Friday, February 26, 2010

And Now We See How That's Working For You

I am fuming, sad, frustrated, heartbroken, almost speechless.  

I met a handful of delightful and intimate friends for dinner last night.  Included were a wonderfully gifted 5th grade teacher who does wonders with EBD kiddos, my favorite art teacher and co-writer of Aunt Sally, my favorite 1st grade teacher who is forced to use an inordinate amount of energy warding off her negative 1st grade teammates, and my soul sister educational assistant of 4 years.

We first had a cocktail and chatted about my new status as grandmother.  We ordered dinner, caught up and then it started.

The EBD student by student review.  I remind you here that my students are on their second EBD teacher this year and the principal decided that the new teacher needed to continue to follow the point and level system put in place by the first replacement teacher this year.  You all know how I feel about that.  

So I find out that one of my dearest-to-me-students has been hospitalized, has dragged a teacher by her hair to the floor, has done no school work for over three months, ran from school more than once, is living with a mother with so many problems she can't find her way out of a paper bag let alone raise a troubled son, and had to have a manifestation IEP due to 13 days of suspension thus far this year.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  He is in 5th grade!!  

So, how's that point and level system working for him?

I then find out that another student is in the exact same boat and escalating daily.  

So, how is that point and level system working for him?

We move on to another kiddo who is quite interesting and endearing.  Difficult family situation and clearly on the spectrum, but nobody has taken the time to make sure that gets medically or educationally diagnosed so he can access all sorts of resources.  Anyway he is flapping, not working as well as he used to and becoming 'belligerent'.  I ask how does 'belligerent' look.  I get a description that I interpret as a kid on the spectrum trying to communicate a need.  I ask about the flapping.  They say it is happening in all environments now and throughout the day.  I then ask if anyone is addressing this stuff.  Here is what I was told.

"The social worker and a few others say he is not on the spectrum because flapping doesn't start this late in age for kids on the spectrum."

HUH?    HUH?   What?  And these incompetents get the last say on the matter?  

I remind the group that this kiddo flapped minimally in stressful situations since third grade.  That we were able to predict when he might flap and we actively did all we could to help him through stressful situations, thus almost eliminating the flapping.  Which means we were teaching him to manage his stress AND we were manipulating the environment to ensure he was stress free thus keeping his mind relaxed so he could be an effective learner.

So then my soul sister teacher assistant (SS) and I get into a debate that was very productive and scary all at the same time.  When I find out from best ever art teacher that one of the above mentioned kiddos can draw amazing pictures on an etch-a-sketch!  I ask if the EBD room is using that as a therapeutic component.  She says to me (and this is what makes me so, so, so, sad because she knows better and this is not her natural style), "When would we have him do that?  There is no time.  He does no work.  We can't reward him for that.  He has to be held accountable."  

And then she drops the bomb.

The plan is to fail/retain 2 of the above mentioned boys.   Give me a minute here.  I need to step away from my desk.

What I really want to do is to storm into my school this afternoon and lock the principal in her office and have it out with her.  Why is she allowing this to happen?

Now, dear readers, feel free to stop reading at this point and going on to some other more pleasant activity.

1.  Level systems and point systems do not work unless they are in place to help extinguish very specific behaviors AND base line data has been collected AND a thorough FBA has been done AND it is deemed to be the only and most effective way to extinguish the behavior AND is short term.

2.  The two most significantly challenged boys are responding to the level and point system by pushing back as hard as they can.  And they are winning.  Turning the screws of the level and point system tighter is causing them to push back harder.  Hello?!  Anybody paying attention here?  Level system tightens, boys act out even more.  Tighten more to make those damn boys accountable, and the boys act out even more.  Make school life even more intolerable for the boys just to show them who is boss, and they become violent and even more resistant to learning.

3.  Shouldn't we allow for some joy in their lives?  There is none in either homes.  Joy begets joy.  Respect and understanding promotes self awareness and a sense of well-being which then allows for learning.  Those brains are so shut down now, I fear a whole year has been wasted.  Worse, though, is this year has actually caused serious damage and I don't know if we can recover.

