training, I have tried to figure it out every minute that I’m not sleeping, and I have failed. I hate that feeling that I have failed even before I started because of the system.

My students with true multiple disabilities and complex medical issues needed my attention and it was being pulled in too many directions. These students who use wheelchairs need frequent repositioning and that is not something that can wait. Pressure sores are really important to avoid and nearly impossible to heal. It’s another thing that takes time with an individual student; especially when not all staff is comfortable working with medically fragile children it falls to me to look out for each child. It’s also my job to be sure that when a child is on a mat that the children who are ambulatory and have behavior issues are not hurting him or her! On top of that, the families that have children who are becoming significantly more medically fragile over the years also need my support.

Unexpected and Uncontrollable Interruptions

On top of a challenging mix of students, this year because of the many interruptions we never hit our grove until May and then we lost it by June. To start, Hurricane Sandy really brought our class to a screeching halt too early in the school year. Some students were out for up to two weeks and many had difficulty with their phones, so we could not find out if the families were okay. With District 75, students come from all over to our schools, so it was not guaranteed that just because our neighborhood was okay, that our students were. When students returned, it was like starting all over again to establish our routines.
           
And then in the middle of January the school year came to another abrupt stop when ATU Local 1181 of bus drivers went on strike. If you’ve followed this blog, you know my story. I actually had time to document it because I had almost no students who could make it to school. That my students lost 5 weeks of instruction due to politics, and that no one really cared because they were the students in special education, is still sickening to me. If you listen to administrators or politicians they refer it to as a couple of weeks, when it was 5 weeks, plus a vacation week before students got back to where they belonged. After an odd half of a February break, an early spring break and other events, we were never really able to get into a consistent flow the rest of the year.

Despite that, I did see growth in my students. Unlike some, I actually enjoy administering my end of year assessments. (We use the Brigance Developmental Inventory and the SANDI.) It’s stressful to sit down individually with each student with an erratic end of year calendar, but seeing a small improvement in one communication area, or fine motor skills, or maybe even math is so exciting. This year though, I felt remiss about where my students would have been if not for natural disasters and politics taking away almost 2 months of their school year. Would Jessie be reading full sentences? Would Dom be writing his last name too? Would Steven be making picture choices? Would Florentina be toilet trained? As teachers, there is so much that is beyond our control.

To Begin Again

But what’s beautiful about being a teacher is that every school year is a fresh start. One of the best parts of teaching is the automatic reset that happens over the summer, even if it’s a few short weeks for us in special education. What other career gives you an opportunity to come back to a new beginning every year? A new beginning to be the best teacher I can be and help my students achieve as much as they can. An opportunity to take the lessons from the previous years and set goals for what I’d like to do better. It’s why I can’t see myself leaving the classroom anytime soon.


            “The world is round and place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.” - Ivy Baker Priest

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How Not To Thank a Teacher


Don't Recommend that a Teacher becomes an Administrator*

After helping a colleague or having my class observed by an outsider, I often find myself fielding a compliment that actually really irks me. 

“So when are you going to become an administrator?!”

Paraprofessionals from my own class and throughout the school, who know I enjoy working with my students, often come up to me and ask why I am not an administrator. For years they have seen the best teachers move up and out and I think they are confused about why I choose to stick around. It’s a huge compliment from them.

I know they mean it in a good way and I am flattered. But I am also one of those big picture thinkers and my mind sets off on why it is that the only way to recognize a good teacher is to make them an administrator, where most of their day will be spent not with students. Why can’t I just be a really good teacher and be recognized for that? I would eventually love a position as a teacher leader, but my school is just not structured that way yet.

My natural reply is to thank the giver of the compliment and then explain that I love what I do and I am happy where I am. I could not imagine spending my days not with my students. I enjoy the unique challenges of managing a classroom and that every school year is a puzzle that I slowly, but surely, put together as I structure opportunities for my students to learn from each other, themselves and me.

Not wanting to be an administrator is not knocking administrators. I appreciate that good administrators make space for teachers to do their best work. But I think that its important to realize that a teacher’s craft and an administrator’s craft are very different, even though they are both working in the best interest of students.

If we really want to thank teachers during National Teacher Appreciation Week, we need to think about how we can respect the particular talent of being able to teach a room full of young students.

Have you ever received this “compliment”? How does it make you feel? How have you replied?


*unless having a discussion on career paths

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Alternate Assessment: Academic Learning for ALL


Let me start by saying that I am a big believer in Alternate Assessment. I think it’s important when the government passes laws like the No Child Left Behind Act that ALL truly means ALL. Now what I think of by all is probably different from what most think of as all. Most people do not know that students like mine exist; they are 1% of 1% of the population. These are students whose learning does not look like other 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

What pains me, particularly in New York State, is how we completely miss the point of alternate assessment when we start drafting guidelines that only include that students will “identify,” or “select,” to demonstrate their knowledge. My students cannot do that. But that does not mean we deny them access to academic knowledge.

In my first year as a lead teacher, I had the pleasure of working with six high school students with a range of multiple disabilities and complex healthcare needs. The warnings came from the beginning of the year, “watch out you’re going to have to do High School MCAS,” because of how demanding the paperwork would be. I never expected how much it would improve how I collect data and look at adapting materials for my students.

