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Viral IEP Frustration

19 Sep

When I came across this in my facebook feed this evening, I knew I had some things to say.


First reaction– this should never EVER happen. No parent should EVER be blind-sided at their child’s IEP. Ever. This is a pet peeve of mine, but unfortunately many many school districts and their committees set this precise scenario in place, creating an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. And it is SO easy to prevent! It’s as easy as gravity.

It’s called communication and it happens before the notice of the meeting even goes home. Teachers, you have GOT to talk to the parents. The more you dread talking to a parent, that’s the one you need to talk to the most. My very first year of teaching special ed, I ran afoul of this very rule, and it cost me dearly. But I learned from it. Becoming a parent and sitting at the other side of the tribunal solidified this lesson.

The IEP is a legal document, and much ado is made in our trainings about nothing should be pre-determined before the meeting. Indeed there are court cases that went against school districts for precisely that reason. The IEP was entirely pre-written before the meeting, and like the case in this video, the district didn’t feel like rewriting it and told the parent they were stuck with it. The school says “Take it or leave it” so the parent takes it– straight to court.

I say that as much should be pre-written as possible; WITH parent input! That might mean writing a draft and sending it 2 weeks early and sending it to the parent who will red-line it and send it back. You go back and forth as many times as you need to get something that you both can agree with Or if there are contentious issues go ahead and save those for the meeting, while having everything else worked out. Exchanging the draft in advance allows you to at least establish those things that are agreeable so time is focused on the harder things. Save time, effort and grief. And at this point, everyone can know where everyone else stands. No one is blind-sided.

While I am working my document and going back and forth with a parent, I am also communicating with the rest of my committee..the LEA, the SLP, the OT and everyone else keeping them informed of our progress. It’s important that NO ONE is blind-sided. Surprises at IEP meetings are almost always bad. No surprises. For anyone. Ideally when we all come together, we are ratifying something everyone feels good about and have already done the work on, over time BEFORE the actual meeting. The last thing I want is my meeting to become some sort of tribunal with the parents on one side and the rest of the school on the other. That represents a total FAILURE on my part.

My second major beef is the fact that the case manager decided to kick the can down the road; “Let the high school handle it.” Oh REALLY? Sorry middle school, but you SUCK! I have seen this happen over and over and over and it happened with my own son. The bloody middle school simply passed the issues on. They nodded their heads “Yes! We will do an evaluation before he goes into high school!” And then he goes to high school and it was never done. I’ve gotten file folders from middle schools with all the consents signed and even hearing and vision done and then nothing else. They just let it go and by the time I get it in the high school, it’s too late. I’m having to learn it on-the-go. The consents and screenings are expired and we’re starting over. A total waste of time. I’ve seen a few middle school teachers who had it together. But they are few and far between.

The other issue; testing. I have railed on this endlessly for over 10 years and I’ll be doing it again in the not-to-distant future as our state spools up it’s GAA 2.0. While maybe slightly easier on us teachers, it’s a disaster in-the-making. Standardized tests can not accurately assess students who by definition are exceptional! But the people legislating this crap have no clue and no care about non-standard kids. They don’t even have much for the standard ones, whoever they are.

It’s hard to watch a parent cry. In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit I have made some parents cry. Mostly when I go to middle school meetings as the high school representative. Because middle school– you SUCK! Sorry, but someone has to say it.

It is true that middle school teachers are a bit clueless as to what awaits kids in the high school, and it’s hard to blame them for that ignorance except they could spend just a little time talking to us to get said clue. Too often they have been leading the parent on some sort of fantasy joy ride, telling them what the parent wanted to hear instead of the truth. And so, they all back away from the table during those 8th grade meetings and I have to speak some hard truth. Out come the tissues. I’m not trying to mean or cruel. I need the parent to trust me for the next 7-8 years and I can’t do it by spouting the same lies they have been hearing for the last 3-4. Telling the parent of an 8th grade child who can not count or write his name that he will be going to college in the next four years is simply cruel. And I’ve had to have that exact conversation with more than one parent at more than one middle school with the liars sitting right there. I was rather gobsmacked at having to be the one doing it when the middle school graduation coach is sitting right there. I have no idea what that person gets paid to do, but it wasn’t preparing students. At least the ones I was helping to transition.

If a student has even an outside chance at higher education, I’m all for aggressively pursuing those options. But we have to have some grounding in reality so we can tackle the real issues. And honestly, the present education system focused almost exclusively on college serves most students very poorly. Sure they can simplify an equation but they can’t count change, balance a checkbook or read a credit card bill. There are no common core standards addressing basic consumer math skills. This is why so many apply and even get admitted and then end up in debt for the rest of their adult lives for it.

Getting back to the IEP business, it should not be adversarial and at no time should anyone say “We aren’t going to change it.” If it needs to be changed, then change it. Stop kicking the can down the road, like congress.

