Yep, here’s another edition of monthly cartoons. The following cartoons of kids in school (and at home) have tickled me and I wanted to share them with readers. Enjoy!
Taken from “About” in Herman’s blog:
My name is Ellie Herman. If you want to find out what I’m doing here and why, click here on why I’m writing this blog. I’ve been working on this project since the beginning of September….
As for my bio, I’m a writer and English teacher. From 2007 to 2013, I taught Drama, Advanced Drama, Creative Writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles.
Before that, I was a writer/producer for many TV shows, including The Riches, Desperate Housewives, Chicago Hope and Newhart. My fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection.
I attended public schools in Winnetka, Illinois from kindergarten through high school and graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in English. I have a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge. My three children attended Oakwood School, a private school in the San Fernando Valley. My husband, David Levinson, is a writer who runs the non-profit Big Sunday. Our basset hound, Lou, appears ineducable, having channeled all of his energy into his good looks. We live in Los Angeles.
Posted on September 26, 2013
I once ran over a student in the parking lot. Gio was standing in front of my car, waving, grinning and doing a little hopping dance in apparent joy at seeing me, which made no sense because only an hour earlier he had brought my entire class to a standstill by taking a half-eaten pear and mashing it into the floor with his shoe. Obviously, I threw him out of class, though he did not go easily, muttering profanities and slamming the door behind him. The sight of his beaming, delighted mug in my windshield was like a red flag to a bull. Enraged, I gunned the engine and squashed him flat.
Okay, I didn’t. I honked, smiled, waved and drove around him. But in my imagination, I ran him over. Gleefully. Vengefully. Repeatedly. On several other occasions, I mentally strangled him, usually during class when he could not stop pestering the girl next to him by drawing all over her notebook or when he shouted out irrelevant, annoying questions or when he announced loudly that he hated most of the people in the class, especially the quiet, nerdy boy who had been kind to Gio all week.
Gio was that kid. That kid! Every year I had three or four of them, students who occupied about 3% of the actual population of any class but consumed about 50% of my energy. That kid! The one who made my whole body tense up, who could shut down an entire class for minutes at a time with his demands, accusations and outbursts, whose absence, I’m ashamed to say, would cause a wave of relief to wash over not only me but all of the other students in the class when we realized we were actually going to have a Gio-free day.
Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect every teacher at one time or another has that kid. Our school always had a short list of students with extreme behavior issues; they were like mini-celebrities, occupying our lunchtime talk, populating our nightmares, inciting our migraines. In any given year, of my six classes, usually around three of them had at least one kid with extreme behavior issues. I’m not talking about kids who are chatty or can’t focus. I’m talking about kids who aggressively, compulsively and continually seek negative attention. Sometimes you’d have two kids with extreme behavior issues in a class, which really sucked because they’d trigger each other, causing an exponential escalation of problems. Once, I had three in one class, turning it into a Lord of the Flies situation with clusters of high-achieving girls taking me aside in a weeping, enraged circle and demanding that the three boys with extreme behavior problems be removed permanently from the class.
These kids weren’t always boys, though often they were. They didn’t always have learning disabilities, though sometimes they did. Here’s what they always were: smart. Often, these students were especially bright, which is what made them so good at driving an entire schoolful of people completely batshit crazy.
Did they come from terrible home lives? It would be simplistic to say so. Many of our school’s students came from very difficult family situations and the overwhelming majority did not have extreme behavior issues. But for whatever reason, nature or nurture, in my experience, these particular students seemed to be driven by overwhelming feelings of shame, failure and above all, loneliness, making them lash out in ways that cause them to be rejected further, a vicious cycle re-enacted daily. In the inspirational movie version of this narrative, the presence of a stable, caring teacher would break the cycle. Sure, there’d be a few bumps along the way, but by the end of the year, after a lot of weeping heart-to-hearts, a rock-solid behavior plan and some crackerjack lessons in goal-setting and relationship-having, the kid would turn his life around, graduate and go to college.
These turnarounds actually happen. I saw very difficult kids turn their lives around, and these were among the most rewarding experiences of my life. There is nothing on this earth more miraculous—I simply have no other word for it—than to watch a human being find the determination, patience, strength and courage to change.