4.  If kids are not learning, are so angry all they can do is act out, then it is our job to alter the environment to keep them calm, comfortable and able to learn.  And just maybe academic learning isn't going to happen for a few months.  So what?! Mental health issues are serious contenders and call for prioritized attention.

5.  Retaining kids in 5th grade, especially minority boys, increases the likelihood of dropping out of school exponentially.  Yeah, we'll show them!  They won't take charge of their lives and make responsible choices... let's retain them!  What about society and schools making responsible choices on their behalf?  How about the adults overcoming their mental health and personal issues without medication and basic care?  Just try it!

6.  Get that flapping kiddo a descent diagnosis by someone who understands it.  Isms (flapping, scripting, other repetitive movements, seemingly meaningless rituals) can surface in a person on the spectrum at any age, at any time and MUST BE ATTENDED TO!  They are blatant communication that something is not right.  

7.  The administrators in charge are idiots, clueless and have dropped the ball.  No one is paying attention.  Why?  Perhaps if I had stayed in my administrative program I would have the answer to that by now.  

I doubt it.

My plan?  Continue to rant, of course.  To buy a few etch-a-sketches and help them find their way into my old room.  To meet with the principal with my concerns and discuss my conditions for coming back in the fall.  (EEEEWWW!  Did I just say that?  I guess I did as I am sweating and my heart is racing and I must excuse myself to the bathroom.)  No way they can meet my demands.

I have so much more to rant about.  I must get on with my day which includes an afternoon in the art room dyeing sheets for Aunt Sally.  I am sure to find peace in that.  Maybe I could invite above mentioned kids to help out.  

Oh, I forgot.  They don't deserve any breaks.  They haven't done their worksheets for the day!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Field Trip Success and Teachers Who Deserve Medals

As I mentioned yesterday, Superman had an all day field trip yesterday and although he was not happy about going, I sent him off to school with a cupcake in his lunch hoping for the best, but prepared for a phone call to come get him. I had landline and cellphone with me at all times and did not leave the house. 

 (Great excuse for a long afternoon read while chicken stock simmered away on the stove.)

So, no pleas to come get Superman came and at 3:25 Superman walked through he door.  I asked how the field trip went and he said, "I was so furious!"

Before I go on, let me celebrate with you Superman's appropriate use of a descriptive feeling word.  You go, Superman!

OK, so I ask why.  He then explains that they practically starved him as he had to wait too long for lunch. And why did his Cheetos taste funny??? (Damn!  I was busted for switching to the baked variety!)

We finally got to the content of the day and he actually enjoyed most of it other than making an atom with marshmallows and pretzel sticks.  Well, the making was fine.  The eating of the atom, not so much.  Pretzels are meant to be eaten plain, you know.

About an hour later as I checked my email, there is a long descriptive note from Superman's classroom teacher.  

Their stories matched.  Sort of.  She provided all the behind the scenes bits.

Longer story shorter.....  She had packed a bag of activities for the long bus ride. She said she was really proud of herself until she realized she forgot to pack Superman's snack! She spent the bus ride engaging him, did lots of distracting singing and dancing as he grew hungry at the destination.  She stuck with him during the entire trip and engaged him again on the bus back.  

She deserves a massage.  

She deserves a medal.  

She deserves daily fresh flower delivery for the rest of the year.

Really.  She took Superman with no special ed support!  She was willing to give it a try to see what Superman could handle.

But the part of her email that got me all choked up was how she said that SHE learned a lot.  That SHE had a better understanding of what it takes for a kiddo with Autism to tolerate and fully experience the world as it is.  She was proud of both of them.

And so am I.

Superman's IEP is coming up so we will insert some field trip supports as an all day trip to the State Capitol is coming up as well as an end of the year trip to an amusement park.  I believe that the classroom teacher should not be tied to Superman.  Her other charges deserve a piece of her too.

Another milestone.  Another celebration about something most parents don't have to give a thought to.

