In defense of “IEP kids”

This is a post where I say things to a colleague that I couldn’t say in the moment when it would have really mattered..

Can we please not refer to students with disabilities as IEP kids? It is not right to speak as if they were one homogenous group. This is especially true when blanket statements like “IEP kids can’t read” are applied. Many students receiving IEP services have print disabilities, yes, and it is an especially high proportion out of the students with disabilities in our high school. But many does not mean all. Some of our students with disabilities read quite well. Some of our students with print disabilities read better than their non-disabled peers.

Whether or not you realize it, the tacit statement you are making is that you do not want students with learning disabilities in your English class. You’d have them educated separately. But you’re operating on a common myth about learning disabilities; that they can be cured. Learning disabilities are never outgrown and can never just go away. We are talking about people who will struggle with basic skills their entire life. We can continue to build on those skills and narrow the gap between them and their peers, but not at the expense having an opportunity to do grade-level work with their non-disabled peers. This is the entire purpose of IEP accommodations; to ensure that students with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment. Those IEP accommodations are not just nice suggestions either, they are legal requirements that I will hold you accountable for.

The difficulties with reading in our school are not even confined to students with disabilities. Our entire 7th grade struggles with reading. The number of students in our elementary Educational Support System who need additional reading instruction is staggering. What you are witnessing is the effect of trying to run a school without a curriculum, without systematic reading instruction, and with very few means of assessing whether its students are meeting grade-level standards. Do not make students with disabilities your scapegoat. The real problem is our dereliction of duty.

William Glasser Weekend

Last Friday I perused the “Professional” section of the school library, looking for something refreshing as I approached the half-way point of the ’12-’13 school year. I settled on two titles authored by Willliam Glasser, the American psychiatrist and education reform advocate.

I’d heard of Glasser throughout my undergraduate studies but never deeply read him. His Choice Theory is covered briefly in my text on Building Classroom Discipline, along with some of his other ideas around raising the quality of instruction and making school relevant to students. I found that intriguing and decided that now was the time to try to see what this Glasser fella was all about.

First of all, these books were a bit of a disheartening read given their place in history. Schools Without Failure was published in 1975, The Quality School more recently in 1998, and yet the problems in education remain the same still to this day. The advantage I suppose is that the time I spent on this material was not wasted since it still applies to my teaching practice; there was no point at which Glasser posed a problem that I could say had been solved – except perhaps homogeneous grouping of students. If anything, new technology has exacerbated some of the issues raised, such as the unbalanced importance we place on memorization.


Schools Without Failure is a criticism of public school education in which Glasser names failure as the key problem in education; a problem that cannot be blamed on external factors such as poverty, but that can only be solved by changing the education system itself. Glasser describes how students whose needs for love and self-worth are not met by school form a “failure identity” that is evidenced by delinquency and/or withdrawal. I think this theory around success in school still holds, based on how I hear at-risk students talk about themselves. Glasser goes on to criticize the emphasis placed on remembering objective information, and on the lack of relevance to students’ lives present in schools. He names several traditional educational practices – grading, objective tests, the normal curve, closed book exams, and low-quality homework – as being harmful to students, and ends by suggesting changes to the educational system including the emphasis of thinking over memorization, heterogeneous classes, the elimination of grading or at least failing grades on transcripts, and the use of classroom meetings.


The Quality School is a vision for public school education based partly on Glasser’s work in psychiatry. In this work he lays out two systems of management; boss-management that depends on external motivators, and lead-management which works to leverage a worker’s internal motivation and is based on Control Theory – which has been re-named Choice Theory. Control Theory is the idea that each person controls their own behavior, and only their own behavior, for the purpose of fulfilling needs. Glasser suggests that what is needed in education is a shift from boss-management of students to a system of lead-management; an educational system that addresses the needs and interests of students. One way to leverage students’ internal motivation that Glasser deems particularly important is requiring students to produce quality work.

I have to say that I agree with Dr. Glasser’s views on almost every point he raises. I do worry about the demonization of memorization, because there are some things that are useful to memorize. I think of some teachers’ misinterpretation of the whole language reading philosophy, who have eliminated instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics and over-emphasized text-to-self connections. Phonics rules and basic math facts and procedures are essentials that need to be internalized. It’s just that as teachers we need to carefully select what we require students to memorize so that memorization doesn’t become an end in itself, instead of the means to do higher quality work.

In The Quality School, Glasser describes the notion that each of us has a “Quality World”; an internal sense of what we believe the world should be like. For too many students, school is not a part of their quality world. Bringing education into students’ worlds, instead of allowing them to develop the sense that school is divorced from their lives, might be the most important challenge that we face as educators. Each of these books has challenged my thinking on the relevance of value of school. I’ve come to realize how different my experience and values are compared to some of my students, and how much the success of my work depends on occasionally setting aside my own middle-class values and framing school work through my students’.

