The purpose of this blog is to highlight the good things now happening or possible in public education. Although I will write pieces as often as I can, I welcome contributions from others who are aware of positive happenings in schools or have good ideas for change. My hope is that this blog will become the loudest voice in support of our schools, teachers, and students.
As a reader of many different sources of information, I came across the essay below a couple of weeks ago. Because I was disturbed by it I will not reveal the source or the name of the author. But I will add the comment I originally wrote in response, edited for this blog. I feel justified in editing my comment because of my feelings and my haste in writing it after reading the essay.
I’m a novelist and a relatively new teacher of freshman composition (going into my 4th semester). I’ve been searching for effective teaching methods to help my students improve their writing at the sentence level. To give you a sense of the problems I’m trying to address, here are a few sentences from their essays:
Because now in today’s age if it were opposite and it was a group of males in a store shirtless and a male manager walked in he would 9 out of 10 times ignore it and say that they weren’t doing anything stupid or unnecessary, holding women to a different standard.
The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.
The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
I’ve read books and articles on integrating grammar instruction into a writing curriculum and have adapted the strategies that seemed most promising. I’ve also invented lessons of my own, including “Recognizing Awkward Sentences” and “Improving Awkward Sentences.” But even students who seemed to get the idea when we practiced usually forgot the lessons when they wrote their essays. And, though it hurts to admit this, very few of my students improved significantly—at the sentence level, at least—by the time they handed in their final essays.
I expect awkwardness in a first draft, in student writing and in my own; but I know that I can clear up most of the problems by going back and revising. That’s the skill I’ve tried to teach my students. So far, I haven’t found a way that works.
Frustration has led me to rethink my search. Instead of trying one teaching strategy after another, I want to find teachers who have gotten better results and ask how they did it.
Have you seen significant improvements in your students’ grammar and style between September and June? If so, would you be willing to share some of your methods? The more specifics you can provide, the better.
I want to encourage my students to think creatively. The challenge is to build their confidence at the same time that we teach them to write graceful, grammatically correct sentences. If you’ve accomplished that, please take the time to explain how.
I have always believed that the way to learn how to write is to become an avid reader. It worked for me and my children. It worked even better at the elementary and middle schools where I was the principal. I found that it is easy for sensitive readers, without any special effort or specific instruction, to absorb the structure, vocabulary, and grammar of literature, non-fiction, newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, songs, poems, letters, and anything else that is well written.
I first became aware of the power of reading to create good writers when my youngest son wrote a fairy tale in first grade that he named, “The Bat Who Eats Children”. Actually, his story was a close imitation of “Hansel and Gretel”, added to by what he saw and heard on “Sesame Street,” a television show for children. He was six years old, but had absorbed the basics of writing a fairy tale, along with sound sentence structure and fairly good spelling from reading on his own and being read to.
Later on, when I was an elementary school principal, I worked with teachers who also understood that reading good writing was the foundation for children to learn the structures of prose and poetry. One special advantage of using a piece of professional writing as the starting point for your own writing is that you can take as much or as little from a book or a story as you need. For instance, one of the books our teachers frequently chose for young children to read was “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day” by Judith Viorst. After reading and talking about that book, children would be asked to write about a bad day, a good day, a surprising day, a magical day, etc. in their own lives. It was up to each one of them to choose the kind of day he or she wished to describe and to use as much of the the original book structure and language as needed. Their finished products varied widely, according to their interests, abilities, and experiences, but they always showed some degree of learning about the basics of good writing and correct English grammar.
In addition to fiction, teachers used examples of other types of writing to teach students how to write newspaper articles, poems, greeting cards, advertisements, personal and business letters, and even academic essays. It was not a matter of having students read a piece once and then writing something similar, but of getting them well acquainted with a particular genre and using its basics for support in creating something of their own to fulfill their purpose.
I can’t go on to explain the full range of writing students worked on in this brief(?) comment. What I wish to emphasize is that it is possible to teach the basics of good writing-along with correct grammatical structures-to students of any age by having them read pieces of high quality professional writing and then use them as the foundation of their own work.
Today’s post was written by teacher David Harrison and sent to me by a friend, Sam Bommarito, a retired teacher who has contributed pieces before and now is serving as the Co-Editor of Missouri Reader. The piece is very long, but well worth reading and passing on. Enjoy!