MCAS-Alt is Massachusetts’ alternate assessment. Each state is required by the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) to administer some form of alternate assessment to students with special needs who cannot participate in traditional exams. The goal is to demonstrate that all students have access to the general education curriculum. Students should have age appropriate access, which means they should be accessing material that is based on their chronological grade level. For example, you might thinking a 14 year old with multiple disabilities would love reading Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (for the 14th year of their life) because its simple and has bright colors, but really they are just as interested in the pictures and vocabulary in a non-fiction book on the Wright Brothers designing the first airplane.

After reviewing Massachusetts’ Science Standards, I decided that an interdisciplinary unit on "Inventions" would encompass a wide-range of motivating, multi-sensory learning experiences while collecting data for MCAS-Alt. What’s different than New York state is that I was collecting data on my students behaviors that enabled them to interact with grade-level content, rather than completing State-designed tasks. For one student, it was whether he was independently activating a switch to turn on a battery we constructed out of lemons. Another student was working on controlling her arm movements so that she could collect the materials we needed to construct the battery or other simple circuits that we built with the Life Skills’ teacher. We took field trips to a small local airport lead by a student’s father and the Boston Science Museum, where we a got a lesson in static electricity and the biggest smile I have ever seen from a student who is cortically blind and has very limited control over any body movements. Measuring their engagement and emerging communication skills easily aligned with their IEP goals. At the end of the unit, I constructed portfolios full of pictures and data charts that had meaning.

Students with complex healthcare needs just do not have time to waste on meaningless assessment tasks; two of my students passed away in less than a year after I taught this unit. I am at peace knowing that I gave them the fullest academic experience and at their funerals their parents specifically mentioned these scientific adventures. This is the power of alternate assessment when done right.

I’m sharing with you my experience with alternate assessment, because it was my hope that with the Common Core State Standards 50 states would take the opportunity to come together, rather than running in different directions and wasting energy doing the same alignments 50 times over. I will continue to share with you as I do more research into where alternate assessment has been and where it is going, including who should be participating. To start, here are New York State’s current guidelines. Two consortia have formed to design a common alternate assessment aligned to the Common Core, but New York State seems determined to continue to go it on its own judging from its current website on alternate assessment. Disappointingly, the draft now posted on the State Department of Ed website looks exactly like the Alternate Assessment (NYSAA) from previous years.

I’ll be back with more on this soon. Please comment below and share your own experiences with Alt Assessment.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The End of the Return from Bus Strike Honeymoon



Today officially marked the end of the lovely honeymoon period after the end of the bus strike when my students were so surprised and excited to be back in school that they listened to whatever I asked them to do. Today they would not. It felt like a day in September today, not March.


It started yesterday with the tickling, Juan would not stop touching and tickling anyone who came in his path, which set off all of the boys trying to tickle each other. Various consequences were threaten, it just would not stop, no one earned choice time. Today, Juan refused to go to his reading group and insisted on following the Physical Therapist (PT) around the room. I had to resort to taking his prized Dora the Explorer paddleball from his backpack. He immediately leapt to where he needed to be. Later in the day during Speech, I caught him lifting his shirt and making inappropriate gestures at the speech teacher’s back, which is usually a rare behavior for him. Since he did complete the rest of his work, he narrowly managed to earn choice time today.

Adama who did not come to school at all during the bus strike, has developed this unstoppable attitude. Now when I separate her from the group, after she hits or kicks her classmates, she talks back in order to continue to disrupt the group. She is more violent than she had been, in the past she had just been impulsive and accidently hurting her friends. Positive reinforcement is not working and I am going to have to come up with something new.

But the saddest for me was dealing with Florentina. Florentina is a student that has the most intensive sensory needs that I have ever seen. She uses a wheelchair because she walks unstably on her tippy toes. She is verbal, but speaks in memorized phrases. When she started in my classroom three years ago, every morning she would have a full blown, violent tantrum upon entering the classroom. I still have small scar marks from her pinching and scratching. People who visited my classroom back then are shocked to know that she is the same girl; her behavior has improved so much because of a consistent routine and the bond that we have formed. Then she missed almost 5 weeks of school because of the bus strike and an additional week due to doctors’ appointments and a cold.

Today Florentina lost it. When the Physical Therapist quickly transferred her, forgetting her old ways, to a new classroom chair that we received while she was out, it triggered a tantrum. She dangerously tried to slide herself out of the chair and hit or pinched anyone who came near, while crying and yelling. This is why you did not keep a child with special needs out of school for 5 weeks. It took all my attention from my 11 other students to prevent a full meltdown. I even gave her the marker that she had been fixated on, just because I knew how hard the transition was for her and that I could phase out the behavior another day. The crying continued as I tried to lead my small reading group on the other side of the room. Finally, 20 minutes later she calmed down enough to participate in a small group activity. This incident was not only hard on her, but disrupted everyone else in the classroom.

Math was also quite the challenge with Adama refusing to not touch everyone and everything. Everyone else’s new thing is to rest their heads on the table and feign tiredness. By the time choice time rolled around and I was trying to write notes home to parents, chaos had enveloped us with everyone complaining about everyone else. One or two kids having a bad day can quickly wear on everyone else in the room.

So the honeymoon is over, it’s time to revamp my behavior plans and schedule a few yoga classes afterschool. How long will it take Adama and Florentina to recover from this? Why do my other students and staff have to be distracted by their behaviors? As teachers, we welcome our students, close our doors and settle down to business, it’s just what we do. It just pains me that this loss of instruction was something that was unfairly done to my students and did not need to happen.

*Pseudonyms are used to protect identify of students