Mind Spaces

In which I explain why I don’t have much time for things beyond the ken of my school, at the moment.

I’m in the middle of my 5th year of teaching special education in the Bronx. Each year I’ve taught, I take on increasing responsibilities, which leaves me little time nor space to devote to extracurricular hobbies or pursuits, such as writing blog posts, either here or on my other one, or on any other site I’ve posted on.

On my run today, I was thinking about how I explain this to people when I apologize for not having written anything recently. I typically say something like, I haven’t the time this year to write, as I am engaged in two different leadership programs. Yet this excuse is not wholly accurate, for I DO sometimes have time, such as when I’ve completed my curriculum planning for my classes, and finished completing any other professional demands. So it isn’t a lack of time, precisely. I seem to have time to scan my newsfeeds and tweet out links, for example.

Another way I sometimes I explain this is as a lack of “cognitive capacity” for pursuing additional tasks, suggesting that at the end of a long day or week, I lack some mental capacity for engaging in complex thinking outside the immediate realm of my professional tasks. This explanation gets somewhat closer at the truth, I think.

I thought today of a better way of explaining this, with a term I call “mindspaces.” For any given life pursuit, there’s a certain dedication of mindspace to it, in which I have to be able to switch off other areas of my mind and thus devote my full attention to that pursuit.

In my professional life, the mindspaces I shuttle between have expanded. This year, one mindspace that occupies much of my life is a curricular one, as I process and plan an entirely new and complex ELA curriculum, for 3 different classes–my 6th grade ICT (co-taught) class, my 8th grade ICT class, and my 8th grade 12:1 class. I then have to shift each day into my special education coordinator mind space, in which I schedule IEP meetings, conduct short-term or long-term visioning and planning for improving the implementation of services, or engage with parents, teachers, staff, and students around the process of implementation of services. Those are two of the biggest mindspaces for me, but I also have the mindspace dedicated to planning with my 8th grade team around an end of year performance assessment for students, which is a complex and difficult undertaking for us. I have the two different mind spaces of leadership programs I’m undertaking, and how they apply to my work life and beyond.

Those are just a few examples. My engagement in multiple mindspaces can delimit my ability to engage beyond those realms in additional pursuits, such as continuing my expositions here on The Federalist Papers, exploring the concept of schools as ecosystems on my other blog, or even simply pushing myself to go back down the stairs to go on a run at the end of the day.

I’ve gotten better at shifting between these spaces, such as by seeking and chunking connections between spaces, learning to sit back and await opportunities to arise rather than constantly pursuing them, and being OK with not being able to read or engage with every single newsletter or tweet that comes my way.

But for now, I’m learning to negotiate and transition between multiple mindspaces such that I increase my effectiveness, productivity, and wellbeing, rather than the reverse.

The MLK Memorial and Me

In February, I went to a conference in D.C. My wife came down to join me afterwards. We don’t get out much, and I’ve barely seen much of my East Coast environs, barring last year’s visit to Philly. At the top of our list of things to see was the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was the newest memorial, and also slightly controversial.

As we approached the memorial, we read quotations from MLK’s speeches that are engraved along a wall that leads up to his statue. We then walked around the central monument, which depicts MLK with his arms crossed, embedded in a chunk of granite mountain that appears to have slid forward from its face (Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope). His hands are sinewy and strong, veins bulging, and his eyes gaze stoically across the water. There is a sense of calm and might, but also a deep sense of tragedy. The unfinished look of the overall work contributes to this sense.

We took our obligatory picture, and then my wife asked if I could take her picture in front of one of the quotations we had passed earlier along the wall.

“It reminds me of you,” she said, somewhat shyly. We walked back over and I took her picture in front of the quotation, which reads:

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their heads.”

She seemed to feel that the reason why I am a teacher and work hard each and every day related to something like the sentiment expressed in that quotation. I couldn’t quite see myself in it, however.

This post is my explanation of why.

A little further down the wall, I saw another quotation that did speak deeply to me and about what I am passionately committed to in my work:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalty must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

I took a picture of this one as well. We then walked away from the MLK memorial towards the Roosevelt memorial, which is a long, meandering wall and pathway of red stone with various niches and spaces for reflection along the way. Quotations from F.D.R. are sprinkled next to reflective pools, waterfalls, and scattered stones. But it was a quote in a little niche from his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, that reached out most to me. And it links together in theme with that quotation from MLK:

“The structure of world peace can not be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation . . . It must be a peace that rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”

This theme of common purpose, of a struggle for a global, overarching vision through cooperative effort, is what drives me and motivates me to do the work that I do. I was flattered by my wife’s belief that I do what I do because of a deep-seated passion for social justice, but there was a cognitive dissonance I didn’t feel comfortable with in that first quote. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it seems to have to do with some underlying sense of martyrdom (“I have the audacity to believe. . .”), a stance of personal virtue, nobility, and provocation that I don’t fully identify with.

