In which I remain calm

I haven’t done a good old-fashioned teacher rant in a minute. Lemme see if I still remember how they work.

One of the unexpected side effects of doing everything remotely is that it is now virtually impossible to get out of IEP meetings. Or, at least, it’s kind of rude, and I do want to look like I’m at least trying to earn my paycheck. Previously, these things were always scheduled during the school day, and they do always want a regular ed teacher there (are legally required to, I think) but nobody is about to provide coverage for them, so they basically look for whatever teacher happens to have a prep period at the same time as the meeting. Which means that I might attend no more than two or three in a grading period under normal circumstances.

Well, now I have no schedule, so I’m attending three or four of these things a week. Which, again, this isn’t the part I’m complaining about– it’s fine, I’ll trade extra IEP meetings for the fact that I haven’t had to tell anyone to sit down and do their work for a month. I am absolutely coming out ahead here.

So this particular kid is a good kid. He tries, most of the time, and while I do need to keep an eye on him and encourage him to do his work once or twice a period he’s a sweet kid and he’s not a discipline issue, which means I’ll break my back for him if I need to. He’s a 504 kid, not on an IEP, and the 504 is for ADHD, and honestly he’s a pretty mild case– I have 7-8 kids in every class with a higher degree of ADHD than Sean (not his real name) does. So I’m expecting this meeting to go pretty smoothly, honestly. He gets all the accommodations he’s supposed to so there shouldn’t be any problem. I am, however, planning on bringing up the fact that he’s currently failing my class– and I suspect I’m going to find out that internet access is an issue, which will lead to me figuring out some other way for the kid to get his assignments to me.

It’s kind of weird, then, when Grandma starts off the conference by complaining about Sean’s little sister, Shauna, and how she can’t believe that her grandkids have just been “passed along” all this time when they can’t do any math. She said that Shauna had no idea how to do yesterday’s assignment and she had to sit down with her forever to get it done.

I, uh, am also Shauna’s math teacher. Now, she has two, so I double-check to make sure I know what assignment Grandma is talking about, and yep– it’s mine. Which is review. Of averages.

There is an instructional video and two different written reviews of how to average numbers appended to the assignment. I ask if Shauna watched or read either of them.

“I don’t think so.”

(Note that Sean hasn’t done the assignment. He has the same thing.)

Hm. That’s interesting. Perhaps she should take advantage of some of my attempts to teach her the material before complaining that she hasn’t seen it before? Because surely the seventh month of seventh grade is the first time she’s ever seen this material before; averages aren’t covered anywhere before seventh grade, right?

(To be clear: this starts in, like, fourth grade.)

I point out, as politely as I can manage, that she has these resources available to her right there with the assignment, that she can also email me at any time, and that I also have two hours of office hours every day where I’m literally sitting in a Google Meet video chat waiting for kids to pop in and ask questions and I ain’t seen hide nor hair of Shauna anywhere.

We go back to talking about Sean. Who, it turns out, skipped fifth grade. Grandma explains that it was because he was too tall, and they wanted him in a higher grade.

This is … not a thing. No one is ever advanced a grade because they are too tall. There are occasions where kids are moved up when they’ve been held back multiple times to prevent kids who can drive from coming to middle school, but no fourth graders are being moved to sixth grade because they are tall. Plus, it is impossible to skip someone up a grade without parental consent. Grandma (or somebody) would have had to agree to this nonsense.

Then she drops that he’s got Asperger’s syndrome, too, and I watch as a bunch of teachers’ eyebrows shoot up. We’ve already been emailing each other behind the scenes– a bunch of variants on holy shit, Siler, I’m surprised you kept your cool just now— and all the sudden I get five emails going wait shit am I the only one who never got told he had Aspergers?

A bunch of things sort of click, but shit, wouldn’t this have been on the damn 504? I read the damn 504! This should have been on the fucking 504! We all should have known this!

