Weeding in the SPED Garden

I have multiple jobs – one foot is in ed tech and I do various consulting projects. My other foot is in tutoring. An elbow is in blogging, a wrist in various other non-education writing gigs. One shoulder and hip works with parents of special needs students who need help navigating the mystery maze within hacked up fields of IEPs and 504s. Other wrist and one hand quilts (to keep me sane). I do some volunteer work (also to keep me sane). The other body parts just try to keep up.  In each part of my life, I like to consider it a garden, getting ready for new crops, to grow and bloom and make great flowers, fruits and vegetables.

My days often start at 4:00 AM as I deal with international people; the day’s end late as I tutor. I work to balance my time since so much of me is drawn in many directions all week AND on weekends – by choice.  In many ways I think I am helping shift the fulcrum the world rests on.

Currently I am dealing with a ‘weeding’ project, which is very different from pruning, composting and planting. Weeding is step one so you can clear the land. In the background you compost so you can later add this to the soil. You plant when ready and prune as necessary.

If you are a parent of a special ed student, the following will resonate with you.:

Weeding out is intense – most especially in the SPED garden.  I have to read SELPA paperwork which had to have been designed by people who truly believe any information seeing the light of day is bad information and any information which could lead a person to better analysis, decision-making and planning must be buried and the person trying to make sense of it all, burned at the stake.  These weeds are so entrenched in the garden they are often irremovable and one just tries to garden right around them.

Weeding also  includes finding out why the garden has the following random stones and boulders in it: A teacher gave a math test on perimeter, area and volume in the following manner to a student with dyslexia and other processing problems.

(1)  All problems had a formula written next to it – except in the case of the complex polygon which was a square and semi-circle. Only the formula for the semi-circle was present so students could assume the area of the square need not be calculated.

(2) The question on volume of a cylinder had no formula…..was student to answer the question OR did teacher mean to leave off/scratch out and forgot?

(3) A cone was shown with apex point up and circle opening down. Student was asked what was at top……correct answer: circle.  In previous presentations, the cone was shown circle up. Students were supposed to interpret turning cone in space. Never mind the misconception of a cone having an apex point.

(4) Picture a two layer, four cube per layer form put on paper at an angle and three of the top cubes were removed, leaving five cubes total. Same said dyslexic student was asked to draw what they say on the various faces.  No one bothered to help student number the various faces and then list those numbers/positions on chart with front, side, top, face, etc.

The does not include the supposed ‘assessment’ of 17 pages given to student for IEP (IEP took two separate sessions so assessment was able to ‘slide in under radar’ as it had not been completed prior to original IEP) with none of the accommodations  as noted in original IEP.  There has been no way for me to perform error analysis of student work as it is impossible to sort out grading system/rubric, etc.

Weeding includes talking to school psychologists so they can tell me I should call the stones shale, gneiss and chert, not explain the stones are math problems. If I were to call them stones, surely it would all make more sense as I was weeding.

In addition, weeding involves trying to understand why, week after week for three months a student who should be getting math assistance in study hall can not obtain this assistance as ‘different teachers teach math in different ways’ and the study hall teacher (also a special ed teacher) does not understand how this students math teacher does math.

I am still weeding. Hopefully I can put weeds in a pile and burn add, the ash to compost and start over.

While I have been weeding, I have been planting brand new, fresh, non- gmo seeds with the student based on math the way one would teach a math major or, in layman’s terms, using the book(s) Math on Call and Algebra to Go for concept bases, referring to Khan Academy for process, painstakingly doing notes and samples in organized fashion with student.  I tutor the student two hours a week. By the way, seeds are producing seedlings at this point!