A passion for a moral mission, bordering at times on the messianic, is a trait of some that enter into teaching or social service as a profession. It is common for teachers to speak of teaching as a “calling,” as if they have been drawn into the vocation by a force beyond their ken. I am frequently talked to by others who are not teachers as if I have forsaken the realm of mere mortals and ascended into an alien sainthood, given the wary respect and sympathy attributed to a monk — that is, with an incredulous, I-would-never-do-that-myself-but-god-bless-you sort of attitude.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Teaching is a profession. It is a career. And yes, it is a tough one, and it is especially tough when teaching special education in a high needs school in an impoverished inner city area. But I moved into this tough career not simply because I wanted to make my world a better place (yes, I am an idealist), but because I wanted — purely selfishly — to develop myself as a leader and a person, to learn firsthand the ground level effects of political and policy decisions, and become a part of something much greater than myself.

I have no illusions that I am changing the world simply because I may impact a handful of childrens’ lives in the confines of one classroom. I realize this is sacrilegious to say. This is critically important work and the impact on one child’s life cannot be diminished. But I believe strongly that the larger system within which we work impacts our nation’s future ever more greatly. We can change the world by working together with others to alter aspects of that system we work and live within. Teachers, parents, children, policymakers, state legislatures, mayors, citizens, these are the people that collectively can change the world. I want to learn to look beyond my individual self and work towards a common, global purpose.

This is why the second quotation from MLK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s quotation spoke to me. I’d like to think that I as an individual can influence great change, but realistically speaking, I know that whatever impact I can have on my own is nothing in comparison to what we can achieve when we work together.

Differentiating Professional and Personal Streams

I had the honor of being selected to attend a recent conference on becoming a better blogger, hosted in Washington D.C. by Bellwether Education. This was a great opportunity for me to meet influential professionals engaged in promoting their voice and perspectives on education online, and to learn from them how to better promote and develop my own classroom-based perspectives.

I’d been struggling for a while now with how to develop my professional voice in conjunction with my personal voice. I’ve been blogging for a number of years now, but solely for a literary and/or personal reflection purpose (writing for me has always been a necessary therapy). While I’ve been interested in gaining greater readership, I haven’t actively sought for this through this blog, recognizing that my style of writing (which is decidedly eclectic in nature and topic) doesn’t exactly have mass appeal.

I had already begun differentiating some of my education specific content intended for larger audiences by publishing on GothamSchools’ Community page, which has been a great way to get involved in the online education community and advocate for my perspectives.

But this conference helped to clarify a difficulty that I had not really confronted head-on, which is that this blog, Manderson’s Bubble — which has heretofore catalogued and characterized my internal narratives — was not the proper avenue for me to continue to cultivate my professional voice. I needed to fully differentiate those divergent streams of my writing.

Realizing this, I got in touch with a great fellow educator, Will Johnson, who also writes amazing pieces for GothamSchools Community, and who I had been collaborating with in developing the concept of public schools as ecosystems. We began a collaborative blog specifically for our advocacy of this model, and to develop our online professional voices as special education teachers. (BTW, please check out our introductory collaborative post on the concept of schools as ecosystems and how it relates to current education reform perspectives.)

Our blog is called Schools as Ecosystems, and we have the ambitious goal of putting up a post daily in order to build readership and establish our voices online. If you are interested in education, please follow, bookmark, and share this blog!

I will continue to post here on the Bubble, but posts here will remain personal or literary in nature, rather than pertaining to my professional perspectives.

I’m excited about what Will and I have put up so far and believe that our model is rich enough to continue to explore indefinitely.

In other news, I just had a project on DonorsChoose.org for e-Readers for my students suddenly completely funded! Totally unexpected and awesome! Thanks dad, Jennica, MarieElaina, and The Hagedorn Fund! I’ve had quite the amazing year, aside from my school environment turning ridiculously negative (more on that later).

Insomniac Thoughts On Hard Work and Practice, and Some Goals

In which I am struck with insomnia, and reflecting therein on practices I had been neglecting, and an outline thereof of vowed goals to sustain in el futuro.