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?

The End of NCLB..?

25 Sep

On Friday afternoon, my wife called out to me “Hey!  You have to see this!”

And there on the news was a story about the waivers offered by our beloved national education secretary that would allow states to escape many of the more ornerous NCLB provisions.  Which is to say, almost all of them.  And the headline read “No Child Left Behind Ends.”

Could it be true?  Could it REALLY be true?  To me, this would be the educational equivalent of the the falling of the Berlin Wall.  Perhaps…just perhaps..we might see some real reform in education.  Meaningful reform.  Something besides the test scores.

Georgia is a state that has already delivered its waiver application.  Oddly enough, it was delivered by one of the authors of the original NCLB law, Johnny Isakson.  Remember him?  Basically, congress has not done its job in doing anything to fix this law simply because it is unfix-able.  It never was and it never will be.

Isakson was one of the original authors of No Child Left Behind. But last week the Georgia Republican sponsored a bill with other GOP lawmakers to scrap the adequate yearly progress requirement. No Child Left Behind requires that all students be “proficient” in math and science by 2014. Those benchmarks are widely considered to be unrealistic.

Isakson said that after a decade of implementation the law “has served its purpose in raising expectations and standards.””We knew when we wrote No Child Left Behind that if it worked, we would reach this point where schools would not be able to continue to meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) because the bar is set higher and higher each year for schools,” he said.

According to Isakson, they knew when they wrote the law, that schools would eventually all fail. The law was PROGRAMMED to fail!  These are the people we send to Washington and this is what drinking that water and breathing that air does to people.  And it illustrates perfectly why the congress has no business dictating federal education standards.  The law was destined for bankruptcy even while it was being written and the lawmakers who wrote it KNEW it!

But this is not the end of NCLB.  It is not the end of testing.  It is not the end of the alternate assessment that has plagued those teachers of students with multiple and severe disabilities.  There is still Race To The Top, which Georgia just received a year ago.  And those who are most saddled by a law that never had them in mind when it was written, will be the last to realize the benefits of this waiver.  That is because the waiver was also not written with these students in mind.  But hopefully what eventually trickles down will be no worse than what is already in place.

I am somewhat hopeful that the career and work-ready provisions might at least help those students who could be employable with enough and the right kind of training, when they would otherwise stand no chance of getting into a college. And yes, there are a large number of students where this is true; they will not be able to get into a college and they have no desire to do so.  But at least by fostering a culture of productivity and relevant skill-based training, it might prevent them from dropping out and actually give them an edge in life.  At the present time, the work skills of a college drop-out and a high school drop-out are almost exactly the same due to vocational funding and programs being cut and minimized in order to switch the focus to collage-ready.  And this focus has been particularly hard-felt for students with disabilities.

NCLB has been little more than an expensive and nightmarish public awareness campaign.  According to Isakson, they wanted to put a spotlight on poor performing schools and poor performing groups of students by raising expectations and raising standards.  But the law was outdated the day it was signed, as the world economy has been globalized.    We need innovation, creativity, enthusiasm for learning, entrepreneurship and exploration.  And these were exactly the things that NCLB has succeeded in killing with the standardized test-taking culture that saw the diminishing or elimination of the arts in education.  While the rest of the world has been learning how to solve problems and create, our kids have been learning how to fill in bubbles.

Sometimes It’s Fun

30 Aug

I know in the last post I made coming back sound pretty bad. And it was very seriously difficult coming back after having tried the most radical move I could to escape. The first couple of days, I did have a familiar dizziness and anxiety left over from last year. However, that has really dialed down as I get back into things. But I have made some changes in my approach and attitude that make a world of difference. It will all be good, no matter what the future.

When the new teacher came, she was not sure what to do so she let the paras take a lead. This is actually a good thing, because it helped the paraprofessionals form a more cohesive and competent team. When I walked in, they already had several things underway, and were doing all of the changing, positioning and feeding. It made me realize how much I needed to delegate down that I did not do last year. I tried to do everything last year, and it was frustrating me.

I also started the year last year loaded for bear even before the first student walked in. And then got more angry as the year went on! I’m not doing that this year. Yes, there are a lot of things to be angry and insulted about. But I can’t do anything about the caseload or class size. So, I just do what I can as I go along, one day, one student, one task at a time.

A saying I hear a lot is “Failure is not an option.” Interesting history behind that quote. It popped into my mind as I was working with a student on trying to see if he could read some words or be taught to read words. I was asked ab out what I was doing and why. He already did his GAA last year, so as far as accountability and academic standards, he could be counted as done. However, I simply had an innate desire to see what I could do with this student. I did it for the fun of it. A truly astounding concept in today’s educational climate, isn’t it? What sort of teacher does anything in the classroom for the fun of it, if it is not going to be on the almighty test? Especially when the likelihood of failure is pretty high.