Working with the parent, I have been composting – anything which is not understandable to student (disorganized work in folder, crazy notes, etc.) is being composted. Parent is learning all about IEP  process and throwing out any previous notions regarding the school, the SPED teachers, SPED education programs. All of it is going to compost heap to be mixed with upcoming ashes.  Amazingly, like all good compost, there is no smell. I have not taught parent about schist and chert nor gneiss. It does not help the parent.  I have taught the parent how to look for orderliness in the garden, how to ask for help – with a spade (shovel if necessary), hoe, pruning shears. I had to explain to parent there will always be stones, rocks and occasionally boulders and give the parent tools to remove, even if it requires a tractor (like me).  The parent has earned the right to see their child in a beautiful, thriving garden. The student has earned the right to grow and mature and blossom.

The gardening goal is to have IEP furrows in fine form SOON, by at least last four weeks of school. This is so all teachers can be on board in September of next school year and begin pruning in October as necessary, rather than waiting until March to look at IEP and begin the weeding.

In the weeding process, I have almost had the metaphorical hoe taken to my forehead a couple of times, had dandelion seeds scattered about to see if I would catch them and water put in the garden to flood it. This gardener has stood steadfast.  What is interesting is this garden wants so desperately to grow it is happening before my very eyes.

Update:  After participating in a final four hour marathon IEP meeting, a reasonable IEP which can be understood and implemented has been achieved.  The effort was worth the fits and starts of achievement in order to get something which truly demonstrates where student is currently at academically and how to proceed forward. Overall, this particular IEP took a minimum of 15 hours between actual meetings, phone calls, e-mails, going to classroom to attempt to ascertain disconnect from school to tutoring.  I would do it all again in a heartbeat as this student is going to become a steadfast beautiful tree in a forest of strong, brave, smart and wonderful trees.


The Price of Tutor A and Tutor B

The more I tutor, the more I confirm some of my worst fears regarding educational practices.

Each time I have a student with a teacher who tries to teach a cute ‘story’ method for doing an actual math procedure I wish to just puke.  The most recent technique I have been ‘learned in’ is the cake method or cupcake method as new terminology for being able to discern factors and use the factors to obtain a product….as in doing multiplication.  I have already been ‘learned in’ the ‘flip it over, flip it over’ song for the word reciprocal as in, “I am dividing one fraction by another and need to use the multiplication sign AND the reciprocal of the fraction”.

It is not clear to me which is worse – the teachers not being comfortable enough with math and the appropriate vocabulary to use in describing a math process, the inability to explain a process via analogy and then use the appropriate verbiage or the idea of teachers dumbing it down.  No matter how you look at the situation, it is unfair to our students.

In light of STEM (M is for math!) and the common core standards rolling out in at least 40 states, it is going to be increasingly important for teachers to step it up. I do not know if this means teachers going back to school to be ‘learned’ in the ways of math or what it will take, I just know it is wrong to short change our students.

In addition to using made up words and phrases to teach math, many teachers do not expect habits of mind from students so they can go to algebra and progress further. Students should have syntax by Grade 6 – this means you solve a problem/equation down the left side of the page and not across.  It means things such as writing neatly, not skipping steps and doing the ‘scratch math’ on the far right side of the page so the actual work of math looks neat, tidy and can be ‘read’.

I had a student upset and angry with me for NOT writing out the equation from the word problem in algebra. I asked the student to pick out the three most important words in the word problem and we would assign the variable and construct how to do the problem.  This was upsetting as the ‘tutor’ at the library read the word problem to them and gave them the equation.  The student was being ‘cheated’ by the tutor as the tutor clearly already knew how to do the math – the student needed to learn. Skipping the ‘thinking’ process for the student did not make them better understand math and it did not make the tutor a better tutor since the student just had to solve the equation.

As a tutor, I have to explain what I do and why my rates are what they are versus the tutor at the library or other tutor who will charge far less.  Tutor B can charge less as they are not actually teaching math.  In fact, sometimes I think teachers are not even teaching math and so tutors don’t feel obligated to do more themselves.

