Sunday, June 01, 2014

Reactions to my son's diagnosis

Three weeks ago, we learned that our son has mild Asperger's, or autism spectrum disorder.  We've been doing a lot of reading, talking to each other, explaining here and there to friends, and planning to meet with some folks at his school (which happens tomorrow).  Most people have found out from Facebook or Twitter and read my blog post about the diagnosis.

But as I've communicated with other friends directly over the past few weeks, it occurred to me that I have had to respond to a particular reaction a few times and it solidified for me what I think and believe about my son and about autism/Asperger's.

These were perfectly well-meaning folks, and their reactions didn't upset me, really, but they did give me pause to think, and I felt I needed to respond immediately with what I believed to be most helpful.

These friends apologized.  They expressed that they were sorry to hear about our son's diagnosis.

I immediately responded that they didn't need to feel sorry.  We are glad to have this information, and also relieved to know what causes our son's difficulties in school and with some other social situations.  Now that we have understanding, we can help him feel and be more successful.

During this same few weeks, I've been reading a lot and I have come to discover that the best known Autism organization, Autism Speaks, is at the center of considerable controversy for a number of reasons I won't go into here.  One area of concern is that the organization seems to consider autism a disease that needs a cure.

My son doesn't have a disease.  He doesn't need a cure.  What needs to be eradicated is the ignorance around autism.  It's a different way the brain is wired in some people, and for a subset of that population, the effects are much more impactful than for others with the condition.

I wouldn't want my son to be changed.  We, as a family, will learn together how navigate the world with autism as a part of it.  People who meet my son, whether they know his diagnosis or not, fall in love with him.  Who would change that?


Writing to my son's teachers about his diagnosis

Five days ago, I wrote to all of the teachers my son has had this year in his first year at a new school.  I also included his counselor, the learning specialist, the division head (like a principal for grades 4 and 5), and the psychologist who performed his evaluation and gave us the diagnosis.  I thought I would share in case any other parent would find it helpful as a model for explaining Asperger's.

Hello everyone,

I am writing to C's teachers from this year because I wanted to share a little bit about what we recently learned about C's learning differences.  Earlier this month, C was diagnosed with mild Asperger's Syndrome.  To be more accurate, since the new DSM-V does not include Asperger's as its own diagnosis, he officially has autism spectrum disorder.  Again, it's very mild, but it is a definite neurological difference, compared to most of his peers, that helps explain so many of the challenges he's faced all his life.

In C's case, we see the Asperger's Syndrome most clearly in the following areas:
- low frustration tolerance (when he becomes overwhelmed, he shuts down -- his brain does; it is not a choice)
- slow processing speed (this is not an indication of intelligence, just processing)
- problems with motor coordination (especially with writing)
- deep interest in certain subjects (tsunamis, ships, World War II)
- being behind his peers in some social interaction skills (this includes not being able to pick up cues that people don't have time or are not interested in hearing about his specialized interests, and also talking like a "little professor" about the things he knows a lot about)
- emotional reactions to unexpected situations (abrupt change in routine, being caught off-guard, not feeling like he has control over choices, being embarrassed by not being able to do the same things the same way his peers do)

Please understand that autism and Asperger's are not caused by parenting mistakes or a child's choices.  It's a different neurological layout of the brain's wiring.

C knows about his diagnosis, but he doesn't fully understand it yet.  We've been working with him to explain when things come up that encourage conversation about his differences and how they are a part of his Asperger's, and not his or anyone else's "fault."  We don't really know yet how he would feel about discussing it with anyone at school.

A friend and fellow educator recently pointed me to a video she had just shared with her sixth grade students to help them understand a classmate who has autism.  I wanted to share it with you, as well as a link to a blog post I wrote the day we learned C's diagnosis.

The video is by a young man who himself has Asperger's/autism: http://youtu.be/x5m5vqrFZpc
(He actually has about 175 videos on his YouTube channel, so I've got summer homework.)

And here's my blog post from May 10th, the day we got the results of his evaluation: http://originalgeek.blogspot.com/2014/05/if-you-know-my-son-please-read-this.html

Since you've all been an important part of C's life this school year, I wanted to give you some information that, although we got it late in the school year, can help explain some of the things we didn't completely understand earlier.  And you will, no doubt, meet more students like C (though Asperger's and autism present differently from one person to another), so well-informed is well-prepared.

Thank you for all you've done for our son this year.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

If you know my son, please read this.

Asperger’s Syndrome.  Or, more technically, Autism Spectrum Disorder, because the DSM-V has moved Asperger’s into the ASD group now.  Mild.  But still.