Nope. The 504 is just for the ADHD, which he barely has. Suddenly the meeting is about making sure he has an actual IEP for high school next year that is about his autism, because Jesus Christ how the hell did none of us know this shit?

He’s high-functioning, obviously, but *nobody* knew about this, and there are just certain things that you make sure to do when you know a kid has Asperger’s that might not have been happening automatically for Sean. I’m looking around and now fully half of the faces in the room look actively pissed off.

And then Grandma starts in on the math again. She’s discovered recently that neither of her grandchildren know how to convert fractions to percentages! What an outrage! How are these kids getting passed on?

(This, from the lady who approved Sean skipping fifth grade.)

I point out that converting fractions to percentages is something that we have discussed repeatedly in class, as well as in the other math class, and that furthermore it is also a skill that has been addressed repeatedly by teachers in previous grades.

(It is also not terribly complicated. You convert fractions to percentages by performing a single division operation. This is not something that should be particularly hard to remember.)

I ask if Shauna ever actually spends any time studying. I am told no.

I look up her grades. She is failing seven of her eight classes, and was last quarter as well. Sean is not doing as well as he should be either.

I somehow do not say Ma’am, the seven failing grades each of your grandchildren have do seem to have a common factor, which is that they are the ones getting those grades. From seven different teachers, each. Furthermore, the fourteen failing grades that your grandchildren are currently receiving this quarter all have something else in common, which is the person raising them. You wanna bitch at me some more about how I’m not doing my job?

So, yeah, long story short? When your kid doesn’t crack a fucking book outside of school under any circumstances, doesn’t study, and doesn’t do any of their work, when you literally admit that your child who doesn’t understand how to do something made no attempt to avail herself of the resources that were literally right in front of her face to attempt to learn how to do it, when all of those things happen at once, maybe you shouldn’t go bitching at the teachers who are literally at a meeting specifically about how to help your other kid succeed that they aren’t doing their jobs right.

Especially when all the fuck you had to say was “Shauna needs more help in math,” and the very next fuckin’ thing out of my mouth would be to try and figure out a time where the two of us can get together to go over some of the stuff she doesn’t understand.

I emailed my assistant principal, who was also in the meeting, and told her I was demanding a raise.

Thus far I don’t appear to be getting one.

3:49 PM, Thursday April 16: 653,825 confirmed cases and 30,998 Americans dead.

Teacherly updatery

First things first, unrelated to teaching: I’d like you all to go back to my piece about the Iowa caucuses from a couple of days ago, read it, and marvel at my prescience. I am too disgusted with politics in general at the moment to discuss any of the various issues of the day (ITMFA now stands for Impeach the Motherfucker Again, not Already, and I did not watch the State of the Union, because I am not a fucking masochist) so you get to read teachertalk instead.

I got a fair amount of feedback and advice (not all of it on the blog) after my post about my student with selective mutism a couple of weeks ago. I thought I’d report back: it turns out that she’s entirely willing to communicate in writing, so a day or two after writing that post I handed her a piece of paper with a short note asking some questions and she answered everything and gave it back to me. She’s generally not willing to call attention to herself but there have been a couple of times where I checked in with her and she’d written some questions in the margins of her assignments; she doesn’t seem to have any difficulty (and there’s no reason to think she would) with listening or processing what she’s being told, so I can answer her verbally just fine, although I’ll occasionally respond in writing just for the hell of it. I just have to make sure to check in with her once or twice during class because she usually won’t put her hand up. She’ll respond to direct questions with gestures, though, and there have been times where I got a thumbs-up or a “sort of” gesture after asking her how she’s doing. My kids also will ask for bathroom breaks with a sign language “B” a lot of the time, and she’s picked that up as well.

So in general things are going just fine. She’s a bright kid and she gets good grades and she pays attention, so I basically just treat her with the slightly higher level of attention that some of my ESL and shyer students get and so far everything has gone just fine.