Special needs students need to be able to participate in their classrooms, but perhaps more importantly, they need to participate in all the related and enriching activities.  To do this, schools need to provide the kinds of supports the kids need to enjoy and benefit from such activities.  This means extra personnel, rearranging of schedules, preplanning, teacher training.  Maybe even preparing classmates and putting them in helpful roles during the field trip.  There are always a handful of mother hen types who thrive on being helpful.  Let me be clear here.  Special needs kiddos should never be a burden to their classmates.  We all need to be mindful of that.

Today I will spend my time continuing reading about recess, homework, and effective school leadership.  

Without being tied to the phones.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Boys, Recess, Anxiety

While I am organizing my ponderings on boys and school, I will share a few quick tidbits that are on my mind.

I have always been more tuned into how boys do in school than how girls do in school.  I am well read on the issues girls have in schools and have done my part in sharing awarenesses and modeling current best practice for girls in school.  My nieces are exemplary students and I do believe they have found success in their learning in part due to my sister's strong advocacy for them and her knowledge base of girls in school issues as well as he modeling of and involvement in many feminist issues.  

I make it no secret I am more comfortable in a room of EBD boys than in a room of girls.  I get boys.  I advocate for boys.  They are losing ground in school. I watched Foodie struggle in school as he got older and I watch Movie Man and Superman struggle every day with what school has turned into.  I want to use my remote and press pause.  Can we just stop and think this stuff through?

Recess?  Although my boys are not athletic, they need recess.  They need it to socialize as boys do.  They need it to blow the stink off.  They need it for relief from what we expect of them in class.  They need it to regroup.  Superman doesn't socialize at recess.  He just wanders and watches.  He needs recess to be alone in his thoughts.  His Autism necessitates some down time, some noncommunication time.   Movie Man needs recess to socialize and cut up.  EBD kids need recess to blow, to run, jump, slam against playground balls and each other.  You will hear more from me regarding recess as I gather more evidence pro and con.  I think this is a very pressing  and relevant issue and I intend to set the world straight on this matter.

Poor Superman has had three days of relentless anxiety about the field trip he is taking today. It is an all day field trip and since his sense of time is a bit skewed he was concerned that he would be homesick. I kept reassuring him with validating neutral comments.  But late last night it occurred to me that what he means when he says he will be homesick, is that he will miss his routine and all things familiar... smells, activities, his desk, the rooms that ground him, the hallways that lead him to known places.  

I am afraid I may not have handled this correctly.  I packed him up and sent him off to the field trip.  I did put a cupcake in his lunch for dessert... hope that helps....oh geez, now I am teaching him to find comfort in fattening junk food.  

My anxiety is reaching new highs as of late.  My contract for next year is on the way.  I have until April 15 to sign and return.  As I write this my heart rate has increased, I am sweating, I just might throw up.  

Friday, February 19, 2010

Think it Through, People!

OK, on the home front I have been pondering a situation regarding a 6th grade fund raiser.  Traditionally, the 6th graders get an end of the year trip to celebrate the end of elementary school.  A rite of passage thing. They usually go to a nearby water park.  It is expensive, so to ensure that all the kids get to go they raise money as a group.  I get that.  There are many wealthy enough families in our neighborhood that I think a mini scholarship fund could have been started and enough money would be raised.  Even though we are on one income this year, we could certainly find a way to throw in a few extra bucks for kiddos in need.

But, no.  Instead some go-getter moms with high achieving kids decided to raise money with a knowledge-a-thon.  They gave every 6th grader a book of facts this fall.  They were told to collect pledges from family based on how many questions they would get right when quizzed in March and to start studying up.  What fun, huh?  You can study in the car, over winter break, in the toilet, before bed, make it a family affair! 


Did anyone think this through?  Did anyone walk in the shoes of every single 6th grader and take their perspective when facing this activity?  Where the hell was the building administration when this parent group asked for approval?  Where was the voice of advocacy and reason?  

Please note this is further evidence that one loses IQ points and the ability to reason when one becomes a school administrator.

