Autism, Post-School Transitioning and Beekeeping

14 May

As my oldest gets ready to complete his first year of high school, transitioning is a topic that weighs heavily on my mind.  It’s made more acute by the fact that in my business of being a special education teacher, I’m busy writing something called a “Summary of Performance” for all of my graduating seniors.  This is a document that is meant to capture all of what the student did in his/her high school years and then outline what resources might be available for those students when they transition into post-school life.

Here’s a newsflash for other parents of students with autism: there are precious few resources out there and almost all of those that exist are grossly underfunded, many with waiting lists that are measured in years.  Once a student leaves the world of k-12 education they are no longer serviced or protected by the law known as IDEA.  An IEP means nothing once they get out school.  There is the ADA and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  But these are no guarantees of services, only guarantees of non-discrimination.

So my Summary of Performance will list myself, my lead, the transition coordinator and if I know where they might go to school or college, the contact information for the student support services.  And that’s about it.  Those with more involved or severe disabilities might have access to vocational rehabilitation services, but in Georgia those services are limited.  And underfunded.

I’ve written about the Summary of Performance before, in my IEP series.  That whole series is in need of an update, since I’m working with an entirely different population now, and some things have changed in the last 7 years since I wrote that out.  But Spaz, the object of that post, is a case in point for those with more severe disabilities.  When I saw him and his parent 3 years after he graduated, he was still on a waiting list for supported employment.  And this was actually a parent who had done some pre-planning.  Taz graduated a year later and I saw his mother in the store less than a year ago and he is still on the same waiting list– six years after graduation!!

This is why parents don’t like thinking about post-school transition planning because it is that depressing.  My oldest was only 9 when Spaz graduated, but it was still in the back of my mind.  Far in the back.   But time marches on.

Since that time, he is still mostly interested in trains.  Everything he does intentionally has some focus on acquiring some more model trains.  This is autism at its most classic.

So I’ve been working at finding the boy some sort of marketable skills.  The fact is, he can be a dependable and hard hard worker, albeit rather slow.  He really doesn’t complain at all about mowing my large-ish lawn with the push mower, no matter how hot it is because he knows he’s going to get paid.  And the whole time he’s mowing, he’s thinking about the new train set he’s going to buy when he saves enough money.  And since he’s looking at getting a Lionel train set, that’s a lot of lawn mowing because they aren’t cheap!

And this is the part where my other blog intersects with this one, as I recently got a bee hive.  Actually I bought the hive for him at Christmas and we just got the bees.  Just like the lawn mowing, his interest is making money to buy trains.  But he IS interested, and so there’s an opening there for expanding his interest into something somewhat marketable.

It doesn’t hurt that this is also an interest of mine.

In a more rural environment, a lot of autistic behaviors might have been written off as being odd.  Farm life generally moves at a slower pace, in tune with the more natural rhythm of nature.  The transitions involved in agricultural are more gradual as opposed to a more urbanized life that seems to involve a faster pace filled with more stress as things seem to be more time-sensitive.  Factory life historically meant doing the same thing over and over and over again and the transitions were extremely predictable.  Basically the workplace in earlier times was not nearly as hostile to someone on the autism spectrum as it is today, with a more service-oriented and socially driven economy.  It’s easier dealing with plants, animals and things than it is dealing with people.

Fortunately, the bees don’t require much space at the present time, unlike a herd of cattle.  I used to joke about having to get some cows when my boys got older so they would have some chores to do.  I didn’t realize it while growing up, and in fact resented it, but those farm chores I had growing up did help instill a work ethic that still serves well today.  And that background might be an entry into something meaningful and productive for the next generation.

The Newest Bee Keeper

The Newest Bee Keeper

Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation: The Atlanta Cheating Scandal and You

23 Apr

I promised in my last entry that I would blog a bit about the Atlanta Teacher scandal.  How little did I know how closely this thing would hit home for me, personally.  But you’ll have to hang on for a minute.