But. A turnaround like that takes years. Years and years of imperceptible growth, of the kid being thrown out of class every day, of parent conferences and arguments and lost tempers and forgotten promises. Often, as a classroom teacher, you’re not there for all of those years. Sometimes you just see the first year, which feels like complete failure.
And it doesn’t always happen. It’s a sentimental fantasy that every kid’s life can turn around if enough caring adults just stay in the game, breathing deeply and sticking to their values. The rougher truth is that yes, those caring adults can make it possible for a child to make a breathtaking life turnaround.
But the fact that such a turnaround is possible does not make it inevitable. For every Gio who turned his life around, there were other Gios who dropped out and disappeared. I’ll never know what happened to them.
I’m thinking of Gio today because in Cynthia Castillo’s class, I saw a boy who was that kid, acting out, talking constantly, making continual demands. And I braced myself instinctively—a body memory, thinking of Gio and all the others who were that kid. I thought of Fernie, who was kicked out of every single class he ever took, who once called me a fucking bitch right to my face, whose eyes filled with tears when his mother told him for the first time that she loved him, who walked the stage in cap and gown this past June. I thought of gum-chewing Tiffany with the big earrings who couldn’t stop swearing, never did pass a class, and left our school.
I thought of Peter, my most difficult student ever, who alternated between charming conversation and uncontrollable, profanity-laced outbursts of rage, who once shoved a teacher into a wall and who, God help me, was in three of my six classes one year. By some miracle, Peter managed to graduate. After graduation, though, he floundered. I know this because he continued to visit me. As far as I could tell, all he ever did was work out; though he’d been a lanky beanpole as a teenager, as an adult he bulked up and became gigantic. He never signed up for community college but hung out at home, breaking his hand one day when he punched his fist through a wall after a fight with a family member.
Last year, my father died after a brief illness, and in the weeks after his death, I found myself working late night after night in a vain, numbed-out attempt to catch up with the paperwork I’d missed. One evening around 5:30, Peter walked into my classroom.
I could hardly bring myself to feign enthusiasm. He was the last person I wanted to see. But I knew the bus ride from his house had taken at least half an hour. “What’s up?” I said, managing a faint smile.
“I heard your dad died,” he said. “I just wanted to give you a hug.” For a long moment, he enveloped me in an enormous, silent, heartfelt bearhug. “Okay,” he said. “That’s it. You probably wanna be alone.” And then he left.
I think of the Rumi quote: “out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
I think of my most difficult students, and how that field might be where I need to meet them. Maybe learning involves a growth in knowing but also at times an embrace of not-knowing, of accepting, even in the absence of evidence, that a human connection is of infinite, indescribable value. “Teaching,” Cynthia Castillo told me, “is an act of faith.” I remember. I hope to get there.
With this post, I begin a monthly feature about teaching written by teachers, students, and others who bring precise and vivid language in expressing the emotional life of what it is like to be a teacher or student.
Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for the articles and books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.
Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.
I am neither a poet or an aspiring one. I offer these as ones I liked that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.
Mary Ruefle, 1996
The teacher asks a question.
You know the answer, you suspect
you are the only one in the classroom
who knows the answer, because the person
in question is yourself, and on that
you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.
You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.
You look out the window.
You don’t raise your hand and there is
some essential beauty in your fingers,
which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.
The teacher repeats the question.
Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers
and spring is in the air.
Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.
Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School
Because one day I grew so bored
with Lucretius, I fell in love
with the one object that seemed to be stationary,
the sleeping kid two rows up,
the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.
While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun
of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,
I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.
Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl
to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic
composition of smoke and dew,
and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,
the calves’ intriguing
resiliency, the integrity to the shank,
the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.
Light falling through blinds,
a bee flinging itself into a flower,
a seemingly infinite set of texts
to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms
who was given a name at birth,
Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,
his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters
seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly
of matter that had the goodness to settle
long enough to make a body
so fascinating it got me
through fifty-five minutes
of the nature of things.
From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Poem for Christian, My Student
He reminds me of someone I used to know,
but who? Before class,
he comes to my office to shmooze,
a thousand thousand pointless interesting
speculations. Irrepressible boy,
his assignments are rarely completed,
or actually started. This week, instead
of research in the stacks, he’s performing
with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.
Kids danced to his music
and stripped, he tells me gleefully,
high spirit of the street festival.