When I made up my first poem, I was hungry and tired of waiting. My mother was frying fish in the kitchen and I was sent to the living room to wait for dinner. The words I thought of expressed my need. I liked the way they sounded. “Sometimes I wish/I had a fish/Upon a little dish.” No one told me I had to make up a poem. I was six-years-old. It was just a fun thing to do. My mother taped the poem into my scrapbook. High praise!
Seven decades later I’m still making up poems. Kids ask why I climb out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to settle into my daily writing routine. The reason hasn’t changed. It’s a fun thing to do. Writing poems makes me feel good. Writing well is neither simple nor easy, but it provides me with a sense of gratification that drives my desire to do it again.
I tend to have paper and pen close by. I stash them in my bedroom, my car, and my pockets. If there’s anything I’m better at than recognizing million dollar ideas at unexpected times and places, it’s forgetting them if I don’t quickly scratch out a note. I would never admit to an officer of the law that I’ve made notes in my car. I’m just saying that I have a good many notes that I can’t read the next day.
One of my favorite ways to dive into a poem is by association. I pick a word or phrase and follow where it leads me. “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I don’t remember who said that. By association I realized that the proper addendum for that advice would be, “But mice will hate you.” Mice led to cheese. Cheese led to the moon. If you’re not old enough to know that the moon is made of green cheese, indulge me. The moon led to the Man in the Moon, which led to a poem.
THE MAN IN THE MOON
From Using the Power of Poetry
The man in the moon
Eats nothing but cheese.
There’s nothing but cheese to eat.
Often he cries
To the cheddar skies,
“I’m dying for some little treat!”
He dreams of chicken salad, he says,
On slices of fresh whole wheat.
“I yearn for yams,
Or anything gooey or sweet!”
The man in the moon
Eats nothing but cheese —
There’s nothing but cheese to eat —
But oh how he wishes
For tastier dishes,
Learning takes place when we add something new to our base of knowledge and prior experiences. When we ask students to choose writing from the long list of possibilities that vie for their attention, we’re expecting too much if, for them, writing does not bring pleasure. Readers who stumble at making sense of words strung together into sentences and paragraphs often find the shorter, more inviting lines of a poem easier to “get.” Other senses become involved. They hear the beat, feel the rhythm, and see the pictures.
Poetry teaches while it entertains. A letter from a little boy who was a struggling reader expresses what it feels like when words work their magic. “The words (in your poem) have a rhythm to them,” he wrote. “I can hear the beat in my head. Then when I get it down I read it out loud to myself.”
A six-year-old girl was given one of my books called Farmer’s Garden in which a dog interviews various inhabitants of his master’s garden. The girl sat on her mother’s lap and listened to the poetic interviews over and over. She read them silently to herself. She read them aloud. She asked an adult friend to sit down and listen to her read her new poems. She asked the adult to take turns reading with her. The little girl loved the words so much that she began acting out some of the parts, leaping and waving her arms and dancing in exuberant interpretations of what she heard and felt and saw in her imagination.
The following morning she took the book to school. There she organized her classmates into teams. As the book was read aloud, the children performed the girl’s choreographed movements. Was this youngster a struggling reader? I doubt it, but I’m willing to bet that some of her dancing classmates were, and her rambunctious joy in turning words into dance must surely have been good for every reader in the class, wherever they were along the reading scale.
Poems can convey moods, messages, and voices as broad and deep as the experience of being human. Sometimes the most serious among us feel like being silly. The most rambunctious have quiet moments; the classroom comic, his reflective times. We may feel certain emotions so deeply that we find them difficult to talk about. Being embarrassed, abused, poor, homeless, hungry, frightened, degraded, alone, are hard to discuss. Sometimes a poem can express what the tongue cannot.
I remember being mortified as a middle school student when I fell off the back of the bandstand at a school party, still clutching my trombone. I could barely stand the thought of climbing back up and facing the crowd.
FROM THE BACK ROW
From Connecting Dots
Tonight our band performed at school,
on risers in the cafeteria,
music folders on black stands,
our first gig, professional.