All of this educational theory and philosophy is great, but my superintendent is a hardcore pragmatist so I have to think about how this effects my daily teaching practice, and how I can make changes that will increase the learning of my students and ultimately lead to visible results. I’ve settled on focusing on two strong pushes. First, I’m going to continue to move towards project-based learning and authentic assessments but re-emphasize quality work. Because I support students in their general education classes, I will also engage students in evaluating their own work and not settling for work that is low quality. I think a valid criticism of my support of students in the past is that the goal has been to simply get the work done. The second change I will make is to explicitly discuss the value of school work with students. What I’m looking for to be able to do this effectively is a model to understand why students should value school work in the first place. I’ve done a little bit of thinking in this area on my own, but I’m not sure if I’m missing anything. I know this will effect my planning because I will constantly be evaluating the value of each assignment I give or the information I present. I feel that teaching through this lens will help students be motivated, and I hope apply the same thinking to their other classes.

My William Glasser Weekend has been a mixed bag emotionally. I have gotten the mid-term boost I was looking for, but I’m also more aware of how dissatisfying school can be.

I’m also thinking of making the study of the work of people like Glasser a weekly activity. This week: Bob Marzano.

Materials Review: KeyMath-3

An assessment and intervention program I’ve been using for a while now is the KeyMath-3. It’s a pretty strong tool, especially the KeyMath-3 Diagnostic Assessment.

The KeyMath DA is a large test – as in there are a lot of items. This is also it’s greatest strength. It includes so many items because it tests a lot of discrete math skills. The best thing about the KeyMath DA is that one of its reporting options is a “Functional Item Analysis”. What it does is analyze the items a student got correct or incorrect, and for the incorrect items produces a report that lists the discrete skill the item(s) assessed and then the KeyMath ER lesson that teaches that skill. This makes programming a snap because you essentially get a list of the skills/units a student needs to progress through. This is how I use the assessment for students well-below grade level who need an alternative curriculum. For students in the general education classroom it allows me to provide the teacher with a list of remedial topics a student needs.

The test, and the intervention program, are organized based on the NCTM mathematics standards. Numeration, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, and Data Analysis are grouped into Basic Concepts on the DA. Operations consists of the tests Addition and Subtraction, Multiplication and Division, and Mental Computation and Estimation. Finally, Problem Solving is measured two subtests; Foundations of Problem Solving and Applied Problems. Lessons in the ER are likewise grouped under each of the ten strands. Some students present with clear deficits in one the three domains – especially Operations – and then it is easy to suggest accommodations or curriculum modifications. More often, students’ standard scores in each area are in the average range, but there are clear weaknesses in one or more of the narrow strands. As a result, the KeyMath DA hasn’t served me well when gathering adverse effect evidence, but this hardly outweighs its usefulness for programming and designing instruction.

The KeyMath ER is clearly intended to be used as a Tier 2 intervention program; a brief supplement to regular classroom instruction. The materials consist of two flipbook lesson displays and a CD with practice worksheets and assessments. Many of the lessons require materials that would be present in most elementary math classrooms; colored cubes, base-10 blocks, etc. If you’re looking at the KeyMath ER as a core math curriculum, look elsewhere. It will not meet your needs, and it wasn’t designed to. Combined with the KeyMath DA, it can provide a lot of direction for planning. This is primarily how I use the materials because I am not a trained math teacher. I use the DA to find out what skills a student needs to practice, and then consult the ER to learn strategies for instruction in that area. It’s my jumping off point, not the beginning and end of my math instruction.

The KeyMath program and assessment are the only research-based math materials I have made extensive use of, but based on my experience I can recommend them. If you are providing the Tier 2 services that these materials were designed for I would especially make the recommendation. In the Diagnostic Assessment and Essential Resources, the creators of KeyMath have developed a beautifully aligned set of tools for educators.

What happens when you assume

During a staff meeting a month or two ago we were asked to sum up our teaching persona in one word. The word that I chose was unassuming.

Not pretentious or arrogant;  modest:  “an unassuming and kindly man”.


modest – unpretentious – humble – unpretending – lowly

I thought this was accurate because I try to model inquiry all of the time. I’m always seeking independent confirmation when trying to work out the answer to tough questions, looking for multiple solutions to the same problem, or feigning ignorance in class to help demonstrate a process to students. I don’t really want students to look to me as some inexhaustible source of knowledge; I want them being critical and searching for answers themselves. My approach to misbehavior is also unassuming; I try not to base how I deal with students on preconceptions, stereotypes, or guesses. Instead I talk to students and really try to understand what is happening.

As unassuming as I am with students, I assume far too much in dealing with other teachers. And it’s becoming a serious problem.

Working with students, I never assume that they have background knowledge of what we’re discussing and I’m constantly checking for understanding. Talking to other teachers I assume what they know is consistent with what I know, and end up keeping important details to myself. If I delegate a task to someone else I assume they know exactly what to do, whereas I’d provide at least a semblance of directions to students. I assume both the best and the worst from my fellow teachers, and end up pleasantly or troublingly surprised after lengthy periods  without follow-up conversations. I trust my students to do their best but constantly seek confirmation.