He’s the singer, of course—
why ask if he studied an instrument?
On the brink of graduating with
an engineering degree (not, it turned out,
his forte), he switched to English,
his second language. It’s hard to swallow
the bravura of his academic escapes
or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.
Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon
he’d picked on campus; once, a poem
about an elderly friend in New Delhi
who left him volumes of Tagore
and memories of avuncular conversation.
My encouragement makes him skittish—
it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics
of despair. And I remember myself
shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,
the prospect of effort-drudgery.
Success—a threat. A future, we figure,
of revision—yet what can the future be
but revision and repair? Now, on the brink
again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant
thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.
“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak
it up and write my paper in a weekend,”
he announces in the Honors office.
And, “I want to be a bum in daytime
and a reggae star at night!”
What could I give him from my life
or art that matters, how share
the desperate slumber of my early years,
the flashes of inspiration and passion
in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool
myself or anyone, no one could touch
me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy
Houston Monday, he appears at my door,
so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him
now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.
“Write a poem about me!” he commands,
and so I do.
Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)
Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment
…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,
both working for the American Red Cross.
They returned to suburban Harrisburg
and began the next chapter of their lives.
Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.
Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,
which opened so you could hear recess voices,
and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.
We were seated, not in usual rows,
but in a square “u” of desks.
We were allowed to sit with whomever
we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted
by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).
Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.
She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.
She loved all of her students, but had,
I realized even then, a soft spot for me.
I didn’t understand why and still don’t.
Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,
she read aloud to us–from books
on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.
Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,
believing that eight-year-olds could understand more
than the 1950s psychology books expected.
This was her great gift to her fortunate students.
We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,
then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.
One day when I’d finished my work early,
she sent me to the library, alone, saying,
Get whatever book you want, Ann.
That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,
about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,
where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.
I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,
tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.
Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,
no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.
One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office
without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,
a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.
She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.
After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to
sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.
She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening
to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.
My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.
I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement
and began, in earnest, my professional life.
In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author
So rare it is for a teacher to write appreciatively about her principal. There are, of course, many reasons for the rarity: too much already on teachers’ plates, writing is hard to do, principals who perform all that is expected of them from diverse audiences are themselves an endangered species (add your own reason here). I found this personal portrait of a secondary school principal on the mark for capturing much that is often lost in the current lust for principals to do it all as instructional leaders, CEOs, and hand-shaking politicians.
I knew Ann Staley as a student in one of my classes soon after I came to Stanford to teach three decades ago. Over the time she was in graduate school, we ended up having many conversations about teaching, learning, graduate school, and life in all of its twists and turns. After leaving Stanford, she settled in Oregon and became a teacher and writer. She has taught in junior and senior high schools–winning an award in 1996–supervised student teachers, and taught writing at community college. A few years ago, she retired from teaching but continued writing both prose and poetry. Every so often we would contact one another. She has published two volumes of poems, Primary Sources and Instructions for the Wishing Light. I posted a poem she wrote about her second grade teacher, “Mrs. Kitchen.
Principal Jae Johnson hired Staley in her first job as an English teacher. She wrote this in 1984.
A Good One. No, A Great One
Iowa. Wide-skied, rural, back roads meandering, farm, tidy with care. In a rootless myopic and arcane world, it’s a place you’d like to come from. Jae Johnson did, and it shows.
Jae made his way to Oregon via his brother’s interest in the family farm and his own in a Ph.D. Although he has a way of making his life very much in the present, still, beside the Principal’s desk at Hedrick Junior High is a black and white photograph of a small farm outside Iowa Falls.
You get to see that photograph when you go in to talk with Jae. Taking off his glasses, he swivels around while nodding at a nearby chair. Neither folksey nor ceremonious, you feel as welcome as if you’ve come by after church. Though his manner is straightforward and eager, he waits for you to get down to things, and if you want some ‘personal time’, he sits back on that swiveler and listens. he likes people in his office, and committees, parents, faculty, delinquent or achieving kids, even a bus driver or two, all have their time to consider that central Iowa farm and the farm-boy who is now Principal.
Back in the early ’70s Hedrick had a hodgepodge faculty of the usual assortment–good ‘oleboys,’ spinster-types with dyed hair, hot shots from the ’60s schools of education, with some good and bad teachers among them all. When Dr. Johnson arrived there was a sub rosa rebellion amongst the old guard who were mad because a local golfing partner had been by-passed. Instead they’d gotten Jae, and although it took them a few years to come to their senses, over time they found that they felt privileged to work with this man of integrity.