My solo came, I stood tall,
pushed back my chair,
nonchalantly took my seat,
Fell off backward, chair and all,
off the back of the top riser,
somersaulted through the air,
crash-landed behind the band.
Huge applause when I reappeared,
climbed the risers carrying my chair.
I wish I’d broken both legs.
A little sympathy is my only chance
Young people in school have almost unlimited opportunities to be embarrassed. Maybe that’s why they can be so sensitive to the plight of others. This student knew exactly what I was talking about.
“Dear Mr. Harrison, My favorite poem was the one with you falling off the risers. When you fell off the risers I bet you were embarrassed. I have embarrassing moments too.”
Another common experience is being the new kid. Whether in church, neighborhood, class, school, or community, nearly every child knows what it’s like to be on the outside feeling alone and excluded. If you’re a new kid and you’re shy, you can spend a lot of time staring at your desk or looking out the window — anywhere to avoid making direct eye contact.
From Connecting Dots
What did you do
in school today?
I saw a boy
looking at me.
but he looked away.
His friends ran up,
yelling and laughing.
I laughed, too,
but they looked away.
I answered wrong
in class today.
The boy laughed,
I looked away.
I know I’m reaching my audience when I receive notes like this one.“Mr. Harrison, I’m new so I relate. That’s exactly what happened to me.”
A poet’s job is to write so that readers want to read what he has to say. I like nature. One day on a walk I stooped to examine a single hoof print pressed into a soft spot in the path. Alone in the forest silence, I felt somehow connected to the wild creature that had walked where I now stood, perhaps moments earlier. I didn’t think, “Aha! A poem!” But I carried the memory away with me, and the act itself became part of the poem that I eventually wrote.
From Wild Country
A single hoof mark
in the moist trail,
probably a deer.
We’ll never meet
yet our paths cross
In these woods
our separate ways
but standing briefly
where this deer stood
is a memory
beyond the wood
The deer poem seemed as inevitable as the fish poem of my youth. They both sprang from sudden urges to record a moment that felt important. I’ve developed a lot of tricks over the years to help me find my way into poems, but most of my favorites take their voices from something as simple and personal and compelling as wanting to eat or crossing paths with a deer. I am my first and most important audience. If I don’t like it, I take for granted that my readers won’t either.
Serious times in our lives often generate serious writing to describe them, but not always. As I look around at the size of a lot of us these days, I want to write about the enormity of the problem. But to write a poem about being overweight that might be read aloud in a class would risk embarrassing some of the students. Poets have a responsibility to consider such possibilities before choosing how to present a subject. My solution in this case was to keep it light and silly.
THE PERFECT DIET
From The Boy Who Counted Stars
Mrs. LaPlump weighed 300 pounds,
Her husband weighed 202.
“I’ve got to lose some weight,” she said,
I’ll give up potatoes and pizza and bread.”
Mr. LaPlump said, “I will, too.
My darling, I’ll do it for you.”
When each of them lost 100 pounds,
He only weighed 102.
“I’ve got to lose more weight,” she said.
“This next 100,” said he, “I dread,
For when we are finished I’ll only weigh 2,
But darling, I’ll do it for you.”
When they lost another 100 pounds,
Her figure was perfect and trim,
But there is a lesson here I think,
Mr. LaPlump continued to shrink
Till one day he disappeared down the sink,
And you may find this grim, my dears,
But it was the end for him.
If we expect to draw in readers and entice writers, we need to learn what kids like. School visits help authors remember the differences from one grade to another. Sometimes this can be a challenge! If I spot some boys in the back, slouching at their seats, ankles crossed, determined to be unreachable, I play my trump card: one of my nonfiction books called Cave Detectives. One passage describes the discovery of ancient claw marks high on a cavern wall.
“Those deep gouges in the clay were put there by a bear,” I tell them.
The boys, still motionless, peer out through their eyelashes.
“Fourteen feet up the wall.”
“Four feet higher than a basketball goal.”
They lean forward.
“That bad boy could weigh 2,000 pounds, run 45 miles per hour, and was always hungry for meat.”
They’re mine. Sometimes so much so that I have a hard time moving on to the next topic. Think those boys would read a poem about a bear? Would they try their hand at making up their own bear poems? I’d bet on both.
