A Few Words About Bullying

6 Oct

no_bullying_category

It has been over a year since my last post, and I thought I would take a shot at a return to writing by tackling the subject of bullying since October is National Bullying Prevention Month.  At least a quarter of all the students in the school where I work are there because of bullying, including one in my own household.  I remember seeing him as he was writing on the whiteboard when one of his teachers asked the students why they had chosen this school and he wrote “NO BULLIES!”  I was a bit surprised.  While it was a persistent problem at his previous school, I had thought that they had taken care of the situation.  But apparently it was still foremost in his mind.  My oldest is not a perfect student, and there were times when his own behavior could be construed as bullying.  Although he would never actually resort to real violence, he would resort to a threatening tone often enough.

Bullying has been around since the first time kids ever got together and decided to ostracize one of their peers.  Kids seem to naturally gravitate toward that Lord-Of-The-Flies behavior and sometimes adults do too.  And anyone who has ever posted a YouTube video or even written a blog has experienced the cyber version of this, thanks to the anonymity afforded by the medium.  However, the internet’s community-building has also  created safer places for kids who might be different so they can bridge the gaps created by physical geography to connect and share unique interests with each other.  There’s never been a better time in history to be a nerd.  The internet was created by nerds for other nerds, and the rest of the population eventually jumped on the bandwagon and made it hip and cool and an environment almost as treacherous as the real playground.

I was bullied pretty relentlessly while I was in school.  I was not “tough”, I wasn’t a jock and I wasn’t cool, although heaven knows I really tried my best at all of those things.  Being socially awkward and not a member of the cool crowd carried (and probably still carries) a pretty heavy price tag in small-town America.  It gets even heavier when you move from one to another, and you have no established family ties in the area and everyone else seems to be related to each other.  And if you didn’t have the money for the coolest clothes, cars and consumer goods, you were were pretty much out of luck.  The town I spent most of my time growing up in, is actually now one of the most diverse communities in the state of Iowa; a state not known for its diversity.  And I imagine the natives that didn’t eventually flee from the area HATE it!  I believe God has a unique sense of humor and this is proof of it.  A place that was pretty intolerant in the 70’s and 80’s now has it’s economy pinned to its diversity.

However, regardless of how I was treated I still have to ask myself a more important question “Was I ever a bully?”

I certainly was not the guy shaking down others for their lunch money or terrorizing smaller kids on the school bus.  But I’m pretty sure I might have done some things that were unkind to people who were lower on the social ladder than I was, as low as that was.  The desire and pressure to fit in, be cool and be popular would eventually get the better of me.  Or rather, it allowed control by the worst of me.  If I thought that it would have advanced my own social position, yeah, I would have thrown a rock or two at Piggy.  I probably said the wrong things to people that hurt them at some point.  So the line between the bully and the victim is not so clearly drawn, and I think we all have some darker part of us capable of inflicting misery on others.  There’s always some degree of intolerance, no matter how tolerant we think we might be.  Sometimes we lash out at intolerance with more intolerance!

It’s rather ironic that October is devoted toward Bullying Prevention.  As we approach November elections we’re going to witness intense bullying in the form of electoral discourse across all forms of media as each party clubs the other with negative advertising designed to cause lots of repeated discomfort for the other side.  I’m just referencing the treatment given to the topic by the American Psychological Association:

Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.

The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to “cause” the bullying.

Individuals with autism are especially vulnerable to bullying.  The prevalence of bullying is so high against and among individuals on the autistic spectrum that I would almost make an argument that it is as much of a Aspergers marker as repetitive behaviors.  The articles I linked to give a good treatment of the problem within this community and hypothesize as to the reasons for it.   It’s part of the body of evidence that allows me to stake a modest part of ASD  real estate for myself.

I think the most crucial skill we can teach our kids, especially those who are prone to being bullied, is to recognize when they are being baited and to bypass the temptation to become engaged in a battle that can’t be won.  Most arguments regarding religion and politics fall within that category but almost any area of interest or passion can be used to draw a person into a situation where they feel the need to defend themselves from attack.  Most cyber bullies will use those things to troll and trap a victim into a relentless cycle of abuse and it’s important to know when it’s time to just walk out and not respond at all like Zelda did.

The internet and social media have turned into a double-edged sword for people who have difficulties relating socially.  The buffer of the keyboard often gives people the space for free expression and voice where they might otherwise not have one, but it also provides the sort of cover that can be harnessed by miscreants who like to ambush people and set them off for kicks.  I’m grateful to be part of a school that offers a relatively safe place for students to learn without the threats of physical assault, incessant teasing and the anxieties of not fitting in becoming a distraction to learning.  There are still distractions and cyber bullying can still happen, but in our virtual setting and environment we are able to keep tight controls within our virtual classrooms.  For the most part, the students are friendly and very supportive of each other as they often find that they share a common history of maltreatment from their traditional settings.  This explains why there was such a flurry of agreement and supportive comments in the chatbox fpr a message on the white board.  NO BULLIES!

So You Want To Be An Online Teacher

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

This past year, I was a special education teacher, co-teaching algebra 1 to mostly 9th grade students. This alone would have been a challenge for me in any setting, since math is not exactly my best subject. Unfortunately, this is true of most special educators as most teachers who have a talent for math end up teaching it regularly. And those with a talent for both math and teaching are even more rare than those with the temperament for teaching special education. So I would have been breathing rarified air in any case, but the fact that I was doing it in an online environment made it even moreso.