I figured I had little to lose by working with this student, who enjoyed what I was doing with him, and it was worth a shot. The results are still inconclusive as to whether he was reading any of the words, such is the nature of working with nonverbal students. I’m talking words like go, up, more, down, come, and get. He can understand somewhat if you tell him to ‘get down’ from his chair, so these should not be too far out of reach if he is able to discriminate between the words. Anyway, failure is a total option in this exercise, but it is still worth doing. I can still learn a thing or two by doing it, which makes it only a failure in a conventional sense.

These are just the rambles of a teacher who is messing around and teaching…sometimes just for the fun of it!

Achievements: Getting the Lame to Walk

19 Mar

I know I have sometimes gotten down and negative here, as I often use this as my own personal forum to vent various frustrations.  But this is also a good place to tell about stuff I’ve accomplished to any would-be future employers out there who are looking for a special education teacher.  Remember, I AM HQ!

I had a student who came to me in a wheelchair.  This is not unusual, since most of my students nowadays seem to be in wheelchairs.  However this little guy was different because he could, in fact, walk.  He had an irregular gait due to his particular syndrome, but he could walk and get around pretty well.  And that was kind of the problem.  He was getting around TOO well.  And he would get into everything and destroy whatever he got his hands on.  He was all hands and all active.  And he knew how to drive his chair probably better than he could walk.  So containing him and keeping him out of trouble involved finding some elaborate way of blocking the wheelchair up so he couldn’t move it.  This was easier said than done as he was also fairly clever and persistent.  The wheelchair was basically used by everyone as a restraint device.  Keep in mind, he was seen as unmanageable all the way through middle school.

And within 2 years, I got the boy to a place where he could be put just about anywhere and he would basically stay put.  He would still occasionally want to wander off, but he was easily redirected.  He went from being my most unmanageable challenge to being one of my best behaved students.  And he no longer needs or uses the wheelchair.  Not at school, not on the bus and not at home.

I’m not going to get into all the behavioral techniques used to getting him to that place.  I will just say that perseverance and determination were major factors toward getting him where he is today.  I’m not to proud to say that when he first came to me, I didn’t want him in my room.  I thought we were already overcrowded and understaffed.  Haha!  Little did I know what was to come!  But I had no choice but to bite the bullet and dig in and teach this student how to conduct himself in a classroom without wrecking the place.  He will still wreck things if he gets his hands on them, but I have little toys and things he can use to keep his hands busy.  He’s still very active, but he can be active in his own space.  While there are still a whole lot of things he can not do, he can now be maintained without his wheelchair.  This is a relief for his family who previously had to cart the thing around everywhere they took him.  It is less bother for the bus, as they no longer have to mess with the lift.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that this accomplishment in no way affected the school’s test scores, graduation rate or AYP.   At no time did teaching him how to control himself address a state academic standard.   And there is no part of the Georgia High School Graduation Test that measures whether or not a student requires a wheelchair. None of this will appear on the Georgia Alternate Assessment.  I took time out from academic instruction in order to address this students needs, which pretty much violates whatever tenets are set by NCLB.  There is no way to align the goal of not needing a wheelchair to any state standard.  And it also was not explicitly stated as a goal in his IEP.  Our beloved governor has not offered any merit pay to teachers who can get a child to not need a wheelchair anymore.  There are no incentives offered by the state of Georgia to recruit or retain people that can do this.  There is nothing on any evaluation instrument for teachers that says this is even a worthwhile activity.

Despite several who told me this endeavor was a waste of time, I did it anyway.  And while I have no test scores, enhanced pay, accolades, awards, or anything from other people that says this is at all important, I do have an empty wheelchair in the corner that has not been used in a very, very long time, except to hold a coat or a bag.  And I have the audacity to feel pretty good about that!

Lots of my fellow teachers do stuff like this all the time and we don’t talk about, because it doesn’t address a state standard.  It isn’t recognized or rewarded because it doesn’t result in a college scholarship.  And this student can’t give me a recommendation to an employer because he can not read, write or talk.  But he can walk, which is how he gets around now because he does not need a chair to restrain him.  He has learned to control himself to some degree.

The story of this student is not over, as he continues to progress.  He has a long way to go, and I hope he continues to progress.  But it will have to be with someone else.  Perhaps there are other students in other schools that need to learn self control.  It would save some poor high school teacher’s hair if more kids could learn that skill in middle school.  And that is sort of where I’m aiming at the moment.  I would like to get into a smaller community and with a younger set in order to see if I can apply some of this experience earlier on.

Assessing Students with Disabilities: Some Answers to Interview Questions

16 Jan

I have on several occasions gotten questions from graduate students who are taking classes for which they have to interview a special education teacher. The questions are rarely simple or at least I have problem answering them simply. So the price for answering graduate level essay questions on a Friday afternoon is that I blog them! So guess what Ms. M – consider yourself officially blogged! Hehehe!

