This is by far the best response to a legislator I’ve ever read.

 

North Carolina Teacher Takes Senator Curtis to Task.

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Thursday, May 15th, 2014–I was going to attend my friend Gretchen’s school play at her elementary school. Gretchen teaches art at Conn Elementary, and she and her students had done the scenery for Fiddler on the Roof, Jr.  As long as I’ve known Gretchen I’ve never had a chance to go see on of her plays, and this week the stars seemed to align with our schedules. Her son Gus and my daughter Katie have been buddies since Gus was 8 months old and Katie was 15 months old–I also teach with her husband, Dave. We were excited to go see the play, and Katie and Gus were thrilled to be able to see each other. What could go wrong, right?

Well, Thursday was a day with torrential downpours, and lots of places were flooded, but Katie and I bravely headed out, and battled the elements. We even found an awesome parking spot, when most people had to keep circling the lot. (Others with CMT will relate to how thrilling it is to find a good spot!) As I crossed the threshold of the door, literally 5 steps from the elevator, my left foot slipped on a wet spot between the 2 rugs in front of the doors. And like a cartoon character slipping on the proverbial banana peel, I feel my legs slide out from me, my left knee wrenched outward, and fell flat on my face, with my left leg bent and the knee cap dislocated. I couldn’t help but scream in pain, as my daughter looked on helplessly. I couldn’t even catch my breath, I was crying so hard, and yet trying to compose myself at the same time. It was useless; so many people came running toward me, wondering what happened. This was the same knee I had just had surgery on last summer to try to prevent my chronic dislocations. All I could think about, in addition to the pain, was that maybe I had torn the cadaver ligament which the doctor had attached to my knee to try to pull it medially (towards the inside). The pain was horrible, probably one of the worst times I’ve fallen, even counting the many times I’ve dislocated my knee pre-surgery. (And to say that I’ve fallen and dislocated my knee a lot is truly an understatement… I lost count about 15 years ago as the number crept up to almost 50.) 

All I could do was ask them to get Gretchen. I didn’t know what else to do. The pain was unbearable, my knee hurt so badly, and poor Katie just stood off to the side not knowing what to do as all the adults swarmed around me. Within a few minutes, Dave and Gus were entering the building, obviously surprised to see me laying there. Dave and another teacher graciously helped me into a chair, and provided me with ice for my knee and tissues for my nose. Dave assured me he would take care of emailing our principal to let him know why I wouldn’t be coming in on Friday. He also reminded me that it’s ok in a situation like this to be unable to put together sub plans–which remains to be seen, of course. I’m not looking forward to what awaits me on Monday. Gretchen assured me that they would gladly have Katie overnight, and get her to school the next day. Meanwhile, Dave called my husband to come and pick me up, because I was in no condition to drive. Dave kept me entertained for the next hour (we live quite a ways away from Conn) to keep my spirits up. I am so deeply grateful for such wonderful friends. 

My knee is swollen like a basketball. The saga of what happened when we went to go to the ortho urgent care is one for another post….

          I am weird. I really am. I am probably the only teacher at my school who, if given an option, would vote to go from the block schedule to the traditional schedule. See lots of arguments here for either one. Personally, the reasons I would like the traditional schedule are due to the subjects I teach. I teach German and Spanish. It has been proven that students who study second (or third, etc.) languages on a traditional schedule experience more hours of instruction than those on a block schedule. I’ve seen how this plays out in our own district. 

        Think about this for a minute. Most schools are supposed to have 180 days of instruction. Yeah, right. Try this version–we are scheduled to be in the building for 180 days–this doesn’t translate into 180 days of instruction. For schools on a block schedule, you first have to split those 180 days into 90 day blocks–fall semester and spring semester. Our students take 4 classes in the fall and 4 in the spring. So here’s what really happens. Count off on the calendar 90 days for the fall–at approximately day 41 or 42 we have midterm exams. Day 43 or 44 is usually labeled a “make-up” day, and most teachers do not use it for instruction, since it’s either a teacher workday or a make-up day with kids, where you’re trying to chase down all the kids who have to make-up work before the quarter ends. This is the last day of the quarter, so you’re swamped with kids who owe work, who need to finish the midterm, or whatever. So then on day 45, if it’s not a “make-up day” or a teacher workday, you’re still not ready to teach new material. Then, if there isn’t some kind of a holiday on the Monday after, ideally you start the next quarter on day 46. Anywhere from day 76-78 you are finishing work of some kind because that brings you to Winter Break, and you won’t see the kids for almost 2 weeks. When you return in January, you have maybe 6-8 days before Final Exams and all the state tests start. Testing usually starts as early as Day 82 or Day 84. Either way, you are not instructing 90 days, THEN assessing. You are teaching maybe 75 days, trying to review or prepare for your final exam (depending on your subject), then giving an exam after only 82-ish days of instruction. This does not count the days you lost for the Fall Pep Rally, or other assemblies, or students being lost to field trips all semester. 

