Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Burden of Building a Classroom Community

So you get your class list in September, and then what?  You're the teacher.  You have access to the room, so you decorated to meet your anticipated needs.  You also have your class lists, which provide basic information about each student from the SMS.

You could send out surveys to parents asking what they want you to know about their child.

You could send surveys to each student asking what and how they would like to learn this year.  What strategies are successful, and what simply aren't.  Who do they like to study with, or do they really study best solo.

I know a lot of teachers who don't want to know anything about their students until they meet them, feeling that its unfair to draw conclusions in advance.  That, I think is a personal preference.

I know other teachers who think it's foolish to seek out this information.  They simply don't want to get to know their students.  I find that to be a form of educational malpractice.

The relationships must come first.  One of my mantras is:  Teach the students, not the curriculum.  The state may not see it that way with its high stakes testing designed to "hold teachers accountable" for the "product" of student learning (as if we were making widgets), but it looks like I'll be around to give it another go next year.

I actually fall into paragraphs one, two and three.  And I chat up my students in the hall -- at random, if they're looking particularly happy, if they're looking particularly sad, if they seem really angry.  If I see any drastic change in mood, I'll do something, because as much as I do try to make my classroom something of a family (however dysfunctional) that makes me, as the de facto matriarch, responsible to keep things running smoothly, and make sure everyone feels like they BELONG so that learning is maximized (see, there is a method to my mushy madness).

I'm doing a book study this summer on Mara Sapon-Shevin's Widening the Circle:  The Power of the Inclusive Classrooms (as I've mentions, and as you must have figured out from my recent posts.  She writes that mainstreaming literature from the late 70s and 80s "presupposes that it is the job of the (special needs) child to fit into the existing classroom structure...little or no burden or responsibility is placed on the teacher and students in the regular classroom to modify what they do to create a successful learning environment for the mainstreamed child (or for anyone else)."

So I used the phrase "classroom community" in the title of this post, very deliberately.  In your classroom community, everyone should feel welcome.  As the teacher, it is your job to set that tone in September, model it every day, build it up when it lags, and bring new members into the fold with as much warmth as possible --  and I truly mean this whether you teach Pre-K or Advanced Calculus..  Children take more educational risks when they feel safe.  School, for too many children, is a safer place than home.  This is the part of the job not measured by test scores, but do not think that it has no influence or impact on learning.

How do you build and maintain your classroom community?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Competition in the Classroom: Yes? No? Maybe so...

...preparing our students to succeed in a complex, interconnected, ever-changing world...

an excerpt from my school district's mission statement.

From Mara Sapon-Shevin's Widening the Circle:  The Power of Inclusive Classrooms regarding traditional criteria for mainstreaming students:  "it assumes that the regular classroom will inevitably be structured competitively and that the child with disabilities will therefore be expected to behave competitively to be successful."

Alfie Cohn is unwavering in his opinion that there is no value whatsoever in competition in the classroom.  He goes so far as to suggest that teachers who walk the middle of the road on this issue do so out of a misguided fear to take a stand.

In my classroom, I find many students drawn to competitive activities.  They clamor for them.  Many of these students are competitive athletes, for whom competition is already a big part of their lives.  Others are students who I find much more willing to engage in competition than any other type of classroom activity -- even though they may not be as successful, due to their habitual disengagement.

My favorite competitive classroom activity is one I borrowed from Lauri Clarcq & Karen Moretti years ago, at the start of my career, and have since twisted into something more suited to my own personality.  It is a team game, so is competitive in a cooperative manner.  There is some measure of competency in the content required to continue to the "luck" portion of the game, but from there, team balance is irrelevant (since students tend to be regularly sent back and forth between teams at random) because point values fluctuate wildly based purely on luck.  Clear as mud?  I use it very sparingly, as unit review, but the anticipation is part of its effectiveness.