We should not teach misconceptions in science and we should not try to shortcut the thinking process in math. These mistakes, along with multiple choice tests do not benefit our students.  School reform has many trees to clear from the forest of my disbelief.  It would be different if I had this situation once in awhile……I have seen it across the bay area of  N. California and now in S. California. I saw it in New York. Places I have not seen this messiness: Namibia, Kenya, Sweden.  I know this messiness does not happen in many places as the students excel at math.  We need to meet the competition and  in our training, there can be no short cuts.


The Truth is OUT There……… (The X Files) made a great prognostication


Considering that all of CA has a proximity of not greater than say 500 miles from Silicon Valley, never mind Sacramento, it is about time some one did some useful data mining.  Almost a full 20% of CA youth do not graduate HS…….. For those who are mathematically inclined, take a look at any kindergarten class of 30 students and pick the six who will not get through high school.  It is that simple.  What is happening from age 6-18, a span of 12 years which precludes these students from passing even the most rudimentary education hurdle?  We need to take a look at ourselves and do some deep reflection and start problem solving.

I have been told, via sociology circles, that to gain control of a population it is far more effective and cost effective to not educate a population for 10 years. For every 10 consecutive years of not educating a population, it takes 50-100 to undo.  There are no hard core numbers for this – it may even be speculative. No matter how you think about it, even if it took 10-25 years to undo what happened, it is significant. We have undone our own community and country thread by thread in not educating this portion of the population so they can lead a fulfilling life, have a job and not get involved with the underside of lacking an education – crime, drugs, homelessness, early disease, death, all of which are seen in third world countries.  If I was inclined to think in terms of conspiracies, I would look towards NCLB and the constant underfundedness….

It is inadequate to say we should feel embarrassed. We should feel ashamed that we have allowed ourselves to believe any other deceit over the years when we allowed high schools to self report, including charter schools.  Hopefully these numbers will create a flinch which will make people act.

When will I use Algebra?

Over the course of my teaching and learning career (I am correctly classified as a lifetime learner!), I have significantly enjoyed the question regarding when/how will I ever use Algebra.  Of course the question is rhetorical as no one will ever ask you about a co-efficient in the parking lot or the process of distribution…..instead, life  ( or at least a life filled with self efficacy) will expect you to be able to use these concepts at various times.

I write this blog as a career changer (pharmacy tech), health care for all advocate (just got zapped with $10K from Anthem/Blue Cross and I am HEALTHY – the bill is just to ‘prove’ my health) and America watching elected people debate a debt ceiling (the news has actually had to explain the issue to American Citizens), all issues which use Algebra and other math to think through with some degree of clarity.

To start, I will explain self efficacy. First off self has to do with the person you see in the mirror as opposed to other people you see with your eyes.

People with a high self-efficacy are generally of the opinion that they are in control of their own lives; that their own actions and decisions shape their lives.                  Albert Bandura as quoted in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-efficacy

Self efficacy is an idea put forth by psychologists which assumes you wish to learn (know) information about the issues which impact your life and the choices/decisions you make which impact your life.  This  means knowledge is indeed power – knowledge allows you to transform your own life by understanding information and making better decisions (or at minimum, making decisions you feel confident about).  So, Algebra is a manner of thinking logically and an approach to understand various numerical processes.

Algebra allows you to understand (and start to ask better questions) regarding the medication doses and timing of doses you take when you are ill. There is actually a methodology to why antibiotics are given at certain scheduled times in specific amounts. There is also a reasoning as to the intervals of chemotherapy for cancer.  These doses and intervals are based on research performed by scientists and doctors who passionately believe in promoting health. The doses and intervals can be altered for the right reason……….which means if the patient has the ability to think about doses and intervals related to side effects (nausea as an example), doctors will often work with them to maintain their health and get through the side effects.  Not all cancer patients choose to have chemotherapy. Yes, amazingly, chemotherapy is a choice and a very personal one. It is an issue of quality of life and length of life – both of which can be better approximated and understood via math.

