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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.

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The Mathematical Death March

26 Feb

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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

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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.

Thirteen Years Ago…

20 Feb

Saturday, my oldest turned 13 years old.

The pregnancy was almost absolutely normal, and I remember going through the childbirth classes with several other couples, sharing a lot of anticipation.  Finally, the day came.  I came home and my wife let me know that it was time to take that trip to Tallahassee.  I remember giving her a stopwatch and told her to hit the splits button whenever she felt a contraction.  All the way down, I could hear a “beep” every time she hit the button.  The watch was rather high tech, and would keep track of the closest and furthest contractions as well as the average time between them.  It’s the nerd in me that wanted to know such things!

We were doing pretty well, but it was a pretty long night.  When he was born, I remember cutting the umbilical cord and I also remember a swarm of nurses coming into the room.  I had no idea what was going on.  As it turned out he had a pneumothorax which caused one of his lungs to collapse.  He was rushed to the NICU, and I went with him, leaving his mother who was also in some distress of her own, unbeknown to me.

I remember him wiggling around as they attached the wires and tubes and needles.  He spent 4 days in the NICU, before it healed on its own without any medication, surgery or other interventions beyond oxygen. I was in a total daze.  I had no idea of what was happening at the time.  Or that this was just the beginning of a long journey.

In my wife’s words:

“[He] was born on his due date. As he struggled to take his first breath, his left lung collapsed. Within the following day, his lung had healed without requiring a chest tube. He spent a total of 4 days in the NICU. When he was 2 weeks old, we was back in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia. He was diagnosed with moderate reflux. When he was 4 months old, he started having seizures. At 15 months, he lost the ability to speak the words he had acquired. At 20 months, he was diagnosed with autism. I often asked, “God, why me??”

My wife was always a step ahead of me as far as recognizing when there were problems.  But it was my own background in special education that enabled me to recognize that we were seeing something akin to autism.  The when I asked him, the neurologist admitted that it could be some form of developmental delays and gave him the PDD-NOS diagnosis.  Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified.   Back then, they seemed very reluctant to give an autism diagnosis, especially to someone as young as my son was.

Our story follows a similar trajectory of many other families as we experienced the ups and downs of life with autism.  We had the assistance of many good and competent therapists and teachers.  And there might have been a few less-than-good ones along the way.

He has generally been a happy child, but the teen-aged years are starting out very rough for him.  He has been changing into a young man for the past couple of years with his voice changing and then the attendant mood swings that goes along with this transition.  And typical middle school behaviors of his peers have not helped matters as other kids make fun of him, and he is unable to ignore or handle the name-calling and criticism like he could when he was younger.  There was a time when he often could care less what people thought of what he did or said, but today it is far different.  He is very sensitive about what his peers think or say and of course it is the negative things that get amplified.

In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Daxflame, a teenager who became somewhat notorious on youtube for his meltdowns on camera.  But if you watch (and they ARE hard to watch for those of us close to autism and Aspergers) you can see him struggling to control himself, to be understood and to make friends.

As hard as the videos are to watch, the comments are even more hideous. He exhibited a lot of courage putting himself out there like that.

So as difficult as the first 13 years have been, we’re entering some entirely new territory. In some ways this is much like all parents of teenagers, but with an added complication that makes the conformity demanded by teenagers all but impossible for my son. How does one “fit in” when almost everything they say or do makes them stick out?

It’s getting to be that time again…

27 Jan

Time to think about annual IEP reviews.  I know many teachers are still working on their GAA’s, but you need to be finishing those up and turning your sights on your next big thing which is IEP annual review season.

I don’t always agree with everything she posts, but Carol Sadler is definitely someone that is worth following on Facebook.  And she recently posted this:

Advocates Advice – We are quickly moving into “IEP Season”. Time to get your year end IEP meetings scheduled and on the books. Better to get scheduled in advance to make sure you have time to invite your help. Be sure to notify the school you will tape record the meeting and ask for a Draft copy of the IEP “that has been updated” with their proposed PLOP’s, accommodations and goals/objectives. Take the time to compare the Draft line by line to last year’s IEP to see what they changed and what they are proposing and make sure it is appropriate.

