Archive for June, 2009

Big Picture

Monday, June 29th, 2009

At the end of an exchange of comments about Green Dot, Mike Klonsky asked what my alternative to the charter company would be.

Being the reactive kind of dude that I am I was thrown for a loop. I didn’t know. I had to admit that:

I’m not an expert in any of this. I just know that I work at a Program Improvement school where 99% of the teachers bust their chops. Should we be fired and replaced if our scores don’t go up? I don’t think we should. I think we need more teachers and aides in the classroom. I think the kids need more help. I don’t think we need to be taken over by a charter. I believe our school can succeed.

And I stand by that.  Our teachers and students are great.  But what if we do need a jump start?  What, beside a charter takeover, might work?

That’s why I was interested to read about Big Picture in Edweek, how they’re helping a public school in NJ:

The school opened in 2005 as a laboratory for education in a city where the schools are part of an entanglement of problems. And unlike charter schools that have sprung up in Camden during the last decade, MetEast is run by the city’s school district.

It’s one of about 60 schools nationwide established with the help of Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit with offices in San Diego and Providence, R.I. Three Big Picture schools are scheduled to open in Newark this fall.

Too early for me to tout them, but Big Picture sounds pretty interesting:

The schools are small and very different from traditional schools. MetEast has just over 100 students — less than one-tenth the enrollment at each of the city’s comprehensive high schools. The educators are called “advisers,” not teachers, and they advise the same group of students all four years.

Classes are built around the idea that students will learn by following their passions. Students do internships. Graduation requirements include a senior project with the aim of doing some good for the community.

And four times a year, every student makes a presentation to a panel that includes students and adults from outside the school.

According to the Big Picture website:

In the schools that Big Picture Learning envisioned, students would take responsibility for their own education. They would spend considerable time doing real work in the community under the tutelage of volunteer mentors and they would not be evaluated solely on the basis of standardized tests. Instead, students would be assessed on their performance, on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hand, heart, and behavior that they display – reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that all of us face in our everyday lives.

Worth a closer look, which I plan to take.  If anyone has heard of these guys please let me know…


Monday, June 29th, 2009

Remember Nathan Huffner, the insufferable über-dad in “Parenthood”. I am that guy. (Sometimes.) Kristina Chew asks can autistic kids burn-out on therapy. I ask can they burn out on their parents. My comment to her post:

I sometimes think our son needs a break…from me. For example, after a period of torturing him with flash cards and phonics workbooks I concluded, Hey, this kid ain’t ready for this. He didn’t like letters or spelling so I let it go. Fast forward a couple of months to this morning and here he is labeling everything in the house with blue painter’s tape (the stuff is miraculous, peels right off). He labeled his crayon drawer “crayons”, his superhero drawer “superheroes.” And beside each word he drew a picture, in case a friend came over “who couldn’t read.” I helped with spelling and letter identification, pointing to a sound/letter card I brought from school. But my biggest contribution? Staying out of his way.


Saturday, June 27th, 2009

So we decided to hold S back for another year of pre-school, which includes OT, speech, and social skills training, all good things in our estimation. Yesterday, it’s culmination and they move the non-culminating kids to room 5. Trouble is Superman (what we’ll call S’s best friend, who has a particular attraction to that character) is culmniating (”gradulating”, as S calls it) and stays in room 7 for an orgy of juice and cake.

S  later reenacts the days’ events on the rug with his deeda (what he calls me). Deeda is bushed after a day of writing and says something like “Oh, S, you’re going to make Deeda play again?” Wait. It gets worse. Because now S starts playing gradulation with his action figures and keeps insisting that the Superman figure is gradulating and therefore everyone else must move to another location, his parents bedroom, in this case. Deeda protests, the ballast of his belly making relocation a bother. But up he goes, dragging his big duff into the other room. Now it’s dinner and S comments that Superman (his best friend)  gradulated. “Yes?” his parents reply. “But my birthday comes first…”

There are certain “Aha” moments, moments which for me might better be termed “Oh Sh*t.” I usually have these Oh Sh*t moments at about 3:00 AM, roughly (looks at clock) now. Is getting put back traumatic to a nearly-five-year-old? Yes, it is, As traumatic as getting put back, as I was, in fourth grade? Without doubt. Should I pay better attention, be more sensitive? Uh…yup. Can I protect my son from future gradulations? From being made to feel inferior for being different? No, probably not.

But I’ll try.