The first question I always get is “How do you teach special education in an online environment?” Sometimes it is more generic, as in “How does online teaching work?”

It involves some of the same skills and routines as regular teaching, but the environment is totally different and it involves some new skills in communication and technology.

Most of the same things that hold true for online learning apply to online teaching. There is a steep learning curve, more work spread over more hours. While there is some flexibility and environmental benefits, it is not easier or less rigorous than teaching in a regular brick and mortar (B&M) setting. If someone is considering teaching in an online environment there are some things they need to know. Now I can share a few things that I learned over the past year.

The first and biggest adjustment I had to make was realizing that my school never sleeps. Ever. I think the closest thing my school came to taking a break was on Christmas and New Years and maybe the 4th of July. That does not mean that we as teachers don’t have breaks, but it does mean that the company is a constant task gin and taking vacations, taking time off and otherwise being unplugged results in a backlog of things that will be waiting for you when you plug back in. If you are the sort that likes a tidy desk with all things completed at the end of the day you will be in a constant state of stress and frustration. And I was one of those people who enjoyed some sense of completion and closure. This was doable and possible when teaching in a B&M setting with individuals with severe and profound disabilities, because I worked diligently during the day and could have most things done when I went home, even if I had to stay for a few extra hours. During IEP season, I might be there as late as 7 or 8 at night but when I went home it was done and there were few things carrying forward to the next day.

This is not even remotely possible in this environment. People take advantage of the flexibility, and so a teacher or administrator with young kids might wait until their kids were asleep to delve into the their major work tasks. So if I decide to check my email at 10 at night, I might find a dozen new things to do, many of which might be due by noon the next day.

My peers in the B&M setting are currently on their summer break, and have been for a couple of months. I get one month off, but there is some assumption that I will plug in and check my email and complete some tasks during that time. This assumption is a bit grating, as I am used to work being work and time off being time off. I still have some things to learn about managing the time and finding balance.

So just what ARE these tasks? Public education has become an endeavor that is data driven, and so much of what I do involves inputting, tracking and doing things with that data much more so that my friends in the B&M environment. Being a special education teacher adds an additional layer of compliancy that is not present anywhere else. In this setting, whatever the maximum caseload size is, you can count on having it.

In the B&M setting, spring is typically “IEP season.” However, within my setting, with a caseload of the maximum 26, it is year round with assorted amendments that have to take place constantly. Last year, the state did a sort of sumo belly flop on our department, trying to use special ed. issues to close the school and revoke our charter. This resulted in us having to work diligently until the wee hours of the morning over the course of several months in order to meet the various state-mandated deadlines, changing our IEPs into state-mandated language. It was an oppressive, stressful environment that made me wonder why I was here and what I had gotten myself into.

My day starts off with a commute of just a few feet to fire up my laptop, during which time I might go get something to eat and perhaps even take a showers. Note to perspective online teachers: taking a shower more than once a week will make you feel better! If I wait until 8 to wake up and log in, I do have the flexibility to sneak a shower in later in the day.

We do have live class sessions, which most teachers enjoy as this is where the most direct interaction occurs with the students. My first one was not until 9, so the first hour of my workday was checking my email and kmail and responding while making out my task list for the day. This list was in a notebook, and usually things carried over from one day to the next and the closest I got to a clean desk was scratching off each thing I completed as I went through the day. Math had more sessions than any other subject, which was 4 times a week 9-10, and then 3 times a week 1-2. There were also weekly school meetings, weekly trainings and weekly special ed department meetings as well as other weekly staff meetings with math and high school and high school special education. Each of these meetings were opportunities to get some more tasks and work to add to our list.

If I paint a picture of a lot of administrative work, that is because it is the lion’s share of what we do. The academic classes on the high school level are huge. I co-taught in a section of 160-180 students. Most of the work that students do is independent and fairly self-directed, which is a huge adjustment for most of them. This is why the learning coach is such a critical component of the online learning equation.

Up to this point, it might look like a bleak picture. Perhaps I can make it a little darker by pointing out that we do get paid substantially less than our B&M peers. The benefits are fairly competitive, but you will pay as they do take a huge chunk out of ones paycheck.

So to summarize: longer hours, less time off and less pay. You still want to do this?

We attract a lot of women with young children who want to spend more time at home with their kids and see this flexibility as a way of doing that. However once in, many realize that this is not necessarily working out like they had hoped. A lot of time is spent in meetings and on the telephone and kids and pets (and perhaps spouses) have an uncanny knack of knowing just when to make lots of noise to get mommy’s attention. So the demands can seem fairly constant, now with children and job both crowding in often at the same time. I’m fortunate to have a wife who can take care of the kids while I work, and kids old enough to know to stay out of the office when I am busy. But that is not to say that y parents, students and fellow teachers will never hear the sound of baritone practice, video games or other loud sounds in the background.

Haha…Let me reward those of you who got this far with a few rewards!

Aside from the benefits of saving on wardrobe and commuting, there are other benefits. But these two things are not unsubstantial. Everyday is pajama day if you want, though I would caution that getting showered and dressed might help to differentiate work time from not-work time which is something every home-worker has to struggle with. It is otherwise easy to get in the pit of all the time being work time. But even wearing jeans, shorts, no shoes or whatever I might want to be “work clothes” is a big benefit. In my former B&M school, the principal would reward teachers with “Jeans Day” or perhaps would sell tickets to wear jeans to raise money for some cause or club. Our kids go to live events wearing shirts saying “I love going to school everyday in my pajamas!” and teachers have something similar about teaching in their pajamas.

