* Freedom! Righto?

FreedomYanks are getting ready to celebrate Independence Day.  I am one of them.  But back in the day, studying world history from a British textbook, a single short paragraph was devoted to a “rebellion” somewhere across the Atlantic that led to the birth of a new country.  As we sang “God Save the Queen” every morning, along with vigorous strains of “Rule Britannia,” I had a delightful opportunity to view history from the proud perspective of a nation upon whom the sun never set.

No country is immune from its own slant on history.  One reason that Yanks are still struggling with a racial divide in this country is our inability to accurately recall and retell history.  Sure, textbooks are “catching up” but our dominant social history makes light of the scourge of slavery.  I believe that such wickedness stains our nation.  Black Americans remain tainted as “less than” by large segments of society. We still hear echoes of “Go back where you came from!” as though their arrival in this country was a deliberate a choice on their part, as though they hadn’t been stacked like waste products in the hulls of ships, as though they hadn’t been brutalized and raped and defined as less than human.  The recent slaughter in Charleston, the murder of young black men, the debates over the Confederate flag, and day-to-day racial stereotyping argue that the blight of slavery has not been eradicated.  As someone who fought in the civil rights movement, I smashed against the same ugliness facing us today.  In which generation will the transformation truly occur?  It’s been too long in coming.  Let’s create a better history in our hearts and consciences, for that is surely where change must start.

* AlphaBooks Blogging: J is for The Jacket

The Jacket by Andrew Clements is a story I’ve used with kids who have social skill weaknesses, especially around the issue of race and skin color.  Although it’s an older book (with odd technological references), the story line is simple and provides a starting point for introducing the concepts of racial stereotyping.  I’ve worked with a number of kids on the autism spectrum who’ve had rigid ideas about skin color.  Some of these kids hadn’t even recognized their own racial identity.  I recall more than one parent of an ASD student feeling mortified by their child’s unique and public ways of categorizing skin tones.  This book is also a good starting point for helping kids who have grown up with more “typical” racist stereotypes.

In The Jacket, Phil, a white boy, accuses a black student, Daniel, of stealing his jacket.  Phil had outgrown the jacket but passed it along to his brother. The jacket had been given to Daniel’s grandmother, who gave it to her grandson.  The conversations and relationships depicted in this book are straightforward.  The story line is also simple.  Phil eventually wonders if he would have reacted so angrily had he seen a white boy wearing a jacket that looked like his.  Phil must also confront his father’s racism, while Daniel deals with stereotypes of his own.  The story has a simplistic ending, but for kids who are just starting to address the effect of race and skin color on their social relationships, The Jacket has been a helpful tool.  It’s a quick read and provides vocabulary for discussing more complex issues.

Weirdness: The cover picture above is not from the original book, which features images of middle school kids, in keeping with the story line.

* K is for kindergartners with disabilities

kindergarten-555442_640Blogging A-Z: K is for kindergartners with disabilities.  I recently read an insightful article on early identification of disabilities.  “Hurry Up and Wait” was written by Cathy G. Litty and J. Amos Hatch and published in Early Childhood Education Journal.  In their article, the authors lament the changes which have taken place in today’s kindergartens.  This grade is no longer a setting in which kids merely achieve a smooth transition to school and become “gently” socialized.  The academic rigor of first (and even second) grade has been moved downwards for a number of reasons, they suggest, including the new standards-based accountability model.

Litty and Hatch argue that when teachers suspect a disability, they should not “wait and see” how a kindergartner progresses.  If these kids are going to be responsible for increased academic pressure, they are also ready for special education assessment and intervention.  While the authors do make suggestions for adapting kindergartens to meet a variety of needs, I agree that early intervention is key.  Locally, kindergartners are now expected to master letter-sound associations within the first third of the school year or earlier.  If they fail to do so, they will fall quickly behind their peers who arrived at school with those skills already developed.  Parents of some kindergartners also have reason to pursue special education identification when there is a family history of reading problems and speech/ phonological delays.

The last re-authorization of IDEA allowed states to determine whether and how to use a category called “Developmental Delay (DD).”  This label provides special education support when it’s not clear why a young child is falling behind.  But the variation of its use and criteria across states makes it an odd category.  I have seen the DD label used effectively with young kids but I also understand the mistrust and concern of some families about labeling.  Even while I support early intervention, we know that our schools over-identify black kids as disabled.  Can their parents trust us to make the right call?  And what a contrast that is to all the white families in our local district who want their kindergartners labeled!

Kindergarten is no longer a walk in the park.