When I was developing Connecting Dots, 54 memory-based poems that covered the arc of my life from 3 through my age at the time (early 60s), I visited P.S. 86 in the Bronx. With the wonderful support of the principal, reading coach, and teachers from third through sixth grades, every poem was read aloud in classes and rated on a grid by every student in those grades.
At the time more than 1,700 students attended P.S. 86. Weeks later I received 12,000 ratings that ranged from yuck to amazing. I learned a lot about what those kids liked and didn’t like. I removed some poems, expanded others at their request, and added others that they suggested.
But stimulating kids to read poetry is only half the battle. They also need to write their own poems. On my blog, I post a new word each month and challenge poets of all ages to write poems inspired by that word. A teacher in Florida began submitting student poems. The poems were often weak, but the students soon became fully engaged in the effort. The teacher told me that her students came from a low socioeconomic area and were in a Level 1 ninth grade class. No one ever asked them to write poetry although Level 1 students were given Intensive Reading courses to help them with the FCAT (Florida’s standardized test).
She said, “I truly believe that by shoving reading lessons down their throats without the benefit of creative writing lessons served only to bore them to tears and caused them to shut down.” Who wants to read boring, nonfiction passages about a spider or a country they never heard of before? Now, when I introduced poetry, they were interested. At first, they tried to act cool and aloof, but I knew them… When I showed them poetry, they were a little interested. When I taught them to read poetry, they were more interested. When I told them to write poetry, they thought I was crazy.
When they wrote poetry, they came alive.
Were the poems good? No, not technically. But they poured their hearts into them and they loved seeing their names on your blog.
And that is when their reading scores went up.”
And that seems like a good place for me to end.
HAVE IT YOUR OWN WAY
From The Mouse was Out at Recess
Me and Sally are pals!
Sally and I are pals.
I didn’t know you knew her!
Then why did you say,
“Me and Sally are pals?”
Sally and I are pals.
You said it again!
“Me and Sally are pals!”
Sally and I are pals!
Have it your own way.
You and her are pals.
But I don’t believe it,
And Sally won’t neither!
You know what? This is just a fun thing to do.
David Harrison, one of Missouri’s favorite authors, has written over seventy books and numerous articles. His writing has been translated, anthologized, and presented on stage, television, radio, cassette, and CD-ROM. David has been a musician, scientist, editor, and businessman. He holds degrees from the following universities: Drury, Emory, and Missouri State. David is Poet Laureate of Drury University.
Today’s post is a recount of the schooling situation in Detroit, Michigan. Since it is a long and complex story, I have chosen to use lengthy quotes from an article written by Kate Zernike and published in the New York Times on June 28 rather than my own words. I copied the significant paragraphs that give the history of charters in Detroit and omitted the stories of families who have suffered under the charter system. I wrote only the first three paragraphs below. Everything after that are quotes from the article.
The biggest problem with today’s charter schools is that they are almost always “a pig in a poke.” Many parents buy into them because of their lofty titles, false advertising, and exaggerated promises. They don’t really know anything about the teaching or behavioral systems in a school, nor are they likely to find out before enrolling their children.
This situation is especially true in high poverty areas where the public schools have been under-served for decades and acquired a bad reputation. The local officials give up because they haven’t the money, time or expertise to repair the physical damage to school buildings or to create high quality school programs. And, so, the vultures move in and start feasting on public funds, unwary parents and helpless children.
One city that is a showplace for expansion of charters and the destruction of public schools is Detroit. We’ve been hearing about the educational disaster there for years, but Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any other American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. Sadly, half the Detroit charters perform only as well, or worse than, its traditional public schools.
“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”
“The 1993 state law permitting charter schools was not brought on by academic or financial crisis in Detroit — those would come later — but by a free-market-inclined governor, John Engler. An early warrior against public employee unions, he embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run to force public schools to innovate.”
“To throw the competition wide open, Michigan allowed an unusually large number of institutions, more than any other state, to create charters: public school districts, community colleges and universities. It gave those institutions a financial incentive: a 3 percent share of the dollars that go to the charter schools. And only they — not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education — could shut down failing schools.”
“For-profit companies seized on the opportunity; they now operate about 80 percent of charters in Michigan, far more than in any other state. The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors.”
