Monday, November 28, 2011

Transition Goals

            “So, Naomi,” I began, “What would you like to do after graduation?”
            “What do you mean?” she asked.

            “When you graduate from high school – what would you like to do when you don’t go to school anymore?”

            Apparently Naomi had never been confronted with a future that didn’t involve going to school.  “What do you mean?” she asked again, “When I don’t have to go to school anymore?”

            “When you finish high school,” I explained, “You don’t go to school anymore unless you choose to.”

            Naomi’s eyes got wide.  “I don’t have to go to school?”

            Did she really not know that there was a time in life when school ended?  “Naomi, you don’t have to go to school after you finish high school unless you decide to go to college,” I explained.

            She was still processing the fact that a day was coming when she didn’t have to go to school anymore.   Her face was lighting up.  “I won’t have to go to school any more if I don’t want to?”  She began dancing around the room.  “I don’t have to go to school anymore.”  She ran over to another student on the other side of the room who had stopped working and was watching the dance.  “I won’t have to go to school anymore.  I’m not going to school anymore.”

            When students turn 13 years old, all IEP’s must include vision statements related to what a student will be doing after they graduate from high school. Naomi had started school late and been retained one year, so the conversation with her was beginning in sixth grade.  My standard approach was to interview a student before the IEP and get their ideas.  I thought this would be a good approach with Naomi, but I was having second thoughts.

            I sat and watched Naomi prancing around and giggling.  It was impossible to rein her in when she got this excited.  After a few more minutes I called Naomi over. I really needed to get this interview finished.  She finally came over and sat in the chair next to me, smiling, breathing heavily, and bouncing up and down.  I probably should approach this differently if I was ever going to get some information from her.  “Ok Naomi,” I began, “What would you like to do after school?  What kind of job would you like to do?”
            There was a perceptible shift in the light.  "Job" had a deflating effect on Naomi.  I began again.  “You know – a job – like your parents have jobs.  What kind of job would you like to do some day?”

            I struck gold.  “A vet,” she declared.  “I want to be a vet and take care of dogs.”

            “You like working with animals?”

            “Yes.  I’m going to be a vet.”  We were making progress now.

            “Naomi, if you want to work in a vet’s office, you might need to go to school some more after high school.”  I thought we might as well start talking about vocational schools.

            “Are you going to pay for it?” Naomi asked.

            Wherever this was coming from, I was going to nip it in the bud.  “No, I’m not going to pay for you to go to school,” I informed her.

            “Then I’m not going,” she declared.  

            “What if you really want to work in a vet’s office and you need to go to some school to learn how to help,” I questioned.

            “Only if you pay,” she again declared.

            I had Naomi’s information on possible career interest and possible future schooling, so I moved on to living arrangements.  “Where would you like to live after high school when you’re working for the vet?” I asked.

            “I’m living in Hawaii.”

            Hawaii? I thought.  Where did this come from?  “Is your family moving to Hawaii?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” Naomi answered.  “I’m going to Hawaii when I get out of here.”

            “OK.  So you want to live on your own?” I summarized.

            “In Hawaii.”

            So I learned that Naomi wanted to be a vet, living in Hawaii, after she went to school that I paid for.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Big Frog, Little Frog

            Have you ever had this experience?  You believed you were a decent sized frog, but you were in a small pond.  You moved to a big pond and suddenly you feel like a very small frog – maybe even a tadpole.  You worry that everyone in the big pond knows things you never learned in your small pond.  Excitement for your new experience is replaced with doubt about your abilities.        

            A dear friend of mine recently took a new job in a large corporation.  He had a very successful career working for smaller companies for 10 years.  When it seemed like the small company wasn’t even going to survive another year, my friend made the decision to move to a larger, more stable company.  His new job is with a massive corporation with world-wide offices.  After one week in his new position, my friend is feeling overwhelmed.

            I’ve been thinking about how I felt when I first moved to my current position.  For the first sixteen years of my teaching career, I taught in two very small schools.  In both positions the entire K-12 operation was housed in one building.  If you’ve never taught in a small school, classes with less than 20 students sound wonderful.  But it’s not that simple.

            What most people don’t realize is that teachers in a small school usually have six or seven different preps over several grade levels or subjects that they have to prepare for each day.  Preparing for the class is the work of teaching.  Presenting the lesson is the glorious performance.  Imagine preparing for six opening performances every day.  Tomorrow will be six new performances.  That was how I taught for sixteen years.

            When I moved to my current position, my field of performance suddenly narrowed to one grade and two subjects.  I came from districts with less than 250 students to a district with over 30,000 students.  Everyone seemed to be a world class expert on something.  Every building contained people who had won teaching awards on a state or national level.  The district scores on state and national tests put us with few rivals.  I felt overwhelmed.  And stupid.