Michelle Maltais: Raising a black son

Michelle Maltais published this piece on August 15, 2014, in the LA Times.  This is not the first article to address this issue, nor will it be the last, sadly.  “Living while black” is a very different experience from “living while white.”  Read on….

Opinion 1

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* More on race and literacy

Nando chapel hill newsMary Carey, a columnist for the Chapel Hill News, published this article in the Chapel Hill News section of today’s News and Observer.  She asks some important questions about how the relationship between the racial achievement gap and effective literacy.  The current academic scandal at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill centers on disreputable efforts to keep black athletes eligible to play by padding their GPA’s with bogus classes.   Ms. Carey tackles the bottom line: Why are our black students unable to read?  What approaches work best?  She cites the Orton Gillingham approach, used by the nonprofit St. Augustine’s Project, as a shining example of how to teach ALL kids to read.  I say YES!!!
The following is a copy of her article.
carey article 1
carey article 2
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* Perceptions and prejudices

black and white kidsBlacks and whites, typical learners and special needs kids: How do they fare in school?  Often not so well.  I am going to share a couple of scenarios from my own experience.

1.  I worked with a high functioning autistic student who struggled at school.  Although he was on track academically, he had a miserable experience socially.  Trevor was the football fanatic I described in a recent post.  No matter the cost, he wanted to play football with his classmates.  One classmate often tripped him just when he was about to catch the ball or score.  Not only did Trevor get upset about losing, he was even more angered by the injustice of the situation.  I have seen this heightened sense of “right and wrong” in a number of ASD kids.  They have often learned social skills through demonstration of, and by following, sets of rules.  When those rules are not followed, and especially if these kids personally suffer from that inequity, they may respond catastrophically.  When words did not work, Trevor then physically threatened the other kid, although he never actually touched him.

The playground supervisor’s reaction was to warn and eventually blame Trevor.  From a distance, she could see Trevor’s “in your face” body language.  The other kid was backing away.  Trevor was benched, sent to the office, or sent to me.

The same dynamics occurred in his classroom.  Other kids were adept at pushing Trevor’s buttons with just a gesture or sound.  In his already heightened state of social anxiety, Trevor was a fuse just waiting to be lit.  I did not condone Trevor’s verbal outbursts.  He would yell, “Stop looking at me!” and interrupt the teacher while she was trying to focus the class on math.  I did understand his teacher’s frustration.  BUT I also wanted Trevor’s teacher and assistant to understand his perspective.  His outbursts were never random; they were always triggered by a perceived threat from others.  As the year progressed, he became increasingly unable to manage his responses.  He was caught in a vicious cycle: other kids could easily set him off, the adults were fearful of his outbursts, he was blamed for losing self control, and he was also terrified of his own temper.  We had some high points, such as when the teacher allowed Trevor to use a classroom space for calming down.  She also encouraged him to use his “plans” (pocket-sized books I created with strategies for calming).  But both those two options became “punishments.”  Trevor felt humiliated when the teacher demanded, “Get your book,” as other kids snickered.  That calming down space became a “time out” for him when the teacher wanted him out of sight, so instead of cooling off, Trevor became more frantic.  Eventually, I would be called to his classroom.  As soon as he saw me, he’d relax.  He was out of the traumatic environment and would be able to communicate his strong feelings safely.

2.  Here’s another scenario.  I worked with a young black boy who was not labeled at all.  However, he was considered the most disruptive kid in his class and the local school motto was “This kind should be with you.”  I added him to my groups of six kids (quite a bit easier than a group of 21?) and it took two weeks for him to be “socialized” and under voice command.  He was actually a delight to teach.  I had already started observing him in class, since I needed to reverse his decline there.  As soon as I walked in the door, a number of kids would scream out, “David!  Mrs. So-and-So is here for you!”  I shook my head, gave them a signal to be silent, and sat down to watch.  As I observed, I wondered why David had been selected as “the kind who should be with me.”  I was elbowed and splashed with water by students who thought it was amusing.  I watched as kids threw materials, pushed one another, and were generally out of control.  “My” David looked overwhelmed.  Eventually, he shrieked above the clamor and received the teacher’s routine lecture on following rules.

I have to admit that at one point, I also lost it in David’s classroom.  The kids were supposedly lining up for lunch.  David was doing fine, but the rest of the kids were pushing, yelling, laughing, and crashing.  All the while, their teacher was ineffectually talking about how they should act.  Without asking, I used my teacher voice, got them in line, and took them to the cafeteria myself.  I simply could not bear to see them act so outrageously.  David was the canary in the mine for that class.  Was his race a factor?  He was one of four black kids in the class.  I eventually ended up with one of the other black kids, too.

