stevenpiziks: (Default)
The New York Times posted this article about students and writing. Go have a look and come back:

It's interesting and shows a number of teachers who have different approaches to solving the problem of students who can't write well.  But, as the article notes, people complaining of a lack of writing skill in America dates back to at least 1874.  The article also fails to point out the two biggest reasons we have that many students don't write well, and I'll address them here.

1.  Student Motivation  A lot of students--the majority of them--just don't care if their writing sparkles and zings.  They really don't.  They only want to know what they can do to earn a certain grade.  For some, this grade is an A, and for some it's a D, and some don't even care about that much.  Only a tiny handful actually care about learning how to be a better writer.  This describes the vast majority of the population, really.  Ask a thousand people on the street how many of them enjoy writing and want to improve their writing skill.  You'll come up with a vanishingly small percentage.  A teacher can only teach what the student wants to learn.  A student who puts in minimal effort will see minimal improvement.  In my own classroom, I use a number of techniques and activities to cheerlead and motivate and attempt to persuade that they should work to improve their writing, but in the end, they have to want to do the work.  I can't force them.  No one can.  It has to come from the students.

2. Class Size  A glaring omission from the article is the impact of class size.  Teacher A talks about identifying a great sentence in a student's work, and Teacher B talks about having all her students read their writing aloud in class.  Very nice.  Then I look at my class lists.  35 students.  34 students.  37 students.  How the hell?  I simply can't go through my students' writing and look for "great sentences."  And having my students read their writing aloud to the class?  I do that with ONE assignment per year, and it takes three full days, plus one make-up day for students who were absent.  I can barely provide feedback on essays by circling responses on a rubric.  I agree that teacher feedback and student rewrites are important to improving student writing, but when you have 34/35/37 students in class, with a third of them special needs, you just can't do it.  Back in the days when my classes were 21/22/19, I gave a lot more feedback, and my students did a lot more writing.  Now?  I scrape by with the minimum because I can only evaluate so many papers at once.

You'll notice that the above two situations aren't within the teacher's control.  Motivation ultimately has to come from within.  Class size is dictated by budgets.  If you really want to improve student writing, parents need to set an example for their kids to provide the motivation and vote to improve school funding to help with the budget.

stevenpiziks: (Outdoors)

My teacher salary has been cut yet again.

This time it's through health care. My deductible doubled in mid-year. I have an entire family on the plan, so it was paid off so far, and now I have to pay it all over again. Every doctor and dentist bill suddenly has to be paid in full by me. This is an enormous expense, especially since it all comes in a single month. It's over $1,000 extra to pay within 30 days.

It's awful. Darwin and I stare at the numbers, but they won't budge. Could you afford an extra $1,000/plus dollars due RIGHT NOW?

This is a sharp salary reduction of over $1,000 per year. Meanwhile, I haven't had an actual raise in TEN YEARS now. That's half my career.

When the economy was good, there was no move to give teachers high raises. Business salaries leaped. Bonuses skyrocketed. And no one offered to share that largesse with the people educating their children.

When the economy crashed, it was suddenly belt tightening time. Everyone had to make sacrifices, especially teachers, who had never been given extra in the first place.

Cut, cut, cut.

Now the GOP in power in Michigan loves to say the economy has turned around (thanks to them and not Obama). But have they increased school funding so teachers can get raises after ten years of cuts?

No. More cuts! More slashing!

Vote Democrat this fall. Please. The people who spend all day helping your children need you.

stevenpiziks: (Cup)
On Tuesday I decided to pause a moment in my English 9 classes to talk about autism.

As I've mentioned before, I have several autistic students this year.  Some are diagnosed autistic, others are clearly autistic but, for one reason or another, not officially labeled that by the school, though they're still special education students.  They fall under "speech and language impaired."

Anyway, they're all in my classes, and I know the neuro-typical students have noticed, so I figured we needed to talk about it.

"We're going to take a few moments now," I said, "so that we can talk about autism.  Some people are familiar with autism, and others aren't . . . "

I gave a little explanation about what autism is and the fact that my son Aran is autistic and talked about some of the challenges autistic people face, along with some of their strengths.

"It's okay to talk about autism, including with autistic people," I said.  "A lot of times we're told it's rude to talk about differences, like if someone is in a wheelchair or wears a hearing aid or has other challenges, but it's perfectly all right to talk about this and ask questions, especially if you're trying to understand better.  More and more people are being recognized as autistic all the time, so it's good for all of us to know what it's about."