“Sometimes, they were one and the same, as with J. C. Huizenga, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who founded Michigan’s largest charter school operator, the for-profit National Heritage Academies. Two of the biggest players in Michigan politics, Betsy and Dick DeVos — she the former head of the state Republican Party, he the heir to the Amway fortune and a 2006 candidate for governor — established the Great Lakes Education Project, which became the state’s most pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative.”
“Even as Michigan and Detroit continued to hemorrhage residents, the number of schools grew. The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools.”
“As elsewhere across the country, charters concentrated in urban areas, particularly Detroit, where the public schools had been put under state control in 1999. In 2009, it was found to be the lowest performing school district on national tests.”
“Operators were lining up to get into the city, and in 2011, after a conservative wave returned the governor’s office and the Legislature to Republican control for the first time in eight years, the Legislature abolished a cap that had limited the number of charter schools that universities could create to 150.”
“Some charter school backers pushed for a so-called smart cap that would allow only successful charters to expand. But they could not agree on what success should look like, and ultimately settled for assurances from lawmakers that they could add quality controls after the cap was lifted.”
“In fact, the law repealed a longstanding requirement that the State Department of Education issue yearly reports monitoring charter school performance.”
“At the same time, the law included a provision that seemed to benefit Mr. Huizenga, whose company profits from buying buildings and renting them back to the charters it operates. Earlier that year he had lost a tax appeal in which he argued that a for-profit company should not have to pay taxes on properties leased to schools. The new law granted for-profit charter companies the exemption he had sought.”
“Just as universities were allowed to charter more schools, Governor Rick Snyder created a state run district, with new charters, to try to turn around the city’s worst schools. Detroit was soon awash in choice, but not quality.”
“Twenty-four charter schools have opened in the city since the cap was lifted in 2011. Eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below the district’s dismal performance expanded or opened new schools.”
“With about $1.1 billion in state tax dollars going to charter schools, those that grant the charters get about $33 million. Those institutions are often far from the schools; one, Bay Mills Community College, is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nearly 350 miles away — as far from Detroit as Portland, Me., is from New York City.”
“By 2015, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an unreasonably high number of charters among the worst performing 5 percent of public schools statewide. The number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.”
“With all the new schools, Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than it needs. The competition to get students to school on count day — the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school — can resemble a political campaign. Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals. They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.”
“Charter schools are concentrated downtown, with its boom in renovation and wealthier residents. With only 1,894 high school age students, there are 11 high schools. Meanwhile, northwest Detroit — where it seems every other house is boarded up, burned or abandoned — has nearly twice the number of high school age students, 3,742, and just three high schools. The northeastern part of the city is even more of an education d Like others elsewhere, charter schools receive roughly the same per-pupil state dollars as public schools. But in Detroit, it is about $7,300 a year — roughly half what New York or Boston schools get, and about $3,500 less than charters in Denver or Milwaukee.”
“This winter, as Detroit Public Schools ran out of money, Mayor Mike Duggan, a pro-charter Democrat now in his third year, argued that the traditional schools needed a solution that would address the problems posed, and faced, by charter schools.”
“He proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate.”
“Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, the mayor got a Republican senator from western Michigan to sponsor legislation, including the commission. Governor Snyder, distracted and shamed by the scandal over the lead poisoning in the water supply of the mostly black and state-controlled city of Flint, was in no position to defend the state control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal.”
“In February, four prominent Detroit Republican business executives, including two sons of former governors, testified in support of the plan before the Legislature, arguing that 20 years had proved that the free market alone is not enough to improve schools. One of them, Mr. Romney, likened schools to a public utility.”
“But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters and argued instead to kill off the Detroit Public Schools.”
“In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.”
“For parents, the search remains for good schools—charter or public.”
I didn’t plan to write anything for my blog today, but then I read an article in The Oregonian this morning that had some good news, and I just couldn’t hold off telling readers about it for another day.
Although the research findings that doing homework has no positive effect for elementary school students have been around for several years, nobody has paid much attention to them. Not only do most schools still pile homework on young kids, but most parents also want it for their children, even if they have to spend a lot of time helping them understand what to do and checking the finished product.
