disapproving kitty

Monday, June 5, 2017

If You're Not Interested in Gifted Ed, This Will Probably Be Boring

It's 1 AM and I'm not sleeping, even though it's summer and I'm officially "off," and should have no worries whatsoever.
You know that isn't true.
Tomorrow I need to be up at 7 so that I can drop DD at a friend's house while J drops DS at day camp so that I can go to professional development where I will learn how to create online classes for my students.
Teachers have it so easy.
This post isn't about that. It really isn't. It's about students. For the past 17 years I've taught gifted kids and I absolutely love them. I love how their brains work, I love how they don't work, too, sometimes and I love how they are interested and interesting. Maybe all kids are like that. I don't know. I've only truly worked with the gifted ones.*
I've been teaching in a "pull out" program for many years, where the gifted kids come to my class one day a week and we work on things like Thinking Skills, and learning how to research and present, how to solve problems and how to create new ones and how to work together as a team (for the love of all that is holy will you stop arguing already?!) and a variety of other skills that aren't really delineated at any particular grade level, but they really ought to be at every grade level.
Those are the skills that every other discrete skill set should be focused on improving, but we tend to lose sight of the big picture when we're all focused on test questions that, by the nature of testing, have to focus on the little, easily measurable things.
But this post isn't about testing, either.
It's about how our model for teaching gifted kids has changed and I'm now going to be "supporting" students and their teachers in the regular classroom, with the aim of having those students be challenged every day. We're following this model that seems to be working well out in Arizona, and checking out how it works in other districts and doing our best to figure it out as we go, but all of us are getting the question: what exactly are we supposed to do?
This is what this post is about and why I'm awake after 1:00 in the morning.
I took a shower to see if maybe that would make me sleepy and that was probably where I went wrong. I do a lot of thinking in the shower, and what I started to think about is the number of times I've been asked if I'm supposed to be helping challenge kids just in math, or is it just math and reading or...what is our focus, really?
That's a good question. What is our focus?
I've had multiple answers from multiple sources but I think, bizarrely, that just maybe our department needs to sit down and do something I truly detest doing and usually find a phenomenal waste of time: Define our mission, and our goals.
No, really.
Way back when I started in my district, we had four broad, overarching goals for our department. I recently stumbled across it and recycled it and now I wish I hadn't because they were elegantly crafted by some amazingly smart and dedicated women who Knew. Their. Stuff. when it came to gifted education. These goals spoke to not just striving to develop deep thinkers and problem solvers, but to bringing students to the realization that there is a big, big world out there and an even bigger one inside of them and they need to learn how to unlock all of it if they are going to suck the marrow out of life.  A subsequent leader discarded these goals in favor of more "curricularly aligned" goals, which could still include problem solving, but the larger picture started to get lost.
Now we're down to wondering if we're here to support just math and reading only.†
Our model has changed, our jobs have changed, the technology is changing by the minute and not one of us can say "This is the big picture. This is what I'm here to help you do."
As a "big picture," whole-to-part thinker, this is keeping me up at night.
As much as I hate to say it, we need a mission statement.
Our district has one, and I think, if we all took it to heart and really honestly tried to follow it, we'd tell the State of Ohio Board of Education and our Legislature to take their "value-added" tests** and stick them where the sun don't shine because we are too damn busy teaching our students how to be prepared for a world not one of us can imagine and ain't nobody got time for teaching to the damn tests.††
It's time we sat down as a department and asked ourselves what is the big picture, and what our mission should be. Is it challenging kids in math and reading, or is it helping them figure out how to be successful as gifted people in a world that is often not built for them? Is it all of the above?

There's a lot more to unpack here, like "why should gifted kids get all this stuff and not everyone else?" and "are gifted kids really that different from other kids? Why should they get something special?" and "do gifted kids really exist?" and....well, lots of other things I'm not going to write about here because this is long enough already.

It's almost 2 now, and I have to be up in 5 hours. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll spend some of it sleeping.


