Both…and #SOL19 20/31

In the next room, my younger son is saying “win-dow.”
“Good! Tap it,” responds his tutor.
A few minutes later she says “pay-per. Now, would you double that?”
“No!” He is confident.
“Right! Explain why!” she cheers.

They will continue on this way for the next hour. It’s a lot of work for him, but he loves this phonics-based tutoring and looks forward to his tutor’s arrival twice a week. Because of this intensive intervention, he is currently reading at grade level. We plan to keep it up and hope that eventually his brain makes all the connections he needs to be a fluent reader.

As they work, my thoughts keep returning to a Twitter “discussion” I was involved in this weekend. A well-known figure in the world of education tweeted a quote from a speaker at a conference she was attending: I would argue that most students who are in intervention wouldn’t be there if we just had good classroom libraries.

I nodded in agreement as I read this, but something niggled at the back of my brain. What was bothering me? I am actively working to develop my own classroom library, and my kids’ bedrooms are filled with books – “bedroom libraries,” I guess. For Christmas, a group of us parents gave one of our kids’ elementary school teachers a bunch of books from her wish list and a gift certificate to purchase more because we wanted to support her classroom library. All evidence shows that I clearly believe in classroom libraries. Yet my younger child, surrounded by books, still needs intervention in order to learn how to read.

I rarely respond to people on Twitter, but this time I really wanted to say something. After all, this person is widely followed; lots of teachers would read her tweet. So I tweeted back:

As the mother of a child with dyslexia & an English teacher with a classroom library I’m proud of, I really want to emphasize the “most” in this tweet. No number of good books will make my child a reader. He needs phonics for that. The books, however, will keep him reading.

This did not seem revolutionary to me.

Her quick response was XXX was not talking about children with disabilities, with IEPs, with dyslexia. Of COURSE all kids need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. But they also need time to read books they can and want to read.

All three tweets received some attention – a lot by my standards, probably not much by hers. And really, the tweets are all true enough. But…the more I think, the more my mind fills with questions.

  • How many kids who are in intervention do NOT have some sort of disability? I’d bet many of them do have disabilities. So… intervention might be necessary, right? It’s not a bad thing. And probably having a classroom library in and of itself won’t fix that.
  • How many kids are receiving “explicit, systematic phonics instruction” in school? Mine did not.
  • How many kids have access to good classroom libraries? I honestly don’t know. Probably not nearly enough.
  • Is having a classroom library enough to build readers, as the original tweet implied? Because I think we’re using “classroom library” as shorthand for having teachers who love reading, have the time to read regularly and share the books they discover with their students. And libraries also imply funding and time. I don’t want to undersell what teachers actually have to DO with classroom libraries to help kids learn.

I don’t know the answers to all these questions. To begin with, I teach high school, not elementary school, so my perspective is different. I’m not trained in teaching reading. (…yet! I’m signing up for a course that starts in April.) And I live in Canada, not the US, so I think intervention has a slightly different meaning.

Nevertheless, as I listened to my son learn, the niggling in the back of my mind finally resolved itself: the tweeted response – the one that says that the speaker was not talking about kids with disabilities – I don’t like that. I am uncomfortable with solutions that work for everyone except kids with disabilities. We already risk leaving these kids as afterthoughts when the truth is that students who fit this description are in most classes, and they deserve solutions that work for them, too. Equating the mere presence of classroom libraries, even good ones, to a dramatic decrease in the need for reading intervention veers dangerously close to the idea that these kids just aren’t working hard enough.

“Just have a lot of books available” sounds great on Twitter, but for up to 20% of our students (dyslexia alone affects between 5 and 20% of students depending on whose research you read), that’s not enough. My child is lucky: our family has the time and money to support his learning. I see high school students every day who have not had the same access to research-based reading instruction and who are suffering because of this. My classroom library will never make up for this, no matter how many good books I put into their hands.

That said, I don’t want to undersell classroom libraries. My son’s reading is thriving in part because of the books available to him, and I can personally point to high school students who have grown enormously when allowed to choose books that have meaning for them. I’m looking for a both…and solution. I want literacy instruction that helps all kids become readers – and I really don’t want the “all” part to be an afterthought.