I’ve been struck, unfortuitously, with a bout of insomnia tonight, which I have been fortunate not to have had in quite some time. Before moving to NYC and plunged headfirst into a whirlwind of frenetic work and survival, I used to get insomnia a fair amount. I tended to utilize such times for writing. Which may be one reason, come to think of it, why I no longer write as frequently as I once did as a West Coast whippersnapper. During college, I wrote sometimes multiple short pieces a day. Now, many moons later, it’s more like once a month.

While I can’t really help that my cognitive and emotional space is spent on other also fairly important things, like teaching kids, I do miss delving into this personal creative space, just as I miss other creative or emotional outlets I used to devote some time to, such as playing my hand drums or hiking/running up the sides of mountains. And I know that every day that I no longer do these things, I am slowly losing the chops that I once had.

I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers at the moment, and his argument about success as attributable mainly to extensive practice, as opposed to talent, made a lot of sense to me. I remember my cross country coach in high school (a terrible math teacher, but an excellent running coach) telling us that after two days of rest we would begin losing a certain percentage of our fitness. And I remember reading an interview with John McLaughlin–one of my favorite musicians and world renowned for his lightning fast licks on the guitar–in which he stated that he could tell that he was losing his skills after only two days without practice.

While at a conference recently in Seattle, during a roundtable discussion with other educators about “hybrid” roles for teachers, one teacher who was currently in that role (1/2 time in the classroom, 1/2 time doing policy related work) commented on how during time spent away from the classroom, such as the 2 days we had spent at this conference, he felt his connection to classroom practice slipping away.

I don’t know if 2 days is some magic number, but the big idea here is that without nearly daily practice in something, we begin to lose the skills and capabilities (one could even call it a type of ‘muscle memory‘) we had worked so hard to build. Furthermore, I’m reflecting on the notion that mastery is not some peak that one reaches and plants a flag in and retains from there on out for the rest of one’s life. Mastery has to be built through a lot of hard work and practice (Gladwell says roughly 10,000 hours), and then sustained.

Though I do think that there are certain tracks and pathways that, once formed, can be more easily re-awakened, even if they haven’t been practiced in a while. For example, I’ve been running for many years, but l’ll go through sometimes long periods where I don’t run at all, for reasons such as work, the season, or travel. But when I do begin running again, after a short period of initial soreness, it’s pretty easy for me to ease back into it to the point where I was before. Of course, I ain’t a “master” runner. I don’t run races or anything. But my point is that if you’ve invested a fair amount of time in something in the past, if you begin doing it again, after a short re-learning period, you’re back on track fairly quickly based on where you left off.

All of this is essentially to say that I’m realizing that I have to get much more disciplined about investing more time back into activities and practices that are important to me to develop and maintain, such as writing as an avenue of self-exploration, reflection, connection to a larger community, and expansion of thoughts and feelings.

So here is an action plan, which I am hesitant to lay out as I hate promising things that I don’t follow up on, and I also doubt that anyone really cares about my personal goals, but I feel like it’s better to lay out concrete, explicit goals if this is really important to me:

  • I will write by hand in my journal 2 nights a week before going to bed (writing by hand forces me to produce a substantially different style of thought and writing, since I’m mainly accustomed to writing on a keyboard)
  • I will publish 1 blog post a week
  • I will play my hand drums once a week
  • I will hike at least twice a year

There it is. Now I’ve got to do the much harder work of holding myself to it.

The Great Bathroom Debate

Recently Newt Gingrich made some remarks about poor children learning the value of hard work through janitorial duties that has generated some commentary in the Twitterverse and on blogs.

My first thought in reaction to this, aside from a general distate for Gingrich’s firebrandism in general, was that he’s got it completely backwards: it’s in fact the rich kids who must be taught the value of hard work. These are the kids who will most likely never have to really struggle, and that have been raised with the expectation that the world caters to their needs and whims. Though poor kids may struggle with developing a strong work ethic in the menial jobs that many of them are unfortunately slated to endure (more on that below) — they hold no illusions that the world centers around them.

But after hastily posting something to this effect on my Twitter, which I botched since I was using a junky old phone, I rethought the classism inherent in both of these positions.

The fact is, as Andy Rotherham points to in his take on Newt’s statements, ALL kids need to be “systematically taught life-skills.” This doesn’t have to be a poor vs. rich kid conundrum. But the issue it does raise is whether in our frantic push to get all kids “college ready,” we are neglecting those character building experiences that help children to learn the value in hard work. We have a tendency in the United States to demean the challenge and value of technical skills and craftsmanship. Recently, I watched the Kings of Pastry, and was inspired by French President Sarkozy’s speech, in which he wisely advises not to consider “manual knowledge to be less noble than academic knowledge, less capable to create wealth and well being.” This is advice we should learn to heed here in the United States.