Not having to drive everyday is also a big benefit, as the morning and evening commutes in larger cities are considered a major stressor for most people. I don’t have to be out there worrying about getting hit by another car or what the weather is going to be. Of course that precludes snow days for me, but it lends to a more consistent schedule for the school.

The next biggest benefit as a teacher is not having to spend all the time we usually would spend managing behavior. This is a huge attraction for parents, students and teachers as the dangers and risks associated with being in a crowded classroom disappear when you are in your own house. A school shooting for our school would have to involve driving to every county in the state, visiting 12,000+ separate homes. We do take measures to keep the kids safe from cyberbullying but even these risks are greatly diminished when kids are not herded up and crowded into close proximity every day. Most fights in schools nowadays seem to spawn from something someone posted on Facebook and Twitter in a high tech variant of typical he-said she-said drama.

Teachers can see and monitor every singe thing said in their classrooms and can simply turn off or disable chat on an individual or a class-wide basis. We encourage and model appropriate online behavior in these settings and it is a boon for many who are otherwise socially awkward.

Not having to deal with behaviors like this makes it infinitely easier to deal with students 1:1, even in our huge classroom settings. And it makes it much easier to talk to kids who are already comfortable communicating digitally. It makes it easier to like them.

And I do like ALL of my students and their parents and families. In fact, I adore them. In group face-to-face settings, kids often put on a false face, trying to look cool or not wanting others to see their weaknesses. So they hide behind a false front. They can easily do this digitally, too, but all kids have a need to connect on a personal level. The words are pixels on a screen but the feelings and emotions behind them are very real and kids have become more and more adept at projecting and expressing those using technology. In B&M they often project badness in groups but teachers have to go 1:1 in order to get under that tough layer. I get to do this every day, all the time. With both parents AND students.

And this is, by far, the most satisfying part of my job. Touching kids is something every teacher lives for, and our kids thrive on the individual attention. And I thrive better as a teacher when I can do more of that. When I am feeling overwhelmed by my task list, I go to the kids and parents that need my help and it lifts us both. And they all are grateful and I have gotten SO much great and positive feedback that I never got in the B&M setting from those I have had the pleasure of working with this past year. It’s not about the pay, the vacations, the benefits or the flexibility. It’s about the connections and relationships. Being a bit of a misfit teacher, my students and I readily connect on a unique level that would not be possible in any other setting.

There is a need for more online teachers all the time as the waiting list for our school seems to get longer ever year, especially in high school. You think you have what it takes?

- You need to have a good work ethic that you can self-manage

- You need to be flexible because the only constant here is change, and often with little or no notice

- You need to be comfortable with technology as it is ALL done with the computer. Major tools for use include Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint as well as some other tools. You can get a feel for the live environment by attending one of Steve Hargadon’s Future of Education sessions live or recorded in Blackboard Collaborate.

- Communicate using all modalities. Chat, writing, live and over the telephone are all ways to get the message out.

Like I said in the post about students, there is a steep learning curve. Its even steeper for teacher because you will have to be able to help families navigate a foreign system while it is still somewhat foreign to you!

We do have live face-to-face conferences, workshops and professional development activities about every other month where you get to put faces to the voices and emails. New teachers meet for several days at the beginning of the year for orientation and training.

I’ll be looking over comments for anything I might have missed, but will be back at work on Monday 7/16!  So even if it never gets read, at least it is getting my head back around toward getting back to what is important.

So You Want To Be A Student At An Online School?

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

I am working on an article about being an online teacher but realized that I also needed to write something about being an online student since these go hand-in-hand. Since far more people will eventually be taking classes online than teaching them, I decided to lead off with this one.  All online teachers end up being online learners, so this is naturally a good place to start understanding what happens in an online school.

Our school is the largest in the state with over 12,000 k-12 students serving all 159 counties in the state. And we serve students in all grades with most disabilities including some with severe and multiple disabilities.

Families search us out for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve covered in prior articles about charter schools. I have personally served students who have been shot, stabbed, beat up, ridiculed, harassed, bullied and otherwise traumatized within the more typical brick and mortar setting. Some students were themselves bullies or were kicked out of their regular schools for being disruptive. Some students are professional actors, athletes or have other interests that simply do not work well with a traditional schedule. Some students have extensive medical needs that can not be met in a traditional setting or it poses an undo hardship. Some parents chose this option because, for whatever reason, they found themselves being called into the school to come and get their child, conference with administrators, or deal with other problems in the school often totally unrelated to a child’s education. Some of these are young teen parents themselves who want to take care of and raise their children without having to drop out of school.

Whatever the reason, families are coming to us from all corners of the state from all backgrounds. Over 50% of our students were eligible for free and reduced lunches in their regular home districts. While these students don’t get the free or reduced lunches in our setting, they are eligible to receive free laptops, printers and equipment from our school including the means to access the internet if they don’t already have it. Our school is a free, public charter school which does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, gender orientation, income or academic ability. In general, we have similar admission criteria as any other public school except we also do not discriminate based on ones zip code as long as they live in the state of Georgia. If you live in my state, you or your child can attend my school.

However, SHOULD you or your child attend my school? And if so, what do you need to know?

The first thing any perspective student and their parent should realize is that online education is not easier, less rigorous or less work than a regular school. It is more flexible. In exchange for eliminating some of the problems of scheduling and social pitfalls, it poses some extra challenges that are not present in more traditional educational settings. The work still has to be done, the standards still have to be met and the standardized tests still have to be taken and passed. These are state mandates for all public schools that do not go away just because the bus is not coming to the door.