As I wrote my last entry, I began looking deeper and deeper into that situation, watching and reading hours of testimony given by witnesses.  There were initially over 170 educators from 40 different schools named in the investigation.  As time went on, educators came forward, confessed and cooperated and in return they were given a sort of leniency.  But it was all predicated on an admission of guilt.  They had to confess that they had some role in falsifying or corrupting the testing process.   One by one they came forward and made deals.  Until there were only 12 defendants left who went the distance and went to trial and all the way to sentencing.

Actually, that isn’t quite true.  There was at least one who could not be prosecuted because she died before she could have her day in court.

As I poured over the history of this unfortunate incident my heart went out to each and every person involved.  Everyone.  Of course the children who were fooled into thinking they were somehow gifted or doing better than they really were and subsequently failed to receive earlier intervention that might have come if the tests were serving the purpose they are purported to serve.  But in truth, these tests have never served that purpose.  George W. Bush made No Child Left Behind the crown jewel of his legacy.   Barack Obama took NCLB and “improved” it by taking the most onerous parts of it and incentivized it during a recession that gripped the nation through “Race to the Top.”  Beverly Hall won her accolades as Superintendent of The Year in 2009– on his watch.

The teachers involved lived in a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.  Their jobs were on the line.  They needed the benefits for taking care of their own children and to put food on their own tables.  Even if they didn’t cheat, they knew it was happening.  Erasing student scores was wrong.  We all know this.  But I often ask myself, “what would I have done?”  Then I ask myself “What am I going to do?”  Because you see, things have changed but maybe not that much.   Notice that these teachers were sentenced on April 1st– a mere 3 weeks before the state of Georgia goes into its testing season.  Fear, intimidation, retaliation.  Those sentences and this whole story casts a long, long shadow over every single teacher in this state and even across our entire nation.  NONE of us are immune from the fear, intimidation and the fear of retaliation caused by the spectre of the long arm of the law reaching and grasping us with its cold and loveless fingers.

I felt for the judge.  He really pleaded and did almost everything he could do to keep from having to hand down sentences to these educators.  He delayed his sentencing by a day, in order to give them all a chance to make a deal with the district attorney.  It reminded me of the story of Pontius Pilate who did not want to administer a certain other sentence, trying the flogging first and then appealing to the crowds.  I’m convinced he took no pleasure in this.  Everything about this trial was painful to watch.  I know the educators did wrong and deserved some form of punishment.  But are they that much of a threat to society that they need to be taken off the streets and incarcerated with rapists and murderers?  They’ve lost their credentials that they spent a good portion of their lives acquiring and will never be able to practice their profession again.  They are jobless and in some cases indigent, unable to afford to pay for their own appeals.  They are broke and broken.

As I watched the videos of the sentencing and the efforts of the attorneys to appeal for some mercy, I was genuinely moved by the entire thing.  I felt a sense of hopelessness for every single person in that courtroom.  I would have taken the deal.  Any deal.  Whatever it took to wash my hands of this dirty, filthy mess.

And that is what this entire testing culture is.  It’s not about the children.  It’s not even about accountability and it certainly is not about teaching and learning.  It’s pure filth.  And as educators, we all have to swim in this hot, steaming vat of it.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is any pension, insurance benefit or salary that can possibly wash the stink of it off of any of us.  We’re in it for the kids.  But it’s not about them anymore.  It’s all about the data.

In my last entry, I described our testing season.  We are now a mere 3 days into a 10 day ordeal.  I am working with a team of 6 other extremely dedicated educators who like our kids and enjoy teaching them.  And 3 days in, each and every single one of us have had to write at least one incident report, reporting some sort of “testing irregularity” that will put us on the radar of the Department Of Education and subsequent investigations that might just put an end to that.  Most of these things are out of our control.  The new computerized testing administration is full of glitches and problems which are still being hashed out and has caused most of these “irregularities.”  In some cases, entire tests will be invalidated because of these problems.  Some students didn’t get their accommodations and we scrambled to make the best of things.  Only time will tell if we did enough to satisfy all of the oversight.