This Kid is a Hero

Friday, June 26th, 2009


in my book, along with the other LAUSD kids who have marched in protest against cutbacks that hurt kids. Unbelievable she has been barred from making an address at her graduation, and worse, will not be allowed to tutor over the summer. Hello! People! A kid who displays courage and giving, and you’re squashing her like a bug. Unforgivable.

Feral Brats?

Thursday, June 25th, 2009


This heartbreaking post from the UK starts with the death of an abused baby boy and goes on to ask how many other lives are in danger because children are being denied early intervention.

Children with serious issues such as autism and attention deficit, as well as neglect, are a relatively new phenomenon for primary schools. The astonishing thing is that, as a last resort, we appear to think that the remedy is to ostracise them.

In doing so, we entirely miss the point. Instead of seizing on inappropriate behaviour as a vital warning signal that the child is an emergency, we reject it. We fail to send the fire engines.

As a special ed teacher I’ve worked with busloads of children who have never gotten help, and as the author suggests, these kids are easy to write off as “feral brats.” Will some teacher think of my four-year-old that way because Regional Center continues to deny him services? Not if his parents can help it.  Fair Hearing, here we come…

Are You Ready, Charterteers!

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Read today in the LAT’s coverage of charter Locke High School that the special ed classes aren’t so hot. Good thing next year Locke operator Green Dot will be taking them over too. I’m sure the school will use state special ed funds wisely. Don’t want to have the same problems they’re experiencing in PA. Wouldn’t like to see special needs kids like my son not getting what they need because someone’s cooking the books:

Special education for charters is funded in a different way than for school districts. School districts pay a sizable portion of special-education expenses on their own. They get a state subsidy, calculated using overall student enrollment and adjusted for wealth. Typically, school districts spend more on special education than they receive in subsidies from the state.

Charters get a per-child payment for their special-education students based on the special-education costs of the districts where the children live.

(PA Governor) Rendell’s proposal addresses a funding quirk that state officials believe costs local school districts money while benefiting charter schools.

Local school districts by law provide a full array of special-education services, from those for mildly disabled students with reading problems to those for children with severe cognitive problems and autism. The most severely disabled are sent to special schools.

Many charters end up with special-education students who are less severely disabled than those in most school districts.

In those cases, where relatively high-cost school districts are funding typically lower-cost charter school special-education students, the possibility of subsidy windfalls exist.

My Teacher Knew Bertolt Brecht

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I was looking for a name for a character in my novel when I thought about Ellen Auerbach, a therapist/teacher who worked with me at New York’s Educational Institute for Learning and Research in the ’sixties. I was surprised to find this article about her in Jewish Women’s Archive because I had no idea she was such an important figure, one of the great photographers of the Weimar Republic, partner of Grete Stern in the innovative Berlin studio, Ringl & Pit:

The life of Ellen (Rosenberg) Auerbach was a constant journey of self-discovery and, in her photographic work, a search for the essence that lies behind people and things. Her curious mind, her keen and intuitive eye and her sense of humor permeated her photography, which was re-discovered in the late 1970s, along with that of other avant-garde photographers and artists of the Weimar Republic. Auerbach belonged to the generation of New Women who sought to break with traditional female roles and become independent through their work… At the age of sixty Auerbach embarked on a new career: until 1984 she worked as an educational therapist with children with learning disabilities at the Educational Institute for Learning and Research in New York. She photographed only occasionally. Even though she had no training as a psychologist or therapist, Tate Schmidt, the institute’s director (whom Ellen had met briefly in Palestine), gave her training and opportunities. She used her keen insight and intuition to work with the children to find ways to cope with their problems and had a very high success rate despite the lack of formal training. She crafted a space where children were able to explore themselves and find out about themselves in ways that they never had before. Years later many of the children would come to visit her and remained friends.

Here’s a comment I left for the article’s author, my tribute to Ellen Auerbach, one of the most influential people in my life:

Thank you for this fascinating article.  As a child I had the good fortune of working with Ellen Auerbach at the Educational Institute.  I was having difficulty in school and my parents sent me there for a couple of years in the late ’60s.  She was a wonderful woman.  She let me drink Yoo-Hoos and shared her Edam and pumpernickel sandwiches with me.  She encouraged me to write and draw and took me on a field trip to MOMA.  As a gift, she compiled my poems, stories, and artwork and bound them in a book.  In the back was an “author’s” blurb with a portrait of me that she took.  In the blurb she correctly predicted that I would someday become a writer.  What she didn’t know was that, like her, I would also become an education specialist.  I never knew she was a famous photographer, finding out only after researching her for a novel (she is the inspiration for one of its characters, a magical teacher who flees Germany to teach in the United States.)  She was a great inspiration and a warm and friendly presence.  How was I to know that the lady sitting across from me taking my picture was such an important artist?  I only knew that she made me feel special, capable and smart.