Parents and students attending us for the first time are often a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected, having had some misconception that this would somehow be easier and less work. This is probably the biggest misconception of online education and it is the downfall of most students and parents entering our setting for the first time.

The second thing parents need to know is that they are going to be more involved and doing more work themselves. In our school, they are called “learning coaches”. While a learning coach can be any adult, it is most often a parent or guardian. Students of all ages need a certain level of support in our environment, and the parent needs to be willing, or know someone who is willing to fulfill this role. In the younger grades, this means that the parent takes on the role of being the primary teacher. While this lessens with age and grade level, it is still a critical component even in high school. It is a rare student that can manage themselves alone even in high school, especially if is their first year with us.

The benefit of flexibility is also a pitfall that many students and parents fall into, becoming a crater that they find themselves struggling to escape from. Most students who go back to the regular setting are ones who fell into this early on and struggled to get out of simply because they could not adequately manage their time. Procrastination is the biggest enemy of all in this setting and the online environment makes it exasperatingly easy to find other, more interesting things to do.

This is a new system and environment for most students. There is a new language, new technology, new system and an entirely new way of doing things. The learning curse is VERY steep. Even though we might spend an entire month trying to orient new students and parents, there is a still a lot to learn and the volume of new information can be overwhelming. There is an entirely new language to learn in the ways of the OLS, LMS, class connect, blackboard collaborate, Kmail, and navigating the system.

So if you are considering this environment, both parents and students need to have their eyes open.

- Are you willing to devote MORE hours and time upfront to learn the new language and system?

- Are you willing to keep up with the constant and steady flow of new material and information?

- Are you willing and able to structure your time into a daily/weekly routine that will allow room for changes and disruptions?

- Is the student/learning coach relationship robust enough to endure stress, hardship and trials by fire?

- Are you able to persist through many challenges that extend beyond just the academic material, but also the challenges of technology?

Discouraged yet?

Online learning IS the wave of the future, and just the virtue of reading this blog shows that you are plugged in some how and investing a considerable amount of time in learning and researching. So I hope I can reward your efforts with some advice, if you are still considering this route.

1. Don’t get behind. In fact, get ahead if you can. Things come up and Murphy’s law will be there to frustrate you. One of the biggest benefits of this setting is that you CAN shoot out front and build your own buffer. Do it and you won’t regret it.

2. If things come up and you DO get behind, communicate with the teacher. We always have catch-up plans and can help prioritize to get you back on track. One thing about my fellow teachers and I is that we never give up. As long as you are willing to do the work, we’ll hang with you.

3. If you are new, give the system a chance until Thanksgiving break. Persist and hang with us through the tough learning curve. I found most new families DO feel overwhelmed at first, just like I did as a new teacher. But it DOES get better.

If there are additional concerns or questions, I’ll do my best to address them in the comments. But in just a few days, my summer will be over and I’ll be back working again! And I already have a stack of work waiting for me. But it is a subject near and dear to my heart, which I will address in the next article about being an online teacher.

IEP Academic Goals: A Remnant of an Older Age?

7 Jan

At my job, tensions and stress are running high as we try to do everything perfectly for a state organization that has all but declared war on us. Having failed at the ballot box, they are trying to accomplish administratively what they could not get done politically. At least this is how it feels. The level of compliancy required of our special education department surpasses anything done in any other school in the state. And we have 66 days to get all 1000 IEPs perfect.

In my previous writings regarding goals and objectives, my experiences were with those students who were k-8 or those with more severe disabilities. Since changing to a more inclusive environment that makes up the vast majority of those receiving services in high school, my eyes have been opened. There are some glaring problems and inconsistencies in the process that extend far beyond my particular school or the students I serve.

With students who have severe disabilities, or in a self-contained setting the caseloads were relatively modest and I was their main teacher for most of the day. This made collecting data, making observations and writing effective goals relatively easy. Whats more, these students were following an alternate and adapted curriculum, so even if we were basing what we did on grade-level standards, we had a great deal of latitude in what was taught.

In a more typical high school setting, none of these things are true. The caseload sizes are larger, the students switch classrooms several times daily and may even switch their class schedules in mid year. On top of this, the caseload manager may or may not even have this student in one of their classes. All of these things make monitoring progress problematic.

However the standards-based curriculum has rendered traditional academic IEP goals and objectives almost useless and meaningless on the high school level. As a caseload manager I have absolutely no say in the curriculum of a student as it is dictated by the state. The graduation requirements are dictated by the state. The topics on the end of course tests (EOCTs) are dictated by the state. The amount that the test counts toward the final grade is dictated by the state. The type of diploma is dictated by the state. The scope, sequence, and the speed at which material must be covered is dictated by the test, which is dictated by the state.

You see the trend?

So the question is this: what can an IEP committee possibly write in the way of academic goals that are meaningful? We can write anything we wish, although we are admonished to make sure they are based on the state standards. The problem is that the goals that we write are worthless if they do not lead to a student passing a required course that gets them through the required exam that grants them the required credits in order to get the one college prep diploma offered by our state. The true measure of any IEP component is whether or not it gives the student access to the regular education curriculum in the least restrictive environment. At the present time, there are no academic goals that succeed in doing that. The dictated curriculum can not be modified nor can the passing score on the required exam be modified.