I cried.

Not because my kid has been diagnosed with mild autism.  Not really.  I cried because of my fear of how he will be treated.  Viewed.  Discussed when he or his parents are not present.

I’ve worked in schools for over twenty years.  I know thousands of teachers.  I spend almost all my waking hours interacting with, training, supporting, and listening to teachers.  And I have also taught students who had diagnoses of autism or Asperger’s.  I’m not proud of the fact that I have also thought things.  Wondered what’s up.  Not really understood.

More than twenty years surrounded by education professionals is what gave me my initial intense gut-wrenching reaction.  People will hear that my son has Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum Disorder, and they will think or even say out loud, “Oh…..”  The knowing “Oh.”  The “Oh . . . well . . . yes . . . . . . “

The unspoken “I always thought so” and the slightly arrogant “so that explains it.”

I hear almost daily how educators talk about kids who learn differently.  If I am really friendly with them, I will sometimes point out, “That’s my kid you’re talking about too, you know.”

I should be grateful that we have a name to put to it.  I should be relieved that he will be eligible for services and accommodations he may not have been before.  I should be enlightened and brave and self-assured.  Because I’ve been in education for all these years, and I’ve read and learned so much.

But I cried.  Because I am his mother.  And I know how people talk and think and look at people who have autism or Asperger’s.

Some people don’t even believe it’s a thing.  Some people think it’s an excuse.  Some people think it’s weak.

The good news, I guess, is that for people who knew my son before, and see that he’s still the same great, funny, wonderful, amazing, charming kid, maybe they will have their eyes opened.  See, even a kid like him can have autism spectrum disorder.

It’s not a death sentence.  It’s not a bad thing.  And I am not upset that my kid has a diagnosis.  The more I reflect and read, the more I see it more clearly than I’ve ever allowed myself to before.

But I cried.  And I couldn’t speak.  And even later today, driving around alone, running errands, I nearly cried a bunch more times.

Because, in some ways, it feels like we just found out that we may be poised to wage a war here on any given day.  We may have to fight and struggle and defend his right and ability to have the same opportunities as everyone else.  Opportunities that aren’t just being allowed to do something or go somewhere.  Opportunities can also be the mere act of being seen to be just fine the way you are.  Or believed to be capable, despite a label of something that says you’re different in some way.  Or treated as equally valuable and valid.

I’m not proud of the fact that I cried.  I should be better than that, no?

But when every day you have to have at least one conversation about what your kid can’t do, or what he does differently, or what takes him too long (everything) compared to his peers . . . with his school, with his teachers, with your spouse, with the child himself, with family and friends, with strangers sometimes . . . you get tired, and then when someone says, “your kid has mild Asperger’s,” you cry.

I have more to say.  There’s another blog post in me.  But it’s about ALL the things we learned today.  First, though, I had to talk about how I reacted to what I was told.

And now I’ve done that.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Minecraft homeschooling: pro and con

I will start out by saying I looked at their class offerings a while back and don't feel strongly either way, but I did want to address some of what Amy Milstein of UnschoolingNYC had to say on her blog.

I don't strictly love the connection between Dickens and Minecraft, partly because I've never been a great reader and never been all that into Dickens, to be honest.  But I get why one thought led her to another: it's not uncommon for the schoolification of something to completely ruin it.

So that's where I want to start: why do we let school ruin stuff?  It doesn't have to be that way.  If something becomes sucky because we do it in school, then we need to stop suckifying stuff when we schoolify it.  That alone, if we could make it happen, would change everything.

But let's look specifically at Minecraft.  I counter that using Minecraft in schools could be one of the ways we eliminate The Suck and bring in The Awesome.  I'll come back to this.

Clearly, Amy writes a blog about Unschooling, which I completely respect.  School as we know it does not work for MANY kids.  Hence the growing popularity of homeschooling and unschooling.  I'm all for that.  But don't the folks involved in those alternatives need some accountability to prove that they're doing their kids a favor by opting out of their local public schools?  I think that is what Minecraft homeschooling is trying to provide.  I won't say (because I don't have any actual experience with them) whether they do it well or not, but it seems to work for some people, so yay for them.

What got and kept my attention though, is the idea that making Minecraft a school thing would somehow ruin it.  First off, you can't ruin Minecraft.  It's just. so. good.  But even if you could, it wouldn't really be Minecraft you'd be messing with.  It would be how your kid is spending her time, what kinds of learning experiences you're encouraging, etc.  You don't ruin a state park by taking kids on a field trip there.  You don't ruin computer programming by giving kids a ton of different ways to experience it.

