Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lessons In Unexpected Places

This essay was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook:

In Praise of Paraprofessionals

This is an accident, and it is a problem that is easy to fix,” Ms. Javier told me when I thanked her and apologized to her on behalf of one of our students, who had left his backpack filled with his baseball equipment at the park.

We were already on the bus back to school from our field day when he remembered and tried to make a run for it. Ms. Javier slipped off the bus and headed back to the park, solving the problem in an instant by simply going the extra mile. When she met us back at the school, backpack in hand, she was smiling, as she always is.

“You know, with these kids, their possessions are a big deal. It’s not like he would just go and get another.” Ms. Javier tells me what I already know, but she is the one who really understood enough to see it as worth her time to get off the bus and go back to the park.

Ms. Javier (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, as are the names of all students in my posts) was a paraprofessional in my class this year. Four of my students’ special education classifications this year have qualified them to have a paraprofessional.

A paraprofessional, commonly abbreviated as “para,” is a teaching assistant whose primary responsibility is to one or several students whose Individualized Education Plans, or I.E.P.s, require that they have extra support.

My class this year had two paraprofessionals, one who scribed for a student and another who translated my lessons and provided support for the beginner English Language Learners (E.L.L.s) in my class.

This was my first experience having a para in my class. I was tentative about the arrangement, not fully understanding the role that would be played by these other adults in the classroom — not sure how I should change my lessons to work them into it, or how helpful they would be to my students. It turned out to be an experience that benefited both my students and me.

Ms. Javier is the para for the E.L.L. students, and from the very first day in the classroom, she dove deeply into her responsibilities. She read my lessons and previewed my worksheets, translating important words and creating glossaries for her students to keep on their desks.

She noticed students who were not assigned to her, but who she thought she could help, and took them under her wing without being asked. She stayed after school every day to help the special education coordinator in my school organize his files, and she volunteered her personal time to work at the Saturday tutoring program.

Ms. Javier had gone above and beyond each and every day for the entire year (and probably for most of her life). She seamlessly fit into the class and anticipated every need that we could have. When I would think about doing something, she would beam and show me that she had already done it.

A lot of people go the extra mile. Ms. Javier has done it selflessly, without hope for reward, and without a hidden agenda. When she is asked to take on yet another task without any form of compensation or promotion, she is eager to do so, eager to touch more kids’ lives. She truly believes in even the most difficult students. Sometimes she will be asked to work with a particularly troubled boy in another class, and when he runs down the hall in a tantrum, she is right there behind him, smiling.

“That boy has a lot of energy,” she says, where others would sigh in exhaustion and frustration. Ms. Javier keeps going back, treating the students like they are her own children.

We have all learned from her this year. My students have benefited from having such a kind, gentle, caring individual in their lives, tirelessly helping them and supporting them. The school has benefited from the many hours she has donated, and the enthusiasm with which she has committed herself to learning new things and becoming more of an asset to the school. And I have benefited from seeing someone so graceful and joyful each morning, reacting to situations with a generous outlook that I wish that I had.

“In the morning, I think about my problems for a little while, and then I put them in the drawer and start my day,” she explains, when I ask her incredulously how she maintains such an unrelentingly positive outlook. “You have to enjoy your life.”

Paraprofessionals are an underappreciated group. The way that they can affect a student and a class is not something that can be measured with any ease. Often they work with some of the more challenging kids and switch students throughout the year, adapting to new situations to meet a new set of needs.

Because of their impermanence, people often think of paraprofessionals as replaceable — one may be substituted for another from day to day. But at graduation this year, Ms. Javier sat on the stage and cried while she watched the students that she had helped get there.

“Do you think next year I will have a student like Allie?” she asked me, mourning the loss of one. To the students, she was not replaceable — and certainly not to me.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Who's to Blame? (or what?!)

I remember learning the phrase 'se me olvido' in my high school Spanish class.  It's a miracle that I remember that, and I make no guarantees that my recollection is accurate - Spanish was just one of many classes in which I barely squeaked by.

It's apt that I recall this phrase, which essentially means 'I forgot', given my propensity for forgetfulness during my adolescence.  I forgot my homework in my locker.  I forgot my sweater.  I forgot about the test.  I forgot to come to class. 

