Saturday, May 18, 2013

A family's quest for rhythm

As both a parent of a child with a disability and a special education teacher, I have a special insight into the lives of those with whom I work. I would not presume to know all the individual and personal challenges that a family with a child with a disability encounters, but I would say that I understand that "normal" is different for all and that living with disabilities is not an easy road for any.

I picked up Kathy and Matt Giordano's memoir, A Family's Quest for Rhythm: Living with Tourette, ADD, OCD and Challenging Behaviors, because one of my students was recently diagnosed with Tourettes and it has been over a decade since I last worked with anyone with this disability. I have visited NICHCY's site for information as well as a few others, but needed more. Their memoir showcases the life of a family dealing with a child with rages related to his disabilities. A family who made choices about dealing with such extreme outbursts they had to place their child in a psychiatric center for over a year, who had bolts on every door in their house and locked their child in his room, who worried about being able to safely transport him because he would open the car door on the expressway. Most people cannot image needing to lock a child in a bedroom. I can. My son would not sleep at night and would wander. We started with a gate, progressed to a door handle lock and finished with a bar across the outside of the door. It kept him safe and it kept his sister safe (She was his personal whipping post) and it allowed us to sleep. Thankfully by the time he was 5 and finally toilet trained, we did not need that extreme measure anymore.

I think it is painfully easy and common for teachers, therapists and service providers to blame the parents for their child's behavior. If only Mr. and Mrs. Smith would do X, their child would be so much better. This book reminds people that parents to do the best they can at any moment with what they have. No parent intentionally undermines school or their child. No parent is perfect. Similarly no school personnel is perfect. We all are doing the best we can at the time.

The stress of living with a child with a disability is unimaginable to people who have not had the experience. Oddly enough, the less obvious disabilities, like ADHD, OCD, ASD, and Tourettes can be the hardest because humans tend to be judgmental. We look at the child "acting up" and think the parent is the problem, not the child has a problem. Where a child in a wheelchair or with Downs Syndrome may elicit pity, these hidden disabilities often evoke condemnation. This lack of insight on the half of the public causes stress for families and isolates them. We need to remind ourselves that we have no idea what the child and family is dealing with and accept not criticize their effort.

This book is an easy read. It shows a mother's deep love of her child, and her quest to find a path that would lead to success for him. It was a long, painful journey told with candor about the self doubt, dead ends for a solution and personal pain she went through raising her family. I think reading books like this that tell the tale of the journey is important for service providers because it help build insight and compassion for the families with which we work.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Our Brains Extended

True to form I am behind in my periodical reading. I just finished the March 2013 Educational Leadership which included an article that provoked a great deal of thought and discomfort. Marc Prensky's "Our Brains Extended" discusses the shift we are undergoing to an increasingly technological society where our schools need to change to meet the growing challenge presented. He proposes that the Common Core State Standards are a 20th century program that does not meet the needs of the students of the future. His future schools include a focus on some soft skills which are discounted in the CCSS.

His first pronouncement, "reading is no longer the number one skill students need to take from school to succeed. Technology is." (p. 23) demonstrates his ideal curricular shift. Since technology can read the material to you, he proposes that reading is a skill of the past, much like hunting. Clearly he has not watched the gun debate in America today to see the hunters out in force refusing to allow gun control to be discussed. If he had he would recognize that hunting is not a thing of the past. Furthermore, hunting was never taught in schools, so the comparison is misguided to start with. While text to voice may be constantly improving, to minimize reading seems strange. If your technology breaks down, how do you propose fixing it? If it doesn't work you can't have it read how to fix it to you. If you are incapable of reading, how do you know that the technology has not been taken over and is not censoring the reading? Although tools such as highlighters and sticky note programs are available to annotate electronic text, going back through them is far more challenging than going through paper text. I know that many people are happy with their e-readers, but research shows that we are less likely to stay focused and learn though e-readers than through paper texts. Because they can "instantly link to related topics" students wander off and do not have the time or inclination to finish assignments (p. 24). True this engagement may be able to be taught, but maintaining focus continues to be one of those soft skills that separates students.