Have I effectively changed some of these perceptions and prejudices?  Yes, but that’s another post.  Stay tuned!

* Special education labeling and race

Yes we canAs a special educator, I would have to be blind (and dumb) not to see that black boys are over-represented as behaviorally-emotionally handicapped.  The Office of Civil Rights has also reported that blacks are far more likely to be identified as mentally handicapped (retarded) than their white peers.  The Schott Foundation report “Yes We Can” indicates that black males are twice as likely to be identified in this way, along with far greater numbers of suspensions and significantly lower rates of graduation from high school.  Other studies show that black kids are more likely to be identified as learning disabled and/or speech-language handicapped.  An ERIC report on these discrepancies concludes: “The results indicate ethnic disparities in special education labeling among children with similar clinical profiles and that mental health and education services are substituted for each other differently based on ethnicity. Possible reasons include undertreatment of ADHD, differential interpretation of associated behaviors, and differences in parents’ ability to advocate for children’s educational and mental health needs.”

My experience (in my current community) has been an interesting one.  I have served on the school-based committee which determines special education placement.   In that role, I have seen noticeable variations overall between black, white, and hispanic parents who attend these meetings.  Remember that in my community, there is a very small middle-class black community.  A large percentage of black and hispanic kids receive free and reduced lunch.  At the same time, white families are typically middle- to upper-class folks who live in this area as professionals and students of local universities.  

White families have usually advocated for their child’s placement in special education (notable exceptions being parents who vehemently assert that their child is NOT autistic).  White families often made an official request for an evaluation or brought a privately completed evaluation to school, asking that their child be labeled Learning Disabled or Other Health Impaired.  They have been more likely to seek medication for their kids.  White parents have also been more likely to participate in special education advocacy groups and join community associations that support parents of kids with special needs.  I have observed remarkable differences among these families, regardless of education or income, regarding their understanding of the labeling process.

Black parents typically viewed the special education process with great suspicion and argued against their child’s placement in special education.  Some suggested that the school “just wants my boy to take medication” or “wants to test all the black kids.”  They referred to those national figures cited above.  They often had a personal and historical association with blacks being regarded as “retarded” and riding a “special bus.”  They often noted that their kids did well in other settings.  Many of these parents (and often grandparents) in this community did not have finances to provide outside resources for their kids, nor were they well educated themselves.  These parents did not usually have a clear idea of the labeling process.  They just wanted it to stop.  Immediately.

Hispanic parents typically agreed with anything the school-based committee suggested.  They were very eager for special assistance, if that was suggested.  Most hispanic families in this community had few resources and were not typically well educated.  Those parents who required a translator often had little understanding of the special education process.  A translator who was familiar with special education “jargon” typically interpreted the process for them.

Despite these variations in family attitudes, black and hispanic kids have been over-represented in special education in my community.  Why is that? 

I do not believe that black and hispanic kids are more “naturally” learning disabled or behavior disordered.  When these kids were referred to the school-based committee, they were struggling mightily.  They did meet the criteria for these labels.  So what gives?  I think the answer lies in expectations and school environments.  Do teachers (typically white female) truly believe that black kids can perform as well as whites?  What about whether blacks can outperform whites?  They do in some schools.  

Stay tuned for more.

* Teaching While White

white teacherTeaching while white is the norm in my community.  It is the everyday, the routine, the predictable.  When I go to school as a white teacher, I am surrounded by mostly white teachers.  In my community, I will teach mostly white kids.  The administrators in my community are mostly white; teachers are mostly women and the higher echelon of administrators are mostly white males.

Here are some of my observations as a white teacher.

1.  I really don’t have to think about my race at all.  I cannot imagine my race ever being an issue related to job security, advancement, and competence.  Even in a country of changing demographics, my race is the norm, the successful group, the face of most people in power.  I notice that photos in books and posters depict kids of color, but the faces that look back at regular classroom teachers in my world are mostly white, which leads to the next point.

2.  As a special educator, I will serve more students of color proportionately than other teachers.  The classes for kids with behavior and emotional problems are primarily populated by black males.

3.  I notice that everyone expects the white kids to attend college or at least have that option.  The kids of color are already struggling, so the commonly held belief is that they will be lucky to graduate from high school.

4.  All the custodians in my school are black.  So are the people who mow the school lawns, replace broken parts, bring our packages, wash our windows, repair the roof, and cook our food.  Most of their supervisors are white.