If you're homeschooling or unschooling, and you've eschewed tests and grades, then rock ON with your bad selves and don't grade the Minecrafty experiences either.  Give students as much choice as possible in the videos they find and watch, in the goals they set for themselves, and so forth.

When I use MinecraftEdu in my Digital World classes, which for the record are at a private independent high school, I do provide some guidelines and requirements as well as student choice within those guidelines.  We make our MinecraftEdu world an extension of our classroom, and I'd have to argue that I provide a respite of non-suck from the purely academic experiences my students are immersed in the rest of their school day.

Wouldn't these kinds of experiences, if they were spread throughout our public schools, encourage some (not all, and I am cool with that) of the current homeschoolers and unschoolers to consider coming back?  People have a lot of reasons for opting out of public schooling.  Whether they choose private (for religious, philosophical, or other reasons), homeschooling, or unschooling, sometimes their main reason is they don't agree with how public education is DONE to their kids.  Most of the awesome stuff happening in public schools, in my opinion, is being perpetrated by those who are getting around the stupid things and seeking forgiveness later rather than permission up front. (Hi Karl!)

So why not bring in fun, awesome, engaging stuff from the world where our kids are already spending a ton of their time?  Just don't suckify it.

Sigh. This whole MERIT application process is HARD.

Last night, I started seeing #MERIT14 tweets before I had even seen the official (internal) list of who was invited to be in the 2014 MERIT cohort.

The entire application and selection process is a bit of a mystical art-science, really.  I wanted to write a quick blog post to address the excitement and disappointment inherent in the days that follow the announcements.

With that in mind, here's a little Q&A.

Q: How do you decide who gets in?

A: We don't, really.  We use a number of factors to rank the applicants and then we cut up that ranking into accepted, waitlisted, and not accepted.


Q: What factors are considered?

A: First, we obtain a raw score based on responses to the long-answer questions on the application.  The raw score is based on an aggregation of scores from a large number of scorers from our MERIT faculty team and former (usually most recent or two most recent) cohort members.  We get several people to score each question's responses from ALL applicants.  We then use that data (which I believe is very fairly obtained) to get the raw score.

From there, we have points for all sorts of things: principal recommendation, attended an info session, previous relationship with KCI, applying as a team, etc.  Now we rank the folks based on the new adjusted score from highest to lowest.  We have an initial cut-off somewhere after the top 20 or so.  For the next 20 to 40 people below that first threshold, we have to consider a bunch more factors.

We try to maintain a balance of participants from different types of schools and districts serving different students.  We look to have a balance of grade levels.  Sometimes we have to consider specific donor requirements on how their funds are used.

What the process IS NOT is PERSONAL.  We can only accept about 40 to 45 people.  When there are a hundred amazing applicants, some have to be turned away.


Q: How can I have a better chance of getting in next year if I was not accepted this year?

A: First and foremost, focus on your students.  It is SO not about you, the teacher.  Your focus comes through in your responses.  So to start off with a strong raw score, make sure you truly address what the questions ask, with a student-centered focus, and keep to the word counts.  Also, SERIOUSLY, proofread.  Spelling and grammar mistakes affect the reader's perception of your ideas.  Period.  And that question where we give you a chance to tell us about yourself? Do it.  FREE. POINTS.

Beyond that, make sure your principal is able to highly recommend you with absolutely no reservations.  Come to an info session before the application is due.  Don't finish the application at the last minute. (We don't consider WHEN you submitted, but we all know that rushed work is seldom our best.)  Consider applying as part of a team if you didn't before.  Learn a lot about the program so you know what you'd be getting into.

And be understanding when we can't accept everyone.  Your attitude on that front goes a long way.


While you're waiting for next year's application window, what can you do to better prepare yourself for a future MERIT experience?  PD out the wazoo.  EdCamps, PlayDates, and local events (free and cheap, especially) are a great places to start.  Catch the self-directed PD bug.  Don't wait for a personal invite.  Sacrifice some Saturdays if you can to attend local educator-run professional development and you'll meet a lot of people who are in or have gone through the MERIT program.  What better way to understand what it's all about than to spend time talking with people who've been there?

Join your local CUE affiliate or similar organization so you can keep updated on what goes on in the EdTech world where we live.  Get on Twitter and follow #MERIT13, #MERIT14, and #CAedchat.

