What Happens when the Student is Never Enough?

Do you ever feel like you can do nothing right?  Does a person ever make you feel that way?  It is awful.  Defeating.  I want to just crawl into bed and give up.  I want to run away.  I will escape, avoid, flee.  Whatever my tactic, I don’t want to feel like I am incapable.
Imagine a student with a learning disability or an inattentive, hyperactive tendency.  Diagnosis or not.  That student plopped down into a modern day classroom for the No Child Left Behind Era feels like that minute to minute.  They are tested and retested, they are required to move at legislated pacing guides, and are required to perform tasks that demonstrate growth so their teacher can say they aren’t useless.  The lessons become less engaged, they are seated and spoken to, they are inundated with dry learning.  And they struggle.  Daily.  Minute by minute in that environment.  What they need, isn’t being offered, because teachers are being legislated to show scores versus teaching quality teaching strategies.
What happens when a student feels like they can do nothing right?  When every moment isn’t a possibility for success, but of failure.  When they are constantly being told what to  do, how to do it, and then woops, you didn’t do it well enough?  They shut down.  They too want to crawl into bed and give up.  They want to run away.  They will escape, avoid, flee.  Whatever their tactic, that’s where they go.
As educators, we see it all the time.  It may be so prevalent one may not even see it.  They are the quietly withdrawn hiding and slinking further away from success.  Or they are the defiant and active student externalizing the feeling of failure and looking for the system to discipline them out.  All escape artists.
We cannot change the system today, but we can change how our students feel.
  1. Let them know the system doesn’t teach to all students and they are not alone.
  2. Let them know the real world doesn’t expect the same skill set that the NCLB classroom does.
  3. Praise their behaviors.  Praise their successes, even when they look differently than peers, they are valid and they are successful.
  4. Offer them alternatives to paper and pencil.  Take two minutes to hear about their interests.  Then use that in class. Even if its simple, it validates they matter.
  5. Tell them you understand.   Tell them you once felt that way too.  Tell them, its not a feeling they have to take.  They can stand up and look that feeling in the eye and say, “You know what? So what school isn’t my thing right now.  It might be tomorrow, it might be never.  But I know I am valuable, and finishing school is just as valuable.”
  6. Whatever you do, make the effort to counter the effects of the modern day classroom and that feeling students often have when they don’t live up to the standards.  They are enough, and they are worthy.

Middle School Student and Classroom Rewards

goodjobthumbnailSomewhere between the elementary and middle school grades teachers seem to stop rewarding their students’ for good behaviors.  Whereas it is common in the lower grade levels to see a bulletin board decorated with students’ name, color coded successes, and various rewards they will earn as a class or individually…these quietly fall away as students pass into upper grade levels.  This shouldn’t cease just because the students are a bit older.  If anything the need is even greater.  The students are faced with many more classroom management routines as they switch classes and teachers, which also yields less time and therefore less connections between the teacher and student. Not to mention the peer influences have an even greater pull in middle school.

As a middle school, exceptional ed teacher I use a positive reward system in my classroom.  Additionally, I have a behavior management system that provides planned consequences for undesired behaviors.  However, oftentimes that system is not implemented since the positive reward system seems to do the trick and curb unwanted behaviors.  The biggest issue for classroom teachers; is the question, what do middle schoolers want as a reward?  It turns out not much.  Here are some ideas to be used class wide, in special agreement with a particular student, or for a specific event or an especially hectic day/activity.