Next he questions "'age appropriate' curriculum" because students are "exposed to increasingly sophisticated information online." (p. 23) First, exposure to increasingly complex material does not confirm an ability to apply increasingly mature, thoughtful analysis, discrimination or evaluation. The exposure can even hurt the psyche of fragile young minds. While I am not a fan of censorship, I do believe that parents and, in their de facto role as such, schools need to monitor and limit access to what children are exposed to based on the developmental level of the individual. On a related strand, Mr. Prensky proposes that because a student can use technology to answer college level questions such material does not need to be taught. The faulty reasoning here is the confusion between being able to access it, read it or have it read to them, and being able to understand it. I am dating myself, but I remember the Hooked on Phonics commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. There was a kindergartner proclaiming that he could read at the college level. Just because he could read did not mean he could understand. Reading requires comprehension which is based on vocabulary and prior knowledge. Being able to read the words does not equate with understanding the passage. Similarly, exposure to complex or sophisticated material does not equate with being able to understand the message, especially the hidden messages of propaganda, advertising and people out to misguide the consumer of information. These skills which he does identify as important are learned on a continuum that skilled educators utilize within their existing curriculum. They don't simply show a rated R movie in elementary school because some kids have seen it.

In his suggestion to rethink the curriculum, he suggests removing the emphasis on calculations, after all computers and calculators are faster and more accurate than we are. Then, however, he says we need to teach "students to focus on whether the answer makes sense." (p. 24) Yes, we need to teach this, but if a student cannot do a calculation, he cannot determine if an answer makes sense. Many a student I have worked with has told me the answer must be right because the calculator said so, unaware that halving a number cannot result in a bigger number. Without basic arithmetical fluency and understanding, estimation is impossible. Although our New York state algebra test requires access to a graphing calculator, I would argue that needing to use it for anything other than a trig function chart probably means you do not understand the class well enough to get credit for it.

He argues that short emails and twitters are important to teach, misunderstanding students' inability to be able to summarize as a lack of "emphasis on conciseness," rather than struggling with a higher level thinking skill (p. 24). Similarly he believes that we must teach to the tests such as the SAT, ACT and PISA and that technology is the ideal tool to do so. Yes, apps are available to do study prep, but his assertion that the tests should not be given until the student has mastered the app, fails to appreciate the purpose of the test. College Board, SAT's publisher, states "the purpose of the SAT is to measure a student's potential to succeed in college."  (
It is designed to be a summative assessment, a spot check of skills, not a piece of formative information that indicates if more study is required.

Prensky argues that technology is not "a new way to do old things," but rather a tool that enhances our thinking (p. 25). Then he showcases an example of not needing to buy a travel guide but using his phone as one. Yes, technology can change the speed and complexity of action and we need to build mental schema and strategies for using the tools, but in no way does this negate the virtue or relevance of traditional thinking patterns. After all while there are some increasingly complex things in the world, many basic things are not evolving, toilets for example. He asserts that with supercomputer time available for sale by the second, we can all do anything. Supercomputer time has been purchasable for a long time, but that availability is limited in time when it may be used and the cost is not insubstantial. He argues that with tools like Twitter we are all free to have access to information about unfolding events around the world. Look how well that worked for CNN and the first Boston Marathon "suspects."

Prensky argues to revision school curriculum rather than the format, structure or timing. Curriculum debates have existed from time immortal. People are now experimenting with flipped and blended instruction (format). Pendulum swings over the structure of schools has not stopped- open classroom design, individual rooms, flexible age groups, multi age classrooms, middle schools, K-8 buildings, community based, nature based,... the list goes on (structure). Do we continue with the agricultural school timing of post harvest to planting time and the standard 6.5 hours per day or do we go to year round schooling or extended day programs? Should high schools start later than elementary schools (timing)? Revisioning merely the curriculum seems like a packaging change.

In his plan there would be a trio of subjects around which learning would occur: effective thinking, effective action and effective relationships. He characterizes our current approach to thinking instruction as "random, haphazard and inconsistent" (p. 26). Thinking would be the scaffolding upon which learning would hang. This is a chicken and egg argument. You cannot seriously learn without rigorous thinking and you cannot teach thinking without something substantive to think about. Various people have put forth thinking continuums- Bloom and Marzano to name a few. These levels are not a straight line but a recursive process. You think deeply about basic things as a kindergartner. A high school senior uses the same continuum to learn about more complex things. Good teachers do not approach thinking skills in a random, haphazard or inconsistent manner, but in a thoughtful and measured way.