I could keep thinking myself in circles here – though writing this has helped straighten my thoughts a little. I have considerable respect for the tweeter (and I’m not familiar with the presenter she quoted, but I’ll bet she’s thoughtful and concerned, too). I know that Twitter can erase nuance through enforced brevity and rapid responses. For me, this tweet seemed worth digging into.

In the next room, I hear clapping.
“Pi-rate,” says the tutor. “Which syllable has the stress on it?”
He can’t quite figure it out. They practice saying the word different ways and in funny voices, and he giggles when they get the stress wrong. Then, they do it again.

Phonics, multi-sensory learning and a lot of books.

He’s going to be a reader, this kid. He really is. 

 

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You’re an English teacher? #SOL19 20/31

I had a doctor’s appointment this morning before work (for my poor achy shoulder). As I left, I stopped at the desk to set up a follow-up. I didn’t recognize the receptionist, so I made my standard request to try to get a time before or after my classes – “anything first thing in the morning on an odd-numbered day? Or after 4:00 any day at all?” She looked quizzical, and I added, “I’m a teacher.”

“Oh,” she said, “What do you teach?”

“High school.” I’ve learned to be vague. My best bet is to feel out the person in front of me because not everyone has fond memories of high school English. Last week the woman at the salon told me several sad high school stories as she washed my hair. English class featured prominently. She had not read many books in high school and actually brightened a little when I told her that magazines count as reading. Poor thing. So this morning I brace for the (polite) worst.

“What subject?”

I smile and ‘fess up, hoping that she won’t tell me how awful it was. I can tell the conversation isn’t over.

“Which Shakespeare play are you teaching?”

Wait – what? That’s not what I was expecting. She has leaned forward a little and is looking at me quite intently. I’m still in my “I swear I’m not an ogre” mode.

“Um, well, I work with at-risk readers, so we don’t always do Shakespeare…” My voice trails off; she actually looks a little disappointed, so I add, “But if we do one, grade 10 is Romeo and Juliet.”

“Oh! That’s a great one! I really loved it. But my favorite is Merchant of Venice. My teacher just did a great job with that one and we got so into it!” She is nearly starry-eyed, clearly remembering some class, some moment of understanding, some passionate discussion. She pauses then adds, “I just love Shakespeare.” She glances at her colleague and gives her an almost apologetic smile, then she looks back at me.

“Me, too,” I say. Me, too.

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Why he comes to class #SOL19 16/31

Yesterday, the Ontario Minister of Education announced the government’s plans for education changes in the next few years. Education is, of course, a major line-item in the budget and always the target of cuts when a government wants to save money. While I agree that efficiency is worth looking for and eliminating wasteful spending should be an ongoing process, I fear that some of the impulse for these regular cuts comes from a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or overpaid. Or something. This upsets me because, I promise you, I’m not in education to get rich and no one survives for long in a high school if their main focus is summer vacation. Worse, I believe that some of the changes the government is proposing will, at a minimum, result in worse learning and will, more than likely, harm students, especially our most vulnerable students.

In fact, I was chatting with my principal last week and talk turned to one of our most reluctant students. He has years of haphazard attendance in his school records, and all the days of missed school have left him with learning gaps that have caught up with him in high school: he’s currently failing most of his classes. Truth be told, he’s currently not attending most of his classes. In fact, he’s pretty much only attending my class.

“Why do you think he’s coming to your class when he’s skipping everything else?” asked my principal.

Well, I have some ideas. He comes to my class because we as a school have agreed to put our most experienced teachers in classes with our most at-risk students. I am not the school board’s cheapest employee, but when I walk into the classroom, I bring to bear everything I know about classroom management, curriculum, respectful learning environments and reluctant learners. I bring a Masters Degree, 20+ years of teaching, experience working with both at-risk and ESL students, an Honours Specialist in Special Education, and a commitment to ongoing PD and my own pedagogical reading. He comes to my class because I work to implement a pedagogy that meets students where they are and supports them as they move forward.

He comes to my class because our school has decided that at-risk students have the best chance to learn when their classes are small. Currently, the average high school class size may not exceed 22 students. The new Ministry of Education policy increases that to 28. Of course, classes of 28 and even 30 already exist, but with a required average class size of 22, we can work as a team to find the wiggle room that allows students with the greatest needs to be in smaller classes. He comes to my class because the small class size means I have time to get to know every student in meaningful ways.