These are questions about cognative impairments and assessment.  The school she is getting her degree from uses the term “Mental Retardation” or MR in the questions, but you’ll note that I generally avoid the “R” word in my answers in deference to those who are sensitive to that term.  We do use it as professionals among ourselves, but not as a pejorative as much as well-recognized descriptor and is shorter and easier to write than “Cognative impairment” or “Intellectual disability.”  Not everyone knows what “ID” means.
Keep in mind I’m doing this cold and flying without the net, a textbook or Wikipedia because that is how a face-to-face interview would be conducted. So if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me but no whinging on about it.  I’m not going anywhere to look this up, I’m just answering it as I see fit.  Your fitness will vary.  All other standard disclaimers apply….

#1 What in your professional opinion are the meanings of intelligence and adaptive behavior

Intelligence, to me, is indicated by a person’s ability to solve novel problems and navigate novel situations. While you cannot teach intelligence, you can help it grow by requiring its regular use. Intelligence is the ability to figure things out by pulling together reasoning, experience and observation.

Adaptive behavior is the application of more specific skills in navigating through daily life requirements. There are people with lower intelligence who can survive very well on the street, while your college professor would probably perish if he or she were require to live a week on the street. Adaptive behaviors can be learned and taught and that is a large part of what we do when teaching students with MR.  We can navigate many adaptive behaviors by following a script or series of steps.

#2 What problems are associated with assessing students with MR?

At my level, the problems are legion. This is why “pay for performance” and “accountability” break down so profoundly when we discuss teaching the population of students that I serve. First of all, my students do not produce anything. They are nonverbal and cannot read or write. So right off, that eliminates 99% of all the assessment tools currently used for high school students. Also keep in mind that my students have multiple impairments so they may be visually or hearing impaired. My students are decidedly nonstandard, so there are few if any standardized measures that would work. But even those with less severe impairments will work more slowly, require more support and generally do poorly under standard conditions.

Under any objective standardized scale of performance, my students regularly floor out. There are no high school assessments that give a score at an 11 month-old instructional level. Most simply don’t bother with a percentile less than 20%.

Finally, the fact is due to cognitive and sensory impairments, my students require thousands of trials to learn a single simple task. In one academic year, they MIGHT gain 1 month of learning in some area. I do not know of any initiative by any politician where this would be an acceptable gain. So the politics that drive current assessment practice further discriminate against the most severe students.

#3.What are the characteristics of the students with MR that result in eligibility for special education?

To simplify this, it is a combination of intelligence and adaptive behavior that causes them fall behind in their school achievement. This cannot be caused by a sensory impairment, a specific learning disability or a behavioral disorder and the onset must be prior to being school aged. For those with milder cognitive impairment, this would look like a broad form of a learning disability that is not specific to any one area. Those with specific learning disabilities and many with autism will have performance valleys and spikes, where they may be proficient in one area while being very weak in another. Cognitive impairment cuts across all learning, which is intelligence and adaptive behavior together, are important.

So how would one assess a student with a cognitive disability fairly and accurately? The answer to that is that it will take more than one tool to do it and over some span of time. It will not be easy or cheap. First off, you can use standardized intelligence tests providing they don’t floor out. You can also use adaptive behavior assessments and questionnaires. The questionnaires should be given to parents as well as teachers. Next, do some real-time observations of the student in the actual environment. And then look at actual work products and compare them with same-aged peers. All of these last measures should be done in several settings and across time in order assess the rate of progress. Assessment should always inform instruction, but in practice most of what passes as “accountability” and “performance” nowadays does not.

This is just my quick and dirty take on assessment of students with cognitive impairments so hopefully it helps with the degree as well as gets my readers thinking about assessment beyond the graduation test or CRCT.

Last Day Before Break Edition

18 Dec

Well guess what? My GAA is NOT totally finished! In fact, I haven’t started on #2 at all! So, there you go, I can be as much of a procrastinator as anyone else. And the holiday mindset has been long set around these parts.

Here at the high school, Wednesday and Thursday were days of final exams. And last week was end of course tests (EOCT). So the schedule has been altered for quite some time. For my students, only the last couple of days have been more difficult. They simply do not do well when the schedule is severely altered. They get cranky, they get irritable, loud and sometimes even aggressive. The schedule and routine functions as a source of security for them (and the rest of us, too!) and they rely on that consistency to keep them oriented to time, since they can not really read a clock. So when the exam schedule calls for running the periods backwards or altering lunch time, it throws them and they let their displeasure and anxiety be known.

I wasn’t going to blog this next bit, but I think I will at the risk of offending some of the local folks. The topic is rather soft, but my treatment of it is not. The last couple of days of school, it is common for people to like to throw little parties and such. In elementary school, the teachers do manage to turn it into a theme day and that seems to work most of the time, but still runs the risk of upsetting the schedule for the students. I have no objections to the holiday-themed days with and for students. We did a great one in here last year when we studied Mexico and had a fiesta. No, my beef has been when the teachers decide to throw a potluck luncheon as a small group or department. For most departments, this is probably perfectly fine. And for most teachers, it is probably worry and drama-free.