            It took me about a year to figure out where my self-doubts were coming from.   I wasn’t overwhelmed with the teaching task in front of me.  The task was easy compared to what I had been handling for the past sixteen years.  I was overwhelmed with learning the policies, procedures, and ridiculous software information system of my huge district.  Once I got past learning those, I realized I too had great ideas and insight into how to work with my students.

            My friend with his new job is smart.  Very smart.  He is excellent with people.  He never would have been hired had they not seen that greatness in him.  I hope he is able to identify the real things that are overwhelming him.  I’m pretty sure he’ll see that they condense down to names of people, places, policies, and procedures.  I hope he can see that once he gets a handle on the new information, he brings something to the table many tenured employees don’t have – fresh eyes.  He brings the ability to view a problem from a new angle, an angle from which you sometimes can see a solution that is hidden from the old angle.

            And you know what?  The transplanted frog from that tiny pond brings a more global view.  I’m good at teaching two areas in one grade level because I know what five other subjects in four other grade levels look like.  I know where my students have come from and where they are going. 

            So hang in there son.  They’re lucky to have you.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Ecumenical Learning Center - (or What Would Jesus Say?)

“When I get married,” Naomi announced, “I’m moving to Israel. And we’re going to keep Shobat. And we’ll pray a lot, and we won’t use electricity.”

It was a cold, blustery afternoon, and I had several students in the Learning Center laboring on projects due the next day. Three girls were sitting at the round table with a large bin of crayons in the middle. One lone boy worked on the computer across the room.  I kept moving between them like a magician keeping the plates spinning on the sticks.

I guess Naomi’s family is going to synagogue again.  Naomi loves sharing stories about her mother’s battles with their rabbi.  But I have never heard her talk about marriage, and I waited for someone to ask Naomi who she was going to marry.  Marriage was not what captured their attention.

“Why won’t you use electricity?” Medina asked.

“Because you don’t use it on Shobat,” Naomi declared.

“Well I’m going to Bible camp next summer,” Emily announced.

This was news to me. “Where are you going to camp, Emily?” I asked.

“Well I want to go to camp in Michigan, but my parents say I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It costs $3,000 to go for eight weeks.”

Yikes. “Well I don’t blame your parents, Emily,” I stated firmly. “That’s a lot of money for camp, and Michigan is a long ways away. Besides, you’re too young to go away for eight weeks. I wouldn’t let you go if you were my daughter.”

“I’m not too young!”

“Yes you are Emily. If you went all that way to camp, your parents would pay all that money, and you’d get there and get homesick in two days and call home crying that you’re homesick and want to come home.”

“I did that,” Roberto announced matter of factly from across the room.

I swung my head around towards Roberto. “What did you do?”

“I called home from camp last summer and made my parents come get me.”

“There you go.” I swept my hand in Roberto’s direction.

“Well I still want to go to Bible camp in Michigan,” Emily countered. “And I won’t get homesick because I’ll pray and read my Bible.” She turned to Naomi and lifted her nose a tiny bit higher.  “I don’t think we’ll use electricity there either,” she huffed.

Naomi just stared at Emily pondering the world of Bible camps. She must have decided that Emily’s faith was more than she wanted to deal with, so she turned to Medina.

“Do you do anything religious at your house?” Naomi asked

Medina’s family is Muslim, but I knew she was far too shy to ever discuss anything about their religion.  This seemed a good time to shut the conversation down.

“Are you ready for the math test tomorrow, Emily?” I asked.

“I’ve been practicing with my dad,” Emily smiled. “I’m getting really good at solving the equations.

“I need more practice,” Roberto called from across the room.

We had about 15 minutes before the bell rang, so I pulled Roberto and Emily to a second table and left Naomi and Medina to work on their triptychs.

As we sat down at the table, I gave small whiteboards, markers, and erasers to Roberto and Emily.  I wrote an equation on my whiteboard.

Students love the little whiteboards, and both Roberto and Emily immediately bent over their boards and began drawing. I turned my whiteboard around to show them the first equation. Roberto was deep into drawing an alien on his board. Emily was drawing a bearded man in a robe who I decided must be Jesus.

“OK guys, copy this equation on your board and show me all the steps for solving it.”

Both copied the equation down, and after a few minutes Roberto’s head popped up.

“X is 4,” he announced.

“Uh . . . no,” I said. “Check your work again.” I watched Roberto redo the problem.

“I have it,” Emily chirped. “X is 6.”

I looked at Emily’s board. Jesus was still there, but now he had a cartoon dialogue bubble next to his head. Inside the bubble was the equation with all the correct steps, including the final solution for X.

Emily turned her board around to show Roberto her work. “Jesus says X equals 6,” she explained.

Roberto’s family is Catholic, so Jesus carries weight with him.  He studied the problem in the bubble and figured out where he made his mistake.

We did five more problems before the bell rang. Emily continued to work her problems in the bubble coming from Jesus, and she announced all of her answers with “Jesus says X is ...”