Prensky sees action as a very community oriented manner. The civic duty is to improve the community. For a nation that cannot get 50% of its registered voters to vote, this is a monumental challenge. While I admire the idea of basing instruction on civic projects, I know that there are only so many projects out there. When a project becomes a look it up on YouTube and repeat activity, the thinking piece is removed. Discovery and constructive learning play a role in instruction but they must play an appropriate role that encourages the opportunity to cover an adequate amount of material.

His third branch of the curriculum, effective communication, seems to reiterate the iconic book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. Communication, ethics and citizenship would play center stage here. The classics would be used to teach these skills. My belief is that we teach the classics for this very purpose. We ask kids to write and speak to for this reason. Although it switches the name of the classes, this is not necessarily a change.

If Marc wants to revision American schooling, perhaps he should start by acknowledging that the technology is grounded in knowledge that people possess. Without a broad background, they cannot Google good questions. If the only knowledge I have is from technology, what happens when it fails or what happens when I need something quickly? Part of learning is automaticity of information. Certain things we know so well and quickly they are automatically accessed. Our pace will be erratic and substandard if we must look it all up. While technology is a tool that enhances our abilities, it does not replace them.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Comprehension strategies

To hear some teachers speak, reading in the content areas is a new thing, unheard of before CCSS came to be. While this is clearly not the case, the CCSS have ushered in an era where reading comprehension is emphasized in a way it may not have been in recent times. Charlotte Rose Sadler, author of Comprehension Strategies for Middle Grade Learners published in 2001, demonstrates this with her book compilation of 56 basic reading comprehension strategies that can be used in the content area classroom. While the title focuses on middle school, these strategies are applicable to both secondary and primary readers as well. The book highlights some tried and true strategies like SQ3R, QAR and anticipation guides. Cooperative learning activities  are identified as comprehension activities, but they can certainly be adapted to be more than reading comprehension activities.

The author identifies Teams-Games-Tournament (TGT) (p. 28) as a reading comprehension activity. In this process homogeneous teams are paired against each other. For example two high, four middle and two low. Two teams play against each other and winning teams collect points. Important information from the week is used as the topic. My concerns fall into what to do with the points. While competition is a great motivator for many kids, they want the points to mean something. Adding them on to a test or homework assignment is a research proven bad idea. You could award candy, pencils, stickers or permission to leave the room first to winners. Unfortunately when everyone sits and listens, many will tune out. An alternate arrangement of groups of students heterogeneously matched who must write the answer on a white board or key it into a automatic response device after collectively getting the response may work with the first team getting five points and other teams with the correct response getting 3 might work, but there remains the challenge of the strongest students taking over. Used after a week of study, however, this remains more of a review activity than a reading comprehension activity.

The book is easy to read, short and exclusively full of strategies. Each strategy is given a page or two in which a brief introduction, procedure, examples and evaluation ideas are highlighted. If you are a person who wants detailed examples, this book does not provide it. There are no handouts, worksheets or forms. For someone with a wealth of strategies in their bag, it may provide a twist on how to use a strategy for reading that you may not have identified or a reminder about something you have not used in a while.

I bought the book on clearance sale from IRA and think it was worth what I paid, but would not have wanted to pay the full price.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Eyes on Math

I just finished Marian Small's Eyes on Math: A Visual Approach to Teaching Math Concepts. What a delightful and useful book. The illustrations by Amy Lin demonstrate the math concepts in a simple way that would be easy to use a springboard to other real life examples. The explanation of the underlying math is clear. Too many of the elementary and special ed teachers that I have worked with over the years are weak in math. The author details the math, why it is important, and common errors that students make. I love the latter because it is in that area that teachers can provide invaluable assistance to students. The phrase, "Many students make a mistake here..." is a common one in my math instruction because it allows us to focus attention on correct responses and gives students a place to look to for corrections.