He comes to my class because I never – not ever – say anything negative to him about his learning. When he returns after missing a day of school I say, “I’m glad to see you.” I don’t even say “I’m glad you’re back” because I don’t want to emphasize that he was gone. I’ve read his school records, and I’ve learned a bit about him. So, I practice positive phrases out loud with others, working to get the right words for this child into my brain and out of my mouth. He comes to my class because I call home every time he’s absent and leave a message saying that I missed him. He comes to my class because I’ve called home to leave a message about how well he’s doing when he comes.

He comes to my class because when he writes a sentence in his notebook, I have something positive to say about it. If he stops at a word, I’m next to him to encourage the next one. If he can’t write today, I’ll help him write tomorrow. He comes to my class because what he says matters.

He comes to my class because the room is full of books he can actually read, books that aren’t dog-eared, yellow-paged and falling apart. He comes because I’ve begged and borrowed in order to provide books that are in reasonable shape to show my learners that they are worthy of good books. I’ve asked what he’s interested in and chosen books that might catch his attention. I check books out of the public library because he can’t get there. I offer him books at multiple levels and chat with him one-on-one about what he’s reading. I never suggest he’s not good enough or reads too slowly. He can put down books he doesn’t like or can’t follow. I never make him read something he’s not ready for. He comes to this small class because I can pay attention to his learning needs.

Not only does the Ministry of Education plan to increase class sizes, they also want to require four e-learning classes for every student to graduate. No doubt this will provide cost savings to the government, and I’m sure there will be benefits for some students, but students like him need every minute of positive human contact they can get. He comes to my class because even though the class is small, I have an EA in the room every day. Between us, we can catch most students before they give up, assignment after assignment. We provide positive support so that they can overcome obstacles that might otherwise stymie them. We can see when they are having a bad day and help them cope with that; we notice when they are having a good day, and encourage them to shine. He comes to my class because we are physically present so we notice him and his peers.

He comes to my class because I was allowed to move to a cozy room with comfortable tables that let him stretch out a little. We have windows for natural light and plants growing along the window ledge; some days the students help water. He comes to my class because I have shelves full of all kinds of books to support learners of all kinds at all levels and walls adorned with vocabulary words, anchor charts and celebrations of reading. He comes to my class because the librarian provides us with a few Kindles so that students who struggle to read the words on a page can listen while they read. That same librarian pulls another student out for 15 minutes a day to provide one-on-one English language support. She comes to my class, too.

He comes to my class because I let him eat. Our breakfast program provides food – Cheerios and raisins or maybe some apples – that I put out most days. Many of my students grab a bag to snack on as they read or write. Some of them, probably including him, don’t get quite enough at home. So they come to class.

He comes to my class because we are a community of learners. Because I use every student’s name every day. Because other students speak to him during our activities. Because we listen when he talks. Because his voice matters.

He comes to my class because we have decided that he, and others like him, are worth it, even though they require time, energy and resources from our system. In fact, if you talk to teachers, you’ll find that we need more services for these students, not fewer. The changes the Ontario government has put forward – e-learning and larger classes are only two among many – will no doubt reduce the education line-item in the budget, but in the long-run they mean that students like him are less likely to come to class. I’m not convinced that the savings will be worth it.

 

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The Chase #SOL19 14/31

Some days, being a Special Education teacher is all about the chase.

The classroom phone rings, “Have you seen…?”
A teacher pops their head into the room,  “I’m looking for…”
The Head Custodian texts “I found this kid in Stairwell C. Do you know he’s there?”
The Vice Principal sends an email, “Do not let this student leave the classroom unsupervised” right after I let the student leave the classroom, unsupervised.

And the chase is on. I casually glance under the stalls of the girls’ bathrooms. An EA checks the boys’ locker room. I call Guidance. I look outside that one door and in the hidden alcove under the other stairwell. I walk through the cafeteria then meander into the far back corner of the library. Most kids have preferred hiding places; most of the time we find them.

There must be a million reasons not to go to class. After all these years of teaching, I think I’ve heard them all, but of course I haven’t. And even if I have, my job is to hear the reason behind the reason. I absolutely believe Ross Greene’s idea that “children do well if they can,” so my burning question is always “why aren’t you in class?”

He says, “There’s no point in going anyway.”