He deals carefully with his diverse staff, agonizing over how to confront a mean history teacher with thirty years tenure and with helping the young art teachers gain control over a 2nd period class that is too creative. Looking through the Audubon Field Guide, he finds ‘a way’ with an out-of-touch math instructor who is an expert ornithologist. When chaos threatens the cafeteria, it is Dr. J who sits down to lunch with the kids. In an organizational structure where secretaries and janitors often have the ‘real’ power, he is the authority behind them. Taking people at their apparent value, he tries first to understand, knowing that real change is rooted in his comprehension and the teachers’ desire for it.
His organization receives the same measured care. New ideas are introduced slowly, after opinion polls, newspaper articles, and arduous committee work. It is clear this his view is large and broad, but he has infinite patience in moving toward it. He respects people and the durability (and sometimes inflexibility ) of the structure and the powers-that-be. It took a year and a half of faculty work to develop and implement a “floating period” which lessened the teachers’ load of students each day. He encouraged this change by finding the key people on his staff and using them as leaders while he gave rather objective and problem-solving advice from the sidelines. He uses the “sideline” like a winning coach.
With an insane September-June pace he keeps his ideas coming each week with “From This End of the Log,” a series of quotes from professional journals, children’s books, poems and the like. He is an avid reader who enjoys science, history, and baseball, and uses his newsletter for diversion and inspiration.
Drive by Hedrick on Saturday or Sunday and you’ll see Jae’ old VW “bug” out front. He’s inside making plans, reading, getting those notes into mailboxes. Hard work and commitment are natural to Jae, in his genetic code, like the quiet blue eyes. It is as if he lived nature’s effect upon land and comes to people understanding their interdependence and cycles. He does not push the river.
But Jae’s very strengths are also his limitations. Commitment to his work makes for tension that at times explodes unreasonably at those nearby. His drive and intelligence set him apart, in loneliness, from his administrative colleagues [in other schools] who are quietly resentful of his successes and at odds with his values. Because he is has such “people savvy” and empathy, it is often impossible for him to make the tough decisions, and he has agonized and rationalized for many an undeserving staff member.
Finally, ironically, his love for the land keeps him in a quiet turmoil. Once he confided that he wished he could go back and farm with his brother or work as a teacher in a one-room school. Yet this last dilemma especially makes Jae a man to respect: he lives with the ambiguity of loving many things. Each year that he again chooses education, he inspires others to see their work as important, as weighing-out on the side of “good.” It is his land that has given him the strength of many loves, and he brings that plus his satisfaction and challenge to others.
Every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons.
From widespread adoption of Common Core standards, to the feds funding “Race to the Top” to get states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give tablets to each teacher and student, these policies contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about outcomes that supposedly will occur once those new policies enter classrooms.
And one of those key assumptions is that new policies aimed at the classroom will get teachers to change how they teach for the better. Or else why go through the elaborate process of shaping, adopting, and funding a policy? Unfortunately, serious questions are seldom asked about these assumptions before or after super-hyped policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) entered classrooms.
Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as cure-alls for the ills of low-performing U.S. schools and urban dropout factories:
1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., Common Core standards. turning around failing schools, pay-for performance plans, and expanded parental choice of schools) get fully implemented?
2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?
These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policies. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “charter schools outstrip regular schools,” “online instruction will disrupt bricks-and-mortar schools”) from policy action (e.g., actual adoption of policies aimed at changing teaching and learning) to classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers actually teach everyday as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students actually learned from teachers who teach differently as a result of adopted policies).
Let’s apply these simple (but not simple-minded) questions to a current favorite policy of local, state, and federal policymakers: buy and deploy tablets for every teacher and student in the schools.
1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement get fully implemented?
For schools in Auburn (ME) to Chicago to Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is “yes’ and “no.” The “yes” refers to the actual deployment of devices to children and teachers but, as anyone who has spent a day in a school observing classrooms, access to machines does not mean daily or even weekly use. In Auburn (ME), iPads for kindergartners were fully implemented. Not so in either Chicago or LAUSD.