But for me and my brave little band of paras and students, it represents yet another source of stress. My students need someone to feed them or at least help them feed themselves. They need someone to wipe their mouths, change them and wipe their bottoms. It’s just what we do. But when free food appears, a lot of that gets thrown out the window. We rely on a lot of outside help to feed during lunch and during every single potluck this year, much of that help has evaporated. The reason for this is that it is a potluck and not everyone brings food or enough of it. So there is a rush at the beginning of the lunch period when people are knocking down the proverbial barnyard gate, trying to waddle up to the trough in order to get their fair share. Which means 2 things: 1.) my kids are short changed 2.) My staff is short-changed.

During the feeding frenzy there is much gobbling, grunting and chomping in some nice quiet room whilst the 3 or 4 of us try to feed the 9 kids who are all STARVING – or at least they act like it. And this gets my mood seething and dark, as ?I feel like we are abandoned. By the the time we are finished feeding all the kids, the lunch period is nearly over. And my paras can forget about getting much to eat as the bones tend to be picked clean across the building or wherever the potluck is. There is no way to even participate without leaving the kids with someone…and those people are already at the trough. This is why I am coming to despise the potluck parties in our department. We’ve tried to have them in our kitchen, but the same problems are still there and exacerbated by the traffic and disruption as people are tending their food, heating, stirring, mixing, and serving. Since we somehow end up eating with the kids during these things, it sort of sucks a lot of the fellowship out of it. I have students who have issues with adults talking among themselves and ignoring them which isn’t uncommon among any students/children. Mine just get more active and vocal about it. But we are a very small part of the department, so I would not deprive others of the joy they get out of it. I’m just pointing out that it isn’t the greatest deal for us. The department party this evening, though, should be a better occasion to relax.

So, I probably come off as a bit of a scrooge about a lot of the holiday hoopla but it’s because my kids left behind in so many of the cases. That’s not to say that people do not do extra ordinary things. Yesterday, some of my students were able to watch a show put on by the drama students as part of their final exam. Of course some of my kids wanted to take to the stage themselves! I kept a few of those students out so the actors would at least have a shot at hearing their own cues and passing their finals. But it was nice that we were thought of, and I hope the drama students enjoyed having us as an audience. And the teacher who volunteered to host us for Christmas activities kept the invitation open but I wasn’t able to make it work out. But it was a nice invitation, nonetheless.

As the day wore on (and it wore on forever!) I pulled a page from Erin’s book and got out my Qchord and we played some Christmas songs. I had a few bells and tambourines and had a few of the kids joined in the playing of the music while one of them just danced to it. This got everyone in the mood for lunch, which was a bit of a mess since the cafeteria was in shut-down mode. even the custodians were coming through early, trying to get all the trash cans done. I mentioned to the one in our room that she might want to wait on us until the very last. We still had a mitt ful of students and they all had to have their diapers changed one last time before going home. And having a pile of poopy diapers sitting around for 2 weeks is not something I would like to contemplate.

But I think I got all the required tasks completed, and although tired I am feeling okay with where we’ll pick up next semester.

As for my two boys, they are both handling the holidays extremely well. Of course, Thomas is totally ready for school to be finished but is really doing well during these last few weeks. Not having to fight over the homework is the biggest and most welcome improvement. Percy has always done well, but the stress has gotten to him just a bit and he has had problems with strep and asthmatic conditions. But overall, we’re doing pretty well with the holiday stress and basically trying to avoid it as much as possible. As Thomas would say, We’re “looking forward to some luxurious R & R!”

Grappling the GAA

5 Dec

And yet again, another reason to knock this bugger off as soon as possible: I caught some sort of bug and missed a day right on the home stretch of collection period #1. While I have had most of it collected for weeks, I still need to assemble all of the pieces and fill out the entry sheets. Honestly, annual reviews are a lot easier than this bugger!

One of the things that make this particularly onerous is that at the end of each year, everything that was done is supposed to be destroyed and gotten rid of. Which means reinventing and retyping things over and over again redundantly and repeatedly each year. Yes, I know; that’s the point. If the students were actually doing it and it was actually based on student achievement, this would not be an issue at all. But since it has nothing to do with actual student achievement, it has to be treated as a yearly teacher assessment. Which means we have to destroy the previous year’s work so that it doesn’t skew the results of the current year. Given that the students and tasks change from year-to-year but the teacher doesn’t (well sometimes), there is only one reason to destroy all the material from previous years: it isn’t the student who is being evaluated and assessed.