This Year’s Best Father’s Day Card

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I had my students write Father’s Day cards. It’s always a prickly assignment because many of them don’t live with their fathers. I usually qualify it by adding “…and if you don’t want to write about your  father write about the most important man in your life.” Judging by this year’s batch, fathers are mostly good for taking you  to Disneyland or to Legoland or to a place called Snowland, which is either in dire need of a website or doesn’t exist at all. The best Father’s Day letter I got back wasn’t a letter at all. Written by the most stubborn student at our school, it was about the only father he really has: his mother.

My mom cooks me food.  My mom takes me to the park.  My mom washes my clothes for me.  My mom buys me candy at the store.  My mom takes care of me. She takes care of me. My mom loves me.  My mom feeds me healthy stuff.  My mom is nice to me a lot.  My mom buys me games.  She hugs me when she sees all happy faces.  My mom takes me to my cousin’s house.

Happy Father’s (Mother’s) Day to all of you…

Podcast 23

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Talk to You Later: Notes to My Son, June 19, 2009,

In which I tell my son about his pre-school culmination.

Clay Boats

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Reading this was like a stroll down memory lane…

I had a fascinating conversation with a teacher who has been teaching physics for 15 years in L.A. and the surrounding area. She teaches 200 students on most days (in groups of 40 or so), at least three of the classes have the same test-prep curriculum. She feels bored. Ready to “move on”—but to what? I asked her to describe what she wishes she could do—even if it were unrealistic. Her wishes? Small classes so she could explore science more deeply with kids, the opportunity to do some interdisciplinary teaching with colleagues, to be able to approach physics from directions that might not match the state exam, to expand her own intellectual horizons alongside of and separate from her students. What kid wouldn’t say, “amen”?

In such settings, a teacher with 15 years of experience wouldn’t be at the end of her career (and wits) in the classroom. Imagine schools, in collaboration with universities, as the site for teacher-training—prolonged apprenticeships. My friend would then also be teaching other colleagues and would-be colleagues and learning from some interesting scientists on campus.

This was the “reform” idea of the late ’80s. But it’s getting harder, not easier, to imagine this happening today. But, you ask—how did we move so far from this vision in such a short time, so that we now have a bipartisan plan for schools that make the old factory-model look innovative? Partial answer: We left practitioners like me and educational scholars like you out of the loop and instead turned to financiers and lawyers!

I remember going to CalTech in 1990 for training in a program called S.E.E.D..  CalTech personnel–professors and graduate students–trained us public inner-city schoolteachers in the use of science kits that were rotated between schools every few weeks or so.  The kit/unit I remember was called “Clay Boats,” in which students explored the buoyancy of different materials: aluminum foil, clay, aluminum foil and clay, etc.  We were trained on the beautiful CalTech campus, fountains and flowers all over the place, and for lunch one day a scientist invited me up to see his lab.  Under bright lights a not-too-happy-looking monkey sat immobilized, a big hole in the middle of its skull, bundled wires sprouting out.  The scientist explained what he was doing but I was just trying not to pass out.

It was fun, fascinating, an experience I will always remember.  (I was happy to find out that the program is still flourishing in many of Pasadena’s public schools today.)

LA Unified has science kits too, made by a company called Foss. As an RSP teacher I don’t have much to do with science, helping kids more with reading and writing.  But I did have the pleasure of watching the entire second grade experiment with Pebbles, Sand, and Silt. The kids loved it: sifting sand, bringing out the color of rocks by dripping water onto them.

Kids exploring, teachers facilitating. What a concept! And it’s happening right here at our school, albeit only in the springtime after high stakes testing is done.

Next year our school gets a science lab. I hope the kids learn a lot from it. I hope it’s a big success.  I hope it leads to other rooms: a room for music, a room for art.  I have my doubts.  With overcrowded classes, teacher layoffs, and a Secretary of Education not rolling back No Child Left Behind but ratcheting it up, real education may never have a chance

Only if it does, only if we stop teaching to the test and truly challenge students (and teachers!), will real reform ever come.