2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
For Auburn (Me), LAUSD, and all districts in-between those east and west coast locations, the answer is (and has been so for decades): we do not know. Informed guesses abound but hard evidence taken from actual classrooms is scarce. Classroom research of actual teaching practices before and after a policy aimed at teachers and students is adopted and implemented remains one of the least researched areas. To what degree have teachers altered how they teach daily as a result of new devices and software remains unanswered in most districts.
3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
The short answer is no one knows. Consider distributing tablets to teachers and students. Sure, there are success stories that pro-technology advocates beat the drums for and, sure, there are disasters, ones that anti-tech educators love to recount in gruesome detail. But beyond feel-good and feel-bad stories yawns an enormous gap in classroom evidence of “changed classroom practice,” “what students learned,” and why.
What makes knowing whether teachers using devices and software actually changed their lessons or that test score gains can be attributed to the tablets is the fact that where such results occur, those schools have engaged in long-term efforts to improve, say, literacy and math (see here and here). Well before tablets, laptops, and desktops were deployed, serious curricular and instructional reforms with heavy teacher involvement had occurred.
4. Did what students learn meet the goals set by policy makers?
Determining what students learned, of course, is easier said than done. With the three-decade long concentration on standardized tests, “learning” has been squished into students answering selected multiple choice questions with occasional writing of short essays. And when test scores rise, exactly what caused the rise causes great debate over which factor accounts for the gains (e.g., teachers, curricula, high-tech devices and software, family background–add your favorite factor here). Here, again, policymaker assumptions about what exactly improves teaching and what gets students to learn more, faster, and better come into play.
Take-away for readers: Ask the right (and hard) questions about unspoken assumptions built into a policy aimed at changing how teachers teach and how students learn.
Journalist Gail Robinson wrote this piece for the Hechinger Report on June 5, 2014
Eleven-year-old Matthew Votto sits at an iPad, his teacher at his elbow. She holds up a small laminated picture of a $20 bill.
“What money is this?” she asks. Matthew looks at the iPad, touches a square marked “Money Identification” and then presses $20. “20,” the tablet intones, while the teacher, Edwina Rogers, puts another sticker on a pad, bringing Matthew closer to a reward.
They race through more questions. “What day of the week is it?” “What is the weather outside?” “What money is this?” In most cases, Matthew, who has autism, answers verbally, but he is quicker and seems more comfortable on the device.
A few classrooms away at Eden II, a Staten Island, N.Y., nonprofit that provides programs for people with autism, the going is slower but the approach is the same. Anthony Scandaglia, a teenager who does not really speak, tries to identify simple activities on the iPad. “What do you use to drink?” the teacher asks. He presses a picture of a cup.
“Where do you wash dishes?” asks the teacher, Colleen Kenny. Anthony selects the picture of bed. “No, we wash dishes in a sink,” she says.
Anthony and Matthew are among a growing number of children on the autism spectrum who use electronic devices — in their cases iPads equipped with a software program called Proloquo – for learning. Just a few years ago, they would have used bulky communication devices costing $6,000 to $10,000, if they used any technology at all. Or, they would have communicated by picking out pictures and sticking them to a board. “We spent a lot of time laminating and Velcroing,” recalls Melissa Cantwell, who teaches autistic children in Vancouver, Wash.
Special education students have long used so-called assistive technologies, like audio books for the visually impaired or special transmitters for hearing-impaired students. So today’s trend toward blended learning – the combining of technological devices with more traditional instruction – may seem less jarring to these students than to their general education peers.
“We have so many different programs that will help a child,” says Valeska Gioia, an assistive technology specialist at the South Carolina Department of Education, who focuses on struggling students and students with moderate to profound disabilities of many kinds, including autism. “We give them the tools and they rise to the challenge much of the time.”
Many teachers, parents and administrators say that laptops, tablets and the various apps help engage and motivate special ed students, while also making it easier for teachers to individualize instruction and track progress. Others caution that, as with so much in the world of educational technology, definitive research about results is scant.
“There is little research on how students with disabilities are doing with on-line and blended learning,” says Tracy Gray, managing researcher for education at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that conducts behavioral and social science research. “For whom does this work, under what circumstances and with what support? We can’t answer that for general education, let alone special education.”