Parents all around the state  and country are starting to push back for a variety of reasons.  But one thing they realize is that our education system is hopelessly broken and every effort by our government to “fix” it has made it even more broken.  One of the reasons schools push so hard for students to take these tests is because there is money tied not only to the pass rates, but simply for having at least 95% of the students take the test on test day.    Fear, intimidation and retaliation.  While those Atlanta teachers who cheated didn’t do the rest of the dedicated teachers in the country any favors, the system has not gotten any kinder.  It continues to cultivate the exact same culture that incubated the scandal in the first place.  And it has made teaching a much more difficult and less rewarding profession than at any other time in our history.  And its starting to show.  I would have a really hard time recommending this profession to any student given the present climate.  Back when I got my undergrad degree in agriculture education, only about 2 of us out of 10 who graduated the program that December had any intention of returning to the classroom, with the rest opting to go into agribusiness.  I’ve always liked teaching, and still do.  But so much of the job involves so many other things besides teaching students, and almost all of it revolves around “accountability.”  Covering your bum.  It’s increasingly difficult to survive and thrive in that sort of climate for students and the teachers who teach them.   We’re sowing seeds that will reap a bitter harvest for this country unless we can regain some control over a testing culture that has gotten out of control.

Just remember that whenever you hear the word “Accountability” when applied to education, it is shorthand for fear, intimidation and retaliation.

5/4/2015 Edit: Thank you John Oliver!

Testing Season in Georgia’s Largest Charter School

12 Apr

I can see that this might be one of those multi-part posts where I talk about different aspects of one of my favorite topics: standardized testing.

I’ve been grinding against this sort of testing  for a very, very, very long time.  Granted, most of it was about the alternate assessment because that is where I was living at the time.  Now I live in a vastly different universe.  Still exceptional in a world of exceptionalities!

But I thought it might be informational and beneficial to talk a bit about the logistics involved with state testing for a virtual school that serves students in every single county in the state.  This is something that no other school (as far as I know) in the state could even attempt.  And yet we have been pulling this off for over 7 years.  Mostly without a hitch and certainly without scandal.  (Yeah, I know…I need to blog that)

In the special education department, we start planning for the spring testing before the first day of school.  In fact, we’re preparing for it the day after the last day of spring testing.  It starts with the IEP, and we run annual reviews and amendments to those reviews all year long.  We begin writing in the student’s accommodations, including which tests they will take and which accommodations they will be given.  And then there will be more meetings to amend and fix those as the year progresses, the tests change and the students schedules become altered.

Testing accommodations are among the most important service options that are presently offered on an IEP.  Especially since the academic goals have been rendered essentially meaningless, and the direct services are basically fairly standard and less individual than they ever have been.  Accommodations have a direct impact on what happens to a student on test day, and their subsequent grades, promotion and retention.

It’s obvious that my previous treatment of accommodations, as controversial as it was in those days, needs to be reviewed and updated.  It’s really fun to see the interaction I had in those days among different teachers!  gosh I miss that!

This year, we filled out a gigantic spreadsheet in December listing all of the students and their accommodations for testing.  This was the first of many, many spreadsheets and updates.  Every co-teacher in our department has a full caseload of 26, so this is not a small task.  Almost every task we have takes on gigantic proportions when working on this scale.

As we get closer to testing, one of the first things that comes out to teachers is where they are assigned to test.  Remember, we serve students in every county in the state, and each and every test is given in a face-to-face setting under standard conditions.  And we try to offer testing locations within 50 miles of each and every one of those students.  And every student that is given the End of Grade  (EOG) grades 3-8 test is going to be tested during the same 5 day window of time.  And every End of Course Test (EOCT) is given during the next 5 day period of time.  In total, we will test over 10,000 students across about 50 different locations in the state in a 2 week period.

That’s why this is such a big deal and is unique among all of Georgia’s public school systems.