Another truly brilliant piece of the book is the question portion. Ms. Small has listed critical higher level questions that can be applied to the math topic under discussion. For example under the topic of multiplication: 2 digit by 2-digit, she lists:
  • Why does determining the area of the grassy field in the picture represent multiplication?
  • What are the areas of each of the four sections?
  • Why is it easier to multiply 20x40 in your head than 23x45?
  • Why was it a good idea to break up 23 as 20+3 instead of 17+6?
  • How would you use the same idea to multiply 39x42? (p. 87)
Each question is followed by an explanation of why this question represents critical understanding.

The last piece of each section is extension. Ideas for students who got it and need something more challenging. (Differentiation spelled out.) As a parent of a gifted child, this piece offers me hope that my child might not be left with no on-going learning when the rest of the class is still exploring a concept.

The book is well indexed and references back to the common core on each subject. Each topic is addressed for only two pages. The authors assume that once they jump start your thinking, you will be able to move from there. While the book covers the K-8 CCSS, for students who are struggling learners at the secondary level, this book could be a teacher's friend in helping to model the missing concepts. For teachers who need to bolster their understanding of the math curriculum across the elementary and middle school years, this book is a good primer.

Weaknesses? This book is purely operating from a graphic/pictorial basis. Real manipulatives would be essential especially with early topics. The choice of when to move from manipulatives to illustrations is highly dependent upon the students in the class. A group of very abstract thinkers might need nearly no time with manipulatives or even illustrations, whereas a group of struggling concrete thinkers might need to stay with manipulatives for an extended amount of time and then be taught to draw models to help them with their thinking. Teachers need to know their students. With testing that requires explaining how answers were arrived at, using graphic models helps to prepare students.

This easy to read source is a wonderful addition to any elementary of middle school professional library. For people who work with struggling learners at all levels, it is a great resource. Just remember that illustrations must be tempered with real physical practice as well.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Standards versus methods

Our district had their spring superintendent's conference day last week. A portion of the day was devoted to CCSS work. My disappointment with that segment of the day came from the activity being labeled unpacking the standards, but spending the first forty-five minutes on an exercise designed to get us to compare the CCSS to the "old" way. I sat in a group that was willing to throw out all kinds of ideas, demonstrating a classification of the old being BAD and the new being GOOD and overtly confusing the what to teach (standards and curriculum) with the how to teach (methods). A mistake made not just by our group but by all the participants of the previous session and every group and facilitator of this group. Many of the big names in education and the authors of the CCSS themselves have cautioned against this idea. The standards tell us what to teach, not how to teach them. Below is a chart similar to the one we worked on. I added the the second half: when standards are separate from methods.

When standards and teaching methods are confused
When standards are separate from methods
old curriculum
Common Core
old curriculum
Common Core
teacher factors
·teacher focused
·whatever I want
·low accountability
·master of the information
· child focused
·district (CCSS) defines what I teach
·high accountability
·lots of test practice
·standards determined by state and local levels but much flexibility, depending on school
·standards determined by CCSS committee which has recommended resources
·Because of RttT, accountability linked to student performance on tests
student factors
· receptacle to fill
·drill and practice
· construct knowledge
·figure it out and explain it
·practice the test
·Idea that “spit it back” is what is desirable, but for many schools, teachers and programs, thinking was embedded in the instruction and curriculum
·higher level thinking
· more uniform demands
·more testing because of intertwining CCSS adoption with federal money and mandates
resources and instruction factors
·drill and practice
· multiple sources
·small groups
·generate the information
·reading levels were established
·each content area was focused on their individual content, not an overarching activity such as reading
· lexile levels were increased
·increased rigor and focus on literacy and higher level thinking
- increased focus on technology

During the last twenty minutes or so, we got down to unpacking the standards. The example they selected to model was amusing because the instructions were about locating the nouns and they proceeded to identify "more or less" as the nouns. When an ELL teacher in my group called them on the misidentification, they backpedaled to say they really were the concept so they used that idea. The unpacking process ended with us getting to look at one standard as a small group, identify the skills and concepts and then an activity that would support standards based instruction.  This is what the meat of the workshop should have been. We need to deeply understand the standards and only focused time working on them will enable that. Anticipatory sets designed to activate prior knowledge that occupy over a third of the lesson, will not get us there. Especially when they do not target the learning standard. We need our professional development designed as thoughtfully as our best lessons.