That's what I would do if I wanted to make myself a stronger candidate for a future MERIT cohort.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Two, no three, no FOUR things that happened today to keep me loving my job

As I was getting ready to leave work today, a little early as I needed to pick up my son and get home to prepare for the first meeting of an online class I'm teaching, a really cool thing happened.  I ended up walking out of the building like I was walking on a rainbow.  It was just one of those things that happens that reminds you why you became a teacher, you know?

I want to tell you ALL about it.  I thought to myself, "That was so amazing! Who can I tell?!?!"  And then I realized I had two cool things like that happen today.  No wait, three.  Hang on, FOUR.  So now I will tell YOU, blogosphere, about the four things that happened today that made me just LOVE what I do.  *Names are changed to protect the identities of the awesome.

1. We've had a little bit of a rocky start getting going with MinecraftEDU in my Digital World class.  Myriad technical difficulties meant it took us quite a few days to get everyone in the game together.  And several of the students just really aren't into gaming at all, or Minecraft specifically.  One of those students is Leslie*.  She told me she wasn't loving it, but she wasn't ill-mannered about it.  She expressed her frustration with the technical glitches and the challenges inherent in the gameplay itself with a polite exasperation in her voice.  I told her it was really okay not to like it, and that I respected her honesty and willingness to trudge through it anyway.

Today something really fun happened.  Leslie started investigating what her Minecraft lesson would be, she started experimenting and reading the Minecraft Wiki to come up with a topic to teach the rest of us.  She stumbled across animals and I gave her some materials to start building a pen to contain her Mooshrooms (they're like cows with mushrooms on them . . . I don't get it either).  Squeals of delight soon followed.  And then I heard Leslie chastising a Mooshroom that had somehow escaped her enclosure.  And she was really having fun and rising to the challenge, and my heart melted a little.  Here was this young person who had gone from "I don't think I can do this" to "Hey, this is fun, and I am enjoying this, and I can handle the challenge" in a matter of moments, literally right before my eyes. (She was sitting directly across from me.)


2. Later this morning, as I sat at my desk, working away on my computer, I heard, as I often do, an English class on the other side of my wall.  (Background info: two of my walls actually have doors that are no longer doors in them, between me and two neighboring English classrooms.)  The discussions, orations, speeches, recitations, and game playing in the class next door frequently get loud enough for me to hear clearly.  I don't mind, because I can tell that teacher has got some amazing, fun, student-centered learning going on in there.  At this moment, though, I heard a young woman clearly sharing her opinion of a "vicious cycle" in life.  (Understand that I work in an expensive, private independent high school where students are often pushed to achieve by everyone in their lives.)

She described how it seems like everyone just works like mad to get fantastic grades so they can get into the absolute perfect (read: Ivy League) college, so they can score a high-paying job, just so they can repeat the cycle for their own children.  Even if that means denying their children a chance to do something they truly love and want to do.  So I hopped out of my seat, scurried to the door, quickly opened the door to the classroom, stuck my head in and told them I could hear what she said from next door, and I thought it was AWESOME.  Then I ducked out, came back with one of my baskets of candy, and offered some to the young lady who had been talking.  Then I told the kids to pass it around, saying they could have candy too . . . if they agreed with her.  And I told them to tell their friends, tell their parents, tell their friends' parents, tell their parents' friends.  This girl's message was spot on.  Then I went back to my office and tweeted about it. #CrazyThingIDid


3. This week is Japan Week and the Japanese National Honor Society has some fun foods and activities planned for each day of the week.  Today, it was Japanese calligraphy outside our dining hall.  As I walked out, one of my colleagues who teaches Japanese motioned me to come over and have a try.  The students who were teaching us how to make the characters were super friendly and helpful, and I was instantly proud of this single incident, one of MANY at my school, that gives our young people a chance to shine and reach out to the rest of our school community.

I chose to paint the Kanji character for "love" and I did a halfway decent job.  My teacher (a student) praised me, and my colleague who had encouraged me to try congratulated me on a job well done.  That felt nice.  But what happened next was really cool.  On the walk back to my office, as I gingerly held my parchment with its ink still drying, someone opened and held open a door for me (which I am totally used to now at my school -- they all do it!), and then I passed two students I know sitting on the hallway floor, and they immediately identified my character as "love."  They complimented my work, and a young man passed by, a student I do not know at all, and he said, "That's some great work! You should hang it."  Gosh, I love these kids.