The frustration I’m feeling comes from the fact that we are being pushed and driven into writing progress reports over our academic goals. Suzie is a 9th grader who is struggling mightily in her algebra class. She struggles with algebraic concepts like positive and negative integers and multi-step problems. She is lost with anything involving fractions. And she feels absolutely hopeless when confronted by a word problem. Suzie is not alone as most of the students in her co-taught class struggle the same way. You may know some students like Suzie. YOU may be like Suzie! Oh, and this is Suzie’s second time taking algebra after failing it the first time.

In the old days, we had a lot of options in what we could do for Suzie. There were other math classes that were geared to business, career and consumer needs. Suzie would like to be a chef or a work in a restaurant after graduation. But the hopes for graduation start to fade as she is stuck and unable to pass algebra the second time around.

What academic goal could I write for her to help her get her diploma? I COULD write one relating to learning how to use a calculator, as that is a standard test condition. But what objective and goal do I write that will help her pass the class? And once I write that goal, how can I or another teacher support and monitor it?

The academic goals and objectives of every high school student in our state are already written in the standards. There is nothing an IEP committee can do to alter those. The best we could do is to perhaps pick a couple of general goals to monitor. But monitoring is already taking place in the form of benchmark assessments, tests and quizzes and instruction is altered on the basis of those formative assessments in order to pass the summative assessment of the EOCT.

I wrote my goals with fine precision, making sure they were SMART and were in line with both the standards and the needs of the students. Suzie struggles with multi-step problems, which is a pretty consistent thread throughout any of the math classes. So my goal is “Suzie will independently solve an array of multi-step equations, using her calculator, scoring at least 75% on 3 consecutive trials.”

It is a wonderfully concise goal and designed for easy monitoring. I could give Suzie an array of problems at least 3 times and see if she can pass my little quiz. OR, more likely, I am going to look in the grade book to see if she has passed 3 consecutive quizzes. If she can do it 3 consecutive times, I’m pretty confident of mastery. If she can’t I am going to figure out why and see if there are any accommodations I can offer to help her. But what of she can’t do more than 2 in a row? Ever?

Do I lower the bar on the goal? Do I change the goal to something she might be able to master? This is how this game ends up being played, as there is some pressure to show mastery of goals. But even if Suzie has mastered 100% of her IEP objectives, if she does not pass her algebra EOCT, she is in for a third round or how ever many rounds until she either passes it or drops out. So where should I, as a teacher, devote my limited time? Should I monitor her and the other 25 students on my caseload more often and give them more quizzes or should I spend more time trying to teach them and help them pass the quizzes and tests they are already assigned? Do I help them by making MORE work for both them and me in order to get data for the IEP or do I devote myself to getting them through the class so they can get a diploma?

Unfortunately, there are no diplomas for mastered IEP objectives. There are no credits toward graduation that can be earned through mastering IEP goals. EOCTs are not tailored to the current functioning of a student who has a disability. Individual Education Programs can address student supports, but they can not touch the requirements of getting a diploma as those apply to everyone, regardless of need, disability, aspirations or aptitude. Academic goals at the high school level are not worth the time it takes to write one let alone the time spent trying to track them individually. The academic goals at the high school are very explicit and clearly spelled out in the state standards. Everything written in the IEP should be geared to accessing and mastering those standards if that is what our schools have turned in to. We don’t need extra academic goals to track unless the state is going to award some credit for students mastering them.

I don’t mind extra work and effort if it is for something that is worthwhile and produces some results. But the standardization of the curriculum, diploma and tests works against our kids who are by definition nonstandard. We are trying to fit square pegs into round holes here. Our kids are not stupid. They are often creative and brilliant in very nonstandard ways. We do nothing to honor creativity by wringing it out of them by our insistence upon the standardization of our educational system. We are going to have to find creative ways to facilitate and reward their brilliance and creativity while addressing their strengths as well as weaknesses.

I suppose that is why I am bothered and overwhelmed by the task at hand. It requires me to pigeon hole my kids into categories and then justify why they are not fitting into a system that was not built for them. While our school does its best to offer individualized and engaging ways to meet the needs of our students, we are hamstrung by a system that punishes nonstandard ways of doing things. The state wants to rig the game so they can point at us and say “SEE?!? You can not possibly meet the needs of these students in your setting!” Never mind that it isn’t working in the other settings any better. We’re a nontraditional setting, teaching nontraditional students in a nontraditional way. The measures and systems designed to measure us were designed for and by those married to the old system. We exist because there are those looking for ways to escape and flee the old way of doing things. They are refugees from places where they previously did not fit and did not thrive. And now those old forces are marshaling their influence and position in order to make sure no one thrives here, either.

Sir Ken Robinson is carrying the message. Am I the only one for whom this resonates?

You need to learn more about autism so you don’t judge me!

27 Dec

I remember my oldest when he couldn’t talk.  He finally started to talk when he was about 3 years old, after a lot of intense therapy done be various SLP’s, including a few working through Georgia State’s “Toddler’s Project.”  It’s only been a few years since they stopped tracking him and his progress, but I’m sure he was one of their success stories, combining AAC with various behavioral techniques.

Now we have a hard time keeping him quiet.  Back in the day, his meltdowns would be seriously long and loud crying jags that might even include him hitting himself.  The a couple of years ago, there was a lot of self-negativity as he felt awful about himself.  Some of it was actually amusing as he took responsibility for the sinking of the Titanic and the Cretaceous period extinction event.  During each stage, we always wondered what was next.  He’s almost 14 and has been going through full-blown puberty and teenage angst.  It can be a frightful thing for even the parents of the most typical children.  For those who have children with autism it is even ore perilous as so many things become magnified with adolescence.  The academic and social expectations go through the roof during middle school.