(Also, I called her an elective mute in that first post, and that term is apparently outdated; they call it selective mutism now. I’m not entirely certain what the difference might be, but I like to use the right words for things.)

Well, whatever works, I guess…

imagesI have a handful of severely autistic students.  One of them in particular has been a major behavior issue as of late– he’s been running out of the classroom, throwing things, saying crude sexual insults to the girls, and trampling people in the hallway.  We are trying, for a variety of reasons, some good, some not so good, to keep him in our building and not have to move him into a residential placement of some kind somewhere else.  His issues generally begin when he gets into the building, amplify during Success period, and by the time he gets into my room for Math he’s completely uncontrollable and acting out.

I met with the corporation’s autism consultant on Thursday, and she was in my classroom observing me/him/us today.  (Sidenote:  all three of my classes killed their math tests this week; I’m super happy about how they did.)  We’ve been working on solving two-step equations and linear equations for the last few weeks, and so they’ve been hearing me say the phrase “work backwards” or “do the opposite” over and over and over and over again.  (In other words, 4x = 12 is a multiplication problem; you need to do the opposite, division, in order to solve it.)  Well, everybody but this kid has; he’s spent most of his time either sitting in the hallway or in the main office or the counselor’s office.

He had to take the same test as everyone else, so the autism consultant and his usual paraprofessional worked with him in the back of the classroom.  I heard them repeating my instructions and going over procedures to solve problems, mimicking the language I’d been using.  The kid actually did pretty well.

For the last ten minutes of class, the autism consultant and the paraprofessional disappeared for some reason and left the kid in the room with me.  I noticed after a minute that every time I gave the class an instruction he was doing something else.  Oh, great, I thought; last thing I need is a meltdown when the two people who are here to observe him have left for two minutes.

“What are you doing, Jim?” I asked.  (Jim, obviously, isn’t his name.)

“The opposite,” he said.  “They said I’m supposed to do the opposite of everything you say.”  Big, shit-eating grin on his face.

Parts of my head screamed at other parts of my head.

“Stand up,” I told him.

He sat in his seat.

“Make as much noise as you can until the bell,” I told him.

Complete silence.

“Don’t do any of your missing work, at all,” I told him.

Out comes his math workbook.

Ah, autism.  Every day can be Opposite Day from now on.

The broken tree is gone.  All hail the broken tree!  The guys did such a good job they even took away the broken branches from the last big storm we had, over the summer, which I had hauled off into a corner of my yard and not bothered to finish bagging up and curbing.  The company is called, believe it or not, Skeeter’s.  If you’re in northern Indiana, you should use them the next time something falls down around your house.

(Sidenote: there’s a good lesson in why internet reviews can be a shitty idea here, where someone who perhaps should not be allowed to have an opinion appears to believe that tree doctors are a cabinet company.  Uh, no.)

On calculators

20131025-172618.jpgA friend on Facebook just pointed me at this article from the Atlantic. Well, not me specifically, but… y’know. Entitled “The Great Forgetting,” the article discusses the ways in which computer automation of various tasks has affected the ability of us reg’lar folks to learn and remember how to do complicated tasks. The article begins by discussing a few recent plane crashes in which the autopilot failed and the pilot, panicking, did exactly the wrong thing and ended up crashing the plane.

What really caught my attention, though, was his comment that the article made an argument against use of calculators in math classes. I’m not convinced of that. I don’t doubt that the author’s basic premise is strong; automation has eroded our ability to do certain things. To pick a less important example, I used to have dozens of phone numbers memorized; nowadays I’m only able to recall my wife’s with difficulty, and I couldn’t tell you anyone else’s if my life depended on it. Now, of course, I’m certain I could recapture this ability; I simply haven’t bothered. The author also mentions things like mapreading; I’d be more inclined to buy that if I thought most people were ever able to read maps. Most people were never able to read maps.