4. So my day was going really well, but I had to end it early at around 3:00.  As I went to recycle a soda can, I stopped in to chat with a colleague, passing Douglas* along the way.  When I returned to my office, all set to pack up my computer and take off, Douglas was waiting outside my office.  Now, you need to know that Douglas doesn't talk much.  Doesn't smile much.  Doesn't even make eye contact sometimes.  But the past few days in class, we've been playing Minecraft and he's been smiling, laughing, helping two or three classmates within the game.  I've felt really happy for him because it seems like school isn't a drag for a change.  Since Douglas seemed to be reading the Analog Blog Wall outside my office door, I asked him if he was just hanging out or was waiting to see me.

He was there to see me, so we stepped into my office.  He had a question about the Minecraft teaching assignment; he wanted clarification of what needed to be done.  And then he asked me some specific questions about how certain things might work in the game, and he came up with a really cool idea for something he could create in the game and then tell people how he did it.  It was a completely original and extremely creative idea, and I was really impressed with the thought process he used to arrive at his idea.  (I'm not going to share it here, because we want to surprise the class.)  I told Douglas I really liked the way he thought, and I was super impressed with his creativity.  He smiled, and looked kind of embarrassed, really.  If I didn't think he'd slug me one, I'd have hugged the child.

Now, granted, I have looked online, and it seems like some people have already come up with similar ideas that work differently.  That's not surprising.  What I especially liked with Douglas was how outside-the-box he was thinking, and how he wasn't just relying on a quick fix to get the assignment completed.  He walked away knowing he would need to experiment, try out materials, communicate with me while I'm away to get him some of the stuff he'll need for his construction, and be willing to try, fail, and repeat until he found just the right solution.  And I feel really great about the sense of ownership he seems to have adopted with this.


So, when educators get frustrated and want to throw in the towel, I totally get it.  But I also want them to think of these everyday interactions -- we all have them from time to time -- that are so uplifting, and are really simple yet not mundane.  Students getting over obstacles, giving something a chance, challenging the status quo, encouraging their teachers and each other, being willing to put themselves in the teaching role, checking in with us, looking to us for guidance, and getting a little awkward when we remind them how amazing they are.  These kinds of things may happen every day, but they're not really "everyday" occurrences.  And they might not have the immense impact they do if there weren't a teacher there in the moment to enjoy it, to receive it, to notice it, to embrace it.  I feel absolutely privileged to have been allowed to share in each of these four "moments" today.  May I just stay awake and aware enough to notice them so vividly every day.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

To Block or Not To Block: Students' Views on Internet Filters

Recently, my students (mostly sophomores and a few seniors) in Digital World had an in-class writing assignment, and the final prompt they had to respond to was as follows:

"Here at Harker, especially at the upper school, we don’t block as many things on the Internet as other schools do. (Facebook and YouTube, for example.)  Sometimes, we get parents, teachers, and even students telling us they think we should block more websites so that students can’t use them here.  What do you think?  Do you feel there are any sites that should be blocked?  Why or why not?"

I got a lot of great responses. Here are some excerpts:

"I feel that these sites shouldn’t be blocked. Harker students, as a whole, are much more responsible than their counterparts at other schools and have a heightened degree of trust in their relationship with the faculty. Preventing us from accessing these sites would say that the administration doesn’t trust us, weakening our relationship and sending us all the wrong signals. Why should students be expected to be responsible when the faculty/parents can’t even trust the students to pay attention during class. Furthermore, Students should have access to these materials because we often have plenty of free time during school hours to use these websites and they are even sometimes necessary for class. I’m not sure of any additional/current sites that should be blocked, but I believe that a lot of the “uncategorized” sites that are blocked can make it more difficult when I’m conducting research for school projects."

"I don’t think that Harker should block social networking sites.  If you think about the students’ future -college- they aren’t going to have these sites blocked.  The students need to learn to manage their time appropriately.  If sites are inappropriate or illegal to view, then yes they should be blocked."

"I think that everyone on campus is given a time in the day where they have a forty five minute break or even an hour break to use the time as they please, and if they were to use it trying to message a friend or shop online I think they should be given the chance to do so.  I do not think these websites should be blocked because everyone on campus is old enough and mature enough to know when the appropriate time to use those sites are."

"There are obvious websites that should be blocked but social media and others like facebook should not blocked; permanently at least. Websites like facebook should only be blocked when a student is in class, not during their free time."

"I think we should stop blocking uncategorized sites. Many times, it’s difficult to access a useful site because of the Harker filters. While I understand the means for a filter, it’s not going to help us- students will find a way to procrastinate and not do work, regardless if they are using their laptops, the internet or not. People have not done work long ago, and procrastination has simply evolved from a doodle in the margins to a status update on Twitter. I love the amount of access we are given- it symbolizes a trust between the departments and students. I think that we should remove the filters entirely, with the exception of pornography, for obvious reasons."