Just lately I have noticed a new trend with his meltdowns, which happen most often when we as parents put demands on him or reprimand him for doing something he should not be doing.  “OH!  You’re just discriminating against me because I have autism!” or “You hate me because I have autism!” or “You need to learn more about autism so you don’t judge me!”  He’s usually saying this while pulling at his own hair.

It’s kind of an astounding evolution in thinking and language.  But I do have to hand it to him: he is learning how to advocate for himself.  Back when he couldn’t talk, I would have never dreamed we would get to this place.  Even though the tantrums are not pleasant and even though when he gets to this point he doesn’t listen to anything anyone says, it is still movement forward.

We’re fortunate that he knew how to read before he could talk.  He always loved books and reading to him was actually something that was soothing and calming to him.  So when he was in 1st grade or so, we got him a book about someone who had a friend named Sam.  It kinda helped that he had someone close in the family named Sam.  We got it so maybe his own classmates might be able to relate to him better and it wasn’t long before he was reading it himself.  We never really tried to hide autism and what it was from him.  I do know parents that do that, in the name of trying to protect the kids from labeling themselves.  But kids do that anyway, even if they don’t know what exactly the label is.  Different.  Weird.  Dork. Nerd. Outcast. Freak. Geek. Retard.   Whatever you want to call it, kids will label themselves and each other.  I know parents who quit going on the annual autism walks because the kids were starting to ask questions about autism and why they were walking.

The latest book his mother got for him is Ellen Sabin’s Autism Acceptance Book.  He’s had that for a few years but now it seems to be sinking in that he is different.  The fact that he is using the label to kind of try to guilt us as parents seems to indicate that he is beginning to differentiate himself.  This is not a bad thing, even though it seems like he lashes out with it at the worst times.  He’s establishing an identity and autism is part of it.  It is part of who he is, and he isn’t trying to dodge this fact of his life.  In fact, he is kind of embracing it.  He can tell you that talking to yourself can be part of autism.  Being sensitive to sound can be part of autism.  He is getting to a point where he can articulate what is going on with him and is becoming more okay with it.  He’s not there yet.  EVERY teenager struggles with doubt and insecurity and finding a place to belong.  He’s trying to discover his own autonomy and identity and is gradually getting a handle on things.  Gradually.

I think the best way to help a child who has the ability to grasp the idea, is to be honest with them in all things.  And to accept them for being the individuals that they are.  We can all dream of there being some sort of cure, but that dream doesn’t help my son today.  It doesn’t help him with his schoolwork, his desire to fit in or to develop his own dreams for the future.  And by the time there is a cure, would he even want it?  He’s incorporating this into who he is and it looks to me like he is staking his claim on his own little piece of the universe.  It just happens to include autism.  I tried to search for “Autism Power” and all I saw were images, slogans and sights dedicated to “recovery”.  Unlike “Deaf Power” which returns all sorts of sites dedicated to the belief that deafness is only a disability because hearing people make it that way.  There’s a few images referring to Autism as a superpower, but I’m not sure I like that message either.

This (among other reasons)  is why I love the good folks on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog.  Autistics are beginning to take up their own cause for advocacy and are actually offering a lot of hope for people like my son.  The dialog is less on the horrible-ness of the disease and how hopeless it is, toward a more positive message of acceptance and that things ARE doable.  I see this as one of the major civil rights shifts of our day.  And if the numbers (1 in 88 births) are any indication, then we can expect a lot more voices demanding their right to exist.  Expect to see “Autistic and Proud” on a shirt or button near you.

The Truth About charter Schools: Teachers

30 Oct

 

It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

 

Steve Jobs in a 2005 commencement address to Stanford students

 

One of the lost stories in the controversy around charter schools is the stories of teachers. We hear about parents and students who end up doing battle against some sort of administrative body trying to start a charter school or trying to get into one. Or there is the corporation trying to start a school for profit. Or a local district trying to stop them.

 

In the middle we have teachers. And I’m ashamed to say we are often at odds with one another on this subject. Many of my fellow teachers don’t hate me for what I do so much as where I do it. Perhaps they think I have sold my soul to the corporate devil. I do not fully understand why I and my school are disliked so much, but we are. Public school teachers seem to generally oppose charter schools because we are seen as robbing the public treasury of money that should rightly go to them.

 

Full public disclosure: I currently teach in the largest charter school in the state of Georgia which is affiliated with the largest virtual public charter school in the country. I DO have skin in the game when it comes to how charter schools fare in the upcoming election.

 

Prior to coming to this school, I have taught in a variety of settings, traditional and not so traditional. I taught at small public schools and large ones. I taught in a residential private boarding school and then later at a residential hospital. I also taught in the state psychoed network. But over half my career of nearly 20 years has been in a traditional brick and mortar setting. Most of this blog was written while in that setting, albeit teaching mostly nontraditional students.

 

But I did get to a point where I was no longer willing to settle and wanted something different. So I resigned out with the idea of reapplying and effecting a transfer that I was unable to get any other way. I asked for several years and the answer was always the same: “We’ll let you transfer when we can find someone to replace you.” But they never looked for anyone to replace me!