       So now you have exams for about 5 days or more, then you have a workday or two–then, wham, you are thrown into a new semester with all new kids, another new first day of school in the middle of January, and the inevitable upheaval of scheduling issues, as kids drop/add in the first 10 days for various reasons. Now, if you counted from day 90, you probably have started the second semester already on day 97 (out of 180). However, it’s your first day, right? So you, with your masterful calendar, have started over again at the end of January, marking Day 1. Even though it’s like January 25th or so…. 

        So after about a week of drop/add and having your roster jumbled up a half dozen times, and running out of copies of the syllabus because you have to keep passing it out to the new kids (and losing those copies to the kids who’ve dropped your class), maybe you’re ready to start teaching on Day 4 or 5 (which is really day 102…). If you’re like me, you start teaching on the first day, trying to throw nuggets of educational goodness at them, while trying to convince them that yes, you really don’t like it when they chew gum in class, and yes, you really do have to have a composition notebook, not a spiral, for journals….But, it’s harried, frenetic, you don’t know any of the students’ names, there’s 35 kids on your roster, but 5 haven’t shown up yet–you only have 32 desks, but, hey a few can sit at the back tables where the dead computers are, right? But hey, maybe some of those kids will drop your class before you put in the request for more desks… And then you have a snow day. And another. 

        When you return from the unexpected days off, it’s like starting all over again. But by this time, it’s Day 7, or Day 105, but who’s counting, right? You teach 90 minutes, every period, every day. You try to teach everything you need to teach, but the kids’ brains only absorb so many concepts so fast. You were trained to understand that you need to have lots of interactive activities interspersed in the 90 minutes, otherwise the students will get bored. Nobody wants to hear a 90 minute lecture at age 16, right? So you try to slip in those extra concepts anyway–teaching on the block means you pretty much have to present twice the amount of material in one sitting than you would on a traditional schedule. Next thing you know it’s time for the 5 week interims… Well, that stinks, because you’ve only done about 3 1/2 weeks of work, since the first week was so crazy, so the grades aren’t quite as reflective of students’ abilities or efforts as they will be in another couple of weeks. Then it’s midterms. (Day 42-43ish, or Day 140ish) Then spring break, where a lot kids don’t show up the last day of classes, and a lot are absent on the day you are supposed to return from break.

         Fast forward to the end of the year–it’s May. Seniors have to have their exams earlier than anybody else, because what if they fail and can’t graduate at the last minute?? Yikes! That would be terrible. So the seniors start taking exams on Day 74 or something like that–um, wait a sec–how can they take an exam on material they haven’t learned yet? Hmmm, no matter, we either crammed it in earlier, or hope they make good guesses. So at that point, if you have a lot of seniors, you’ve essentially stopped teaching, and are either having your students review or do make-up work. Or if you are me, desperately trying to teach everything I can up until a day or two before final exams… and holding 2 hour review sessions after school…. to which hardly anyone shows up. So then exams start at what is essentially Day 82 or 83. Seniors usually graduate well before the last day of school (I know, right??). And after underclassmen finish exams on Day 85 or so, they get to stay home! The last 5-7 days are spent proctoring finals, state tests, grading exams, filling out paper work for your IGP (teacher assessment stuff), cleaning rooms, etc. 