I personally learned the value of hard work by cleaning bathrooms. I cleaned a lot of them over the 5 years that I worked at a camp and conference center in South Lake Tahoe, and trained others in how to clean them as well. And I believe that cleaning a bathroom truly shows the nature of one’s character.

To clean a bathroom well, you have to be committed to the personal experience of a complete stranger, whom will most likely not even appreciate, let alone notice, your work. You have to struggle to pick all the hairs out of the crevices of the tile, stuck to the edges of the tub, caught in the base of the toilet. You have to get down on your knees to scrub the grime out of the shower curtain, and the soap residue caked onto the soap dish. Not to get too in depth here, but you sometimes have to witness and clean up the extremely unpleasant aftermaths of a stranger’s digestive issues. That’s a deep commitment to the service of your fellow man.

I don’t think it’s such a terrible idea to suggest that all children should learn to serve others, not merely themselves. Perhaps cleaning bathrooms is a bit too unsavory to expect them to have to perform*, but certainly engaging them in tasks that better their school or community environment, such as cleaning their classrooms, or collecting recycling, or picking up garbage in their local park, or planting gardens around their school, should be considered an essential part of their public school experience.

But let’s remove the prejudice that only certain children need to be taught the value of hard work. And in this recognition, let’s further recognize that we must stop demeaning the value of vocational education and technical skills. We all need to learn to value and appreciate those who serve us, every single day, stocking our supermarkets and convenience stores with produce and products, cleaning our bathrooms and hotels, serving our food and maintaining our cars. There is nothing wrong or undignified with being a plumber, a car mechanic, a janitor, an electrician, or a housekeeper. My grandmother came from Sweden and worked her way around the country, as a single mother, cleaning houses and serving families. In my personal work experiences, I have cleaned bathrooms, made beds, stocked shelves, and served customers in both retail and hospitality industries, and now as a teacher, I serve children and their families. And I value this work I have done and am proud of it, because working hard and serving others is the foundation of our economy.

Until we learn to stop demeaning such work, most children will naturally never learn to see the value in working hard to serve others or to take pride in working their way up through a trade or industry. Especially when it’s perceived as menial labor with no positive outcomes. And while some of our children will be “college ready,” until we teach them concrete skills and the values they will need to succeed, most children will not be “life ready.”

* One of the things Rotherham points to in his article in Time is that cleaning bathrooms is too dangerous for children to perform due to the chemicals that are used. Having cleaned many bathrooms using chemicals, I am acutely aware of this danger, and so as housekeeping manager, I researched and developed my own non-toxic cleaning solutions to protect the safety and health of myself and my employees. These solutions are cheap to make, just as effective in cleaning as the chemicals we unnecessarily invest in, and scalable for larger operations. Please visit my website, Environmentally Sound Solutions, for the specific solutions I used.

That D-Day on the Event Horizon

Scared child
Image via Wikipedia

As a public school student, I recall dreading the first day back after the summer vacation long before that fateful day arrived. Its shadow loomed large and ever increasingly ominous over the last few weeks, tainting my prolonged nocturnal fiction book reading marathons. The sight of back-to-school sales were enough to make my stomach recoil. I imagine that this is how soldiers preparing to storm a certain beach in Normandy would have felt, readying themselves to plunge into an uncertain future that contained at the most death, and at the least, certain horror — though I suppose mixed in there is that unique elated excitement born from the headlong rush into a danger that you know will change you irrevocably.

As a public school teacher, the feeling as the first day of school draws nigh is disturbingly similar. It’s different, of course, because now I am an adult, and I am the teacher, and I am much more in control of certain variables of myself and my situation than I was as a hormonally charged and overly sensitive adolescent desperately scrounging for social and emotional currency. So there’s a bit more of a positive edge to this adrenaline coursed pulsing of nausea that edges and nips at my stomach as I think ahead to that swiftly approaching D-Day, but otherwise it feels more or less the same. It’s not exactly something I relish, as you can probably tell.

It seems to me that there is something odd about some of the traditions and rituals that we cling to in our society. One of them being this prolonged summer vacation between different grades (another being our adherence to daylight savings time). Most of us are aware that disadvantaged students lose a significant portion of their academic gains in learning over the summer. The students that I have been working with, whom are not only disadvantaged socio-economically speaking, but furthermore cognitively speaking, lose nearly all of their learning if they are not practicing their acquired skills during the summer. Which was pretty far back (2-4 grade levels behind) to begin with.