But some specialists believe that children with certain kinds of disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum, respond especially well to technology programs because the programs behave in consistent, predictable ways. And unlike earlier technologies for students with special needs, the tablets and laptops are portable and indistinguishable from devices used by other students.
As developers continue to design a huge array of products – from free apps, such as Bookshare, to expensive robots – hopes are running high. Some programs help students with attention deficit disorders get organized; others track students’ individual education plans, or provide lists of words to prompt struggling writers.
At P. S. 176 in Brooklyn, N.Y., a dozen third graders sit in a classroom. A large interactive white board displays a snake skin, a turtle shell and a honeycomb, all examples of repeating patterns known as tessellation and all housed at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J.
A friendly male voice from the screen directs the children to draw a triangle with sides of 6 inches. For some, it is laborious, but he urges them on. “Hopefully I’m not running into lunch period,” the voice says. “I’ll give you two more minutes.”
The lecture is coming to the children live from the science center. Meanwhile, as in a chat room, the teachers at P. S. 176 type in their observations about how the lesson is going, allowing the Liberty instructor to adapt to the students’ pace and mood.
All students at P. S. 176, where more than 10 percent have special needs, participate in the partnership with Liberty, but third grade special education teacher Christina Panichi feels it has particular value for her students. “It’s like going on a trip with hands-on materials,” she says. “The only down side is they can’t touch it.”
Panichi also thinks having the material online helps. “It’s more like a game for them,” she says. “For some reason when technology is involved — especially cartoons — it engages them more.”
In Middletown, N.Y., a virtual number machine on her tablet is absorbing the attention of a little girl in a fourth grade special education classroom at Presidential Park Elementary.
As soft music plays in the background, she selects a number to insert into the “machine” on the screen of her Samsung Chromebook. The screen machine belches out a different number at the other end. After a few rounds, it asks the pupil what the math machine is doing to the number she inserted. In this case it’s adding seven.
This is Jessica Indelicato’s class, one that is the very model of a blended classroom. Several other students are bent over computers, all equipped with various education programs and Google docs, doing different tasks that vary with their progress and abilities. Meanwhile, Indelicato discusses decimals with five students, and a third group sits on the rug combining blocks to create numbers with decimals. In a few minutes, all students will rotate to the next station.
Indelicato sees the technology as key to engaging her students, in math and in reading. “It’s amazing. It targets whatever special skills they need help with,” she s. “They’re motivated. They enjoy it.” Their work on the computers, she says, “gives them reinforcement and confidence” that they carry into discussions about math.
Indelicato, Panichi and other teachers observe that many students simply find a lesson more attractive when technology is involved. Many programs features cartoon figures, instant responses, bright colors, music and encouraging voices. Those things draw students in.
Nowhere has the interest in technology been greater than for students on the autism spectrum. Debra Jennings’s son, Brady Bartsch, 9, who has Asperger’s, exhibited learning difficulties in kindergarten, and it seemed clear he was not going to learn to read by sitting down with conventional books. He began working on a Galaxy tablet equipped with Raz-Kids, an interactive program that incorporates a reward system. His mother says he’s made enormous gains. Brady, now in second grade at a Staten Island public school, “almost goes out of his way to be the star,” she says. “He’s shifted from being in the back of the room to wanting to be an example.”
Andy Shih, the vice president for scientific affairs at Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization, has seen similar examples.
“A lot of families are telling us how technology, particularly apps and iPads, are contributing to a quality of life for their kids they couldn’t begin to imagine,” he says. This is particularly true for those who cannot speak, which, Shih says, “doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of communication with others or that they don’t have a rich inner life.”
Shih says technology may help autistic students because it is simpler to “read” than people. “What technology does is simplify interaction,” he says. “Interaction with an app is always going to be the same. The expectation is always going to be consistent. Interaction with individuals is far more complex.”
As with general education students, technology is more successful for some children with special needs than for others. Even among autistic students, where it seems to hold the greatest promise, technology is not always successful. Some have no interest in their electronic devices, while for others, they become a kind of obsession.
Providing tablets and laptops to students with disabilities raises many of the same concerns that giving them to general education students does. Cost is clearly one.
Ms. Gioia, the South Carolina technology specialist, is always on the lookout for free tools and says most districts in her state have stayed away from Macs because of their higher cost. Some schools rely on fund-raising to cover some of the costs. While not denying that the devices can be pricy, Karen Cator, director of Digital Promise, a nonprofit focused on innovation in education, advises schools to look at whether they can be offset by some savings; maybe a student with a tablet is less likely to need a full-time, one-on-one aide.