 

The result was that I was out, very much like Steve Jobs when he got fired from Apple. I spent the next 2 years trying to get back into a field where I had formerly occupied the top of my game. I had a 100% pass rate on my GAAs every year I ever did them. I proved myself over and over in long-term substitute positions and had administrators who were interested in me. But the board office was not. I was branded for trying to take control of my own destiny.

 

I was not proud of going on food stamps, and was plagued by self-doubt. I still loved teaching but no longer felt like this business had any use for me. Perhaps it was time to go back to the farm in Iowa and forget about teaching.

 

But I held out, hoping that the speech Steve Jobs gave might one day be something I could also say.

 

Yes, life hit me with a brick. But I can honestly say that through the loss, I managed to find life again. I’m passionate about reaching out to kids again. I’m passionate about helping the parents of kids again. Actually, it was always my passion, but I just needed to rediscover it. And the virtual academy has helped me do that. I love what I am doing, and think of it as great work. I have never been a traditional teacher of traditional students. I am an oddball, an out-lier, a nerd, a geek and a misfit in so many ways. But the kids I reach out to are also feeling those feelings and need a hand that will not judge or bully them. They need to relate to someone who is like them and for a lot of them that someone is me.

 

The traditional brick and mortar setting works for many ‘traditional typical kids.’ But it is very unyielding and even cruel to those who do not fit the traditional or typical mold. This is equally true of teachers. Those of us who are nontraditional often come up against stiff opposition from traditionalists. It has always been the case throughout educational history that the industry has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into more modern methods and technology. Much of the opposition to me being rehired in my county was because of the fact that I had a blog. THIS blog. They hated the fact that a teacher could write and publish their own material free of their ability to control or censor it.

 

Any administrator or school board member can have their own blog if they want. But instead of joining the conversation, they want to shut down everyone, so that no one has a voice. And I am not a good fit for that sort of atmosphere. And I am not the only teacher who is not a good fit for stiff and inflexible working conditions.

 

Schools like my school become a haven for teachers like me who are otherwise nerdy misfits who will never coach a football, basketball or soccer team. I didn’t fully realize just how well fitted I was for this job until my mom asked me questions like “Don’t you get tired of being on the computer all day?” or “Don’t you start to feel closed in and get a little stir crazy?” No and no. I don’t mind it because I am, in fact, reaching out continuously and touching students and families where they live, no matter where in the state they reside. I had never heard of Grovetown, Georgia until I talked to a student and parent that lived there.

 

I am where I am meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. I’m helping students and their families get the best education that I possibly can give them. I am making a difference. I am passionate about what I do.

 

I’m not kicking dirt on my fellow teachers in traditional settings who are passionate about what THEY do. So I find it hard to understand why the opposite might be true. My former traditional school system turned their back on me for the sake of petty politics, and yet opponents of the Charter School Amendment are trying to scare people into voting against it with the claim that a charter school commission would be a purely political body. For 11 years such a commission approved charter schools in the state of Georgia including the one I work for now. It was not until a group of school districts, among them Gwinnett County, Dekalb County and Atlanta Public Schools filed their lawsuit, costing their districts in excess of $300, 000 did the State court overturn the constitutionality of the commission in a 4-3 decision. These 3 districts are the epitome of political hubris and nepotism that stifles the educational creativity and achievement that we need to get Georgia’s educational system out of the national gutter. But they claim the the commission is too political.

 

I’ve seen and personally experienced the hurt and damage inflicted by the nepotism of the local community school district. My fellow teachers know it exists and live in fear of it. Everyone knew what was happening but no one could do anything about it. They couldn’t even talk about it because some unelected person sitting in the board office had friends and relatives who were waiting to take their jobs irregardless of qualifications or merit.

 

In a charter school, parental and student satisfaction matter. They do not HAVE to be there. The local control exercised by the parents in their own homes with their own families can be exercised at any time. They do not have to appeal to a board member who gets elected once every 4 years to exercise the right to vote with their feet. I feel some obligation to honor those parents who choose to stick with me for the year and do the best that I can for them. I think all of my fellow teachers are committed to the kids they teach in the same way. We are born into it, and feel joy in doing what we feel is an important work.

 

All of the teachers I teach with are just as committed as our traditional counterparts. We are all certified and highly qualified, many with advanced degrees. We like what we do. We chose to be here. If you are a teacher, you don’t have to settle. There are other places and options where you can discover and exercise your passion for teaching. I highly recommend that you consider keeping as many of those options open as you can for yourselves as well as for other teachers like me.

The Truth About Charter Schools: Funding and Local Control

27 Oct

In the interest of disclosure, I do work for the largest charter school in the state of Georgia. My views do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer and should not be construed to reflect any other opinion other than my own. But I’m trying to present mostly facts here to educate those who might seek more knowledge before they make any decisions.

There is an election coming up, in case you might not have heard or have missed it. In the state of Georgia, neither of the presidential candidates have spent much time or money here, and neither state senator is up for re-election so it has been comparatively quiet here. Except for one issue: The State Charter School Amendment.

You can read the entirety of the legislation here. It’s barely over 2 pages long. In a week or so, the people of Georgia will cast their vote on this question:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local

approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” YES NO

That’s it. That’s all there is.

The Georgia school districts and the state Superintendent of Education have campaigned relentlessly against this amendment. I was going to link to the Boards of Education who have come out against the amendment, but instead I’ll link you to the school boards that I know of who have supported it:

[….sounds of crickets…]

Well, that was nice. If anyone knows of any public county or city school system that has voiced approval for the amendment, please let me know!

I will link to one BOE’s resolution here.