How do you suppose kids from poor families feel when there is not a penny to spare for pledging?  How do you suppose kids from families where they are the only english speakers will get support?  How do you suppose kids from families where the parents work 2nd and 3rd shifts will get support?  How do you suppose kids from very dysfunctional families will get support?  And now consider the kids with learning disabilities, autism, emotional/behavioral issues, anxiety, memory deficits, recall issues, poor study skills, no interest, lower academic ability.  

We just got an email from the classroom teacher requesting 4 parents volunteer to come in on the knowledge-a-thon day and do one-on-one quizzing. So they are going to pull each kiddo out to a quiet place with a parent they don't know and get quizzed.  100 questions will be asked.  The kids are scored and then go back to their family members and collect their pledges.  

Think about that a minute.  

"Hey, Grandma.  I am here to collect on your pledge for the knowledge-a-thon.  I only got 10 right." 

So, not only are they humiliated while being quizzed, they are again humiliated when they have to go collect the pledges if they didn't do so well.  

So I excused Movie Man.  I will gladly write a check for his admission to the water park and his share of the bus.  I will also gladly donate the same amount for a classmate in need.

My quandary now is whether or not to bring this to the administrator's attention once it is all over so this does not happen again.  


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Random Ponderances

I am back from a week with Foody, his mate Cakes and my new grandson Jupiter.  I went solo a few days so Cakes could start a new job.  Let's just say I am exhausted and leave it at that.  I am hopelessly in love with Jupiter and believe him to be quite gifted at the age of 8 weeks.  I secretly did all the 'autism checks' and thus far see no signs of him facing what his Uncle Superman has to.

When I got home, I found myself truly frustrated... no angry... about a school related issue.  You know how you can leave a situation that you have accepted as normal and when you return you realize how just plain wrong it is?  Well, I am in that space now.

I have long been interested in the issue of homework.  I have read many different scholars on the issue including Marzano and Kohn.  I have experienced homework as a student, a parent and a teacher, so I figure I have a certain level of expertise here.  So, I am compelled to share.

What I remember as an elementary student was not having homework until 5th grade and it was minimal.  We were supposed to work on our math facts, but rarely, if ever, had specific homework assignments.   I do not remember reading 20 minutes every day.  I am a prolific reader as an adult .... but only since early high school.  I hated to read when young because it was just too hard... and I now believe it was too hard because I was not developmentally ready to learn to read.

As a special education teacher, even though I feel a sense of urgency for my students who are losing ground every minute due to various learning and behavioral difficulties, I never assign homework to my K-5 grade elementary kiddos.  It doesn't seem humane to me.  These kiddos expend so much more energy than others just to get through a day of school, why rub their noses in how behind they are by making them revisit what they didn't understand earlier in the day? And many times without support or misdirected parents.

Many schools have already taken recesses away for the sake of cramming more reading minutes in the school day.  This disregards all the beautiful research done on the benefits of movement and pretend play.  So, let's take away recess and add more homework. Boys in particular are suffering here, people!  Just read The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre.  That will be another post entirely.  Stay tuned.

As a parent, I am frustrated beyond belief at the amount of paper my kids bring home.  The amount of worksheet bullshit homework they are assigned and the lack of real instruction happening during the school day to provide meaningful background in preparation for homework is disappointing to say the least.  And I consider my kids' teachers to be good.  One relies a bit too much on the text book-worksheet relationship, but her heart is in the right place, she really knows my kid and she makes meaningful accommodations for his learning disability.

I resent how many evenings are spent re-teaching my kids concepts that should have been taught and internalized to a certain depth before homework is assigned.  As a teacher I NEVER EVER assign homework to my students that I am not positively sure they can do independently and that will benefit them by helping to solidify the concept.  And you know what?  I have plenty of other life lessons to teach my kids.  I would like the time to do that.  Instead, I find myself re-teaching academics.

And I am always aware of what my students need in a holistic sense.... and for the most part, homework ain't it.