So I’m sifting through several thousand pictures using Picasa. It is a great (free) program for going through large batches of photos. I then assemble 4-6 pictures on a single power point slide for each piece of evidence and then fill in captions off to the side in a narrative form, addressing all of the things that we’re supposed to address on each piece of evidence. Portions of this text will also used on the entry sheets. I’m trying to minimize the repeated redundancy as much as possible.

Invariably, I find holes where I need a bit more evidence. I really prefer that most tasks are done across a number of days so I can have photos showing progression (or no progression) and differing settings. Some parts of a task, such as watching a movie, are only just so exciting. Having multiple viewings or multiple dimensions of a task can help ad a bit of variety to the photo spread. So I’ve had to pick up a few pieces here and there.

At present I also have a conundrum on a couple of areas. My two hardest are algebra and social studies. Algebra is difficult to make relevant in any capacity for my students. I understand that jobs and college require it. Got it. But my students are not going to either, and have little concept of quantity, numbers and one-to-one correspondence let alone the symbolic and abstract concepts in algebra. And I know what some apologists are thinking: we can do the prereqisites as long as we can link to the standards and that is what we do. But it still isn’t relevant.

With social studies, it’s a different dilemma. We have a lot of good choices in that subject area, provided a body is really creative. Last year, I had a para who was marvelously crafty and creative and helped kick that whole subject up a notch for the students. You would think it would be easy to replicate that same thing, even if she isn’t here. But it isn’t, given the numbers and students that I have this year. I’ve never been that craftsy, and prefer to cede a lot of that to the paras and I’ve always had at least one who would and could do it. But not so much this year. The student teacher brings in good energy and vibes, but she is only here 3 days a week for a few weeks. So I’m going back to the old standby, which is under economics: money identification and properties. I’m still going to try to finish Mexico, just so I have the option of using it if I like it better.

OH! But one thing did kind of fall into my lap. I had used some Halloween activities and materials for the listening/speaking/viewing tasks and was wondering what collection #2’s activities were going to be. I really needed some Christmas theme but going out to the community, which is my normal home run generalization activity, simply can not take place with the numbers we have. However the interior design teacher next door is doing holiday-related decorations and invited us over. WooHoo! I’m saved! I hope. We’ll see.

But I am spending a lot of late nights at the school trying to hammer this thing out and get collection #1 finished before my Wednesday Tuesday deadline. It’s just one more stupid stressor among many that we all have to deal with and somehow we manage to pull it off each and every year. I’ll do it again this year and wonder how the heck I ever managed to do it. By the time the break comes, I am totally spent and ready for it! I got spoiled last year with only the one student, but this year I have 2. And middle school teachers who have ALL of your students to do, I feel your pain! I was sitting there last night at 7:30 wondering how you guys manage this every year.

Grades for Students with Severe Disabilities

25 Oct

One of the most common questions I am asked is “How do you grade the students you teach?” I mean, they don’t do any paper and pencil activities, they don’t produce anything and there are no permanent products. At the high school, every other student is producing something in the way of writing or projects or test scores. Oh…TEST SCORES which have become the gold standard in this country! Don’t get me started…

I do progress reports and have some sort of program data on most of my students, except for the very lowest ones, especially since discrete trial lends itself to accumulating data. But it does not translate well into the sort of letter/percentage grade that schools make teachers give high school students. A student may not be doing a single task independently during any trials and in any setting this would be viewed as a total failure. In my classroom, I look at level of support, and usually we have a mixture of trials requiring verbal, gesture, partial physical or full physical prompts. I suppose I could assign a score to each part of the prompting hierarchy and arrive at a more empirical figure. But when it comes to high school academic standards, no figure I could come up with would have any sort of validity. None. So when I do the report card, I take a wild guess according to effort, progress, and where we are in relation to goals. And most parents don’t have a problem with their teachers doing this as long as that grade is an ‘A’ or a ‘B’. As long as their child is making honor roll, they aren’t going to complain.

However I have over the years raised the ire of more than a couple of parents when they come from the middle school. For their entire school career of getting letter/percentage grades, they have been getting mostly 90’s the entire way through. Other teachers I have taught beside did exactly this, giving every student a 95 or 96. This is one of those Horace’s Compromise things, where there is a tacit agreement that “good enough is good enough” and we demand and deliver as little as possible. For other students, it is mostly between student and teacher: You deliver the minimum amount required to meet certain expectations, and you are rewarded accord to meeting the minimal criteria. If you want an ‘A’ you know the minimal performance required to get there. For students with severe disabilities, it is between teacher and parent: “Give my child an ‘A’ and I won’t ask for any justification.” So in a sense, I am severely disrupting that tacit little agreement when a student comes home with a 78 or a ‘C’. Now we have a problem.

The problem that I have is this: does a child who is uncooperative, disruptive, belligerent, violent, and otherwise assaulting themselves or other people legitimately belong on the honor roll? And what if, even in simple discrete trial tasks they are uncooperative? I’m not going to fail anyone on account of their disability, but neither can I justify elevating that into “honor” status. And it’s not like any of my parents are gong to take advantage of their child’s exam exemption to keep them at home!