My first year, I was assigned to a location about 15 miles from my house and it was one of the largest testing locations in the state.  That means that during the first week of testing we had about 300 students that we tested.  Grades 3-5 in the morning and grades 6-8 in the afternoon.  It was done in a community center that used to be a church, so it had a huge main room and then several smaller classroom areas that was perfect for a main administration and then several rooms for various accommodations.  However what was NOT perfect was that the parking lot was too small and had, at most, spaces for about 50 cars with 10-12 of those being taken up by us teachers who were administering the test.  This meant that traffic was lined up on the street during drop-off and parents getting angry before they even got to our door!  So they have since changed locations.  And so have I.

Many of the areas that we test are much smaller, but still have students that need to be tested where few if any teachers live.  That means that many of us will end up traveling and staying in some far-flung location in the middle of nowhere.  Georgia has lots of these areas.  Far flung ones.

For most of the year, students and teachers are in their homes in front of their computers, on the couch, in the bed and wearing pajamas but during testing time, it is “all hands on deck.”  It is a dramatic change for all of us, where we have to get up early, shower, get dressed and adhere to a very rigid and set schedule.  Basically pretty much what the rest of y’all do all year-long!  This radical departure from what happens from the rest of the year produces a lot anxiety and complications that most regular schools don’t have to deal with.  The testing environment is foreign to *everyone!*

Last year I was shipped off to one of the smaller far flung regions and I actually liked it so well, I asked to go back again this year.  It was just more relaxed because larger testing sites means more students and more difficulties that increase exponentially.  It’s just like teaching a larger sized class versus a smaller one.  It’s easier testing 35 students than it is 300, no matter how much help you ship in.  So for about 2 solid weeks, I’m going to be in Troup County Georgia living out of a hotel.  The school is paying for it plus mileage so while it means being away from home it will also sort of be a working vacation minus tourist attractions.  Yes, I’ll be working all day on my feet instead of sitting down, but at the end of the day there won’t be any last minute meetings or IEP meetings or the extra things I usually have.  Much closer to a regular working day.

After teachers get their assignments, then the administration goes about the task of assigning students to their sites.  It’s not an easy thing because students will often move and forget to tell the school where they moved to.  So we send surveys for students or parents to complete making sure the address we have on file is correct.   While this is being worked on, there are trainings, trainings and more trainings that us teachers attend regarding testing procedures.  We have testing security and integrity drummed into us, as if the news of the Atlanta teacher scandal didn’t make enough of a case.  I notice they always come out with news about this right before testing season, just to make sure the point is driven home: “Comply or ELSE!”

As special educators we go over our caseloads over and over again to make sure we have the correct accommodations for the correct test clearly spelled and marked on their IEP.  One mis-marked checkbox and we get a call to amend the IEP.  It is a stressful time for our department as we are also in the middle of doing annual reviews.  Actually, we are always in the middle of doing annual reviews!  We are also in the middle of registering for next year’s classes and getting ready to run through the Summary of Performance for each graduating senior.  Egad…what a painful thing to look forward to and I have at least 5 of them to do!

So the two weeks of testing is actually fairly relaxing compared to what’s coming afterwards.

So now we teachers are divided into site teams, with one person designated as a site coordinator for each week of testing.  Unlike other school systems where the elementary teachers give the elementary test and high school teachers doing their own, in my school system it is *everyone*– high school, middles school and elementary joining together to give ALL of the tests.  It’s a huge deal.   The person lucky enough to be selected as a site coordinator is the one who puts together the site plane, dividing up students and teachers and who and where within the site various testing accommodations will be administered.  This year, we have an added bonus of delivering the test online to certain students who have certain accommodations so there will be the typical test booklets and answer sheets but also some computers to manage.

This next week is the week before testing and it is when things really start to gear up.  Each site team has a day where we will go to a central metro Atlanta location for a half day of more training followed by an afternoon of assembling the materials that we will need for the first week of testing.  This is a pretty substantial undertaking as we have to make sure we get it as close to right as possible as many of these sites are hundreds of miles away and there is no “going to the office” on the spur of the moment to pick up something you might have forgotten, like a test booklet, a manual or answer sheet.  We put together our site kits that include all of the testing materials and labels, sticking the labels on the booklets and answer sheets, making sure that they match exactly.  And we count and count and count some more and write down how many of each thing we have for we have to make sure that we bring back exactly the same amount of stuff that we check out.  Once we are absolutely sure that we have everything we need and that everything matches exactly, we can seal our boxes up with the specially numbered seals.   Inside that box are also about 5 more seals as we will have to count and recount everything in that box each and every day and reseal the box each day of the test.  We also get spare pencils, scratch paper, calculators and this year, computers.