Most of us are in professions where we work our 8-5 work days and try to leave work at work.  Our elementary kids should do school from 8-3 and be allowed to be kids, to spend time unencumbered by that dreadful heavy cloud of homework over their heads.  It negatively impacts lots of kids and families.  There is a developmental time and place for homework and I argue that it is not in elementary school.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

All Jazzed Up Again

Last week, (wow, was that a whole week ago?)  my favorite Art Teacher Pal/Dear Friend (DF) and I had a most wonderful opportunity to present all about Aunt Sally to a large group of women who meet once a week to enlighten and enrich their lives by listening to guest speakers and then have tea.  These women are all of a mature age, college educated and most seemed monied.

They are a lovely group of 80 women.  Yes, 80!  Now, DF and I have never addressed a group larger than 30 or so and certainly not a group not currently affiliated with education.  So, we tweaked and modified our presentation, decided to bring Miss Mae with us and added a few more slide to the power point.  We spent hours putting together our signature take away kit.  Putting together 80 of those kits was made a bit more pleasurable as we did the bulk of it in the backseat of my favorite Music Teacher's car on our way to our favorite Girl's night away trip to The Container Store and IKEA.

SO, DF and I pack up Miss Mae (she is delightfully easy to collapse and take) the night before and the next day show up as we were assigned.  We  were brought a lovely lunch by our hostess and we munched and set up.  We were on an actual stage, people!  A STAGE with a humungous screen and little microphones...I mean we were high tech and wired for a good time.

The ladies started trickling in, and they were just so lovely. Inner and outer beauty was abundant.  Very gracious and brilliant women.

So, we do our presentation, and although DF needs about 5 minutes to become articulate ( she is a gifted gabber, but needs a minute to adjust to being THE SPEAKER), she is an incredible presenter.  Our presentation went so well.  Well, of course it did.  DF and I are exceptional in so many ways.  We passed out our kits and taught the lovely ladies to weave kumihimo style.  They each got a ziploc with a small foam loom, ribbon attached to a clip and detailed and illustrated instructions.  DF did an admirable job on the instructions.  She also did the demonstration on an oversized kumihimo loom made out of cardboard while I took questions from the audience.  And let me just tell you that the questions were excellent.  None were light weight and all were of substance.  We were impressed.

So, then on to tea and we were approached, nonstop, by so many lovely ladies with comments, touching personal stories and great suggestions.  It was stimulating, gratifying, and gave both DF and I renewed energy and affirmation that what we have done is important.

Here are a few interesting notes I made.

1.  No less than 6 women came to me to ask if I thought this would help kiddos on the spectrum. 6 women have a child with Autism in their families and all of them are looking for any strategies to help their loved one along.  Autism is certainly an epidemic.
2.  A very smart and resourceful woman suggested that we get an old wringer washer to do our dyeing.  This is absolutely brilliant!  So, if you know of anyone aching to rid themselves of an old wringer washer, please show them the way to me, please.
3.  Many of the lovely ladies were very engrossed in the products of their own weaving and had hopes of sharing with others.  You could see the resourceful wheels turning in their heads about all the possibilities.  It was exciting.
4.  A handful of lovely ladies have taken it upon themselves to begin discussion and action regarding finding a loom for one of the kiddos we mentioned in our presentation who has moved on to middle school and no longer has access to Aunt Sally.  This is just so amazing to me.  Really amazing.
5.  One of the lovely ladies is in the middle of dealing with loved ones who are suffering Alzheimer's and cancer and she and I engaged in a discussion about how important using one's hands for good is. She makes dammit dolls for people living in stress.  She gives them all away, makes them from bits and scraps of old clothing and such.  She is totally into repurposing.  She told me she had made and given away almost 50 dammit dolls in the past month.  Imagine!
6.  Our presentation still brings some to tears.  Gotta love that, huh?

Most importantly, I felt smart and confident again.  As you all know as of late I have been in a world of turmoil and self doubt sprinkled with a generous helping of self loathing.

So, today I will spend my time searching for calls for presenters at conferences.  I will send in proposals even after deadline cutoff dates because you just never know when conference organizers might find themselves short a few interesting presenters.  Aunt Sally will not be denied, and I believe her magic will get us speaking gigs where we need to be.  She is magic and must be shared.