COMMUNICATION is the theme in our three-person Sp. Ed. department, and there’s no room for assumptions in good communication. I feel that I’m definitely communicating more with other teachers than I have previously, so now it’s time to communicate more effectively. Eliminating assumptions seems like a good place to start.

How Smart Can We Get? 4 Takeaways for Students

A recent episode of NOVA scienceNOW tries to answer an interesting question: How Smart Can We Get? The human brain is an impressive organ that changes over time – here are four useful points for students interested in how they can develop their thinking skills..

  • Areas of the brain literally grow through training.

Size isn’t everything, but learning creates visible growth in the brain. A knob forms on the right motor cortex after just 15 months of training on a string instrument, and a similar knob forms on the left side through piano training. These are stark examples of the concept of brain plasticity; the ability of your brain to change and grow throughout your lifetime.

  • Your memory is more expansive than you think.

A memory champion can memorize 303 numbers, or the order of a deck of playing cards in just five minutes. An average person can memorize 60 random numbers or 40 random words in about ten minutes. How? A memorization technique called the Method of Loci. It’s a multi-sensory, location based approach.

Like every other one of our biological faculties, our memories evolved through a process of natural selection in an environment that was quite different from the one we live in today. And much as our taste for sugar and fat may have served us well in a world of scarce nutrition but is maladaptive in a world of ubiquitous fast-food joints, our memories aren’t perfectly suited for our contemporary information age. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. (NYT)

You’re wired to remember locations – use familiar places as an anchor for new information. By adding extra information like a stupid, novel image (bacon hands), sound, emotion, and movement, you create even more connections that increase the odds of remembering.

  • Intelligence can improve over time.

Your brain can grow over time, but bigger might not be better. The ‘grey matter’ of the brain is the outside nerve cells. Your brain also includes ‘white matter’; long nerve fibers connecting different regions of the brain to one another. New research suggests that these connections between specific regions might be one of the best indicators of intelligence; and you can do things to improve those connections, like learning to juggle! When it comes to your brain, you need to use it or lose it. Learning new skills builds connections within your brain and makes future learning easier.

  • Your emotions are important.

What happens in your brain when you choke during an exam? Activity in the hippocampus, specifically the amygdala which processes emotions including fear and anxiety, interrupts your prefontal cortext (where working memory is). Your emotions are talking over your rational brain, and you choke.

Break the cycle by journaling before a stressful task. In a psychological study, students who wrote about their feelings in a journal for 10 minutes before a test scored 1/2 a grade-point higher than those who didn’t. This suggests that taking time to get your feelings off your mind frees up cognitive resources, allowing you to perform just as well in a clutch as you would normally.

Your emotions are a central part of your thinking and affect your learning, memory, and performance in school.

Utility Player

Wikipedia tells us that “in baseball, a utility player is a player who can play several different positions”. My all-time favorite example is Bill Hall‘s 2010 season with the Boston Red Sox as a “super-utility” player, where he played all but two positions including an impressive outing as a closing pitcher who retired all three batters he faced armed only with a fastball.

These days I’m feeling a bit like a utilityman. As a special educator, I already perform the role of instructor, case-manager, paraprofessional supervisor, and advocate. I also perform all of my school’s basic psycho-educational testing. Add to that student adviser, and for the next 8 weeks- part-time classroom science teacher. When I lay it all down like that it seems overwhelming, but I know I’m not alone..

If you look at any teacher do they just play one position? Read about teacher roles and responsibilities anywhere and you’ll see that they fulfill many; instructor, assessor, manager, surrogate parent. I was told in teacher training that this career would be unlike any other but it’s only just hit me how true that that is.

Occupy! in education

Saturday I attended the Occupy! conference at Goddard College in Plainfield. The conference consisted of a keynote by author Les Leopold and three panel discussions, as well as a General Assembly held afterwards.

A lot of the discussion centered around the “non-oppressive” communication techniques used during General Assemblies, as well as how facilitators seek to recognize and resolve issues around “implied power”. Some of the panelists were actually defensive when commenters seemed to question the necessity of these tools of communication. A good summary of General Assembly guidelines and procedures can be found here via Occupy Los Angeles.

This video provides a decent look at how a GA plays out:

What I wonder is how these same non-oppressive tools of discussion can be used in the classroom. I think a lot of teachers are already doing “temperature checks” in one way or another. “Twinkles” are just one more low-tech way of checking for understanding/consensus. What about whole-class discussions using these procedures? Would it really help balance participation between timid students and those with strong personalities, the way it’s supposed to? I’m not sure. And I’d like to see how students respond to the gestures. Maybe it fills the need that young people increasingly have for instant feedback.

If you get a chance to try it out, let me know how it goes.