Before the bell rang, Jesus got five problems correct. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In The Middle

            Naomi is absolutely brilliant at figuring out ways to get out of schoolwork.  It is fascinating to listen to the new and very novel excuses she comes up with.  Wednesday before Fall break she was on full tilt with her latest tactics.

            Naomi began the day by visiting with me before school started to explain why she didn’t have her assignment ready for Science class.

            “I didn’t do the plant worksheet last night because I didn’t have my paper when I got home,” Naomi announced.

            “Did you leave the worksheet in your locker?”

            “I don’t know.  I guess.”

            “Why didn’t you go on the teacher’s web page and print it off again?” I asked.

            “My mom said I couldn’t play on the computer anymore, and I had to do my homework.”

            “But Naomi,” I countered, “Did you tell your mother you needed to print off a worksheet for school?”

            “No.  She wouldn’t have let me even if I asked.”
“Now Naomi, I don’t believe that.  You should have told your mom that you needed to print off a worksheet for school.  Or you should have asked your mom to print it off for you.”

            “Oh, she wouldn’t have done that for me,” Naomi immediately countered. 

            “Why do you think your mom wouldn’t print off some schoolwork for you?”

            “Because I’m a middle child,” Naomi answered sadly.  “Middle children get ignored, and I’m a middle child.”

            This is new, I thought.  And so cleaver.

            “Naomi,” I explained, “Your teacher is not going to accept that as an excuse.  You’re going to have to do that worksheet in study skills class today, and it will be late when you hand it in.”

            “All right,” Naomi conceded, “But it’s not my fault that I’m a middle child.”

            I thought I had had my Naomi-getting-out-of-work contact for the day, but she was still on a roll when she came to Math Class.  As I was passing out the day’s warm-ups, Naomi made an announcement.

            “I feel really bad for my Uncle Joe.”

            A few heads turned to look at Naomi, which pleased her.

            “Why do you feel sorry for him?” I asked.

            “He’s getting his middle finger cut off.”

            Everyone was watching Naomi now.

            “He’s getting his finger cut off,” I exclaimed, “Why?”

            “He hurt it a couple weeks ago, and now it’s infected.  So he has to get it cut off.”

            All chattering had ceased, and the room was totally silent.  The spotlight was on her, and Naomi reveled in her new prominence.

            “That’s terrible,” I said.  “He must be really sad about that.”

            “Well, I think he should just get his whole hand cut off,” Naomi declared.

            “Why would he do that?”

            “Well, if he’s going to get his middle finger cut off, he might as well just have his whole hand cut off.”

            “Naomi.  That’s ridiculous,” I scolded.  “He needs his hand.  He can do a lot of things with his hand even if he doesn’t have his middle finger.”

            “No he can’t,” Naomi countered.  “He might as well get his whole hand cut off.”

            “I know something he couldn’t do without his middle finger,” Roberto yelled excitedly.

            Roberto’s announcement shifted Naomi’s dramatic story to a classic middle school comedy.  Two boys started laughing, and the rest of the girls began to smile.

            “What couldn’t he do?” Naomi demanded.

            Even the girls began snickering.

            “Naomi, they’re talking about a very bad gesture you should never do,” I offered.

            “What’s a gesture?” Naomi was truly puzzled.

            Oh good grief!  The wheels had totally fallen off the wagon now.

            “A gesture is something you do with your hand or arm,” I explained.  “If I wave at you when I see you coming to school, that’s a friendly gesture.”  I was waving at Naomi hoping this would divert her thought process.  But no luck.

            “What do you do with your middle finger?”

            Everyone was laughing now.  They all waited for my lesson on the obscene gesture.  And I was not going there.

            “Naomi, it’s something none of your parents want you to do.”

            Just then I had my “Ah Ha” moment.  I figured out how to get rid of the problem – toss it to someone else!  Naomi had brought this whole subject up because she shared some family business. Family business should be handled by her family.

            You’re a chicken, I scolded myself.  Yes, I am, I answered.

            “Naomi, your parents – really none of your parents – would want us talking about this in class.  If you want to know about what Roberto said, you need to ask your mom or dad.  And Roberto, you are not to talk about that kind of stuff in class ever again.  It’s inappropriate.”

            “Inappropriate” is the classic teacher catch-all word.  It covers everything from “I don’t feel like talking about this now” to “I’m so angry I could break something.”

            I had delivered my last words slowly and firmly, and my go-to “inappropriate”  had shut down the conversation – almost.

            “I can’t ask my parents,” Naomi sadly moaned.  “They won’t tell me.”

            “Naomi, I think if you explain to them what you told us in class and what you heard, they’ll tell you what you need to know to understand what was said,” and hopefully don’t call the school complaining about me, I thought.

            “No they won’t,” Naomi wailed again. “They won’t tell me anything.  I’m a middle child.”