5.  There are a few black teachers but more black assistants.  “Everyone” notices when black teachers and/or black assistants talk or stand together.  No one ever makes a comment about a group of white teachers or assistants talking or standing together, because that’s the norm.  When a black teacher works with a black assistant, it becomes an issue.  I hear teachers asking, “Should that be allowed?  Is it fair for the kids?”  The norm is white teachers with white assistants.

4.  If there’s a black administrator, I will hear that she was hired because she’s black.  When a black teacher is hired, I hear that she was hired because she is black.  No one ever comments to me that a white teacher was hired for her race.

5.  When I talk about race, when I point out racism, when I make friends based upon mutual interests and attraction regardless of race, I start to lose my inherent white advantage.  I am viewed with some suspicion.  Teachers tell me they are tired of hearing me talk about race.  They say I am oversensitive or misinterpreting comments and actions.  I am grateful for a special friend who tells me when am I operating out of that white privilege of ignoring racism.  Her courageous comments help me examine my own prejudices, of which there are many.

* Teaching While Black

black teacherI assume you’ve heard of DWB (Driving While Black), so here’s my take on Teaching While Black (TWB).  I have worked with a number of black teachers, some very closely, and have these observations:

1.  TWB can create a heavy and unnatural burden.  Black teachers are often viewed as THE representative of their race in a way that whites are not.   I have never been considered representative of special education teachers at any age or in any position; there has never been a single “representative” special education teacher.  But I have heard about many “representative” black teachers.  They are emotionally demonstrative, talented singers and dancers, fashionistas, poorly organized, weak writers, and strong disciplinarians.  “All” black teachers is no more a legitimate characterization than “all” white teachers.  There is substantial variation between teachers, regardless of race.

2.  TWB can be hazardous to your health.  One commonality I have noted is the unique stress of being a black teacher.  I’ve seen black teachers criticized for using music and the arts in their classrooms (both of which are highly brain-friendly techniques), with unfounded complaints that these teachers were too loud.  I’ve witnessed harassment of black teachers through frequent and unprofessional observations, parent emails to administrators, and especially, social isolation by that teacher’s grade level colleagues.  For example, in order to serve a student, I was in a black teacher’s class for considerable portions of the day, announced and unannounced.  During that time, I had a good sense of her relationships with kids and her teaching techniques.  My student with high functioning autism had not been better educated in his previous three years at the school.  That teacher left after one year, when a parent started complaining that the teacher was yelling at the kids.  The criticism was completely unfounded, but that teacher was already feeling isolated and stressed, so it wasn’t worth fighting another battle.

3.  TWB can be a demeaning and humiliating experience.  A black teacher arrived early for a workshop being held in a neighboring classroom.  The presenter instantly assumed this teacher was a custodian and expected her help with setting up chairs, along with a directive that the snacks were for participants only.  A newly hired black teacher walked into her classroom and her white assistant addressed her as a custodian, indicating that she was waiting for the “real” teacher to arrive.  As one black teacher has observed, “where you see trash and poop being handled, there you will see a black face.”  Based on a single remark to an administrator, I know of numerous black teachers who were subjected to intense, undeserved scrutiny and accusation.  That would be highly atypical in my experience as a white teacher.

4. TWB can create a uniquely cruel isolation.  I referred above to this social segregation of black teachers.  I have seen black teachers shunned because they were successful.  I have seen black teachers shunned because they were “different.”  I have seen black teachers shunned because they voiced their opinion.  I have seen black teachers shunned for talking about race.  I have seen black teachers criticized for talking to other black teachers.  I have seen black teachers criticized because they have chosen black assistants.  Oh, no!  Two black women in one room!

So if we treat black professionals this way, how do we treat black kids?  Your thoughts?

* Part Two: Brain friendly breakfast?

In my previous post, I shared the struggles of what could be called Breakfast Bedlam.  The “final” solution was the placement of two assistants, one black and one white, to work year-round in the cafeteria, supported by soothing music and monitored by administrators.  These two ladies became school heroes for offering to manage the chaos at the start of each day.  They lasted a long time and there was some improvement in the behavior of the kids who rode bus 317.  Ultimately, these ladies ended their tenure and our school was facing the same bleak scenario as before.

After one equity session (race-related discussions), I was chatting with a teacher who remarked that our students are precious.  She meant all our students, including those who stormed the cafeteria every morning.  Suddenly, I could see those kids as jewels, of tremendous worth, and felt an overwhelming desire to SHOW them their value.  The Breakfast Club was born out of that conversation.