"I think that sites shouldn’t be blocked at the upper school. At the middle school, everything and anything that was distracting on the internet would lead you to a blocked page. But at the upper school, I think it’s important for the school to give the students freedom and responsibility to manage what they’re looking at online. What websites and what they do online is the student’s choice and responsibility and it shouldn’t concern parents or teachers as much as it seems to. In spare time, as well, it’s nice for students to be able to go online and give themselves a break by doing whatever they want."

"I believe that Harker has a decent system of blocking websites at the Upper School. However, there are times in chemistry when I am doing research, and the school blocks me. I feel like I shouldn’t have to ask the librarians for permission to go on a learning website. I understand that it’s difficult to filter each individual site, but I’m sure it could be improved."

"After the placement of the barracuda web filter, many more websites got blocked by the school. Even websites that could be useful were blocked to students if they were “uncategorized”. However some websites that should have been blocked were not. I have seen students looking up unruly things on google and being able to access them, however if I try to search up a slang word that I don’t know on urbandictionary.com, it is blocked for adult content. I feel as if there are already too many restraints on what we can or cannot view here, and I do not believe that there should be any more."

"I think we should block less websites because there is really no purpose in blocking anything. Judgement based on time and place should be used in terms of going on websites in school time. The only websites that should be blocked are ones that could potentially introduce viruses to individual computers and the wifi network."

"I don’t think many sites should be blocked unless it’s porn. Everything else like games shouldn’t be blocked because isn’t Harker all pro-stress relief and sometimes these games aren’t stressful? http://www.ferryhalim.com/orisinal/g3/casanova.htm This happens to be one of my favorite games to play when I’m stressed out and it’s blocked here at Harker where most of my stressing-of-the-outing is. If we can read news articles about what violence is going on in Afghanistan and Syria, then I think we should be able to play a few relaxing games. Of course, during classes I can understand how these can be distracting however, if you have a free period and you’re on the edge of doing something really destructive or mean to another person or thing, I think you should be able to play a game about a giraffe stretching his or her neck to kiss other giraffes."

"I feel like this is a good thing that many sites are unlocked, as it leaves the decision to be distracted upon the student, rather than the parents. It allows for more freedom of thought and expression while still allowing for focused study."

"I think that Harker should not have to block any websites because they should trust the students to do what is right. I know that this is a radical idea, but Harker does base a lot of trust in their students already and we should be trusted with the simple task of using the internet responsibly. Harker seems to already trust the students because they do not block sites such as Facebook or YouTube. In addition, these sites can be used as learning and communication tools for students."

"I feel that other than the obviously inappropriate “adult” sites, Harker should not block websites, especially not Facebook or YouTube.  I actually find these two sites to be relatively beneficial to my education and school experience.  Because I don’t have a phone, Facebook is extremely useful in terms of communicating with fellow students about assignments and classes.  YouTube, if used properly, can be a great learning tool and source of information.  If a student is distracted by such websites during class, to the point where the teacher can notice, Harker policy allows a teacher to assign detention to a student who is on these websites during class.  While outside of class, such as lunch or free period, I believe that Harker should allow students to explore appropriate internet content freely."

What about you? What do you think? I'd love to share your thoughts and your reactions to my students' ideas with them.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

What students say when they think we're not listening...

Who am I kidding?  I believe they don't think we EVER listen.  And some of the quotes I share later will prove it.

Let me back up and explain a little first.  This morning, I saw "Miss Night" (@happycampergirl on Twitter) share a number of deep thoughts in quick succession.  They caught my eye, so I looked more closely at her tweets and saw what was unfolding around her, in a coffee shop in Canada.

Here was her first tweet on the subject:
"Coffeeshop. Eavedropping on HS students discussing what makes a great teacher. FASCINATING. #edchat"

And then the things they started to say.  Oh my.  Mind = blown.  Turns out these two kids were about 16, probably high school juniors.  No adult was leading the conversation.  They were just sharing what they thought about school, teachers, and the education system in general.  Below, I give their exact words (as recorded by Amy Night), followed at times by my own commentary in italics.

1. "A good teacher is proud of me, FOR me, not proud of me because it makes him look good."

2. "I don't care if a teacher is tough, as long as I know she cares about me."

3. "I want a teacher to say 'Yes, I will help you do great things,' not 'You will do great things because I said so.'"

4. "I want to be at a school where, even a teacher who has never taught me will help me if I ask."

5. "It is not okay for teachers to use us to make themselves look good."

6. "I don't want to be babied. I don't want to be spoon-fed. I want to be CARED about, and ready for the real world."