The autistic students in the room weren't at all shy about adding their own information and experiences, and they seemed glad to see that their condition was recognized and discussed in class.  (I'm imaginging some of them going home and saying, "We talked about autism in English class today!")

Overall, the discussion went enormously well, and I think it helped the neuro-typical students understand a lot better who these students were and what was happening with them.
stevenpiziks: (Outdoors)
This is the first week of my 21st year of teaching. My career is now old enough to drink.  The freshmen I taught during my first year are now in their mid-thirties.

When I started teaching, the Internet and the World Wide Web were two separate entities.  Netscape was the king of browsers.  Amazon had just gone live, and it only sold books.  There were no cell phones.  Our building had two copy machines.  I was an techno-geek because I actually had an email address.  The district had no email server of its own.

Attendance and grades were kept in spiral-bound books.  In my third year, we got computerized attendance and a site license for Grade Quick, a computer grade book.  I was one of six teachers who elected to use it.  Most teachers in the building couldn't figure out how it worked.  I had no computer in my classroom--I had to input grades in the teacher workroom, which had four computers in it for the entire teaching staff.  When the marking period ended, I had to copy the grades from the computer onto a bubble sheet so the office scanner could print the report cards.

None of the computers in the building had hard drives.  Some machines accepted 5.25" disks, but most needed 3.5" disks.  We had one laser printer.  The rest were dot-matrix.

My classroom was a converted storage room with a malfunctioning radiator in it that wouldn't shut off, so the room was over 90 degrees even in coldest winter.  The district coped by giving me a 9' tall rotating fan to put in the corner, but it roared so loud, I could only run it when we were doing seat work.  (Sure cut down on the cheating, though--no one could hear a whisper with that thing going!)

I usually picked up four or five notes a day from the floor.  "Dear Janie, I'm sitting in class and I'm soooooo bored!  I can't wait for cheerleading practice.  We have to do a writing assignment for English, and I HATE writing . . . "  Texting has made such missives extinct these days.

My classroom used a chalkboard, and at the end of the day, my hands and nails and sinuses were coated with chalk dust.  Eventually we graduated to white boards with dry markers.  Now I have a computerized Smart Board.

When I started, we have six TV/VCR combos on carts that you trundled down to your room. You signed them out up to a week in advance, and the week before winter break, there was always a scramble to get one.  Now I stream videos from my computer to my Smart Board and the TV in the upper corner of my room gathers dust.  Although I learned how to use a movie projector during my technology training in college, I have never used one in my classroom.

When I started teaching, my building had a full-time librarian with two full-time assistants.  Now we have one part-time paraprofessional in the library and no librarian at all.

When I started teaching, the students read ROMEO AND JULIET aloud in class.  Eventually, I tracked down a copy on cassette tape.  Then I got it on CD.  Now I stream it from my computer as a series of MP3 files.

When I started teaching, all my students lived in homes where someone subscribed to a newspaper.  Now perhaps 1 in 10 does.

The inside of my desk looks much the same, though.  Pens, pencils, scissors, paper clips, staples, 3x5 cards, markers, rulers, glue.  The chairs and tables are the same.  Teenagers behave the same.  They still gossip, compare clothes, wonder what the hell they're going to do after high school, wonder how they're going to make it through biology, stress over what people are saying about them even as they spread rumors of their own, do their best to live up to their parents' expectations while they form their own, volunteer for charity drives with a passion that adults have forgotten, jerk tears from you with heart-rending stories of tragedy they've experienced, and surprise you with flashes of worldly insight.
stevenpiziks: (Outdoors)
The first week of school has ended.  As usual, it takes the entire week to get used to everything.  After a summer of setting my own schedule, it's hard to reset to someone else's.

I'm definitely the go-to guy for special education.  Exactly 50% of my freshmen are special education students this year, and I have all the mainstreamed ASD students.  Oddly, the one freshman who I've pegged as the major behavior problem =isn't= a special education student.

Monday I need to give the classes a short talk on what autism is so the neuro-typical students can understand better what's going on with the ASD kids.

Week one is over!  39 more to go!
stevenpiziks: (Autism)
The Wherever School District has three high schools.  One of them houses a special education program for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Last spring, the district announced that, for various reasons, the program was being moved to Nameless High School, where I teach.  Most of the students would be in a self-contained classroom, but a chunk of them would be mainstreamed into neuro-typical classrooms.