Some experts think one of the greatest pitfalls of technology is that people will expect it to do too much, that they will see what’s new and glittery — what Andrew Hess, the assistive technology specialist for the Mamaroneck, N.Y., schools, calls the “mynah bird syndrome” — and ignore its limitations.
Aaron Lanou, director of professional development at the ASD Nest Support Project at NYU’s Steinhardt school, proposes two questions about technology: “Is this tool going to make something easier and more engaging, or is it just novel?” he says. “And, we need to ask teachers to think about the amount of time kids are actively engaging and using the tool versus the time it takes to learn the tool.”
Gray, of the A.I.R., emphasizes that no technology, no matter how dazzling, can do it alone. “There’s no magic here, whether you’re talking about kids with disabilities or general education classes,” she says. “You need teachers who understand technology, the support to do it well, and professional development.”
1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians?
2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?
3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are their core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?
4. Are “good” teachers dependent for success on their students, as doctors are on their patients?
The answer to each of the four questions is yes.
1. Has the definition of “good” teachers changed over time as has the one about “good” physicians?
From the 1960s, researchers laid out the following personal traits and behaviors that “good” teachers exhibit:
In the 1980s and 1990s, researcher findings added up to the following attributes of “effective” teachers. They:
*are clear about instructional goals;
*are knowledgeable about their content an strategies for teaching it;
*communicate to their students what is expected of them and why:
*make expert use of existing instructional materials in order to devote more time to practices that enrich and clarify the content;
* are knowledgeable about their students, adapting instruction to their needs….;
*address higher- as well as lower-level cognitive objectives….;
*accept responsibility for student outcomes;
*are thoughtful and reflective of their practices.
Then there are the features of “good” teachers that progressives then and now hold dear:
*A classroom that is student-centered:
Lists of attributes and behaviors of “good” teachers appear every decade. Some lists overlap, some do not.
2. Are there many different versions of “good” teaching as there were for “good” doctors?
Surely, there are. Consider that since the 1990s, policymakers have rushed to raise academic standards, hold teachers and administrators accountable for student outcomes, and expanded testing. In that push, a narrowed view of what constitutes “good” teaching has unfolded that focuses more on direct instruction and teacher-centered behaviors.
Yet there are students who see “good” teaching as different than this current mainstream view (e.g., “What makes a great teacher is being kind,” “A great teacher is someone that cares for his or her students,” “Someone who can make learning fun and someone who can be funny and focused at the same time”).
And for many, but not the majority, there are parents, practitioners, and researchers, who define a “good” teacher as going beyond high test scores. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the well-being of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia as “good” teachers who nurture, inspire, and connect to students.
3. Even with the differences in definitions over time and setting, are there core characteristics that transcend both as there were among “good” doctors?
Yes, there are. Just as when medical staff, patients, professionals and non-professionals define “goodness” in physicians, two essential features crop up again and again for teachers: competence and caring.
4. Are “good” teachers dependent on their students as doctors are on their patients for success.
Yes. they are. To see how the dependence works, one has to sort out the notion of “good” from the idea of “successful.” They are often seen as equivalent terms. They are not. Once sorted out, it becomes clear that both teachers and doctors depend on their students and patients to learn and heal.
Keep in mind that doctors and teachers using “good” practices do not automatically yield “good” results. Following the best practices in either job leads, from time to time, to failure, not success. Why? Because motivated students and patients have to participate fully for “good” teaching to turn into “successful” learning and the same is true for doctors and their patients.
Here is how the distinction works for teachers. Good” teaching pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful teaching,” on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:
“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”
Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.
For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and blended the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “good” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “good” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.
Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Best example of that muddle is evaluating teacher performance on the basis of student test scores. Consider, for example, the stark differences between Houston’s pay-teachers-for-performance and Denver’s ProComp plan.
The answers to the four questions are monotonously “yes.” The string of “yes” answers reveals that policymakers have, as so often they do, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.
*The quote marks are there to signal that “good” (or “great,” “excellent,” “effective”) is an adjective that varies in meaning among parents, teachers, students, researchers, and policymakers.