  1. Mystery student: Offer a class wide reward of something simple such as candy, free homework pass, or a 15 minute social at the end of a week based on the behavior of only one student in the class. However, the identity remains a mystery to the class. I like to pick a student from my raffle jug (more to come on that in #8).  I keep the identity a secret and then at the end of the class or time period, I announce the student’s name and give the class wide reward.  If the student did not earn the reward for the class, I keep their identity secret, put the card back in the raffle jug and no reward is given to anyone.  This works to acknowledge one student in particular, provides cooperation and collaboration between students, and adds some positive peer pressure regarding behaviors.
  2. Mystery trash:  I like to play this at the end of the day/week.  Since we are on a block schedule I can do this Thursday and Friday with the last block of the day.  On other occasions, as I see the classroom needs it or after a busy “project day” I will play this game in an earlier class block.  First I secretly identify a piece of trash somewhere in the room, “the mystery trash.”  Then I give the student 5 minutes to pick up trash without speaking.  If they speak, they sit down.  Then after the 5 minutes (or after the classroom looks fantastic) I announce which student picked up the piece of mystery trash.  That student gets a reward.  Remember to keep your eye on the piece of trash without giving it away, and know the students will want to know in detail what the mystery trash was.
  3. Collect silly stickers:  Yep, middle schoolers will work really hard to collect stickers.  In my room, students have a reward card.  At any given time during class, I give stickers to students that they collect on their MARCH Madness card.  (Our school wide PBIS behavior matrix is based on 3 behavior expectations and the acronym MARCH). This may be for behavior, work ethic, or kindness shown.  After the student has 10 stickers, they turn in their reward card with the item they would like selected circled.  Items listed include; music during independent work, free homework pass, extra points on quiz or test, or to sit in the swirly chair.  These cards are useful later, so it doesn’t just stop there.
  4. Sit in the fuzzy, swirly chair: You really need a special something to sit on or unique place in your classroom that students can earn as a reward.  I have an extremely old and basically unwanted teacher chair in my classroom that is practically vintage.  Somehow, regardless of the mix of students they all always want that chair.  So it is part of my reward system.  Students will work ridiculously hard to get those 10 stickers as this is an item on their card.  I also do random rewards, and pick a student from my raffle jug to give out this reward.  It always amazes me when the “tough guy” kid that is bigger than me is excited to sit in an old, fuzzy, swirly chair from 1967 and will even excitedly volunteer to wipe tables in the cafeteria to earn a sticker!
  5. Let them be the scribe:  I use my raffle jug, to be discussed later…to select students for various duties in the classroom.  One job they enjoy is scribe.  That student can help with writing on the board, under the document camera, and erasing it as needed.  This reward works great for the student with inattentive and hyperactive tendencies since it keeps them moving and focused.
  6. Be the messenger:  Again using my raffle jug, I select a student to be the class messenger.  They will hand back ungraded work, pass out papers or supplies, and take any needed items to another room.  This too is a great task to assign a student that struggles in a long 90 minute block.  (Occasionally, I may select a raffle card from the jug specifically with one student in mind and act out this process sneakily).
  7. Homework Free Challenge:  Besides earning a homework pass in other reward systems, I will offer a challenge to the students as a class.  If there is an especially demanding day, a substitute teacher, or perhaps an assembly…I will let the students know ahead of time that the entire class will earn a homework free day/week if less than 3-5 warnings are given to the class. That means, no more than the designated number of warnings for any student for the entire class. If possible, I will let the class know when the number of warnings is creeping up….but I do not do so by singling out a student.
  8. Raffle jug:  This came about randomly. I was saving the behavior reward cards figuring it was interesting data and that the cumulative of many reward cards might be useful someday.  Now I plop them all in a raffle jug, per class block. I use the raffle jug in planned and spontaneous ways.  Sometimes I just need a student for a one-time task whereas other times it is used to give a planned reward as stated above.  Either way, the raffle jug works great.  I collect the students reward cards after they have earned 10 stickers, give the reward they circled, sign the card and throw it in the jug.  Then I use the cards as needed to select a student and offer a reward.  Students really want to have as many cards in the raffle jug as possible, so earning the stickers has an added incentive. It doesn’t take the students long to realize the more cards the better their chances in the raffle. I use the raffle jug every Friday, and as needed to help boost desired behaviors, and/or pick a student fairly.

Don’t make them grow up too fast, enjoy the festivities, and be silly.  They need it just as much as we do!



Discipline: The Forefront of Reform

discplinereformSchool discipline is in the forefront of current reform. Our need to alter our perspective and practices is evidenced by the widening gaps between students of diversity and students with disabilities when comparing them with their general education peers. Schools are moving away from traditional discipline and finding superior practices in instructional discipline. This is direct response to students graduating ill-prepared for the workforce and the gaps of achievement and discipline statistics (Riddell, 2010).

IDEA 97 was the first legislation that sought to protect students with disabilities from the processes and policies associated with behaviors and discipline. It mandated that students with disabilities could not be removed from school for a behavior that was a manifestation of their disability. Though this initially had its challenges, further mandates clarifying specifics in IDEA 2004 and the encouragement of all schools to move toward a positive and instructive discipline model have help create a more balanced and logical system for discipline with the exceptional education realm (Byrne, 2013).