     So, are you dizzy yet?? I think it’s ludicrous to think that this system makes any sense. If we were to teach a full 90 days, without interruptions, without having to race to get to the end, without having to give the PSAT, ACT, the WORKKeys Test, the ASVAB, and numerous other tests, MAYBE, just maybe, this system could work. If it were more like college, where you have “reading days”, or exams which take place after the instruction, perhaps students would feel more successful. But as it is, my students always feel like they are trying to stand still in a cyclone…. The information is swirling around them, with tests and quizzes every single week, and many kids understandably feel like they are drowning…

It’s exhausting. It may not be perfect, but I would rather have longer periods of time for the students to finish grasping and applying concepts. Where a unit is more than a week or two weeks long. Maybe have some sort of modified schedule where you could have a “double period” once a week or once every other week… Or maybe even *gasp, shudder, faint!* extend the year to 190 days…

Why not, I’m already in the building, right?

      One of the things that I think helps give me a unique perspective on teaching is the fact that I have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a.k.a. CMT. A.K.A it has nothing to do with sharks or teeth. It also has nothing to do with Country Music Television!! =) CMT is essentially a hereditary peripheral neuropathy which is “covered” under the Muscular Dystrophy umbrella. Genetically speaking, it’s not a “dystrophy”, it’s an “atrophy”, but seriously, let’s not split hairs. Trust me, there are thousands of people who debate this fact over and over again, and to me it’s completely irrelevant. You may have heard of Muscular Dystrophy–Jerry’s kids and the Labor Day Telethons–but you likely haven’t heard of CMT. 

Anyway, I have type CMT1A, and it’s autosomal dominant–which means that there’s a 50% chance that I will pass it down to my kids, because you only need one copy of the mutated/defective gene(s) to cause it. There are other kinds of CMT, and I believe there is a kind which is recessive, but mine is not. I got it from my dad, who got it from his mother, who got it from….?? Don’t know. My 2 uncles have it, my 1st cousin had it (he passed away from causes unrelated to CMT in 2007), and on my dad’s side of the family, just about everybody has it. The irony of CMT is that the degree to which it progresses and presents itself in each person can vary within families. Typical characteristics are extremely high arches, hammer toes, severe supination (rolling out of the feet), lack of reflexes below the knees and elbows, weakened hands & fingers… Lots of people experience other symptoms, too, like fatigue, inability to grasp things, inability to walk or run—just depends on the person.

As it pertains to me–well, it’s been progressing more rapidly since my mid-20s, but I definitely had problems when I was younger. I have the high arches, hammer toes, severe supination, weak hands–the ring finger and pinky on my right hand are curling, and I can’t use them when I type–they just remain raised above the keyboard. And I’ve had chronic knee dislocations since I was in college. After I had my first child, the CMT sort of sped up a bit, but I didn’t realize how badly I’d gotten. In 2008 I had an appointment with the MDA clinic at Duke–my first appointment since 2001 or so–they told me I would benefit from AFOs.  AFOs stand for Ankle Foot Orthotics. Essentially they look like leg braces.  Beacon Prosthetics is where MDA referred me, and I’ve been there more than a dozen times getting them fitted and then here and there returning when a strap has broken, or if adjustments needed to be made. I highly recommend them–especially Terry Ether, the man who fitted mine. He is phenomenally patient and understanding, and is familiar with CMT.

So anyway, I’m 37, and I’ve been wearing AFOs since late fall of 2008. I couldn’t believe the difference they made in my gait. I could suddenly walk without pain, pick up my daughter without fear of dropping her–walk down the hallways without holding onto the walls!! I couldn’t believe the difference. I had a lot of adjustments to make regarding what shoes I could wear, and I had to come to grips with the fact that I would no longer wear sandals (I had been getting away with wearing Birkenstocks)… Nope, I would have to wear sneakers to work. Every day. And pants. Unless I wanted everybody commenting on my leg braces.

Well, it’s been a number of years, and I’ve adjusted to wearing them. I’ve tried hundreds of shoes trying to find different kinds that work with my AFOs, experimenting with size, width and style. When I decide to wear a skirt or capris, and my AFOs are visible, I actually think other people are more uncomfortable with seeing them than I am with showing them. I actually had a coworker respond with “EW!” because they are oh-so-not-sexy. Whatever.