Another example of Algebra and health has to do with the choice of eating well (healthy) and having reasonable amounts of exercise or taking a medicine to, for example, reduce cholesterol. It is known within medicine that after a patient takes five to seven medicines simultaneously, the various effects can and often are counter productive to ‘maintaining health’ and ‘sustaining life’.  This relationship is because each medicine we take has various effects on one or more body systems.  This is WHY your pharmacist always wants to know all of what you are taking, even if it is prescribed by various different doctors.

The above paragraph relates to health care for all. Most of the money spent on health care is not for disease states which can be cured, but most  which can be brought into a state of remission- OR conversely, avoided in the first place from leading a healthy life.  Aside from antibiotics, there are very few ‘cures’ out there.

Remission is the state of absence of disease activity in patients known to have incurable chronic illnesshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remission_(medicine)#Remission

A person with knowledge is able to make a better decision regarding how they are medically treated (or not in the case of DNR’s) and in what circumstances, conditions they desire to live.  Some people actually believe having mental capacity is reason to avoid medications which may diminish their thinking capacity even if it means they have to give up something else in their life.   These concepts are called choices and can be made by people with an understanding of how their choices will affect their lives.  Doctors and pharmacists take an oath to do no harm – they do not take an oath on how you choose to live your life when you are in a disease state.  A great doctor and/or pharmacist will explain options to you and let you make the decision about YOU (unless you are unconscious in the ER and then they do everything humanly possible to keep you alive).   All of the various options and choices actually have percentages or estimates of success and knowing Algebra allows you to interpret what these numbers mean when you are told.

Most interesting of all is that which is well known in medicine – it is by far cheaper and cost effective to PREVENT the problem than to treat it after it happens. This is akin to why one warms up before exercising.  This gets right back to health care for all. It is more cost effective for  one to live a healthy life from the get go than to have to deal with obesity, diabetes, etc. when one does not eat and exercise.   Again,  a modest amount of Algebra is necessary to understand calories (protein, carbohydrates and fats) and how to make better food choices to promote ones own health.

If all of the above has not already provided some ideas as to why Algebra is important, let me add the debt ceiling debate.  We as the American populace voted in our congressional representatives. We as voters created a divided congress as the house and senate are configured in numbers by who(m) is voted into the position.  The numbers alone of Democrats and Republicans demonstrate an imbalance so it is no wonder the debt ceiling caused a great debate. As the populous, it is up to us to vote in more mid-range politicians to cut down on the level of disparity between extremes.  Not only is this Algebra, it is basic statistics.  We got the government we deserve by voting them in – for good or for ill. Many may think math plays a too subtle role in what I stated in this paragraph, they just have not read enough by Malcolm Gladwell.

If the above is not enough to convince you that getting a good dosing of Algebra by Grade 8 is beyond important, just think about what you know (or don’t know) about debt and why we even have a debt ceiling.

Or this:    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/08/12/BAT71KMA37.DTL

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CSI: Education in America


It seems each generation gets a bit closer to identifying and capitalizing on the  magic of the educational process and I am eternally thankful.  I believe I speak for all teachers worldwide in stating that if some one could identify specifically the magic needed to be the best teacher in any classroom, we would all use it, no questions asked. It is not for a lack of desire to be a better teacher, rather, there are no direct and linear one answer fits all situations and  works.

My generation (which obviously tells you my age) was raised on Fred Jones and his Tools for Teaching as well as Harry K. Wong and his The First Days of School.  From doing a quick scan of Amazon.com, there are many, many books designed to help teachers become ‘better’ at their craft. I am thankful so many professionals want to share their insights. Sadly, I do not see how year over year test scores (the current leading indicator of success in America) have improved in spite of all these people sharing their hard earned wisdom.

While I wish Mr. Lemov well and am sure he has best intentions, I can’t help but note that nothing in the article Elizabeth Green wrote (noted above) talks about PARENTS and parenting.  If indeed a proper autopsy was done, it would find that when children are parented and come to school with age appropriate literacy and behavior, learning does occur. 