Schools that promote the positive behavior intervention systems and seek to work from a proactive and instructional discipline perspective do not see a rise in incidents from students with disabilities. Rather all students can benefit. Best practices in the classroom with clear expectations, followed by school wide behavior expectations taught and retaught, supported by positive reinforcement and planned consequences target the entire student population. Furthermore, students with disabilities that are more often demonstrating undesirable behaviors benefit through the repetition and consistency. Within the instructional discipline realm, misbehaviors are seen as teachable moments (Denti, 2014). Collaboration and reflection between teachers, students, and families builds an entire community platform rather than isolating those that repeatedly misbehave. The argument by Adelman and Taylor confirms this stance indicating that behavior problems are not to be dismissed; suspended or expelled. Our goal as educators is to impress academics along with positive social and emotional training (2008).

As a special education teacher, I know students that struggle with academics often disengage. Adelman and Taylor note that students that are disengaged then misbehave. Students with learning problems are therefore more likely to leave school early (2008). Repeated issues with discipline by students with disabilities does indeed affect school wide practices. However, school wide practices can alternatively affect the behaviors of students with disabilities.

Maintaining positive relationships, engaging lessons, with appropriate supports are essential for the student with disabilities. Many districts are moving toward tiered systems of support for not only academics, but also behaviors. Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) allow all students to access behavior supports based on their individual needs. Many access the interventions at the school wide tier with comprehensive and positive reinforcements and the explicit teaching of desired expectations. Following tiers involve planned consequences, grouped reinforcement programs, and added incentives to draw out desired behaviors from students with a larger quantity of behavior issues. The third tier offers behavior assessments, discussing the function of an individual’s behavior and a team unified in developing a plan of reinforcements and consequences that work for the student. This is not necessarily a student with a disability, it’s a program for school wide discipline that is highly impacted by the disengaged, often troubled students with disabilities.

Luke 6:40 “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is full trained will be like his teacher” (New International Version). This is fitting in regard to discipline, reminding us it is a teaching moment. Those we teach explicitly, those we reteach, and remain positive and supportive will more than likely come to the table instead of rebelling against. Relationships in discipline are far more influential than the actual setting of rules.


Adleman, H. and Taylor, L. (2008). Rethinking how schools address student misbehavior and disengagement.. Addressing Barriers to Learning, vol. 13, no 2.

Byrnes, M. (2013). Taking sides: Clashing views in special education (6th ed.). New York, NY: Contemporary Books, Inc. ISBN: 9780078050480.

Denti, L., & Guerin, G. (2014). Positive DISCIPLINE. Leadership, 43(5), 26-38. Retrieved from Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 14, 2015).

Riddell, S. (2010). Positively rewarding: Behavior program aids schools in big way. Kentucky Teacher, 11. Retrieved from Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 14, 2015).


Technical Issues with Pearson’s High-stakes Testing

Behavior Intervention Plan

Here We Go

Valerie Strauss (2015) reports on recent implementation issues with standardized testing in the state of Virginia. Virginian students take Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments in math and reading each year and science and social studies more intermittently during their K-12 education. The tests are standardized and based on a curriculum set by the state. The developer of these tests is the world’s largest education conglomerate Pearson Inc. During testing this year, many technical issues occurred on the end of this testing company and the article reports that these issues may have negatively impacted students.

During testing in early May, SOL exams were interrupted across the state over a two day period. More than 109,000 students testing were affected and as many as 243 students are required to retake the exam as a result. The 109,000 students were interrupted midway through the exam and not permitted to finish by the testing site. The students sat and waited over an hour for the issue to be resolved, many began to finish the test while other school testing coordinators opted to pull them off the site completely. One causal issue arose in Pearson’s server and their insufficient storage capacity. The company was also victim of a malicious virus that was designed to intentionally attack Pearson’s testing system. This is not the first security breach during testing. The state of Minnesota had testing issues during their standardized tests first given in April and then again during the rescheduled testing date in May. The tests were shut down for technical issues statewide on both occasions.