'Se me olvido', as I recall, means literally 'it was forgotten to me'.  It always struck me as funny that Spanish was a language that didn't take responsibility for losing or forgetting things.  Rather, it personified inanimate objects, and assigned the blame to them.  My homework was forgotten to me. 

I think of this often these days - not because my forgetfulness has persisted (though it has...a bit), but rather because I hear my students do the same thing so often.

I will see a child sitting idly in front of the computer, an ask them why they aren't getting started.

"It don't want to turn on." they will reply, calmly, as though there is nothing that they could do to overcome the will of this machine. 

"It don't want to work."

"It don't want to move."

They use this phrase to describe an array of scenarios, driving me to wring my hangs in frustration. 

"It doesn't have wants!  It's a computer!" I declare, and they look at me as though they couldn't possibly care less about the distinction.

In four years, they haven't stopped giving inanimate objects responsibility for their actions.  The only thing that has changed is that now and then, I find myself slipping it into my conversations too.

After all, sometimes it does seem like a computer has a mind of it's own - wants and needs that it is imposing upon us!  Sometimes it it nice to just assign blame to the object that is causing you trouble, rather than carry the heavy load of responsibility around with you.  

Trying to open a jar in my kitchen, I'll groan in frustration. 

"It doesn't want to open!" 

And then I'll grin inwardly at my error.  Just further proof that their way of looking at the world has altered my own. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Relax and Reload

I went to the doctor on the first day that school was out, in an attempt to discover the cause of my recent headaches and fatigue.  It was my first time in years going to the doctor, and I was happily surprised by the experience.  He sat with me for forty-five minutes, asking questions about my relatively benign symptoms, and seeming genuinely interested in my responses. 

I told him that I was a middle school teacher in the Bronx, and he replied “Oh, well then I’ll have to address you with extra awe and respect!”  This made me smile, because it’s always nice when someone outside of education professes to understand how challenging this job is.

Just the other day a friend had said to me causally, “Oh I really need to get into teaching so that I can have my summers off.”  This is the type of remark that slices me, making me feel at once a little embarrassed by my leisure time, and incredibly lonely in a conversation where the person who I am talking to so clearly misunderstands the nature of the work that I do. 

I want to strike back, tell her that I should get into her field so that I can have measurable success, financial compensation for my efforts, a nice, clean working environment, problems I can solve, and no one ever cursing at me or fighting me hand and foot every step that I try to take.  Or I could just say that I should get into her profession so that I don’t have to be underestimated by so many people in the world. 

After a series of questions about my lifestyle and health history, and a review of blood tests, my doctor declared me an incredibly healthy 26 year old. 

“Have you considered that perhaps it’s more mental fatigue than physical fatigue?” he asked me, and seeing my less that receptive expression, quickly finished with, “not to say that it isn’t real, but very real fatigue can be caused by mental exhaustion, and you have a pretty tough job.”

I nodded, acknowledging this, but not ready to give up on the idea of a pill that would bring me back to life in the afternoons, when my eyes have been rolling back into my head in exhaustion. 

“How many kids do you teach?”

“I teach 30 kids three subjects in a class that is half special ed, and have general ed.” I tell him, picturing the classroom and the kids in it as I speak. 

“Well that’s a lot...”

“Yea,” I say, and I am surprised to feel my voice break and my eyes well up with tears.  I blink furiously - after all, this is a relative stranger I am talking to, and there’s no reason to get so mushy!  “It is a lot.” Again my voice betrays me, and in frustration I commit myself to silence, smiling brightly at the doctor, and nodding to show my agreement, and my surrender.  Perhaps it is mental exhaustion after all. 

He advises me to see how I feel now that school is over for the summer, and refers me to an optometrist to see if my eyes are the cause of my headaches.  I agree to do this, and leave the office feeling a great sense of relief. 

I don’t know if it is the fact that he ruled out other causes, or just the fact that it was the first time I have ever had a doctor sit and talk to me for more than ten minutes.  The more I find myself thinking about it, feeling a bit embarrassed by my emotional reaction, the more I know that my relief came from the empathy that he had.

Teaching is really really really hard.  All teachers know this.  It can be wonderful, it can be rewarding, it gives you your summers off.  But it’s really really really hard.

I know that it’s hard for it to be appreciated by people on the outside.  I myself am guilty of underestimating the amount of work that it takes, the level of emotional exhaustion that accompanies it.  Every day you face new challenges, that have to approached in a new way.  You success is based on a hundred factors that are out of your control, and on the compliance of people under the age of fourteen, who are fighting daily battles of their own, and whose decision making is impaired by an over abundance of hormones and peer pressures. 