Once the box is sealed up, the testing coordinator takes it and locks it somewhere safe and then the next Monday morning we open the seals, recount and divide the stuff among the various test examiners.

Every parent of every child has been informed of where their site location is.  They have received a flyer with the time they have to report and they also have to fill out an emergency and release form.  They will also receive a call from one of the examiners from their testing site.  When they arrive to the test site they will show a photo ID and sign their student in.  This is quite a production since for many students they will be going to a new space where they have never been before, around students and teachers they have never seen before.  While some high school students might have seen my name or heard my voice or seen my picture, NONE of the elementary students will have the slightest idea of who I am!  So this can be a time of anxiety for a lot of these families.

But it can be a very rewarding experience as well, as teachers, students and parents can connect with each other face-to-face.  We do have events where we all can get together in our respective regions but this is the one time where students and families will actually be gathering up according to their neighborhoods.  This is one reason I richly prefer the smaller testing site as it’s more possible to establish a friendlier and more relaxed connection to a smaller group of families.  The larger sites are not nearly as personal and tend to be much more stressful for everyone, but there are still connections that will be made and often endure until that student graduates.

We’ll test one group in the morning and another group in the afternoon, each administration being about a 3 hour grind.  None of us are used to being on our feet all day, so us teachers are pretty footsore by the end of the first day as we work the room, actively monitoring the students as they take their tests.  Then we’ll count and recount all materials before resealing the boxes until the next test the next day.  Once that is done, we go home or to a hotel to collapse until the next day to do it all over again.  This will go on all week.  Generally Monday is the hardest as families arrive from all over and hopefully can find the site and arrive on time.

On either Friday evening or early Saturday morning, the site coordinators will converge at the main office to turn in their EOG tests and pick up their EOC tests which will hopefully be sealed and ready in their separate boxes, making the swap relatively painless.  “Relatively” is the operative term as the EOG materials will have to be checked in.  That means unsealing and more counting and then sorting and dividing the booklets, answer sheets and other materials.  At every single stage of this, there is careful attention paid to the accommodations to make sure that they have been given correctly for the correct tests.

And then the next week, we do it all over again for the high school tests.  This is generally easier because not every student has to take every test.  So the groups tend to be much smaller with proportionally fewer accommodations to administer.  So instead of the full 35 students, there might only be 20 for both of the ELA tests.  But there is probably more counting involved as the tests are arranged by subject and not by grade like the EOG.  And you can never count just one– you have to count ALL of them–every test whether you’ve given it that day or not to make sure they are all there.  Lots of counting and recounting.

Because we are dispersed all throughout the state, it would be impossible for a cheating scandal on such a large scale as happened in Atlanta to take place.  And even if it did happen, it would be too easy to track and narrow down exactly where it happened and who it happened with.  Eventually, all of the students will take it online and I suspect that will simplify this process greatly.  No bubbling of answer documents, no test booklets to count and really very little to turn in as it all gets turned in when the student hits the “submit” button.

Oddly enough, it’s because we are a virtual school that we have yet to fully adopt the online version.  since the students could not use their own computers and it has to be in a controlled and supervised environment we haven’t quite yet gotten the logistics of pulling together and deploying enough computers for all of our 10,000 students on the same day at the same time.  But we will be working toward that.  This year, it’s mostly students with specific accommodations that will have the machines as well as students in certain sites that will be designated online sites.  The online administration will open up some new assessment methods and opportunities as well as make testing itself more secure and less prone to the sort of human errors and interventions that have cropped up in previous years.  And if we can get the deployment of thousands of machines down across the state, it might make our testing lives a lot easier.