Two things I fear the "competition abolitionists" are overlooking are the following:  the nation of which we are preparing our students to be productive citizens is one driven by a capitalist economy.  We cannot deny them the experience of competition and then expect them to be equipped to handle it upon graduation, any more than we can expect them to magically be able to collaborate without having been taught those skills.  As in all things, balance is key.

The second thing, is that each of our students is an individual, and deserves to have that fact respected in their educational experience.  Just as many students benefit from group learning, and all students need to be taught the skills necessary to succeed working in a group, there are students who thrive in competition.  Those students deserve to have that learning style honored, even if it isn't currently en vogue.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Widening the Circle...First Thoughts

I'm involved in a summer book study of Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms by Mara Sapon-Shevin. I joined the book study because for the past several years I have been scheduled to teach classes with a high number of students who receive some kind of SpEd accommodations. As a regular education teacher, the sum total of my formal training in the area of Special Education is one graduate level course...in research.  Useless to say the least, but it fuled the requirement, and was the only course that fit my schedule at the time.  Since then, I have had numerous conversations with Special Ed teachers, paraprofessionals, students and parents, as well as attending g workshops and reading as much as I can to try and add to my bag of tricks so I can best serve the students in my class (read: feel slightly less like a bumbling idiot).

So here I am starting this book, and right from the introduction, I'm recognizing my own daughter. DD1 is graduating high school this very evening, and I couldn't be more proud (read:sobbing mess).  She is not a SpEd student, and I didn't think this book was about her, but I was wrong.  When she was six weeks old, we discovered that she has a life-threatening allergy to dairy. Along the way peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, peaches and sesame were added to the list, just to make life more interesting. I went back to work when she was six weeks old (and that's how we discovered the allergy) and shortly thereafter we enrolled her in a private daycare center. The director was not happy to be accepting a child with allergies as severe as hers. The bottle-only months were uneventful, and once she started solids, I just sent all her food. When she joined the toddler classes, I prepared lunches that matched what was on the daycare menu. Every. Day.  Things went pretty smoothly, the teachers were great, the only issue we had was when I asked to be informed ahead of time when a classmate woe be bringing treats for the class, so I could bring something for my daughter. I was told it was an unreasonable request. Fast-forward to the day when I brought a holiday treat for the entire class (something that was also safe for my daughter to eat) and one girl told the other kids not to eat my daughter's "weird food". No one did.  Fast forward again to kindergarten in her Catholic school where they insisted (despite my protests and evidence from food allergy advocate groups) that she could only be safe sitting at a special "peanut-free" table in the lunchroom. There were no other students with food allergies in the school at that time.  Once she came to public school -- the district where I teach -- I had an administrator address me in regard to her, with a note of pity in his voice, "now, she's a special needs student, right?" I told him no, and explained the allergy, but the fact remains that maybe if I had said yes, she wouldn't be graduating without ever havin tased a school lunch. I know, she didn't miss much, and I've told her so, and SHE surely doesn't feel any sense of loss, but the option was never there for her on days she forgot to bring something. Class celebrations are ALWAYS food-centered (and it's almost always pizza) and she cannot participate. For her, it has simply become something she is accustomed to. For me, it has always been heartbreaking. After six years of Marching Band, there was nothing she could eat at her Senior Banquet. Graduation rehearsal? Pizza for everyone. Well, not quite everyone. And I'm sure she isn't alone in our class of seniors whether by medical necessity or dietary choice. Either way, as a school community, we need to become more aware. And now that I'm no longer. "Walking conflict of interest" on this particular issue, I feel like I can make my voice be heard, and maybe make a positive change for others in the boat my daughter was in.