And I slide down to the floor of the stairwell, tuck my skirt under my knees, shoulder to shoulder with a child who should be in class but isn’t, who should be passing but isn’t. “Tell me more.”

And he does. So much more. I’ve been listening to him for a while now – years, really – and things aren’t good. Some days I’ve lost my patience with him. I’ve told him to make a choice, to stop blaming others, to just go to class for Heaven’s sake. He’s walked out on me, come back, talked and even cursed. I’ve sat next to him during tests, made him take out his ear buds so he has to listen, even set my hand on his shoulder to help him settle down while we breathed in and out together. I’ve spoken to his father, to his mother, to his teachers. I’ve chased him before.

Today I’ve found him. Today he can’t see any way out. Today he can’t imagine that things will change. Today we talk about his dad and his mom and his brother and rehab and rehab and rehab. I tell him what I know – which is not much – but I know that things are always changing, that six months from now will not look like today. That he is changing, that life is change and that sometimes crisis leads us to new opportunities.

I’ll chase him again another day, I know. And if not him then another student, another child who needs to be found and needs to be heard. Because I’ve learned that the trick to the chase is not to know where a student is going, but to recognize where they’ve been.

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Gratitude at work #SOL19 5/31

Today’s post was inspired by Tammy over at Tammy’s Reading/Writing Life. Her gratitude list felt like just the right way to start a day. 

What I am grateful for at work

I am grateful that my English department colleagues are some of the smartest and most well-read people I have ever worked with and that they offer students a wide range of ways to approach texts.

I am grateful for raucous, hilarious lunchtime conversations about everything from Hamlet to hell-raising.

I am grateful that we have a kitchen in the English office, and I’m grateful to the custodian for giving us a cast-off round table a few years ago so that everyone can sit around talking at lunch and to a department that welcomes all comers – especially supply teachers (Canadian for “substitute teachers) and those new to the school.

I’m grateful for the freedom to teach my class in ways that are supported by research but which are new to me. I’m grateful that my administration and my department trust me enough to let me try new ways to encourage growth in our students.

I am grateful that our librarian is incredibly enthusiastic about books and reading, that she shares the library with me all the time, lets my class have first dibs on new arrivals, will work with my struggles one-on-one and generally supports my crazy literacy ideas

I’m grateful for a principal who loves to talk pedagogy, who believes that relationships are what make education, and who always – even when he drives me crazy – starts with the question, “will it help the students learn?”.

I’m grateful for vice principals who demonstrate respect for the students they encounter – and who are effective and supportive.

I’m grateful for a partner teacher in Spec Ed (Canadian for Special Education) who is committed, dynamic and visionary.

I’m grateful that the EAs (educational assistants) are some of the best I’ve ever worked with: smart, funny, and deeply focused on our students.

Good heavens, I am realizing that I’m grateful to work with so many amazing people -and I can’t possibly enumerate them all here (but I’ll start): our head custodian who provides laughter and counsel, our office staff who are ridiculously competent and have the best Halloween costumes, our Guidance Dept who are tirelessly supportive of students, our IT support who is constantly on the go & saving our bacon, my colleagues who share complaints & compliments freely. I feel like I could write whole posts about person after person.

I’m grateful for the dynamism that is generated by the Arts programs. Our school is full of kids dancing down the hallway, singing in the stairwells, painting on the walls (sanctioned!). I’m grateful for the student performances that inspire: music, dance, words and images permeate our every day. And I”m grateful to the teachers for providing the structure and the time to make that happen.

I’m grateful that our school actively works to make spaces for all sorts of students – physically disabled, talented in the arts, behavior challenged, gay, trans, LD, newcomers to Canada, kids from down the street. We take our commitment to welcoming all very seriously.

I’m realizing as I write that what it comes down to is that I am grateful for a team of people who believe deeply in the potential of all of our students and who hold each other up as we strive to offer our students the best that we can.

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Sing! #SOL19 4/31

Where did this start? Do I blame the very enthusiastic gym teacher who came in and jokingly shamed the English Department into participating in Buskerfest? “It’s for a good cause,” he said. “Your department didn’t do anything last year.” But what should the English teachers do? Declaim poetry? Offer our services to write love letters? We are a bookish crowd, not well suited to busking.