It’s hard to appreciate it for what it is.  We’ve all had teachers, and they always had that big book filled with answers, and they were older and wiser and bigger than us.  How hard could it be?  Maybe it’s not as hard for everyone - some are surely better suited to the profession than I am, so perhaps it feels more natural to them.

Teaching isn’t the only job that is hard, and it may not even be the hardest.  But it is one that leaves you threadbare, and depleted by June.  For the next two months there won’t be hard work, and there won’t be lesson plans or presentations.  But it will be another kind of work - the work of rebuilding, so that in September you have a whole self to give to your students.  For teachers, summer is not just a time to relax, it’s a chance to reload.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Changing Paradigms

This is a clip that is popular in education right now - so it wasn't a huge surprise when it was selected to kick off a fun filled day of professional development last week. 

It's worth investing five minutes of your day to watch in that it is thought provoking for anyone with any connection to education, and in fact, can probably be applied to an array of fields which haven't evolved with technological advances.

Essentially, the idea is one that anyone who has spent five minutes in a classroom has to have considered: the way that we expect kids to learn is outdated, and out of touch.  The world has changed dramatically, but the basic tenets of public education have not.  And so we still ask students to sit still, to listen, to take written exams, and to learn based on a curriculum.  Innovation has been seen as moving desks out of rows and into groups.  Compare that change with the way that internet has changed out world, and you can see how hopelessly far behind our efforts lag.

Ken Robinson goes on to talk about ADHD as a false diagnosis, one that is actually a result that we should expect when we demand that children function in a way that has become entirely unnatural.

There are a lot of takeaways from this idea, and we discussed it with enthusiasm - always excited by the potential that lies in throwing out everything and starting fresh, from scratch, in a way that is entirely reflective of the way that kids learn and absorb information in this day and age.  And then, of course, reality sets in.

Yes, kids love video games, and talking, and running around.  It is probably unnatural to demand 90 minutes of silence, or active listening.  And yet - in real life, and attention span does come in handy.  In most jobs, you have tasks that aren't fun or exciting or designed for your specific learning style.  You may not always be engaged.

The real disconnect becomes  - are we as teachers preparing kids for life after school, or should we be attempting to maximize the success of school itself, even if the learning experience doesn't resemble what their world will be like after graduation?  How open can we really make our minds - how much can we afford to throw out?

Ironically, we transitioned from this fantasizing into a discussion of the very concrete, very practical, very by-the-book, regimented new national learning standards, which are in fact what the future of teaching likely holds.

Ken Robinson does and excellent job of illustrating (literally!) major problems with education today.  But what is the solution?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kady and Deenie

By some terrible mistake, it seems that Barnes and Noble has stopped carrying 'Deenie' by Judy Blume.  Luckily enough, it's still on their list of books that they can order, and I did so, waiting eagerly for it to come in so that I could devour it, and remember what about it was so special when I read it as a thirteen year old. 

One of my students, Kady, has scoliosis, and wrote a long paper recalling her diagnosis, and the progression of the condition in concise detail.  She listed the degrees that her spine had tilted without flinching, though it can take her ages to remember something that I have taught her.  She talked about how scary it was, and how no one really understood what it was like.  She's a very quiet girl, but she expressed herself in a loud, clear voice in this paper - one that I never heard her projecting in class.

Deenie flashed into my mind immediately, as a book that she should read.  I have long subscribed to the belief that we read in order to know that we are not alone - to recognize the feelings that we feel in characters, or to find words for the things that we couldn't say.  Being a girl in Kady's position seemed lonely and terrifying. 

She is having a surgery early in July, in the hopes that it will help her.  I don't know the details, or fully understand any of it, but I badly wanted to press this book upon her. 

Perhaps there is a reason that Barnes and Noble no longer has it in stock - maybe Kady will find it outdated and irrelevant.  But still, I felt as I gave her the book today, that I was connecting her to something important.  I hope that she finds company in the words, and even if it doesn't make it less scary, at least it may make her a little less alone.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Another Chance?

One of my students failed both of her state exams.  She has been having a difficult year - her mother has been in and out of the hospital, and she has taken on a large load at home to compensate.  She is bright, though she needs extra help in math and is behind in ELA.  She has been held over in the past.