*that's not entirely true. I have taught non-gifted kids, and found them, in general, so be less intriguing for me than gifted ones. I'm sure I'm equally puzzling to them.
†as if that's even possible. Show me a science, social studies or problem solving lesson that involves neither math nor language skills and I'll show you a blank piece of paper.
**based on a model for agriculture. Seriously. Agriculture. (if the link doesn't work, try loading it up in an "incognito" browser.)
††ok, so this post is sorta about testing, too. I lied. Sue me.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Teaching the Fundamentals Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

I keep seeing memes float about on Facebook about how the damn libruls have kicked God out of schools, or how the ACLU beats children for praying in school or most recently, how a conservative think tank is proposing to a very welcoming administration the idea the public funds should be going towards religious schools and "bringing God back into the classroom."
I usually post short responses to these statements, but I've grown tired of typing the same thing over and over. So I thought I'd write a blog post and just link to it instead. It'll save wear and tear on my fingers.
The real question isn't: Should God be allowed in school? 
It's: Should the government be allowed to force your child to worship the god(s) of its choice?
Because that's what we're talking about.
Stay with me a moment. If you are mad because some liberal kicked God out of your child's classroom, tell me, how did they do that? Does the teacher stand at the door and tell your kid "No believing in God in here!" or "If I catch you praying, you'll be sent to the office!"
Of course not. 
Every child with a belief in God brings that belief with her. As the joke goes, as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school. 
Imagine for a moment that the State mandates prayer in school. Great, right? A win for conservatives! Except, they decide to mandate Buddhist prayer. Or Islamic prayer. Or Satanic prayer. Or Jewish prayer. Or Catholic prayer. Or Presbyterian prayer. Or an Atheist moment of silent reflection. And your child is none of those things. What then? 
Well, says the State, your child can just sit respectfully. Or leave the room. Or do something else that marks him as different from his peers.
Life's hard enough without the teacher being the one calling our your kid as the "weirdo," don't you think?
Prayer and belief in God has always been in public classrooms across America. Always will be. It just isn't lead by the government. It's there because your children bring it with them, not because the teacher forces it on them.
Think about it. Or pray on it. Or meditate or whatever else you choose to do, and not because the government told you to. If you are an American, that's one of your fundamental rights.
It's a right I want for my children, too.
Don't you?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

To Governor Kasich, About His Latest Brainstorm for Teachers

Dear Governor Kasich ,

Recently you put forth a budget containing a requirement that all teachers spend part of their professional development time at an "on-site work experience" with a local business or chamber of commerce. (If you'd like to read up on it, check here.) I'm sure you realize it is being poorly received by teachers across the state. I thought perhaps some clarifying questions might be in order, to help you understand our concerns.

First, what are the objective and goals of this professional development? You see, when teachers create plans for students, we always have to have the goal of the lesson in mind. Otherwise, how could we possibly know what we're trying to accomplish? It isn't very clear at all what you're trying to achieve.
Second, I'd like to know exactly when you'd like these experiences to happen? During the school day, so I have to have to charge the district for a sub? How about during one of my professional development days, which means I'd have to forego PD that is actually relevant to my teaching? Maybe you'd prefer I do it on my own time? Between work, lesson planning, grading and everything else I need to do, my own time is pretty precious, so you'd better have a very compelling reason that these "on-site work experiences" are necessary.
Third, I'm interested to know how, exactly, our already overworked professional development staff is going to secure these experiences with local businesses? Our district alone has over 1000 teachers. Do you really believe that the local banking call center, quick oil change station or dental office really wants to have a teacher who has no background, interest or skills in that area sitting around their office, garage or factory floor for a day?
I'm sorry, Governor Kasich, but this entire plan is poorly laid out, without the necessary goals established, needed materials provided or any provisions whatsoever for measuring the effectiveness of plan.

Still, don't ever let it be said that I'm not game to try something new, even if it's not well thought out. So, I have a proposal for you. A fair swap. I'll go spend my professional development time at a local business if you and every other elected official in the state of Ohio must go spend an entire day at an "on site work experience" at a local school. Mind you, this isn't a dignitary's visit, or a walk-though where you're guided through classrooms by the Superintendent. This is a WORK EXPERIENCE. Each of you will create, teach and evaluate the effectiveness of lessons you conduct throughout a school day. You'll come on time for duty and not leave till everything is graded and you're caught up on any correspondence from parents, colleagues and administrators. An on-site work experience as a teacher.

We'll be happy to provide you copious weblinks to curriculum, resources and activities to help you plan. But you'll have to put it all together yourself.  In case you were wondering, the goal of the experience would be to help you understand what it is you seem so hell-bent on destroying, and to show you the difficulty (and the joy) of the work we do every single day.

Because right now, I think you haven't got a clue.

Sincerely Yours,
Disapproving Kitty

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

TL;DR: Disabled People Deserve Independence, Too.