(Similarly, spellcheck. No, spellcheck isn’t eroding our ability to write. Over all of human history, most people haven’t been able to spell or write worth shit. Spellcheck has manifestly not made this worse. What has happened is that the digital revolution has exposed us to much much much more of our fellow humans’ shitty attempts at writing. I can show you some documents in Biblical Hebrew with misspellings if you don’t believe me, and for those fuckers writing was their job.)

Another interesting example he brings up, albeit briefly, is surgeons using machines. I am not a doctor, obviously, and if I’m getting this wrong feel free to correct me, but I believe that most surgeries that are being done via computer nowadays are surgeries that are too goddamn complicated to be done by regular humans with our clumsy hands. My mother had surgery done on her lower spine a few years ago. The surgeon was startled at the extent of the damage, and likened fixing her back to peeling apart soaked sheets of wadded-up tissue paper. There is simply no fucking way that a doctor could have uncrushed her spinal nerves and delicately teased everything apart and put it back in the right place with our clumsy human monkey paws. The surgery didn’t replace human skill; the surgery enabled the human skill. Call me when we can’t set limbs because the computers do it better. (Which might actually be coming: I’ve seen a few articles on 3D-printed custom casts, which look like spiderwebs and are pretty freaking awesome.)

I would argue that, used properly, calculators are less like digital address books and more like surgical tools. I want my kids to be able to do math in their heads; you’re just going to have to take that on faith. I would much rather work with kids who don’t ever feel like they need calculators. But the simple fact is that (particularly in my special ed class, but not limited to them) I have a number of students– hell, probably most of them– who are uncomfortable, to put it mildly, with basic math facts. I have a few who do not appear to know they exist. In some cases, it’s probably because the kids are just lazy and/or disengaged from school. In several it’s because they have sub-60 IQ’s and are never going to be able to memorize basic math facts. It’s just not gonna happen.

Here’s when I allow calculator use in my class: whenever the calculation itself is not the point. If we are working on multiplying decimals, for example, I refuse them calculators. My more severe special ed kids will get cheat sheets for these, but no calculators. Any other time, though, when there’s process to be learned, I allow calculator use– because otherwise the calculation gets in the way and actually inhibits learning of the material I’m trying to teach.

A specific example, because we actually just finished this: the math my seventh graders were covering for the last few weeks involved similar triangles and metric and customary conversions of length, mass, and capacity. So, for example, I give you one triangle with legs that are 11 and 5 inches and a second where the long leg is 18 inches and I want to know the shorter leg, or I tell you that a given length is 12,203 feet and I want to know how many miles it is, rounded to, say, the nearest hundredth.

This is complicated math if you don’t know how to do it. It has the power to break their brains– even the smarter ones– early in the process before the methods involved really sink in, and if they are already struggling with basic facts it is manifestly impossible without a calculator. If you’re struggling with 5 x 7, you are never in a million years going to be able to divide 12,203 by 5,280. Even the kids who are good at math revolt at that kind of long division, with good reason: it’s a huge pain in the ass. It also introduces a whole bunch of new sources of error, all of which inhibit their ability to learn the actual material I want them to learn. I need them to learn how to set up equivalent fractions and figure out that 18 is (checks calculator) 11 x 1.63 repeating and that therefore you ought to multiply 5 by that same number to get the bottom leg, or that since you’re converting from a large unit to a small unit you need to divide and not multiply and then to (hopefully) remember or (acceptably) accurately look up that there are 5,280 feet in a mile and divide the two numbers in the right order– because that’s a mistake they make too, and if they divide 5,280 by 12,203 I need them to notice that the answer doesn’t look right and figure out why.