Last month, I was in Nameless High School.  So much to do!  Desks to arrange, lessons to plan, copies to run.  By coincidence, the school was running an orientation week for certain students, letting them get the feel for the building, figure out where the classrooms were, and so on.  As a result, I got a steady stream of students wandering into my room.  I greeted each of them, and several I immediately recognized as autistic.

When the trickle died away, I asked around and learned the orientation was for special education students, especially those in the ASD program.  Looks like I'm pegged to be the ASD English teacher.

This happens to me a lot.  Once the counseling office learned my son is autistic, I became the go-to teacher for placing autistic students, on the grounds that I have special, insider knowledge about autism, and that I'll be especially sympathetic to ASD students.

There's a certain amount of truth to this.  After raising Aran, I have a certain amount of specialized information about the way he thinks, and by extension, other autists.  However, autists vary wildly in their needs.  Some want to be touched, other's can't bear it.  Some have sensory overload problems, others don't.  Some love to read, others hate it.  Just like neuro-typical kids.  But autistic teens are often harder to reach, and you have to speak in certain ways.  As one example, figurative language is often difficult, and you have to avoid using it in everyday speech.  This is the exact opposite to someone like me, who spins stories for a living.  I create and use figurative language in my speaking as a way to interest my classes, and I'm very good at it.  This skill is actually a detriment in a room full of autists.  I accidentally panicked Aran more than once with it, in fact, and now I'll have several Arans.  It will make for a challenging year.

However, that's the way it is, and the students need someone who knows what's going on, so I'm it.  When I realized what was happening, I examined my room and gave it some thought.  Sharyl, my co-teacher, happened by at that moment, and I discussed it with her.

Autists are often easily distracted because their brains don't filter out sensory information as handily as neuro-typical brians do.  The sensation of your socks gently rubbing against your feet quickly disappears from your awareness after you put your shoes on, but many autists are continually aware of it.  You can examine and then ignore a painting on the wall, but an autist will notice it again and again and again.

In order to cut down on distractions, I'm going to cover the windows that look out into the hallway.  (This is against school policy, but I'll get an exception.)  I usually put up a great many posters in my room--more potential distractions--but I'll cut back until I know what the distraction threshold of my students is.  I always tell my students what the plan for the day is at the beginning of class, but now I'll get into the habit of putting my lesson plan on the board--autists don't handle surprises well and they better when they know exactly what's coming up.

At Sharyl's suggestion, I also put a decompression zone in the back corner of my room.  Autists sometimes get overloaded and can be pushed into a meltdown.  A safe, low-sensory area is often helpful to let them decompress.  I pushed my two rolling cabinets around to wall off the corner and make a little alcove.  Then I put down a blank gray rug (my classroom has a busy checkerboard carpet) and added two low chairs--a soft, squeezy beanbag-type arm chair for autists who need some reassurance, and a stark, web-style lawn chair for autists who need to feel less restricted.  I bought two sets of ear protectors and hooks to hang them from, along with some baby wipes to clean them with.  On the floor I put a lamp with a calm, low-watt bulb.  Later, I'll put up a sign that says, "Safety Zone" or something.  There!  Students who get overloaded can slip back to the Safety Zone and wind down before they melt down.

I worry, though, about the impact on the neuro-typical students.  The class can't be all about the ASD kids.  It's about bringing the ASD students into the neuro-typical world, with help.  It's a fine line to walk.


Sep. 8th, 2015 03:49 pm
stevenpiziks: (Outdoors)
Some time ago, I was on a run. The time was maybe 9:00 PM.  It was late twilight, and the bats were flitting.  My usual route takes me through the woods and into a schoolyard.  This particular night, lights were on in the school building. As I ran past the windows, I could see inside.  Teachers were unpacking boxes, putting up bulletin boards, arranging bookshelves, and moving furniture.  At 9:00 at night nearly two weeks before the first day of school.

The next time someone mentions "lazy teachers," I'm going to punch hard.
stevenpiziks: (Outdoors)
So the teacher shortage is already hitting and hitting hard. So hard that some districts are BEGGING people to teach. And yet just three years ago, they were laying people off, telling teachers that they were terrible people, slapping them around, giving poor evaluations to good educators, and making life miserable for everyone. Now suddenly the districts cry, "Where are all the teachers?"  You want teachers? Here's what to do:

1) Stop linking standardized tests to teacher evaluations.
2) Cut back on the number of standardized tests.
3) Raise salaries across the board.
4) Restore tenure so teachers can work without worrying that a single complaint from a parent or administrator with a mad-on will get them fired.

Problem solved!


stevenpiziks: (Default)

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