However, at least one school in Portland, Oregon has gotten the message and acted on it. Cherry Park Elementary School, has declared loud and clear to its students’ parents that their children should use their after school time for playing, exercising and enjoying family interactions. The school still encourages parents to read to their children if they have the time and the children want it, but it is doing away with the reading logs required until now that had to list the number of minutes a child read or was read to each day and be signed by a parent.
I wish I could say that all this has happened through teacher and principal enlightenment, but from what I read it sounds more like widespread aggravation. Cherry Park School is in a high poverty community where families speak more than 30 different languages. I wouldn’t be surprised if getting reading logs with the requested information has been a hassle and that many parents complained about doing it.
Personally, I don’t approve of homework for elementary students either, but I believe strongly that having parents read aloud to their children is a powerful force in building their interest in books, knowledge of literary structure, and vocabulary. In this case it seems like it just wasn’t feasible on a grand scale. Still, I hope parents who can handle it will still continue, and that classroom teachers will fill out the empty places by reading aloud to their students as often as possible. Even 10 or 15 minutes of listening to a good book can mean a happy ending to the school day for many children.
When I decided to describe the special education program we created in our schools in a small Oregon school district it was because it was so different—and far better for the children involved—than what exists in Georgia today. I was appalled by what was described about Georgia’s segregated schools for disabled students, and so proud of the program we created, that I wanted to shout about it from the housetops. However, over the past couple of days I realized that I was giving much more information about our program than most readers would need or want to know. But, since it was too late to cut off my story in the middle, I finished it here, below. I hope that among my readers there are still some people who are interested in programs for disabled children in our public schools.
From the beginning, our special Needs Program was supported by the structures and practices that already existed in our schools. Our elementary classrooms were mixed-grade, and classrooms at all levels included children of varied abilities and interests. The K-8 curriculum we developed was flexible and project-centered. To teach it we used tradebooks and reference books at various reading levels–no textbooks. Inside classrooms the furniture arrangements were informal and inviting, and the restrictions on student time and movement were few.
For the most part teachers taught small groups of students, brought together for a specific purpose and dissolved after the goals were reached. Large group instruction was used mainly for modeling new assignments or strategies that everyone needed to know or making changes in classroom rules or procedures.
All students—including special needs children– were expected to work with a partner much of the time, acting as collaborators, reciprocal tutors and critics. Everyone was evaluated on his or her own progress, effort, and ingenuity. When some students had difficulties that got in the way of learning, teachers worked out individual plans to help them succeed.
Rarely did we retain any students in grade. It seemed better to promote them and arrange to teach what they needed over the next year in a mixed grade classroom. For us “standards” meant that we expected the best from each student within the range of their abilities and experiences, not a fixed quantity or quality of work
Using this foundation we designed appropriate programs for each special needs student. Late in each school year teachers would assign students to classrooms for the coming year. Their goal was to create good academic and social combinations everywhere, yet also to keep the total number of special needs students in any classroom manageable.
In addition to classroom teachers, who were the plan managers for special needs students, some special needs students needed an adult friend at school. We did our best to find mentors within our staff who had the time and willingness to develop a relationship with such children. In most situations it was enough for the mentor to make regular contact and show interest in the child’s life, but a few needed more in terms of time and attention. So our special education teacher took on those hard cases, doing such things as playing board games during recesses with a boy who had trouble controlling his temper on the playground or eating lunch with a girl who was ignored at home.
Since children with disabilities often have trouble making and keeping friends, mentors also spent time talking about, modeling, and rehearsing social skills. In addition we adopted a device called “A circle of Friends” to help children enlarge and strengthen their social world.
Because we never had the time or the skills to do a formal study of our program, we based our evaluations on what we could see in the actions of students, teachers, and parents. What was clear after the first year of operation was that the people affected liked the new program better than the old traditional system. Our only “hard data” were records of detentions, suspensions, and expulsions. Over the first three years of program operation those records showed dramatic improvements. In the first year only three students received severe disciplinary actions, and over the following two years no one needed such actions.
One thing was certain—though it may be indelicate to say so—we saved a significant amount of school funds by using the new program. Educational assistants came cheaper than special education teachers, and having only regular classrooms was cheaper than also providing special education classrooms. Although economy was never one of our goals, we were pleased to have more money to spend on enriching the new program and expanding the school library, art classes, and extracurricular opportunities for all students.