I understand that teaching the new standards is intimidating to teachers. Especially when high stakes are attached to them. Especially when the metrics for measuring them are poorly understood, lacking in previous examples and the antithesis of research based because of their overly rapid adoption and implementation.  I agree that teaching needs to improve. Furthermore, we as a profession can do it, but we need to be thoughtful about the process. It is not a choice merely between diving into the deep end without knowing how to swim and endlessly using water wings. It is about planning, teaching, practicing, and evaluating and then repeating the process again.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

inspirational for conference

Enjoy the story of how a community saved a family in crisis that I wrote to give at this year's Genesee Valley PTA Spring Conference. Yes, it is true.

I am going to tell you the story of a very lucky woman.

 Her fifth child was born with a highly unusual genetic disorder. He could not suck. He had no soft spot because his skull bones had fused before he was born. The doctors said that he would not walk, talk or survive beyond the age of two and should be put into an institution. But she was a very lucky woman. The community rallied to provide support. Her mother-in-law’s work colleagues built a special chair to feed him in, a scooter to teach him to crawl, and later, a table to help strengthen his legs so that he would learn to stand and later walk. Before special education was required, her community had a free school for children with significant disabilities. Yes, she was a very lucky woman. Her son learned to walk unsteadily, feed himself, and communicate with sounds and modified sign language.

Three children after the birth of her son with disabilities, her husband was in a major train accident. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. But she was a very lucky woman. The community rallied again. They took care of the children, three of whom were in cloth diapers, brought meals, helped with transportation and therapy and made sure things around the house got done.  If she was at the hospital, people were home to welcome the children as they got off the bus.  She was a very lucky woman.

Thereafter, her husband only periodically held down a job so money was tight. The school and community stepped up. Food stamps, unemployment and disability payments, and community discounted health insurance provided support. Fieldtrips, roller skating parties, dues for scouts and fees for summer rec programs were all funded so the kids could share experiences with their friends. Christmas and Easter brought a bonanza a food and gift baskets for the family when things were tight. Yes, she was a very lucky woman.

We can all make families in crisis very lucky. Providing support for such people makes them very lucky and helps keep their children from falling through the cracks. As PTA members we fight for the social services, school supports and laws that help protect these vulnerable families. We all play an important role. When we work together we can achieve great things for children everywhere and all our community can be very lucky.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Path to Get There

Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Cristina Alfaro's new text, The Path to Get There: A Common Core Road Map for Higher Student Achievement Across the Disciplines, refers only to the ELA standards of the Common Core. They offer a detailed and readable explanation of the ELA standards with a focus on how they apply to history, social studies, science and technology as well as touching on English. They offer ways to introduce literacy, speaking and writing into the curriculum across these diverse subject areas. The book focuses on secondary instruction. For someone trying to unpack the standards this would be a worthwhile text, especially if they were concurrently trying to identify learning activities to support the standards at the same time.

Although the authors comment that they wanted to focus on how to address these increased standards for English Language learners and students with special needs, these specific issues do not receive as much attention as I would like. They do provide some brief insights to using collaborative instruction and small pull outs to help, but the overarching problem of helping students who were not successful on previous standards succeed on ones with increased rigor remains. Time in the school day remains short. The authors emphasize using personnel supports and generally good teaching techniques.

That said, the authors do provide a series of valuable exercises, strategies and ideas to use in the classroom to meet various CCSS goals. Their suggestions include specific examples skillfully described so that the reader can envision implementing the strategy at their level and content. The last chapter- Using literacy for formative instruction- is worth the price of the book. While formative instruction is a buzzword in today's educational circles, it is a technique that offers promise to improving instruction across the board.  They offer a process for recording information called an error analysis tool, which I have seen in other references (p. 143). This is a grid of objectives/common misconceptions against periods in which you record initials of students who have achieved objectives or demonstrated misconceptions. Then small groups may be formed to address reteaching or enrichment needs of individuals. If a teacher is truly trying to differentiate to meet the needs of her students, such a process is essential.