I actually agree with over half of of the preambular clauses of this resolution. I agree that education is important and that public education is critical to the future of our community, nation and state. I linked in an earlier article to Condolezza Rice talking about education as a national security issue and the civil rights issue of our times. I also know the reality of education funding, and the squeeze it has put on districts. Districts in the state are repeatedly being asked to do more with less.

And so, the districts across the state opine that state funded charter schools will divert money away from the local school districts thereby impoverishing them even more. But is this true?

Most of the funding for traditional public schools come from the local property taxes. There have been many efforts to reform how money is raised to pay for education but no one has succeeded in changing it and so property owners foot most of the bill for their local district expenses in education. The meltdown of the real estate market during the current recession put most districts in Georgia in a state of crisis as property values plummeted and tax revenues followed. But everyone who owns property still pays taxes on the assessed value whether they have children that go to the school or not. The only way I can escape paying my property taxes is to sell my property.

In the state of Georgia, the average district spends about $9,000 per student. And roughly $4,000 of those dollars come from the state. The other $5,000 comes from taxpayers of that district. If a student moves from one district to another, the state money follows that student while the local money stays. But when a school district is so bad that families begin moving out in en mass, then property values suffer and the district’s revenues suffer as well. Wherever the student moves, the state still recognizes its obligation to educate him or her.

So what affect does the charter school amendment have on this funding dynamic? If it is a charter school established and supported by the local school board, things don’t change much at all. The board still does the oversight of funds, same as usual according to the school’s charter.

However if it is a state charter school, then it is written in the bill that the state would fund it and not the local district.

So if Thomas is attending a regular school and withdraws to attend the school I work for, then the school district does indeed lose about 4,000 state dollars that go to my state funded charter school. However the remaining 5,000 local dollars are distributed among the remaining students to be used as the local board sees fit. In addition, since my school does not require students to leave their home towns or counties, the family continues to reside there and pay their taxes as normal. Thomas does not have to move to find a school that better works for him, and the district actually gains $5,000 as it no longer has to educate a student that was probably unhappy there anyway.

So the district’s argument that they lose money because of public charter schools is simply not true. Local school superintendents would have you believe that public charter schools are gigantic leeches on the backs of already beleaguered traditional schools. But this is untrue, and the only thing the Charter School Amendment does in regards to funding is to guarantee that local districts get to keep their local money. This amendment actually protects them and the majority of their funds!

The other club that districts are using against this amendment is that of taking away local control from local school boards. This is probably closer to the truth behind the popular opposition to this initiative. And when I first heard about this amendment, I was thinking much the same way. It was the state, taking money away from me, and establishing schools that my local school board did not want over their objections. It certainly smells like Atlanta butting in where it isn’t wanted, doesn’t it?

But the fact of the matter is much different. Charter schools are not initiated by the state. They are initiated by concerned parents of children who want to be served in a different way than the traditional schools are able or willing to do. So the first step is to petition the local board to establish a charter school. In the current climate, you can see that there is not going to be much sympathy toward such parents in these districts. So then they petition on the state level to the state Board of Education. Again, our beloved State Superintendent of Education has stated his mind in regards to charter schools. So where can families go now? Some of them are pulling up the stakes and leaving. Some of them are homeschooling. And some try private schooling. But remember the preambular statements in the above resolution? Public education is important, and parents ARE willing to make enormous sacrifices for their children to obtain a decent chance.

Local school boards are NOT the lowest level of local control. The most local control of all is in our own houses at our own kitchen tables. Families all over the state exercise their most fundamental right to local control and self governance when they decide how their children should be educated. What this amendment does is help to give parents an option; an avenue of control that is apart and distinct from that of the local board of education.

The 180 schools systems in Georgia are not ALL bad, but several of them seem to have distinguished themselves as being sub par. Many of the school boards seem to have proven out Mark Twain when he said “God made the idiot for practice and then He made school boards.” Just what is a parent supposed to do in such circumstance? Surely they can vote, but in the meantime their children still need to get educated.

Charter schools would not exist at all if no one wanted them. These same school officials speaking out against this amendment are the very ones who have helped create the demand for them, and yet want to cut off that option from parents.

The fact is that this amendment recognizes the right of charter schools to exist and the right of the state to fund them while protecting the local funds from being used to fund them. If parents don’t like a charter school, they do not have to send their kids there. Parents can and will vote with their feet. And this is precisely what local districts are afraid of. They are of afraid of the state taking control away from them, they are afraid of parents taking control way from them by opting out of their own systems. If the status quo is allowed to continue, districts will continue to deny opportunities for parents and students, and keep them bound to the same system.

In my previous article I pointed out why many of the students that I teach are ill-served by the present system. Public charter schools provide them the opportunity to continue their education while remaining in their home communities.

Voters who are concerned about this topic should vote their conscious, and make a decision based on the facts, not on the series of fictions and fears currently being publicized. Do not be swayed by Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: FUD. Be informed and be proactive. People need facts, not FUD. Read the bill as it is written, and make your decision based on whether it is something you agree with or not, not because of what I say or because of what your district superintendent says. Sure, I definitely have an interest in keeping my job, but I also have an interest in the students that I teach and their families. Shutting down state charter schools may make life easier for 180 superintendents who no longer have to compete with us, but it will not help the students that I teach who DO have to compete with the rest of the world.

Note:I saw this AFTER I had already written my piece. If you would like to see a debate on the issue, you can watch it here. My favorite quote is by Supt. Wilbanks “Parental choice is an issue that is overplayed.”

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