Many years ago I had a student named Justin. He was a uniquely talented writer and poet, with a sense of humor and sensitivity that were far beyond his years. Also, he had cerebral palsy. He was the first student I'd ever had who used a wheelchair.
While I'm hopeful that he learned a thing or two from me, I know for certain that *I* learned a ton. I learned that the world is not very kind to kids as different as Justin. Crippled and gifted? Whaaaaaa?
I'm afraid that a lot of us failed him then, to give him all he deserved, and as it turns out, we still are. Failing him, I mean.
Every couple of years, apparently, it's necessary for him to go speak on behalf of all the people who need aides to help them do all those things the rest of us take 100% for granted, like, say, using the toilet alone. I wanted to join him as he went to testify, along with 20 of his friends (whom he never would have met if it weren't for aides that allow him to go to college.)

I can't go, but I can write some testimony for the hearing.

In case you're wondering, it's for rule 5123:2-9-03 (Home and Community-Based Services Waivers - Limit on Number of Hours an Independent Provider May Provide Home and Community-Based Services in a Work Week).  You can read about it here: http://bit.ly/2k5qhLt. It's pretty dry and reasonable sounding until you imagine: what if I had to live only where I could find 5 people who were reliable and capable and willing to be my aide for not all that much money? And if I can't do that, then I have to rely on my family to do it for free? Still sound good?
Didn't think so.

Here's what I wrote.

Dear Ms. Phillips and Members of the Hearing Committee,
My name is Rachel Nelli, and I am a public school teacher of 18 years, all of it in the great state of Ohio. One of my most memorable students was a young man named Justin Martin, who has CP. Recently, he brought to my attention that the Federal government has mandated that aides for the disabled must be paid overtime. Ohio’s Department of Developmental Disabilities, in response, is creating a new rule to mandate that overtime for aides be illegal, so that we won’t have to foot the bill.
Tell me then, please, how much would it cost for you to give up some of your freedoms that you take for granted every day?
How much to be able to get dressed in the morning? Make your breakfast?
Tie your shoes?
Use the bathroom by yourself?

How much is your independence worth to you?
How much is it worth to you to travel for more than 8 hours so you could do your job, visit your family or take a vacation?
How much is it worth to you to be able to get out of bed at night to use the bathroom on your own?
A dollar?
A hundred?
What would you do if you could never again choose to live somewhere where providers

weren’t easy to come by? Or if you wished to travel or work or have any kind of independence at all where you wanted to have it, just like everybody else?
How much do you deserve your independence?
I shouldn’t have to ask you that question. You should be appalled that I would even question your right to live your life the way you wish to live it.
I also shouldn’t have to ask you why you think that another law-abiding, hard-working (and he works harder than anybody I know) American should not have the same rights and independence you take for granted.
If you would not give up any of those freedoms I mentioned above, then you have no right whatsover to deny them to a disabled person. We are either a society where all men are created equal, or we are a society content to have second-class citizens. The latter is unacceptable.
And please, don’t talk to me of money.
You are fortunate enough to be addressed today by one of the finest minds I ever had privilege to teach. I cannot imagine what his life would have been if our nation hadn’t decided that children with disabilities had the same right to an education that every other child had. When I went to school, and likely when you did, too, kids in wheelchairs didn’t go to regular school. Kids with cerebral palsy went to a special school where they and all the differently-abled were warehoused and locked away with no independence and few freedoms. IDEA meant that not only did Justin go to regular school, he got into the gifted program. He. Is. Brilliant.

Educating “those kids” costs a fortune. So does caring for “those people” when they grow up. We do that because we are ALL created equal and endowed with the right to pursue happiness, and nowhere in our laws or in our moral code should we say “except when it’s not convenient.”
Because we know it is right to spend money to afford the disabled the same opportunities we take for granted is how I got to meet Justin. I had the privilege of teaching him, and learning from him how unequal we still are. Access to aides 24/7 is what he needs to come close to having the kind of life you and I expect for ourselves, and for our own children.
If you vote today to deny Justin the caregivers he needs, then you are denying him the very freedoms you grant to yourself. Is the amount you are saving worth his freedom? Would it be worth yours? Would you give up your independence, or that of your own child to save that money? I suspect the answer is a resounding “no.”
Before Justin was my student, I was blissfully and shamefully unaware of what it is like to be disabled in this world. How you can work for the DoDD and not already know this I do not know, but I ask you to listen and learn. As a teacher, I tell you this man has information you need, because without it you are going to fail this test. Fortunately for you there is only one question: Does Justin deserve to have the same independence as you?
Please, don’t fail.
Disapproving Kitty