If you are a teacher and reading this, your hair might be turning a bit white or falling out.  Or you might be tempted to start pulling it out.  Let me tell you that what she is suggesting should be a matter of best practice for competent teachers.  Getting the meetings on the calendar early serves everyone well, and knowing who all is going to be attending will help secure a place that is big enough for everyone.

Tape recording the meeting (or using an mp3 recorder) is not a big deal.  If you are a teacher, bring your own to the meeting as well.  Both the parent and the district should be recording at the same time.  There is no presumption of privacy at these meetings, even though they are confidential.  You can’t podcast the meeting.  But by now teachers need to be getting used to being in the spotlight being recorded at any time, any where.  Transparency is our friend.  Stop being hostile to it, and open up your records, your mind, your intentions and your heart to the parents of the children you teach.  You might discover a wealth of rewards await you as the relationship transforms from confrontation to cooperation.

The idea of having a draft prepared a week ahead seems to always trip up teacher case managers. They can not seem to wrap their minds around the idea of moving their entire time table up one week.  You have to write this thing one way or another.  Stop the procrastinating and the excuse-making and just do it, and get it done.  You send it out a week or so ahead of time, with “DRAFT” written by hand in big letters, and attach a note “Please look over the enclosed proposed IEP DRAFT.  Please write down any concerns and/or suggested changes that you might have on the draft and send it back to me so I can include them and make sure they are acceptable to you before the meeting.”

Imagine an IEP that is less than an hour long, and everyone leaves the room smiling, and pleased and relaxed, feeling good about what just occurred.  If you have several annual reviews that are NOT like this then you should probably consider sending out your drafts well in advance so parents can look at them.  But aside from pleasing a parent, there are also other good reasons to move your time table up a week.  Remember you HAVE to write the thing regardless.  Why not do it well in advance when you can actually THINK about what you are writing instead of having that deadline looming over you?  You will discover that you make better choices and decisions when you are not rushed and pressured.  And if there are problems looming ahead, you have some time to begin addressing them before the meeting with the parents and the rest of the team.

I always did this as a matter of regular practice.  I always tried to get the draft done and out at least 4 days ahead of the meeting regardless of who the parent was.  If I get a parent making a request like Carol, guess what?  I move my time table up TWO weeks!  I want to swap IEP drafts, ideas and suggestions several times in advance of this meeting if at all possible.   If the parent is bringing an advocate, then I would rather the advocate look over my IEP, mark and bleed all over it with red ink and send it back however many times before the meeting, rather than rip me to shreds for hours in front of the rest of the team.  The advocate will have plenty of fodder for bloodletting at the meeting from other members of the IEP team but not me if I can do anything about it.

This is because the other members of my team balked at writing their portions in advance.  The occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech language pathologists have HUGE caseloads and I understand that.  BUT the workload is exactly the same whether you do it now or later.  I put all members of my team on notice as to the day the draft is going out.  It is up to them if they are ready or not, and 95% of the time, they failed to meet that deadline.

IEPs are exactly the same as alternate assessments that way.  If you procrastinate, you will end up under a huge backlog, and it will seem like a dark pit that you forever are trying to dig yourself out of as each deadline comes and overwhelms you.  You have got to get ahead and try to stay ahead.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Waiting until the night before is a terrible choice that invites mistakes and trouble.

I actually attended one middle school meeting where everyone was there except the caseload manager.  When I asked the SLP where she was, I saw an eye roll and she whispered “She’s upstairs trying to write the IEP!”  This was a meeting that was already an hour late.  It was a good thing that parent was not paying Carol’s hourly rate!

It’s Out!: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism

4 Jan

And it is on my list of things to get for myself, now that the holidays are all done and I am looking to get into some semblance of a routine again.

The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism is a collaborative effort that has brought together a lot of wonderful writers and experts.  It really is the book that I wish I would have had 11 years ago, when our oldest was first identified.  Over the years I had a chance to read a number of the other writers who were also blogging and writing on the subject and became contributers in this book.  We were all working our way through, trying to discover and put together the pieces that would make our lives better, more manageable and happier for everyone in our families.  This book represents the best of what we each discovered and is a field guide for anyone who is working their way through the novelties and oddities posed by autism.

The editors did a fine job of putting this together.  In particular, I want to give a shout to Liz, who has always been a source of encouragement and support to me and my writing.  Thanks so much for allowing me to be a part of such a great resource!