One check I’ve been using with similar triangles all week is to divide the long leg by the short leg of both triangles once they’ve got them figured out, and to make sure that they get the same number both times. The smarter kids took to this right away; the ones who are still struggling resist double-checking their work, but will when I remind them. This is already a fight, in other words– why would I make it twice as bad by insisting that they do both of those long division tasks manually? No way. They just won’t do it, and they’ll not be attending to their own precision with the rigor I need from them. Even with my brighter kids who might not need them, the sheer speed advantage calculators afford means that we can do more work with complicated mathematics than we might otherwise be able to if I had to wait for them to manually do every step of the problems.

In an ideal world, none of this is necessary, because my kids all love math and don’t have any preexisting disabilities (or just disinclinations) with math and I don’t ever have to worry about it. Or, in a slightly less ideal world, I have the time to work with these kids individually or in small groups and I can magically get them back on grade level by the end of the year. And I have some success stories in this regard– I can think of about half a dozen kids who were low but not necessarily special ed who were constantly insisting on calculators in sixth grade and now 25% of the way through seventh grade really don’t seem to need or want them anymore most of the time.

But for a lot– arguably too many– of my kids, and for millions of kids across the country, that’s not the case and it’s never going to be. I have to keep these kids on grade level as much as humanly possible. And regardless of whether I like it or not, that is just not possible without calculators.

Second verse, same as the first

AvI_0yPCAAII5dDThis has been kind of a frustrating week, and I can’t quite put my finger on why– for all I know, it’s the meat shakes again.  Or maybe it’s fractions, which are apparently the most difficult mathematics in the history of time and are certainly rapidly becoming the most frustrating to me.  I got a heavy dose of “we’ve never seen this shit before” from third and fourth hour today, including one kid who, when adding mixed numbers, had to be harangued for five solid minutes before admitting that he knew what two plus seven was.

This is a seventh grader, and this is emphatically not a fucking joke or hyperbole.  Two plus seven.  He spent five minutes insisting that he didn’t know and that math was hard and why am I bothering him and god I don’t know and I don’t get it and once I finally got an answer out of him immediately switched to insisting that he’d been telling me the answer was nine for “the whole time” and that I was just hassling him.  This kid’s ideal day at school is one where no teacher ever talks to him and he does nothing whatsoever; he will do literally nothing if someone is not hovering over him making absolutely certain that he is doing work for literally every second of his day.  It hasn’t sunk in yet that that shit’s not gonna fly in my classroom, and I’m sure as hell not ever going to let someone get away with “I don’t know” when the question is fucking seven plus two.

But if he doesn’t pass ISTEP, it’s my fault, for not bringing enough fucking balloons and firecrackers into class and keeping him entertained.

I let them get into my head too much, I think.  I have a kid who is currently signed up for the Washington, D.C. trip later this year who is, while not the worst behaved kid I’ve ever had, easily in the top ten– and that’s in twelve years of teaching, so we’re dealing with a sample size in the low four figures by now.  I should have kicked him off the list immediately; there was never any chance that this kid was going to be able to pull his behavior together well enough to convince me to take him eight hundred miles from home for four days.  Never.  But I didn’t cut him off last year because kicking him off a trip he’ll take as a seventh grader when he was in sixth grade didn’t seem fair.  So far this year he literally hasn’t made it through a single week of school without at least a day or two, sometimes more, of either in-school suspension or out of school suspension.  This week he was here Monday, absent Tuesday, in class yesterday and today, and then by the end of the day today he’d managed to land in the office three times from three different teachers, including getting called out of my class for something that didn’t have anything to do with me– so that’s four times in the office, actually– and he’s in ISS for the next three days for the cumulative effects of all of that.

If there’s ever been a time to pull the trigger, it’s now; my principal okayed me to kick him off last year.  And I still keep not wanting to do it because maybe he’ll get it together.  I keep throwing questions at this other kid– in private, mind you; it’s not like I’m calling him out in front of the whole class– hoping that sooner or later the math will click.  And it’s not gonna.  For either of them.  And I keep banging my head against the wall, because banging my head against the wall until the wall breaks down is my goddamn job.

I need a goddamn cheeseburger.