Parenting includes prenatal and post natal nutrition, medical care as necessary, access to a library and parents who brought children into the world willfully, spending time with them each day to help them develop.  Parenting includes sacrifices of many things for the joy of parenting. Parenting is not about abdicating a child to the teacher for babysitting services when a teacher is for teaching, anymore than you would not drop a child off at a doctors office for day care.

If, as Mr. Lemov states, teachers can be improved upon and taught how to be better by micromanaging every detail/step/motion and content can equally be dispersed, this does not explain why education is not  in such dire straights in India, Korea, China, most of Europe – essentially any place which is not America.  Reasonably speaking,  education seems to be occuring quite favorably in other places and surely no one has put nearly as much effort into analyzing how to make bot teachers.  To my knowledge, Malcolm Gladwell has not addressed the dissociation of education from parenting although he did a piece on selecting a football player for two situations-NFL and universities and came up with some analogies which are fitting to this situation.   Me thinks we are not using the evidence properly as the focus has been on how to pretty much kill off any joy in teaching and has been for many years. Teachers stand to be the accused without counsel, without a jury of their peers, without actual evidence which can be corroborated.

If indeed,  skill sets are teachable/learnable, why have we not figured out how to stop having surgeons with major malpractice law suits……..we have gotten close as now the body part where the operation is to be performed is labeled and some one inventories what goes in and out of the body (scalpels, sponges) during surgery but still malpractice continues.  Why on earth could we not have ‘stopped’ the Wall Street meltdown as math is very easy to follow – you can not have multiple outcomes, there is indeed only one right answer and yet Wall Street went to the wall and slid to the gutter.  Isn’t it reasonable that with all the training we give police we should not have to read one more time about some one being shot accidentally (sometimes accidentally on purpose…).  Since teaching is as much an artful practice, it can not be run through a microscope nor assayed like DNA.

Surely it would be more cost effective if each and every child was given $500 in a future college bank account bearing interest if they came to school with basic literacy in kindergarten and another $500 for getting through algebra in Gr 7 ($250 for Gr 8 passing and $100 for Gr 9) and maybe $100 here and there for some other landmarks.  If they never went to college, the money is returned to the government. It is a reasonable investment for the future and it sets the precedent of teaching parents how to save for the future (another skill set Americans are sorely lacking in). 

By finding immense fault with  teacher’s practices and not putting any focus on what else is at the crime scene seems to delimit the art of investigation.

In-accuracy at Ratemyteachers.com = A+

I absolutely love the idea of rating teachers by students.   In fact, I think it is a valuable way for the teacher, administrators and the public to get a read on what/how a teacher is doing. This allows for teachers to self reflect and plan a strategy to improve. These are all positive aspects of this system.

In order for the data to be accurate, it must be from a large enough sample (ex: at a middle or high school, say 100 students over two years), it must be anonymous and the sampling must be done at specific intervals.  The data must be for current teachers at a particular school and the data can not overlap from different subject areas, grades taught, etc. If the data is not managed, it becomes slipshod and does not help anyone do an effective evaluation or work on improvement.

When students are allowed to rate teachers randomly, as is the case with Ratemyteachers.com   ,  what happens is that teachers are allowed to (1) develop a personality cult if they so desire by having students ‘vote’ for them, especially multiple times (2) students are allowed to run a hate campaign at a teacher who may not have given them the grade they WANTED.  Parents and students are able to rig the system and determine how education is delivered by creating inaccurate data.

In theory, Ratemyteachers is great but in actuality it has many mistakes which make it a useless tool.

Example in point:   I have not worked at Wood Middle School in Alameda, CA for over three years and yet I am still on the posting for being rated. I currently live in Eldoret, Kenya and yet a student just rated me……….pretty interesting.

When I have tried to e-mail the website for removal, it can not be done as the captcha code on the website requires 3-D glasses that I do not have in Kenya.