Currently Virginian educators are concerned about the validity of tests scores and the reliability of the company. The state of Virginia has agreed to a three year contract with Pearson and paid 37 million dollars annually. That is a significant portion of the state’s 9.2 billion dollars it spends on education statewide and one wonders if the money has been spent wisely.

What do you think?  37 million annually on testing?


Strauss, V. (2015, May 15). Virginia SOLs Interrupted by Pearson Computer Problems The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/05/15/virginia-sol-tests-disrupted-by-pearson-computer-problems/?postshare=1291431797408228


Does No Child Left Behind Leave Many Behind?

Legislation to Leave Children BehindNo Child Left Behind mandates that all school districts are accountable for all students to reach academic proficiency and thus make adequate yearly progress (AYP). Schools are given a limited number of alternate assessments based on modified or altered standards of achievement. When a school does not meet AYP, leadership must have a plan to initiate improvement and parents are permitted to transfer to a performing school. NCLB puts pressures on schools and their leadership to achieve and the game of strategies has developed. Schools then created lower standards of proficiency and weakened rigor on tests to boost achievement. The positive mark of making all schools accountable has unfortunately led some action plans astray (Byrnes, 2013). Did we not leave children behind, or did we meet the children back where they were making progress?

Byrne presents an article by Booher-Jennings, Rationing Education in an Era of Accountability (2006) which agrees that some students are left behind, citing school over focused on students passing than the individual. With the requirements of data driven decision making, these schools have begun targeting students instead of skills and weaknesses within the entire population. As in the article, we at my Virginia middle school call these students “bubble kids.” These students are on the cusp of passing and administrators have decided that pushing interventions and targeted assistance will have the highest return on Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). A well warranted strategy when you want to win the game of showing AYP. However, NCLB was proposed and popular because of its intimation all students would win, not schools and targeted students (2013). Personally, in my classroom this strategy is a huge failure. I teach 6th and 8th grade exceptional education students math in a self-contained classroom. As we are now in intervention season the bubble list was presented last week, and I scanned it. Unfortunately my job was made easy, none of my students made the list. They were on the low side, outside the bubble. They will not receive school interventions outside of what I provide before or after school or during class time–precisely because of this great NCLB push to achieve.

In Virginia we take the Standards of Learning (SOLs) annually for math and reading, with subject tests every few years. Sadly, my students often read far below grade level, do not know their multiplication facts, and many cannot do simple arithmetic. However, they are in 6th or 8th grade and are not left behind so to speak. We pass them forward to the next grade, rewriting annual IEP goals and hoping they will bridge the gap as they move ahead. However, I don’t believe that any IEP placement, setting, service, or accommodation is going to make the difference. The difference for these students is essentially one thing they will never get, time. Great quantities of time to learn at their pace. Instead they are required to stay on pace and are taught the Standards of Learning. Moving so fast, they get a lot of information with zero depth. Comprehension is never achieved. As professionals we know best practices in a classroom are to monitor for student comprehension with formative assessments and make adjustments accordingly before moving on. Sadly, our state is putting district pacing, the curriculum guide, and high-stakes testing scores before best practices; all so we can say we haven’t left any child behind?

Our Virginia SOLs predate the national standards Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and are very similar in intention and foundation. Thurlow (2014) remarks that students with disabilities may bRun your own racee short changed by the lack of attention to policies that hold them accountable to the standards of learning across all states. Standards-based IEP gals may go by the wayside with the lack of legislation. Agreed, policies and high expectations are necessary. However, if the standards state a student will “a. investigate and solve practical problems involving volume and surface area of prisms, cylinders, cones, and pyramids; and b. describe how changing one measured attribute of the figure affects the volume and surface area” and yet that student cannot make 10, tell time, count by 5’s, or multiply past the 2’s than the standard based goals are not suiting the individual needs of a child as required by IDEA. The conflict of exceptional education teachers to offer standard based IEP goals and keep expectations and standards high versus offering real life practical skills that can build the foundation if given enough time is a daily struggle. Daily. Thurlow focuses solely on how to keep students with disabilities achieving at the standards and graduating with the same skills, yet seems to disregard the individual needs of pacing. Standards are a blanket of coverage that doesn’t necessarily fit with a plan based around an individual, so why do we keep legislating and arguing they are the fix?


