Thursday, March 25, 2010

The latest in the saga

Do readers of this blog feel like they're tuning in to an educational soap opera?

Anyway, I met with Julio's mother this morning. She asked if she could come into the classroom a few times a month to sit with him, to see if that would help him focus. I said I would have to run it by my assistant principal. She promptly nixed the idea, saying it would be "disruptive to the other students" (evidently she's in denial about how disruptive Julio is all on his own...!). I mean, I get that, but as diplomatically as I could I said, "I think Julio's mom is just wondering, now that he's on this waiting list for placement, what services we can provide him here and now. Because he's not getting any services right now."

My AP agreed with me that Julio is indeed getting no services, and then beat the same hasty retreat that she does whenever I start asking those kinds of pesky questions.

Meanwhile, one student went home with an asthma attack, another went home with an allergy attack, the nurse called me 17,000 times today, and then we were all called into an "emergency UFT meeting" after school during which we learned that evidently 8,500 of us are about to be fired.

Good times!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The balancing act

One of my recent posts about Julio generated a flurry of discussion in the comments about the nature of collaboration, the role of students and teachers and the general fairness involved in pairing or "buddying" up students with special needs with other students. One commenter felt that I didn't display enough concern for the rights of the other students in my classroom, and I defended my position, which was basically: I'm trying to do what my mother taught me, which was to do the best I can!

Today we had a very, very difficult afternoon. Julio had not had a good day: yelling, singing, humming, tapping, taking his chair wherever he pleased, pulling his jacket over his head, etc. During math, I gave this direction to the whole class: "Take out your slates and your markers. If you can't find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead. If you can't find your slate or your marker, take out your notebook and a pencil instead." Notice how I repeated this last part when I noticed kids starting to get up and wander around the room to look for extra slates or markers.

Julio had forgotten his marker. And I had forgotten to Pick My Battles. So as he got up from his seat to snag a marker after he had very specifically been told not to, I took the marker from his hand and asked him to take out his notebook.

Right around that time, Julio transformed into the Hulk. I'm familiar with Julio's Hulk routine, so initially I wasn't impressed. Basically it consists of rattling his desk back and forth as if he's threatening to tip it over. Occasionally he does tip it over, and then he goes full-on Hulk, grunting and groaning loudly as he tries to pick it up.

So there I am, trying to manage (1) the Hulk and (2) the math lesson. Briefly, it seemed as though the math lesson would win out. To Julio, I said, "I understand that you're upset, but you're choosing the wrong way to get my attention, so I'm not giving you my attention until you can choose a better way." To the class, I said, "If this dime is one whole, and two nickels can make a dime, what fraction of the dime would one nickel be?" The class is also familiar with Julio's Hulk routine, and although some of them were kind of eyeing him suspiciously out of the corner of their eyes, they were on the whole admirably focused on math.

Just as Lonny was about to offer a well-reasoned answer, the Hulk brought his desk crashing down on top of his leg. At which point the Hulk transformed back into Julio, a seven-year-old boy rolling around on the carpet clutching his leg and screaming and crying about how he had just chopped his leg off.

I immediately called the office and asked them to send someone upstairs, and then I told the class that we would have to change direction for a few minutes. I asked them to take out their math journals and work on math boxes instead. Lonny dropped his head back and said, "Aw, man! But I knew the answer!"

Eventually Lonny did get to offer his answer, after the security guard and the assistant principal led Julio away to the nurse, before I had to fill out the incident report and accident report and make the phone call home to Julio's mother. But I've been left grappling with all the questions raised by the Hulk, chief among them what can I do to make the rest of the year bearable? At this point, Julio is on a long waiting list for a seat in a self-contained class. When I call his mother to tell her what he's been doing in class, I'm not telling her anything she doesn't already know. My assistant principal is sticking to her "Document everything and call his mother" mantra; I have a 5-page single-spaced document of Julio's transgivings on my computer, and no one ever looks at it but me. Obviously I need to be more proactive and do a better job fighting for my students -- all of them-- but I hate casting myself in the role of agitator when at the moment I just feel overwhelmed.