So here’s, generally, how I arrive at a grade:

A = 90-100 – The student is totally trying and is making progress. It’s a bit relative, and with 9 kids, I have a sample size that allows me to judge who is the best and who is not. I might have given 1 ‘A’ this marking period. By the end of the year, I will have more. It means the student is making real attempts at completing things independently.

B = 80-89 – Most of my students are working in this area, which means that we still have some problems that we’re working on, but we’re still making some progress. I leave room to show improvement, so during the 1st marking period all grades are lower. I’m looking at the data and how much prompting and support is needed.

C = 70-79 – Here, we have many issues that we need to address, and many students will start here, especially if they come from summer break wild and off the chain. I have to work twice as hard to get them into the routine as the ‘B’ group. Freshman typically seem to end up here, as they are well below their classmates. Remember, this is ongoing. A student can totally move up by Christmas and still get their B and make semester honor roll if everything is going like it should be. But if a student is physically capable of pushing a button or pointing to a card and refuses or throws the material, we have some issues to work on. You should not be on the honor roll if you are refusing to do things independently when it is well within your capability. It represents a significant gap between potential and actual achievement. A person can’t give what they don’t have, and I take that into account. But if you’re slacking, do not expect a break. I’m just sayin’.

In our school, there are no ‘D’s and I’ve never given one anyway. Yeah, we ALL need improvement and my kids don’t need to be labeled as “poor”. The ‘C’ smacks over achiever parents hard enough as it is! Failure is not an option here. And it wouldn’t make any difference, anyway. If the kid is on the honor roll for 4 years, they will still stay 3 more. If they fail, they still come back. Conventional “promotion” doesn’t really exist compared to typical peers. However, I have promoted kids to the Moderate class, but that was mostly because they were misplaced in the first place.

In a sense, my grades are a reflection of what we do at school, but it can also be a reflection of what is going on at home, which is probably what alarms so many parents. In a typical, nondisabled classroom, we know that parents have a lot to do with how their kids do in school by providing guidance, structure and motivation. many students will not do any homework, unless a parent insists and prods and cajoles and bribes or whatever it is they have to do. Trust me, I know how much of an ordeal this is! Homework should be something students can do on their own with a minimum of assistance. For my students, it is a bit different, because they don’t have any homework that a student could do at home independently. I suppose I could do what many of the teachers of my two boys do and assign projects that demand parent involvement, like large intricate craft projects. Then I’d have something to grade! But then I suspect I’d get even more grief when I gave a lower grade than expected!

However, parents do have a lot to do with encouraging their children to do things independently, like feeding themselves or playing with toys or pulling up their pants. I see this more with feeding that anything else, as I’ve had occasion to socialize with other parents who have children with disabilities. I’ve irked more than one parent when at one of these events I got on top of them for spoon feeding a child who I knew was capable of feeding himself. Here you demand that we put this as a goal on the
IEP and work on it at school, and you are not doing this at home! Don’t demand a goal on tooth brushing on the IEP if you are not going to do it home.

So I have students who come to me and have no physical reason why they can not perform a given task. It’s not necessarily the student’s fault, but it reflects some ground that we will have to cover that should have been done previously. No honor roll grades, there. But that doesn’t mean that will always be the case, and hopefully we’ll get to the point we should have started.

Assessment for this population isn’t a matter of simply taking a test. You can’t just give them a pencil and paper and say “Here do this worksheet, answer these questions.” NONE of them are even verbal, so a verbal assessment is out. Most have limited mobility and serious motor issues, so manipulative assessment is out. And I’m not going to say a lot about a severely truncated attention span or limited perseverance. That’s not to say we can’t measure progress, but it translates very poorly into a report card A-B-C-F format. So I send home daily notes to parents in their notebooks. They are informed every day not just during quarterly report card periods. I’m more transparent than any other teacher in the building and possibly in the entire county! I have a blog! I have a video channel!

Grading is never a precise science, as there is a bit of an art to it. Most teachers of students with severe disabilities do neither, and just give the kid an ‘A’ whether it is earned or not. And that is fine for them, as long as we all agree that the grades on the report card don’t mean anything unless they open up Harvard to students with IQ’s in the single digits. But I’m trying to communicate at least a little bit with the hideous system that I’m forced to use, and convey some degree of meaning to something that isn’t terribly meaningful in the first place.

As a parent, when we went through school, grades were also used as a motivational tool. Study and work hard, get good grades and get rewards and honors and a good job. None of that motivational stuff applies to this population . Even if they comprehended the difference, quantitatively, between 78% and 98%, or an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ , why would they care? This actually applies almost universally to all students with disabilities. The graduation rate in my high school for students with disabilities is 30%. The employment rate for students with disabilities in my county is about 10%, with most of those being part-time or less. Which means that over 90% of students with disabilities emerge from high school with few quality prospects. Those in the population that I teach are not even at that level, and have a waiting list waiting for them when they leave my program. So in the grandest scheme of things those 1st quarter grades are not terribly relevant.