And many heartfelt thanks to the teachers along the way go always has Skittles or Twizzlers on hand when the other kids got chocolate. You will always be remembered, even though she woul never have complained otherwise.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I. Am. Done!!!!  I just finished (with two presentations and a paper) the LAST of the classes I was required to take to complete my permanent Spanish Certification.  (Can I get an Amen?!?)  The realization actually hit me a couple of days ago, that despite the fact that I have precisely one week of consecutive unscheduled time this summer, I am elated, because this is the first summer in several years that I am only doing work that I WANT to do.  What an incredible difference that makes!  I have more projects in the works than I care to count, all my scheduled travel is work-related, but I am unbelievably excited to get started!  I truly didn't realize what an incredible relief it was going to be to have my time be my own again.

Once I hopped down from Cloud 9, it occurred to me that this is probably the way many of our students feel throughout their time in school.  Very little of their time is their own.  Bells move them from room to room, from compartmentalized subject to compartmentalized subject -- totally contrary to how the "real world" works.  They have very limited choice within schedules of requirements packed to the hilt.  Within classes, too often the extent of their ability to make any kind of choice is limited to what font they use  in a required Powerpoint presentation.

Part of the beauty of my planned work this summer is the development of a pilot program that will (hopefully) begin to change some of these formerly entrenched systems.  The concept is a sort of "school-within-a school" that allows for natural connections between and across content areas.  Exciting stuff!  There are nine teachers from a variety of content specialties who will be collaborating on this pilot.  The pilot will continue with three consecutive freshman classes, with data examined along the way.  We have the luxury of having a summer and a school year to solidify the plans -- which is great, because there are fabulously strong personalities and undoubtedly many ideas will be bounced around before we find a landing place.  But I feel that this passion will be contagious, and will allow our students much more freedom to explore their own passions than a more traditional system.

As with anything new and different, there are naysayers, and there will be bumps in the road. We may end up with data showing that the program is a failure.  I don't think so, but we're prepared for that eventuality.  Commitment and passion give this a better than average chance of success.  Full administrative support doesn't hurt either.  :)  I will surely be posting updates here about our journey.

Does anyone have any similar programs going on in their schools?

Monday, June 22, 2015


So much has changed since my last post that I hardly know where to begin! If you're a teacher in NYS, you have some idea where I'm coming from. The roller coaster ride that has been my career these last several years is another story all its own. Shortly after my last post, I received news that I was going to be embarking on a new phase to my career-- and not by my choice. A French teacher for 17 years, I was being asked to teach Spanish the following September. My last Spanish class prior to that was as an undergrad about 20 years prior -- SPA 202 to be precise. I needed to take the Content Specialty Test in mid July, in case I didn't pass it the first time it was offered again in July. Three weeks of my life after school ended that year, 7-8 hours a day, I did pass the test. But there was a catch. Apparently I would need 15 more credit hours to make the certification permanent. My last class-- Introduction to Spanish Linguistics-- is over in two days.  I can finally reclaim part of my life. The irony, for me, has been that during this three year transition, I served as president of my local professional organization for a year, took over as director of a major district event, filled part of a vacancy as co-coach of my district's PBIS team, and this school year that is (finally) coming to an end, I have presented at a professional event every month except December and January. I've lost all of my French classes, and am now teaching only Spanish. It may seem to many people (because many have said it to me) that I should simply be grateful to have a job. I get that, and I am grateful, but only other language teachers can understand how much of one's identity is tied up in being a French teacher or a Spanish teacher or an Italian teacher.  We do so much more than teach Vern conjugations and vocabulary. So this has been equally a period of grieving my former identity, and learning to give up the autonomy that I had working with only one other French teacher, and accept that I am now "low man on the totem pole" on a larger, more contentious team. The rest (more irony) is that within my department I have become more isolated than I have been since the early years of my career. Despite all of this, I am poised to return in the fall (who am I kidding, I have exactly one work-free week this summer) to a course I haven't yet taught, but with one major stressor ?coursework) off my plate.  I am on an exciting new team that will be collaborating on a program to be piloted in Fall 2016. This opportunity promises to be a professional stretch in any case. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and I have come out the other side having learned a lot more than what has been on the course syllabi. Onward and upward to make the most of what I am given.