Maybe I should lay the blame more firmly at the feet of my 75-year-old colleague, who has never met a crazy idea he didn’t want to try, and his partner-in-crime, a former drama teacher with a penchant for performance? Either way, when the Phys Ed teacher told us that the French department was singing French folk songs in the lobby, one of those two said that we would do karaoke. WE.

I had never actually done karaoke, though I’ve watched in awe as others sing with great enthusiasm in front of complete strangers. And, while I have been known to dance to the songs that play over the PA system before classes begin, I had certainly never done karaoke in front of my students and colleagues.

But here I stood, next to a jerry-rigged home karaoke machine in the middle of the main foyer, belting out “I Will Survive” in front of the principal, my laughing colleagues and an alarming number of students. I’ll admit, I was having fun, but I was also mortified.

Maybe my obvious combination of enthusiasm and embarrassment was just what the crowd needed: soon, one of my former students stood and joined me and my colleagues – a little vocal support or just wanting to be part of the fun? I’ll never know. As we finished, two more students, both new to our school and struggling to fit in, were at the mic, and the student who had joined me, joined them. Next, a quiet grade 9 student offered up an Ariana Grande song (“It’s the clean version, Miss,” she whispered, just before she took the mic and sang to the crowd). More and more people came – another teacher, some dance students – and my personal favourite: one of our students with a physical disability sang Shawn Mendes’s “It’s In My Blood” from his wheelchair as an EA held the mic. His delivery of the lines “Sometimes I feel like giving up/ But I just can’t/ It isn’t in my blood” sent shivers down my spine.

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Shawn Mendes had better look out!

In the end, the English Department karaoke busking raised $123.65 during that lunch – but what it really did, somehow, was give everyone a place to sing. It’s the first time I’ve ever really understood karaoke, and I’m already thinking about a song for next year.

 

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Group work?

They are building a car powered by a rubber band. Although, to be clear, I’m not sure I should be using the word “they” in that sentence. A loose agglomeration of human beings of roughly age 10 are working on an assignment in the vicinity of one another. That about sums it up.

My son says that “the girls” took over and would not listen to him. His solution? Stop helping. At least one of the girls reported to her mother that “the boys” were just fooling around and didn’t do any of the work. The result? One girl and one boy are in my kitchen the night before the project is due, hot-gluing household items onto two entirely different cars neither of which reliably covers the required three metres. They plan to let the “group” vote on which one to use tomorrow. Both sides agree that the vote will likely divide along gender lines.

 

Every adult I’ve spoken to about this (because this group project has lasted for at least 10 painful days and other parents of other groups are equally put-upon) either rolls their eyes or laughs and says, “well, they might as well learn early what group work is really like.” And, though I wish it were otherwise, I more or less agree. I don’t have fond memories of group work from my school days. Heck, I even hate the group work I’ve had to do as an adult in my online courses. It’s hard for me to remember the synergy of a group of people, focused and contributing, creating something together that they simply couldn’t do on their own. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s transformative. Nevertheless, that’s not what I think of when I hear “group work.”

In the case of the rubber band car(s), I’m embarrassed to say that my first instinct was to blame the teacher: clearly the group work wasn’t well-structured, I thought. Teachers need to assign roles, break the task into parts, provide both independent and collaborative outcomes. But that’s kind of blather, isn’t it? I mean, it sort of works, but sort of doesn’t because group work is messy and complicated and often doesn’t lead to where we hoped it would go. Frankly, I assign group work only rarely, usually using the excuse that I need to “assess individual outcomes.” (Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth astonish me.) So I doubt that the group problems here really stem from the way the teacher assigned things.

But here I am. The kids are asleep, the cars are as done as they are going to be, and I’m wondering why the heck their project is bothering me. As I write, I keep trying to take the easy route, to switch gears to talking about my own classroom and jump right into “I’m going to assign more group work! I’ll research it, and I’ll do it better!” but I’m pretty sure that’s not the reflection I need.

How well do I work in groups? Do I “accept various roles”? Do I take over, listen to others or simply give up? What is a “good” group? What is the responsibility of the individual? How important is group work anyway?

I’m surprised by my ambivalence about the whole thing, but my thoughts keep returning to those two different cars limping towards the three-metre-mark, and I can’t help but wonder what that group needed to change to make one excellent car.

 

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