This has been the first summer since I began teaching that I’ve fully enjoyed, as the last two I’ve spent most of taking trainings, exams and classes. And therefore I can state that having extended vacations — during which I am still getting paid — is a very nice thing indeed. But I can also say that I think it’s just a tad overlong. Since coming back from my honeymoon, I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things: waking up early, staying on top of my Twitter and news feeds, responding to emails, putting together to-do lists and checking off items. But it’s really bloody hard when you’ve just completely gone off the whole map of what it means to be in a structured schedule and environment.

I’m not whining. I’m bringing this up to make the point that I don’t think having prolonged summer breaks is good for either students nor adults. Both students and adults may say that we enjoy 2-3 month long summer breaks on principle, but the fact is that even students — except for those sent away to posh summer camps — begin to flounder in the over abundance of free time and get just a little bit, well, bored. Or perhaps just a bit directionless. We all need to have some kind of structure in our lives to help keep us developing and healthy. During the long summer, that structure, unless maintained by strict parenting (on the part of students) or self-discipline (on the part of teachers), tends to fall to the wayside. And much that had been built during the school year is therefore left to fester.

I would much prefer to have more plentiful but shorter vacations, as Kathleen Porter-Magee suggests in this Room for Debate post from a while back. Something on the scale of 2 weeks, as opposed to 2 months. Just long enough to really enjoy it and ease up the pace and tension, but not so long that I’ve forgotten what it means to work entirely. But more importantly, this would much reduce the severity of that adrenaline inducing sense of nausea that the first day of school brings after an overlong summer vacation.

Part of the reason for the fear and nervousness that accompanies the first day of school is not only that summer is ending — it is because you know that you are about to be plunged head-first into a long and seemingly never-ending tunnel of frenzied efforts to stay on top of a pile of emotionally and cognitively and physically demanding tasks during 70 hour work-weeks that never stops piling up in front of you, with only the occasional 3-day weekend or stray “winter recess” or “spring break” to keep you functionally sane and from developing scurvy. If we had more vacations in lieu of a long summer break, these could help keep both the students and adults capable of functioning in a somewhat rational and civilized manner and from developing strange growths in their necks and holes in their stomach linings.

Sigh. Well, yes, I’ve rather been enjoying this summer. Lots of beer (and subsequent belly distending, which I attempt to counterbalance with running) and wine, hanging out with beautiful and wonderful friends and family, savoring fresh pineapple, papaya and coconut. Learning how to cook again. Reveling in my new marriage and amazing catch of a wife. I’ve even been reading fiction books! That have nothing to do with education! Just for the fun of it! (Can you tell that I feel vaguely guilty?)

And as that first day draws ever nearer, I attempt to fight back the eddying fear of the unknown by beginning to prepare in whatever way I can. But here’s the thing, folks. In the world of public education, you can never be fully prepared. So you are just left with that nauseous, sinking, fluttery feeling every morning until suddenly you wake up several weeks after the school year has hit you, and you’ve become fully immersed in your professional self once again . . .

Progress Towards Goals

A review of my progress towards the goals I had set out to accomplish in my school this year

In November, I posted some of the efforts and goals I was targeting within my school for the year. As promised, I will now review how I’ve done. I had a wide range of goals and they were kinda lofty. Over the course of the year, I’ve learned more about the challenges that are faced in the actual implementation of systemic changes. Some of the targets I originally began with have shifted as my school’s priorities have changed, as well as my own priorities and interests. Some goals I dropped not because I didn’t believe they were important, but because I saw that I’d be fighting a losing battle. I attempted to focus my efforts in areas where I knew I could make some headway or that I had earned enough political capital to advocate for.

As a review, here were some of the goals I’d outlined in November:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

I’ve encountered substantial frustrations in working towards my goals. These hurdles have taught me that for real change to occur, you have to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on the most basic foundations that will sustain that change. For example, one of the systems we were working to put into place in our school was structured grade level team meetings, held according to a consistent protocol. We envisioned these teams successfully performing inquiry into student work and collaboratively designing instructional units, interventions, and assessments together. And some teams did achieve this to a degree that was quite substantive in comparison to the past. However, the reality is that sustaining a focus amongst a group of teachers over the course of a school year requires some fundamental components in place that was all too often lacking. It requires a strong facilitator, consistent and frequent meetings, planning and preparation for the meetings, well established roles and responsibilities, an administration willing to hold teachers accountable for their meetings, and open channels of communication. When these components are scattered or missing, running meetings that are productive can be highly difficult. It’s also difficult when the majority of teachers view the meetings as an encroachment on their time instead of as a useful opportunity to collaborate as professionals.