Is my anonymous commenter right? Am I dooming my students to a lifetime of fearing impulsively violent classmates and being cast aside while emergencies like this one continue to build? Why, in a school where we've had to call the police and ambulances for disruptive students, do we still not have a crisis plan in place for these situations? Why does my assistant principal call me to nitpick the reading levels of my students but not to find out if my desk-flipper is flipping any desks over today?

Too many questions. Not enough solutions.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Get out and stay out

I was dreading yesterday's parent/teacher conferences. We usually hold them on a Thursday, so that at least when I get home all drained from the hours of talking, the next day is Friday and I can roll out of bed like a zombie knowing that the weekend was in sight. But this time around, it was a Tuesday and it was bound to be the Longest Week Ever.

We have a two and a half hour break between the afternoon and evening conferences. I usually use that time to catch up on a buttload of work that might otherwise never get done were I not virtually forced to spend an extra two and a half hours in my classroom -- during November's conferences, for example, I single-handedly rearranged all the furniture in my classroom and have been much happier with the new layout.

Yesterday I was planning to grade and organize all my math tests and goals for our upcoming unit on fractions. At 3:10, I was settled in my room with my green pen, my hole puncher, my math binders (I now have two, since my class can't fit into just one) and a thick stack of papers.

At 3:15, the principal got on the loudspeaker and announced that due to last-minute budget cuts, no staff would be allowed to remain in the building from 3:30 to 5:30. "Please don't make security come upstairs and get you," she said. (My school, by the way, also will not let teachers into the building one half second before 7:00 am. We all gather outside shivering in the cold in front of the locked school doors. Because, sure, when you have dedicated staff members who are willing to be at school at the crack of dawn, you don't want them coming into the building early!)

I was so aggravated. I threw my giant binders, and my hole puncher (!), into my teacher tote and jumped in my car to drive home (at least I could drive home -- I'm sure there were dozens of teachers who had no choice but to hang out at some neighborhood eatery for two hours). I printed out my goal sheets at home and wrapped up whatever filing I could before it was time to head back to school.

And then, today, I got observed in math. (For those of you who may be wondering: Yes, my school is still blatantly flouting the union rule that says teachers must receive written notification of a formal observation. Our observations are total surprises. Surprise!) After I was at school until after 8 pm last night for conferences, on a day when I got kicked out of the building for two hours during a time I would normally remain in my classroom doing work. And my math stuff was not nearly as organized as it would have been had I not lost all that time. (Exhibit A: I accidentally left the hole puncher at home, a vital tool for organizing my endless binders.)

My kids behaved like buttheads in front of my AP. Oh, and today is still only Wednesday. Oh, and on Thursdays after lunch I get to teach fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh periods and extended day (that's 10:55 am to 3:15 pm -- 4.5 looooong hours) without any preps, push-in relief or one freaking second to use the bathroom.

Oh, joy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Denial: Not just a river in Egypt

Well, as expected, the honeymoon is over. Not only my terrific honeymoon, but Julio's honeymoon. Yes, Julio has officially started to lose his mind, which means that I am losing my mind as well.

Here are some things that present themselves as very big clues to me that Julio is not in the right classroom environment:

  • During a mini lesson, he got up from his seat and began conducting an invisible boxing match with an invisible opponent. He danced around the room, punching the air.
  • During a read aloud, he suddenly began grabbing his head, wrenching himself from side to side, throwing his body out of his seat. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he was having a "nightmare."
  • When he is working independently and gets frustrated, he starts pounding on his desk and punching himself in the head.
  • He has started singing, humming, pounding on his desk, kicking at his desk, and grabbing his desk and shaking it aggressively, all during what is supposed to be a quiet working period.
  • The other day, he got upset, so he took everything out of his desk, hurled it to the floor, and then flopped himself on top of it and lay there.
I assigned him a "buddy" whose job is (a) to help him find things in his desk (because whenever I ask the class to take out a certain book or folder, he yells out, "I CAN'T FIND IT!" and starts taking everything out of his desk and throwing it to the floor) and (b) to remind him what he is supposed to be doing (because every time we're supposed to be working independently, he yells, "I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DOOOOOO!" and starts up with the punching himself in the head and shaking his desk around). And God bless her, his buddy has taken on that role and more -- whispering "Julio" and pointing to his sticker chart when he starts humming and/or singing and fidgeting, showing him what page to turn to, etc. The day that he threw everything out of his desk and then threw himself on top of the carnage, she got up without a word and began helping him return everything to his desk. That's when I realized: Carly is his para. I have a special education student sitting in my general ed class of 28 students, and he has a 7-year-old acting as his para because Mom continues to live in deep, deep denial.