When she came into school and found out that she had failed her test, she looked disappointed, but resigned.  She accepted it, and said that she was a little bit surprised, but that she would do what she had to do.

Then she wrote an email to her former principal, who now runs a school.  I have put the email here because it touched me to read it.

"I have been held behind and would like to know if you can help me.  I failed both of the tests.  For the ELA test i felt asleep at the time of the state tests.  I was going thru a lot that I can't manage at once, like for example my mother was in the hospital and I was so worried, and at the same time i had to be ready for the test. For the MATH I just felt like I needed more time to study and understand things, but I will go to summer school and see if i can make magic work...

Ever since I have been held over in the pass it's been messing with my future.  I have a very low self-esteem and I really give up fast, because I feel like I can't do it.  I also feel like there's no point in doing something that I know I'm going to fail at.  Thats why I was going to drop out of school and get my "GED".  I honestly don't wanna get it, I would love to graduate high school and become a successful woman , That's when Mrs. Klein told me about your new [school]l.  I would love to attend your school.  I promise I would work my behind off, I don't care if i have to stay after school I would work as hard as i could.

So please give me a chance I promise I won't let you or myself down, and if I can't attend thanks for listening."

Awards Season

This piece was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook blog.

My eighth graders are graduating, and I am asked to choose students who are the “best” in each subject area. There’s also an award for the “best” student over all (one boy and one girl).

When students receive their yearbooks, they flip to read the results of the ever-popular “senior superlatives” vote, which decided which of their peers would be most successful, who has the best hair, who is the best athlete, the best dancer, and more.

As I consider the categories, and try to choose just one student for each, I find myself overwhelmed by all of the awards that we don’t give.

How about an award for my student who isn’t the best or the fastest, but who always helps her peers, and is kind when they don’t understand something?

Or for the student who brightens everyone’s days with his sense of humor, and his perfect comedic timing in a tense moment?

Where do I find the award for the child who has overcome the most this year — who has been heroic in his or her personal survival?

I want an award for the student who was brave enough to stand up to her peers when someone was being teased, and for the student who finally had enough confidence to stand up for himself.

What we value is reflected in what we recognize and reward. We give out awards for attendance and for showing up on time. We give out awards for high grades. But we don’t have a reward for effort — for the student whose grades aren’t the best, but who never gives up, never stops trying and never lets you down in his or her perseverance to learn.

We’ve added an award for “most improved,” but our award system itself is what needs improvement.

Where is the award for the kid who learns to manage the anger that has handicapped her for the last five years, or the student who rises from a second-grade reading level to a fifth-grade reading level in a single year?

We award the best dancer and the best athlete, but not those students who are remarkable in ways that are harder to summarize in a sound bite.

As it has always been, the same few kids receive the awards — the standout three students who blow everyone away with their high grades and their amazing work ethic; the five loud, outgoing kids who make themselves noticed, and demand attention and credit for their talent, looks, athletic prowess.

I always look around the room and see all of the other kids for whom I know there are no votes.

How does it feel to be those kids? They know that they don’t fit into those categories. None is expecting to win one of these awards. But in middle school, if you don’t fit into a category, where do you fit in? What is your worth?

I always write excessively long yearbook messages to these students, wanting to make clear to them their value and their potential. It’s a little ridiculous, I realize, to try to squeeze these sentiments in beside the pink gel-pen hearts and emoticons with which their friends have decorated the pages. But it feels somehow important.

During the year, I have my students respond to journal prompts as class warm-ups. “What is something that makes you unique and special?” is one that always generates unexpected answers.

My middle school students never answer by writing about themselves. They list the people who they love and who care about them; they list the things they like about the way that they look — but they never look within when they consider what makes them special. “I’m special because of my mom.” It’s sweet, but it’s not really the same as taking pride in who they are.

These prizes are not malicious. The voting is supposed to be fun and exciting, giving recognition where it is due. But it’s never a surprise who wins. We are just giving voice to what each already knows about himself or herself.

If you have straight A’s, you know that you’re in contention to be successful, and if you always get picked first for a team, you’re already told each day that you’re the best athlete. Really, the awards that we give out serve only to make official what is already obvious.

It’s the kids who don’t know yet what is special and unique about them who we leave out, who we don’t take the time to label — and they are the ones who really need it.