Despite these challenges, however, progress was made. Some goals we’ve made substantial headway on, such as introducing the Common Core Standards and making the process of inquiry more authentic. Others, we’ve only begun to lay down the groundwork for. For example, thanks to the help of our network STOPP team, we now have an in-school team established for behavior referrals, and we have an official behavioral referral form. The fact that the groundwork has been laid is in and of itself noteworthy, because now there is a basis for renewed effort towards achieving real progress in the next year.

One of the biggest challenges I now am aware of that we face is that of the specters of external accountability, in the form of state testing and reviews of the school. In both circumstances, shit hits the fan. The administration freaks out and runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this induces the teachers and their students to assume an unhealthy dose of stress as well. I am not opposed to standardized testing nor to school quality reviews or state audits, but I think that the high stakes attached to them are blown far out of proportion to their actual value. All of the hard work our teams had been making fell to the wayside once we began gearing up for testing and an audit was being performed on our school (we hadn’t made AYP for some student populations). Teachers spent their time drilling in test taking skills and making sure that they had student portfolios neatly accessible for adult visitors. The administration spent its time making sure the halls were decorated and bulletin boards looked pretty. These things are perhaps a necessary evil, but I don’t think that long-term sustained efforts such as team meetings should be allowed to fizzle due to these external pressures. I am beginning to see why teachers become jaded and lambast the systems of accountability that produce this kind of short-term hysteria and frenzy, which is ultimately detrimental to real learning and progress.

One goal which I have expanded upon is the idea of making the process of inquiry more authentic. As it was rolled out to us by the DOE, inquiry was all about these rather dry and academic methods of looking at student data. Which I think can be extremely valuable–but it requires a foundation of professional teams with an established protocol, a culture of professionalism and collaboration. And building that foundation in a public school, as I mentioned above, is significantly harder than it sounds. It also requires that the school has a process of curriculum mapping in place, or at least an acknowledged and shared curriculum map in general. When this isn’t really there, inquiry work becomes hollow and useless, because here we are, looking at our students’ deficits and targeting those deficits, but we don’t have any guide to refer back to when we acknowledge that we need to collectively bolster our instruction in certain areas. Once I realized this, I focused most of my efforts towards the end of the year on building a foundation for curriculum development in our school.

I’ve written at length already about my views on the importance of curriculum, so it should be obvious that I place extreme value on it. I also place a lot of weight on the value of professional learning communities. I believe that curriculum must be developed within the forum of professional learning communities. So I focused my main efforts during the school year on promoting the structures for a professional learning community to develop and in developing the technological resources for curriculum development to occur.

Over the course of this year, we’ve been encouraging teachers to begin actively using our school’s Google account to share documents, record meeting minutes, and communicate and collaborate. Even simply getting teachers to log on has proven to be a significant hurdle, and I don’t say this merely to criticize non-technologically savvy teachers. Most of our computers are clunky and old, running Internet Explorer, which does not operate well with Google Doc functions. It makes it pretty hard for folks not accustomed to troubleshooting on computers to get a handle on. These obstacles to merely gaining access to the online resources are significant, because it reduces the efficiency of being able to simply email all the staff and know that people will respond online. Instead, in order to organize things, we’ve had to rely on a combination of word-of-mouth, printing out memos to place in mailboxes, and email. And since I and other teachers have extremely limited time, this greatly decreases the likelihood of us collaborating outside of the venue of scheduled meetings.

Anyway, I’m realizing that I could go on and on about this all day, but it’s probably pretty boring stuff to an outsider. So let me just wrap this up by stating the things that we did accomplish:

  • The Special Education Team met at least 14 times over the course of the year, and discussed issues critical to special educators in NYC, such as implementing the new IEP system (SESIS), understanding Response to Intervention, understanding Phase I special education reform, issues of compliance with state law, building communication amongst all special education service providers, and conducting Functional Behavioral Analysis
  • The Inquiry Team and corollary grade level teams met fairly regularly until state testing rolled around, and began the process of establishing a more consistent protocol
  • I introduced the concept of core domain knowledge to the school, as well as the concept of developing a structured and systematic approach to developing curriculum within the forum of a professional learning community
  • Technology was utilized more widely and some basic issues of access were addressed