What's that old line? People don't care how much you know as much as they want to know how much you care?  We've all been there, adults.  We were teens once too.  And we wondered, at times, who cared about our problems, who cared about our feelings, and who cared about our dreams.  Those things haven't changed.

7. "If I want to do something hard, I want my teacher to believe I can do the hard thing, and help me to do it, not tell me I can't."

8. "My teachers should know me well enough to KNOW if my work is my best."

9. "I feel like I deserve more than one chance to master something. It should mean something that I WANT to try again."

10. "Shouldn't individual student success matter more than making the school look good on paper?"

11. "It is not okay for a teacher to give a test with questions about things we have never covered in class. That's an ambush."

So what I'm hearing here is that students really want to do good work.  They want to know what we're expecting, and they want enough chances to get it right.  These kids also seem to be battling something where they go to school, whether it's real or perceived, regarding their successes or failures being credited to (or maybe blamed on) their teachers.

12. "I will work a lot harder for a teacher who cares if she can tell I've been crying."

This just made me sad.  But it's true.  They can be emotional wrecks at this age.  They don't always know how to handle all the stuff going on in their lives.  And often, we adults (parents, teachers, et al.) don't help with all our own drama we push onto them.  Sometimes, it's okay to just stop the school machine and ask what's wrong.

13. "If I get a good mark, I should feel like I LEARNED something, you know? Otherwise I feel like I'm cheating."

14. "Don't tell me something isn't my best if I worked my ass off. It might not be great, but it IS MY BEST. HELP ME."

15. "I wish teachers would let us have more EXPERIENCES without grading. I'd like to just WATCH the play, take it in, not write an essay."

They're questioning something I can't even get some of my own teachers to look inward and question: what do the grades have to do with anything?  Does it tell how much they've learned or how well they jump through our hoops?

16. "My vice principal actually KNOWS me, actually SEES me. It's amazing. It's changing the whole way I see school."

Learn their names.  Even the ones you don't teach.  Make eye contact.  Smile.  Say hello and ask how they're doing, and really mean it.  And stick around to hear the answer.  I think my friend John Docherty is amazing at this.  And not just with the kids.

17. "If I have a friend doing a similar assignment for the same class at another school, why SHOULDN'T we work together?"

18. "They tell us they want us to get along, be respectful to one another, but then they say that helping each other is cheating..."

They come back to this a bit again later.  I have mixed feelings.  I want them to socialize and collaborate their way through their assignments.  I believe in projects over tests and writing over quizzes.  But they need to learn how to be independent learners for some things as well.  Here's one of those places in this set of comments where I would love to have been right there and asked them questions.  After telling them how awesome and wise I thought they were.

19. "I can be good at something that is hard for me. I can love something that is hard for me. Don't discourage me."

Preach it, young person.

20. "It seems like the best teachers teach all the honours & AP classes. Shouldn't the kids who most need help get the best teachers?"

21. "Honours math is 8 kids and the BEST teacher. Remedial math is 30 kids and the newbie. How does this make sense?"

Oh my gosh, yes.  It gets better.

22. "Honestly, the AP kids could teach THEMSELVES, teach EACH OTHER. The kids who struggle NEED A GREAT TEACHER"

23. "It's stupid. They think a great teacher has students with good grades. Shouldn't it be about how kids FEEL in that class?"

24. "We will learn more, and learn better, if we feel GOOD in the class, if we feel like we MATTER, like our lives MATTER."

Yes!  YES YES YES!!! You are important, young people!  Clearly you care about your learning! You care about how your time is being spent! We should love and appreciate that in you!

25. "I can like a teacher who is not my BFF, if he knows how to deliver the material in a way that is INTERESTING."

26. "There are teachers who try to teach the same way to everybody, but how do they not see that that doesn't work?"

Uh oh.  Wisdom bomb....incoming!

27. "If you don't know me, if you don't get to know how I think, how I work, how I feel, how can you POSSIBLY know how to teach me?"

Oh my gosh, I KNOW, RIGHT?!?!

28. "Just because I can't learn the way you are teaching doesn't mean I can't LEARN."

Bracing for impact....

29. "If a teacher keeps teaching the SAME way over and over, even if the student isn't learning, WHO IS THE SLOW LEARNER?"

Damn.  Truth.

30. "I'm a good student. I can get good grades and ace tests without necessarily LEARNING anything. That seems wrong."

31. "You can be good at DOING SCHOOL without necessarily being good at LEARNING or WORKING HARD."