Since I know enough about data, I find it more amusing at this point and would use this as a tool myself to evaluate a school administrator who puts any credence into the numbers. Ratemyteachers.com seems to do a fine job of not teaching statistics.…..oh, wait, isn’t that math?

The Composition Of Self Worth As Seen Through Teachers Eyes

Do Teachers Lack Power and Self-Worth?

By Anthony Cody


Over the years I have been fortunate to have friends from many walks of life, many career paths/meanders and people who truly embody a sense of living with grace. Some of these people I met when I stepped away from the ‘educational’ career path for a bit, some while volunteering in different activities which made my heart sing, some from Peace Corps, some from government functions – some from book groups.  Listening to other people and their goals, desires, dreams, hopes, etc. is inspiring and re-inforces positives for me, helping form my internal self worth – I am the sum of the parts of what I do at work, play, family member, friend, community member, pet owner, letter writter, scone baker, gardener, etc. plus what all the other people in my life bring to the world.

All this has also led me to find that teachers (not all, but the majority) tend to be less fluid in their thinking about who they are, their self worth. Many teachers feel they are as good as the grades they give, the class they are able to keep focused,  the magical lessons that teach concepts on four levels, their pay.   Teachers, as a whole, tend to embody their self worth in what they ‘produce’ each year – the fruits of their labors if you will.  This sense of self worth is almost inherent in the profession in order to survive as the profession is difficult, not well respected in America and certainly teachers are paid less than their equally educated counterparts in the corporate world.

As I read the article above, I reflected on the times I willingly left education (which I call talking with my feet).  Each time I parted ways and did something ‘different’, people around me acted as if I had either committed an extraordinary sin against education gods and goddesses or clearly had a wild hair or, worst of all, was throwing my talent away to the wind – and how would I ever survive, out there, beyond the classroom. 

Each time I left education I was fortunate in meeting wonderful new people, learning many new aspects of myself, new ideas, new ways of thinking and had wonderful, inciteful experiences; my composition of self worth grew.  I realized I was more than a classroom teacher.  I could help others learn about the financial world and ethics within it (yes, some exist – I have been present to witness), I was able to provide insight into how benefits help you and your family and how to become more savvy about using said benefits, I learned how incredibly creative people think (and it is very, very different from the math/science brain I hold) and held their hand in crossing the imaginary boundary of creativity to the  more constricted work of writing about the idea.  I ‘translated’ classroom to Silicon Valley wonks/wonkettes and political types.   My ego did not increase – rather, I became more and more excited about learning/experiencing these other ways of being – which then made me see education in a very different light and my self worth in a different way. 

Over time I realized my ‘net worth’ was a sum of all those experiences and the ability to share them with students.  I had fostered a true apreciation of what others do and contribute and could make strong connections to why Algebra and the sciences are so important.  In giving up my attitude about perfect spelling and grammar, I opened my mind to Maker Faire.  By allowing students to turn in homework, even if it was on a dinner napkin from a burger place, I had creative/cognitive dissonance amidst the logic of math and opened a window to how Einstein and other ‘way out there’ thinkers operate. 

Some of the rules I still follow when I teach – put a heading on your paper, however, the reasoning is different. I want to credit that student with their incredible thoughts, ideas, insights, inspiration – it is not about me being organized or the student being neat and tidy.  I expect work turned in on time because it is a matter of self worth/self respect to set a time of completion and do your best to that point.  My self worth is not about my students grades – it is about their success.  It is kind of like the saying about living your life –  Living is not about how many moments you can pack in a day; Living is about the moments which take your breath away, the ah-ha moments, the smiles. 

My self worth is often qualitatively ‘different’ than many of my teacher colleagues because I had the courage and determination to walk away from stability and take the lumps.  If anything, I have opened the doors to what could be for colleagues and students.  I want students to think broadly about their lives/dreams/opportunities and not have fear.   Deep down I want education to be empowerment, a creation of self-efficacy so strong that nothing can tear it down. 

I want to give my students something that we as teachers are often powerless to have – the dignity of self worth.