The Mathematical Death March

26 Feb

Grumpy-Cat-300x236

I hope my co-teacher doesn’t see this.  But in case she does, I’ll say here what I’ve already told her and the other pre-calc teacher with whom I share (virtual) classroom space: They do a superb job at teaching students and accommodating my lack of mathematical prowess.  They are amazing teachers, and the most wonderful co-teachers anyone could ask for.  They are top notch people who love students and love what they teach.  Which is to say, they love math.

I do not love math.  But I do give the math teachers that I have co-taught with high marks for moving me into a space where I don’t hate it.  Much.  This is high praise, considering where I started several years ago.  I have almost always hated math.  And most of my caseload students hate math as well as most of my fellow special education teachers.  Fleeing a math-intense curriculum is one reason many of us became special educators.  We loved teaching, and loved kids and some of us even loved science.  But we hated math.

I’m currently lobbying to create and sponsor a “I Hate Math” club for our school.  The idea is to have a club that is like a support group akin to those support groups for people having to go through chemotherapy.  We don’t like it, but we have to do it.  We have to endure, and we have to survive.  And we can do it much better if we do it together rather than fall apart.  We can become math survivors.

I’m pretty well qualified for such an endeavor because not only do I have a lot of anxiety, fear, loathing and anger toward the subject, I’m also somewhat compelled to be around it more than I would like.  Which is to say, almost all the time.  This describes a lot of the students I encounter in our schools and in my own family.  Outside of math teachers, engineers and a few other oddballs, I’m very hard pressed to to find people who really and truly like mathematics.  There are a few of us who like logical thinking and may enjoy an occasional mathematical puzzle (Sudoku anyone?) but when we start talking about calculating slope, synthetic division, imaginary numbers, cosines and radians we start entering that dark distasteful zone that begins putting people off.  It can even have many of the same symptoms as anxiety due to chemotherapy.  I’ve talked to students who became physically ill every day before entering their math classes.  Math phobia is a real thing to many, many students.

I like how a math educator, Dan Meyer, introduced his Ted Talk :

“I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.”

Almost every school teacher could identify to this on some level, but math teachers are especially vulnerable to being abused by students who hate their subject.  I might have abused a math teacher or two in my own way back in the day. And right now, wherever they are, they are having a wry smile at my expense.  I would never have predicted that I would be near a math classroom at any time after graduation and now I get to endure much of what my old math teachers did.

But for all my discomfort with the subject during my own middle and high school years, it is no where near what today’s students are being subjected to.

math-program-course-options

The above is an image of the math curriculum for a school in another state, but closely matches what is in place in the state of Georgia and several other states.  By the time a student is in 11th or 12th grade, they are expected to be taking either pre-calculus or calculus.  For those of you with children in school, let that settle for a minute.  There is no alternate plan here.  This IS the state curriculum.

Recently, the state of Georgia did announce a change in its sequence that does offer a less daunting option and you can see the pdf here.  I will applaud a move in the right direction, especially for our students with disabilities.  However, Algebra II is still required in order to get a high school diploma in the state of Georgia. And where is consumer math?

While researching for this post, I looked for articles and discourse on this topic and found a dearth of articles addressing the question of whether or not we should be requiring every high school student to master Algebra II (let alone pre-calculus) in order to get a high school diploma.  The best one that I could find was a report issued by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) that issued a report looking at the requirements for admission into community colleges back in 2013.  They had this to say about the high school math curriculum currently being pushed by most states:

“Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so… Based on our data, one cannot make the case that high school graduates must be proficient in Algebra II to be ready for college and careers. The high school mathematics curriculum is now centered on the teaching of a sequence of courses leading to calculus that includes Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus and Calculus. However, fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the courses in this sequence in their college or in the workplace… they should not be required courses in our high schools. To require these courses in high school is to deny to many students the opportunity to graduate high school because they have not mastered a sequence of mathematics courses they will never need. In the face of these findings, the policy of requiring a passing score on an Algebra II exam for high school graduation simply cannot be justified.”