I know.  I've told countless students, teachers, and pretty much anyone who would listen that I was really good at the school game.  I don't remember much that I learned in school, but I know I got good grades.  I was the English major who didn't read any of the books and who still got all As and Bs, and graduated magna cum laude with a 3.7 GPA.  I knew how to "do school."  When I hit real life, I had to start playing a new game, and it's not one I was completely prepared for.

Like I said, when I saw these tweets shooting by in my stream this morning, I knew I had to collect them, harness their power, and share them.  They really just speak for themselves.  These are kids.  They get it.  They want to learn, and they want to be valued.  We can do that, educators.  Stop being a system and start being a human.  I know I'm convicted.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Look Mom, No Hands!

Let me start by saying that I really like my son’s teachers and all the other adults that have worked with him and really taken to him at his new school.  And no one has ever loved anyone as much as his teachers at his (and my) former school do.  And having a son as unique and special as mine is has really forced me to take a long, hard, critical look at the teacher I once was.


So having said all that, I want to ask you to imagine something and then indulge me in a little rant I need to get off my chest.  My eyes, heart, and mind have been irrevocably opened, and I feel the need to get other people to feel and know what I now feel and know.


Without meaning any disrespect to people who truly are born with physical differences or limitations, I want you to imagine for a moment that my son was born without hands.

If that were truly the case, teacher, would you really comment on my son’s cutting/coloring work as needing to be more carefully done?  Would you really require him to write out everything the long way?  Would you really grade his penmanship?  Would you really embarrass him in front of his peers for not being able to correctly click on something on a computer screen?  Would you really emphasize the things he can’t do like everyone else over the things he can do?


I am grateful every day that my son DOES have hands.  But his hands don’t do the things his brain tells them to do quite the way we expect.  And they don’t work along with what his eyes are seeing.  It’s called visual motor integration, and his is pretty deficient.  And he’s a lefty, so there’s only one type of scissors (thank you, Fiskars) that are TRULY made for him.  And schools don’t have them, generally.  So yeah, his cutting is a hot mess.  And his coloring.  And his handwriting a lot of the time.  Because using his hands HURTS more often than not.


And about that connection to what his eyes see?  Let’s talk about those eyes.  Those gorgeous, kind, smiling blue eyes.  They work just fine, according to the vision screening we had last week.  What doesn’t do so great is his brain, with what his eyes have picked up.  His short-term visual memory kind of sucks.  That’s a technical term.


This means that when he’s copying something down from the board or a textbook or even another paper, he forgets what he just saw while he’s writing it.  So he looks back.  But then he forgets where he was in the source, and when he finally figures it out, he can’t remember on the paper where he was writing.  Repeat ad nauseum.  This means that everything takes him ages.  Combine this torture with how difficult it is for him to get his hands to cooperate in the first place and, well, you get the picture.


So what I am eternally thankful for is when the teacher has him orally go over some math facts to show what he knows.  And when he can underline and circle items in sentences instead of having to write out all the words.  And when it’s okay for him to dictate to me, so I can dictate into the Dragon app, to send his story or essay to his email, so he can copy and paste it into a Google Document that he can revise, finish, and share with his teacher.


And I am grateful he’s getting quicker with keyboarding.  And that at school they use Chromebooks.  And that he gets extra time on tests and quizzes.  And a teacher can ask him to respond orally to the test questions he skipped because he seriously didn’t even see them.  And that his counselor’s door is always open for him.  And that his science teacher has the kids do tons of hands-on activities and labs to better understand the topics they’re covering.  And that they’re even flexible with when he can do the extra time he gets because it’s important for him to spend some recess time with the new friends he has made.  


I am especially grateful that my son was made exactly how he is.  All the body parts are there, and they work, just not maybe the way he, or we, or anyone else, expected them to.  These things for now are just challenges to overcome.  They’re not his fault.  And when he asked me, when I told him this, whose fault it was, I told him what I’m telling you now.  It’s nobody’s fault.  It just IS.


It is how things are.  And there will come a day when his life’s work and passion don’t require good penmanship or for him to have to write long hand at all.  And there won’t be one right answer he has to guess at.  And when he needs to do math, he’ll just use a calculator.  There will come a day when he figures out what he wants to do with his life, and doing that will require him to be the funny, sweet, compassionate, imaginative guy he is.


Until then, I’ll just keep being his Mom and being in his corner.  And teaching him how to advocate for himself so he can do it one day without my help.  Until then, his hands hold mine just fine.  His arms are great for hugging.  His eyes don’t seem to forget to look to mine for reassurance when the world asks him to do the things that don’t come easy.