Monday, November 19, 2007

Another thing public education doesn't get right...

...appears to be climate control. In New York City, my classrooms were generally incredibly hot in the winter. Yes, the winter. The heaters would be extremely overactive to the point that I would wear short sleeve shirts when it was the dead of winter. Conversely, if you were unlucky your classroom would not be used during summer school so you wouldn't have an air conditioner which meant you would be crammed into a tiny classroom with 30+ students in 90+ degree weather. If you were lucky, you'd have an air conditioner that hummed so loud you never got that quiet, everyone at work feeling going and everyone froze because they were a bit too powerful. Additionally, the students always argued over whether it should be on or off. Good times!
Now, 3000 miles across the country, I have a feeling of kinship with my NYC pedagogical sisters and brothers. When I got into my classroom at 7:45 this morning, I was greeted with blasting air conditioning. A quick weather check on the computer reveals it being 33 degrees out this morning. It's parent-teacher conferences here so I'm now writing at 7:22 PM having spent more time in my classroom today than I do in most weeks (due to the fact that I only have 3 conferences scheduled today and I spend most school days all over the building- not just in my room). When the principal dropped by he was pretty incredulous. The heating and cooling is controlled at a central building which is not open at 7:30 at night. So I've got my fleece on (thanks, Dad!) and my winter hat and my hands are freezing. Unreal!


My four 8th grades will move on to the high school next year. This worries me because the high school is 3 times bigger than our middle school. Also, the behavior program staff is the same size but the case load is 100-150% larger. Not good! So we've been talking a lot about what we can do to get our students ready for this transition and honestly, there are times when I feel like the answer is: not much.
I think the high school here is simply not designed for students with difficult behavior. Each guidance counselor has a case load of 200 students or more, with one social worker, one mental health worker and, as I said before, just the one behavior specialist and two assistants. Not exactly a lot of support. In contrast, my 8th graders go to all of their academic classes with an assistant and come to me for another class. The only time they're really on their own is in PE and their elective. I wonder whether the level of service they're getting here is actually a disservice in some ways. But we're able to prevent all manner of trouble they would get into otherwise and generally avoid a 'middle school as hell' experience. How could I justify pulling back?
We are starting to work on what we can do to get them ready to move on to high school and this includes regular visits to the high school combined with a social skills class in which we're working exclusively on how to make and keep friends - this is on top of the study hall they have with me every day. Finally, we're going to practice talking to adults for things like passing in work, asking for forms and requesting help. I'm hoping that between these three things they can start to function a little bit more independently. I worry that it's too soon to expect them to do this because maybe they're just not there developmentally. We'll see.
My students are clearly nervous about this transition as well because they joke about us getting jobs at the high school next year. But at the same time my repeated pleading for more initiative on their parts has gone unheeded- not that I should find that surprising - planning for the future is not something you come to expect from impoverished and emotionally disturbed students. I don't want to imagine a future in which all the work we've been doing with these students doesn't translate into some form of high school success but the reality is that by this time next year they may have given up already.
Though I'm not the most important person in this equation I do have to balance not becoming desensitized to the reality of the situation that many student with behavior-related needs drop out of high school while at the same time not allowing that possible future derail my present day work. I don't think there's a way to avoid this post being a bit of a downer except perhaps to note that my 8th grade students have really made some tremendous growth over the years. We just have to hope that it's been enough.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Redesign the redesign

The first year I taught in Oregon was the first year my school switched to an inclusive model for their middle school behavior programs. Previously, it was a self contained model in which the students spent all day in the same special ed class. The redesign has been working well at my school. However, there are some strains in the system due to the set up of general ed here. There are 6 academic teams, 2 at every grade level (6th-8th). Generally, students with IEPs are spread out evenly over the teams to avoid ability grouping and over-burdening a teacher with a group of really needy students. That works well for most students with disabilities because their case managers only work with 2 teams each. However, my students are spread out evenly too which means I have students on 6 different teams. This makes delivering service difficult, as you can imagine.
I met with the principal today to discuss a new design for the behavior program for next year. Since there are 3 staff members in the behavior program (myself and two assistants) and 3 grade levels, I proposed that we group the students onto three teams only and that each of us work almost exclusively with one team. That way we could attend all of the classes our students go to as well as well as all of the team meetings and we could even help teachers prepare for classes by planning curricula that is inclusive. Furthermore, we can move to a co-teaching model so that we're not just standing around in the classes we support waiting for someone to need help. We can be an active participant in the teaching.
I know what the teachers are going to say - we don't want all of the behavior students in our classes, we want them spread out. I hope they see the benefit of having another adult with them at all times. I'm guessing that this gets shot down though.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Racing to Know You

When we get a new student we often have to race to get to know the student before she can shoot herself in the foot too many times. Case in point, my new student, Easy E, started in right away with behavior that's going to get him in hot water. Not only was he disruptive in class but he immediately alienated the kids around him. Double whammy. Easy E came to us having done almost no work last year and having been suspended repeatedly. He's a nice enough kid and quite interesting to talk to but he has no idea how to talk to other kids. He got into a fight at the bus stop the other day that was pretty serious and wound up with a 5 day suspension (to be fair, he thought fighting at the bus stop would mean he wouldn't get in trouble - nice try Easy E). We're starting to figure out what his needs are but he's not making it easy. We're racing to figure him out before he makes enemies with all of his classmates and teachers. Hopefully we win and he does OK here. If we lose, it's a rough year for all of us.