The odd thing about this report is that it is written in support of the Common core Curriculum which puts me in a very odd place.  I’m not a fan of the Common Core, largely for reasons that you can watch in this documentary on the subject.

I have experience with this on 3 different levels: as a person who is mathematically challenged, as a parent and as a teacher of students with disabilities.

As a person who was difficult to motivate during his middle school years, especially in the area of mathematics, I am very thankful I grew up when I did.  Namely that I was not required to master Algebra II in order to graduate high school or even college.  If that were the case, I would not have a college degree, let alone a Master’s degree, and it might be doubtful I would have gotten through high school.  I would have done what I see more and more of the students that I teach do: I would have quit.  I have no doubt in my mind that I would have taken this option.  I started out well enough, getting an ‘A’ in my first quarter of Algebra I.  Next Quarter I got a B, and then I got a ‘C’ and then I got a ‘D’.  In Geometry I started with a ‘B’ my first quarter, then a ‘C’ and then…well I finished the second semester with an ‘F’.  A lot of this was due to motivation, but in those days there was an option to make up that math credit by taking business math, which I did.  It was a class that was infinitely more fun and practical where I learned about amortization and interest rates and where I was the one to figure out how to program the school’s new Apple I computer to do my homework.  I loved computers back then and taught the thing how to calculate my interest homework.  Visicalc hadn’t been invented yet, or at least no one I knew had heard of it.

Now I have a son of my own who, unfortunately, has inherited his father’s rich loathing of math.  But he has a more determined mother than I did, and he’s probably going to finish with an ‘A’.  However that ‘A’ in Algebra I is probably taking 10 years off of my wife’s life in the form of all the frustration and the constant strife and battling.  He still has 3 more years to go and at this rate, I might need to put an extra life insurance policy on my wife.  At the very least, I’m going to be bound to staying in a job with good health insurance.

Like so many of my students, my son has modest goals for his future.  If he were 10 years younger, he would not even be on track for a regular education diploma much less doing and succeeding in algebra I.  In this way, inclusion has been a good thing for many students and does challenge and offer them a good education.  However the focus on college readiness is going to doom a lot of the students who have less determined or educated parents.  He could learn and be very good at a trade and really that’s all he wants to do.  He wants a good job that allows him to afford his appetite for all things having to do with model railroading.  However, there are very few vocational programs in high schools anymore.  The arts have also been marginalized because of the pressure generated by the testing culture.

The bottom line for many of our students is that the bar for a high school diploma has been raised to such an extent, especially with the math curriculum, that too many of them are not going to make it.  They will get discouraged and quit all because of a barrier that has been put in place needlessly.  According to the NCEE study, less than 5% of all students will require much more than  Algebra I in order to function well in their jobs and careers.

I’m currently engaged in a bit of a battle, trying to save as many of my students as possible, and enable them to reach that finish line.  They want to be mechanics, welders, seamstresses, healthcare workers, hair dressers, farmers and truck drivers.  These are all skilled positions and careers where they will need some additional post-secondary training.  But in order to get that they are faced with a stark and scary road that leads through Algebra II and possibly pre-calculus.  They struggle massively just to make it through coordinate algebra, which is even harder than the algebra that I had in 9th grade.  The pass rates on the End Of Course tests in math in the state of Georgia are absolutely dismal, with 60-70% of all students taking the exam failing it.  For students with disabilities, the failure rate is closer to 90%.  There is a provision for students with disabilities in Georgia to follow an alternate curriculum that can rescue them from the Algebra II trap.  However, there seems to be some question among some districts as to how to apply this, and some are very slow in applying it.  In the meantime, the river of students continues to flow through the system and many of them are opting out by dropping out.  Applying this rule fairly early on when it is obvious to the parents, the student, the teacher and the IEP team that this student will quit or fail school before succeeding in Algebra II can give them an early lifeline in helping to persevere through the rest of the courses.  Knowing that there is an end point that doesn’t have to end in a needless mathematical death march can help keep the doors open for many of our students.

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.

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