So the guidance counselor and I sat down with Mom for what I can safely say was the World's Most Awkward Parent Meeting. In it I tried to talk gently but firmly about how Julio struggles and will continue to struggle in my class because it's not the right environment for him. I told Mom that Julio knows what he needs and asks for it: He asks me to turn the lights off because it will "relax" him, he asks me to take breaks for walks around the room, he asks me for much more individual attention than I can give him because there are 28 students in our class instead of 12 and only one teacher instead of two adults, which is what he would get if he were in the 12:1:1 class that his hypothetical IEP recommends for him.

Mom categorically does not want him in special education. Mom thinks he would "fall behind" in a special education class "with other kids like him." I think Mom is falling prey to the stigma that says that special education = dumb. I tried to explain to Mom that this isn't an academic issue, that Julio is very bright but isn't getting the services he needs. I said that, if he were to be in a special ed class, when he goes to third grade (the first "testing" grade), he would still take the same test as everybody else, but he would get to take it in a calmer environment with modifications that would hopefully prevent him from punching himself in the head.

Mom said that she didn't realize he hadn't been "behaving" and had just taken all his toys away from him. I told Mom that I knew she and Julio discussed good behavior at home, that it wasn't like anyone thought his behavior was a reflection on her parenting, and that she could take all his toys away from him but it wouldn't help his behavior because he can't control himself. I said that Julio tells other kids that he can't control himself, that he knows how he's expected to behave but he just can't do it. I said that his opinion of himself is starting to suffer because he feels like he's constantly letting other people down with his behavior, because he's always promising to behave but then he can't do it.

After an infinity of talking, the guidance counselor asked Mom what she thought of all this. That's when we experienced one of those long, awkward, crickets-chirping silences.

Oh, and did I mention this meeting took place after we returned from a field trip? I happen to have the most motion-sick class on the planet, and on every trip we take I have at least two pale and sweaty kids in the front of the bus leaning over barf bags while their seatmates anxiously monitor them for signs of vomit. On this particular trip, Felix, eyeing his seatmate, said to me, "If I smell throw-up, it makes me throw up." Me: "She's not going to throw up, honey. We're so close to school." Felix: "But if she throws up and I smell the throw-up, I'll throw up." Me: "Then if she throws up, you'll hold your nose."

So we were literally a block away from school and I thought we were home free when one of my parent chaperones abruptly jumped up and asked the bus driver to let him off. Initially I thought that since we were stuck in traffic so close to school, he figured he'd just let himself off. That is, until his son, whom he'd been sitting with, glumly pointed to the floor of the bus and said morosely, "He threw up."

Yup, my parent chaperone had ralphed onto the floor of the bus. And do you know what happens when you're on a bus that's lurching forward and there's liquid on the floor? That's right, it oozes forward. So the girls in the seat in front of the vomit in question began shrieking, "It's coming toward us!" Meanwhile, his son was left holding this giant water bottle that they'd brought along, and he continued, "And he was throwing up into the water and now I can't drink any more water."

An eternity later, we arrived at school. My motion-sick friends shakily let themselves off the bus. Everyone was tired, starving and -- judging by the unmistakable severity of the pee dances taking place on the sidewalk -- desperate to use the bathroom. As we wearily made our way to the door of the school, the bus driver began honking at me.

He rolled down the window. And he handed me -- can you guess? -- the giant water bottle full of my parent chaperone's upchuck.

TGIF, everyone!