I want to say one more thing about grades, and this goes to everyone regardless of whether the student has a disability and cuts across grade levels and even that first college midterm. Mainly, that those first marking period grades should be intentionally more stringent than any others. That means that a student (and the parents) should expect the grades to be lower than “typical” for that child. This represents the first period of a new grade level/year with newer and higher expectations. If the student is already exceeding the standards in all areas, what is the use of continuing to go? Many students, when grades are a motivational, will go into “early retirement” if they think they have already got it in their back pocket. It also doesn’t give any indication of relative strengths in weaknesses especially when using marks like our elementary schools i.e. C,S,U,N or 1,2,3 or faces or stars. As teachers, we need to allow for room for growth. So as parents, we need to take a relative view of the marks coming out after the first marking period and not be too judgmental toward the the student or his/her teacher and those marks. It’s merely a guidepost and a relative indicator of where that student is at a given time.

Getting the GAA Finished

3 Oct

My goal is to finish my entire GAA before Christmas. It’s a lofty goal, but it is totally possible. In order to have any realistic shot at it, though, I need to have all of collection #1 finished before the end of this month. So how am I doing?

I’m over half finished, but I’m being reminded as to why it is a serious mistake to wait on data collection for these things. Murphy likes to set up camp right in the middle of one’s plans. The more urgent, the more likely things will go wrong. In this case, it happens to be the flu. The same thing happened last year with one of my students. He missed more school while I was working on GAA activities than in the previous 2 years combined! And so it is this year as I have a student who has been out a couple of weeks due to the flu. Plus we had a flood day, and who knows what other natural disasters, delays and issues will crop up?

This is why a body has to ruthlessly hack, chop, fight and claw through this process with as much speed and efficiency as practical. Stuff happens, and the longer things are put off, the more stress that will visit later.

I’ve written my basic outline on a planning sheet, and am busy checking off as I go. The lesson plans feed into the GAA tasks and follow the outline I’ve mapped out. Next month, while waiting for the 3 week lag to pass before laying into collection #2, I’ll do some alternative activities that also fit the GAA plan. so in a sense, I’ll have a parallel portfolio of other tasks to use in the future, if necessary.

With my present numbers and the severity of my students, it is difficult to do anything outside of a couple of tasks per day. Every student needs changing, every one needs feeding and most of them need to be positioned/repositioned throughout the day. Plus I have 2 new paras to train and an old para who came back after it took 8 years to get rid of her. So it is a major challenge just to keep the fires out.

So when it comes to nailing down a given GAA task, it is best to plan on doing the same task multiple times. It’s unlikely that all students will be there for a single take, and it is also unlikely that you’ll get a decent or usable collection on the very first trial. so I generally schedule 2-3 tasks over 2-3 days in order to have multiple opportunities to get it. I’m also an opportunist when it comes to grabbing data and using resources. This is another reason to get all over a basic collection. Sometimes, something better comes along and you have a chance to jump on it.

For instance, I was doing some listening/speaking/viewing activities with the Gotalk with a student, when the SLP came in. I quickly got her to work with my GAA students on the required task, and got pictures and data to go along with it. Things just clicked into place. I like to get a variety of people involved, including OT’s, APE teachers, and other therapists. The idea is to incorporate a lot of diversity into the mix so there are several options and pieces of evidence to choose from. It also looks good on the final product, because it illustrates that this isn’t just a one-time deal and reflects superior teaching practices. If you are all stressed about just getting the thing done, you may miss these opportunities because of sheer stress. What the knobs who are pushing for “accountability” fail to see is that no one performs at their best if they are overly stressed. This assessment is not assessing students, it is assessing teachers. So get it it done quickly and then keep improving it as time passes. With increased revisions, it does get better, but you can not revise and improve what you have not already finished! I find that having a time line and calendar helps. It keeps me focused on daily goals and tasks rather than being overwhelmed by this big, huge thing hanging over me. It’s easier to make progress when it isn’t looming so large.

That being said, it is looming large! And having a student absent fir a long period of time does derail my little calendar. At first, I wanted to hold everyone up, so we could all move through together. But I couldn’t wait forever, so I tried to do some of the easier tasks that were most differentiated across participants, which for me is the ELA speaking/listening tasks. Science and social studies seem to lend themselves to more group work, but I’m not waiting anymore. We’re going to go ahead and plant our plants and move on.

And remember as Murphy is fond of saying: As bad as things may seem at the moment, they can always get worse, and they probably will.  So you might as well enjoy the moment!

Hopefully, the rest of you teachers are progressing along! Good luck!