How does this relate to teaching?? HA HA! So get this. A couple years ago, I found a yard stick in my classroom which wasn’t there when I left the room in June for summer break. So I started using it as a pointer. And I developed this habit of swinging the ruler, and sort of whacking my legs when I was holding the ruler down low… Which of course, didn’t hurt, because of the AFOs!! 

One of the first times I did this, I realized I was scaring the students a little–they were staring horrified, as they watched me slap my legs with this ruler and it made this loud “whapping” noise. At one point when one of the students asked me if it hurt, I turned to her and said, quite seriously…”No, ’cause I’m a pirate! I’ve got wooden legs!”

And she believed it! She actually said, “Really?? You have wooden legs?”

I had to laugh.  The class wasn’t sure if I was serious or not… They didn’t know what to say. After a few weeks, as we got to know each other a bit better, and when a better opportunity presented itself, I explained the AFOs. But at that point the joke had become sort of a legend. The students who had me would tell other students that Mrs. Spam was a pirate, and they’d wink knowingly at me. It has become an inside joke with me and my students.

          So on Friday, my second period class came in a little rowdier than usual. A lot of students were bantering back and forth about the NCAA games that characterize the typical March Madness here in North Carolina… This class is pretty talkative to begin with, and some can be really goofy, but they’re usually pretty pleasant and funny about it. I enjoy teaching this group of kids. I told the class to quit talking basketball and get to work, and after awhile, most settled down and began working. Except for one boy–let’s call him “Joshua”. He continued to talk across the aisle to some other boy. So I said to the two of them, “Guys, Josh, stop talking basketball and get to work.” Josh looked at me and said, “That’s racist! Accusing me of talking about basketball!” I couldn’t believe that he responded that way–nor could other students in the class, either, because I caught a glimpse of some of the other students, and I could see that some of them were shaking their heads, one girl covered her mouth in surprise. Obviously, I was offended. There was certainly no need for this student to respond to me that way–and I don’t take accusations like that lightly. This student has had some other “moments” in class, and I didn’t feel that this was a comment which should be ignored… I looked at him and told him, “I cannot believe you just said that. I take offense to that, and that is not something to joke about.” I called him up and wrote him a pass to ISS, along with a list of workbook pages to do.

It was one of those moments in 15 years of teaching I don’t think I will ever forget. I did contact his mother, and her response was very supportive, which I do appreciate. 

But the bigger issue is, why would a student–anyone, really–just throw that term around? I don’t have any great insight. All I can say is that it’s been the exception, certainly not the rule. I take comfort in the fact that I could see from other students’ reactions that they did not approve, nor did they think that he was being funny. 

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you.

If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.

     I am not sure who actually said this quote, but I came across it after a particularly frustrating day in the classroom, where it seemed all of my efforts were futile. These two sentences seemed to summarize how I’ve been feeling about teaching these last four or five years. Yes, I do believe all children can learn. What parent wouldn’t want to hear that their child is capable, working above and beyond their potential? However, it seems that many people overlook a crucial factor in the success of a student: the student herself.

I do not deny that many children are at a disadvantage over others–the haves and the have-nots… But with the many students I’ve taught, it doesn’t seem to matter in the end whether their parents are rich and/or went to college, or whether their parents are divorced and they are living between 2 homes or are eligible for free and reduced lunch. It comes down to attitude and determination. Yes, the environment plays a role. But how many of us have heard stories about people who graduate from high school, and went on to college, despite very tough circumstances? And how many of us have taught privileged students who have every advantage, but who don’t know what it is to work hard?

And in this respect, this quote means a lot. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can throw the water in his face, but he doesn’t have to open his mouth. You can present the water in different forms, as ice or as a slushy snow, but still, if the horse is stubborn, he doesn’t have to drink. In the end, the same can be said for the student. If they are determined to be stubborn, to not participate, to close their eyes and sleep, to not do homework or to take notes or take part in a group discussion, then no amount of differentiation will help. When the teacher has exhausted all her resources, has reached out to parents, counselors, and other staff, and has tried to talk to the student, if the student refuses to give in and learn, it is ultimately on them.

Not that we give up… but to what end? When is it time to focus energy on the students who still need you and will respond to the differentiation and the reaching out?

Quote  —  Posted: March 20, 2014 in Uncategorized
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