It was easy to get administrative approval to start this initiative. (Duh!)  I was so grateful that two other women (both black) joined me in this endeavor; as a white woman, I wanted these kids to see adults who looked like them (especially these two remarkable women).  My goal was to create a space like the home breakfasts I had with my family.  I sewed sets of table runners to make the chilly (and huge) space look more comfortable.  I guess that helped a little.

The cafeteria workers looked on in amusement as we set up for our first breakfast.  They had seen it all.  The manager observed the first day of the Breakfast Club and announced loudly, “Honey, you won’t make it a week!”  But I knew better.  Here are some of the major changes that I introduced:

  • Kids were now seated by grade level.  Seating kids by grade reduced the incidences of bullying and copying inappropriate behavior.  Each table had a grade level sign with teacher photos for that grade.  Kids were truly excited to see their teachers’s pictures and their first conversations shifted to school topics, not bus fights.
  • I enforced a rule that kids could only enter by one door and exit by the other.  Anyone who tried to “outrun” someone else found themselves walking back through the correct door.
  • I stationed myself at the entry door, greeting each student by name and with a smile.  I worked like crazy to memorize their names.  At first, the older kids said, “Uh-huh,” and smirked when I called them by the wrong name.  Eventually they could see that I was serious about getting to know everyone, so they helped me out a bit.  When I spoke to kids, I used their name as much as possible to speed up my learning curve (we averaged about 70-80 kids but had up to 100 on some days).
  • My assistants monitored the lines for food while I worked my way up and down, smiling but enforcing a no-talking zone so the cafeteria workers could hear kids recite their lD numbers.
  • I provided all the younger students an index card with their 7-8 digit school number on it, as well as those with disabilities or who were too shy or unable to speak English.  You can see the cards awaiting the kindergartners here: 100_2505
  • At the beginning, I took time every day to review our Breakfast Club chart.  It was a poster-sized sticker chart for the month (not so attractive, since I designed it).  When the whole group maintained a reasonable volume as they interacted with one another, they would get a sticker for that day.  After a certain number of stickers, they earned a free day of sitting wherever they chose.  I would flip the lights off as a signal that they were too loud.  At first, it was three times and no sticker.  Gradually it became “harder” for them to earn a sticker, with one light off signalling no sticker.100_2551
  • While the kids ate, my colleagues and I made our way from table to table, chatting and assisting students.  I started keeping a supply of forks and spoons in case the cafeteria ran low.  We never, ever made kids feel bad for spilling all their food.  I would usually get a replacement for them so the embarrassed child did’t have to move.  I can’t remember if we had a day without some kind of spill.
  • We adjusted the placement of grade level seating based upon the behaviors of kids at each level.  We used “uninteresting” groups as a buffer.  For example, the fifth graders were not really interested in kindergartners; they wanted to chat with fourth graders.  We kept the kindergartners between the two so that kids weren’t interacting with groups from another table.
  • We set up a more user-friendly cleaning system.  (I would never have put my hands into the previous pans- yuck!)  We supplied warm, soapy pans of water and clean cloths for wiping the tables.  We “inherited” this cleaning system and used it for a part of one year.  Eventually we decided that we would rather have kids eat (and chat) than use their limited time cleaning, so we wiped the tables after they left.
  • I always took time right after breakfast to report positive behavior to classroom teachers for the more vulnerable kids, as well as following up on any bus incidents and behavior problems.

I also cooked breakfast for the kids (I’ll have too post that in “I Kid You Not”).  At the end of every year, I gave the graduating fifth graders bound autograph books with their photo on the cover and pages for friends and teachers. These books, with their attached pens, became more elaborate as I included groups photos and allowed kids to pose with their teachers.  Kids who had hardly eaten in the cafeteria would ALWAYS show up for my breakfasts and the autograph books.  Another outcome of the Breakfast Club was unexpected: kids who did not ride bus 317 began eating with us.

Did we have any trouble with the group?  It was noisy at first but the consistent praise for sitting quietly, our genuine interest in the kids, and the safety of the environment created a huge shift.  The days of bedlam were gone after a couple of months.  The mandatory hallways postings were eliminated.  A new culture emerged.  From the start of the year, kids would come happily to breakfast.  Sometimes we could see them racing down the sidewalk, but although we did our best to stop that, the kids were racing because they wanted to be at school.  The Breakfast Club was a fantastic adventure in Brain-Friendly Land!