Booher-Jennings, J. (2006). Rationing Education in an Era of Accountability. Phi Delta Kappan, June 2006, 756-761.

Byrnes, M. (2013). Taking sides: Clashing views in special education (6th ed.). New York, NY: Contemporary Books, Inc. ISBN: 9780078050480.

Thurlow, M. L. (2014). Common Core for All — Reaching the Potential for Students with Disabilities. Social Policy Report, 28(2), 18-20.


Here Comes Testing Season

testing season, oh myWe are all feeling the heat, despite the snow days. Now the pressure is on to wrap up our curriculum and prepare our students to take their standardized tests. We may not agree with the reasoning. We may not agree with how they are used, or created, or how the results are applied. However we are public employees and sadly in this day and age of teaching, we also get zero say.

So, what can we do to help our students do the very best they can? Here’s my top 9 (cause it is my favorite number, after all Ferris Bueller was absent “Nine times”

  1. Prepare students on the exact testing computer program. Practice how to use the tools, understand where directions are given, and how to navigate between questions and sections.
  2. Practice test taking strategies and routines. It may seem common sense to us to get a good night sleep, eat a hearty breakfast, and to take our time during testing. However, kids are coming from all different environments and may not have that built into their regular routine. I know for some of my students, a basic regimen is missing along with a regular place to sleep.  So discuss this with them the importance of these ideals so that the week leading up to testing they are rested.
  3. Encourage students. Sounds simple, but they need it. The students are dreading the tests just as much as we the teachers. Encourage them to stay positive and do their very best. Let them know why the tests are important, and then let them know how they are exactly not important. Let the students know that these test simply test what’s been taught and how successful they are in retaining this knowledge (i.e taking tests). The tests say nothing else about their aptitude and abilities. Remind each student they are still smart, interesting, clever, and creative students.
  4. Start reviewing early. I use warm-ups throughout the year. Keeping questions on prior taught units on the warm ups through out the year. That way the students are seeing these questions all through the year.
  5. Stations. I set up stations with various review activities for each. We have 90 minutes blocks so I keep the students moving and the activities short. One station may have a practice test on the computer, a module on a computer program on a specific skill deficit, a hands on activity or game, followed by one station for remediation with the teacher. At this station, I work with students reviewing their warm-ups and particularly difficult tasks or filling gaps on missing skills.
  6. Centers. In Virginia, we teach the Standards of Learning (SOLs) comprised of 15-25 strands required to teach. I created a center for each strand. In the center are 2-5 must do activities. Followed by 2-3 fun activities they can do after completing the “I Musts.” In my multi-age math enrichment classroom, each grade has 3 centers they work through independently. As they complete their task, they move on at their own pace. Grades are given per center for all the assignments collected. This allows me to add and chose particularly tough strands we know from data is typically weak.
  7. Use your data. Whether its testing data from previous years or student data…let it be your friend (I know, right). We look at the state’s data and determine typically difficult areas. I also use student data from benchmarks to find their individual gaps and remediate accordingly.
  8. Get help. See if your school has funds for teacher help, elicit parent tutors, and use spare teachers during their planning. Remember, it’s not forever it’s only a season.  And as they do for you, you return the favor with your own time.
  9. Make it fun. Give the testing review season a name, incorporate games, collaborate with other classrooms, use technology, and get up and move around!

At the end of it all, don’t be too hard on yourself. Your district or state may be using these scores to evaluate your teaching, but you know your effectiveness and it goes far beyond a test score. Take it with a grain of salt and play their game as best you can without losing your sanity or perspective. I know it’s my only option (right now), but its not my priority when I wake up in the morning. My priority:  allowing my students to have their best day possible and leave my classroom feeling confident and worthy.  I want to be their bright spot in an often miserable world…or a world of testing.


There’s the Gap? Negative Nelly. A Math Elective.

There's a Gap. Negative Nelly. A Math ElectiveStarting a math elective–come on kids, let’s take math! For fun. Yeah,not the most enticing elective on the block.  However, that is exactly what we needed. We needed a class that circumvented the mandated learning standards and focused on two things, foundational life skills and back tracking support.

Foundational life skills are easy to understand, right? Telling time, money, measurement, and basic skills like place value, rounding, and fluency facts. Those became an obvious and necessary focus so students can move forward and function as productive adults. Got it, makes sense.  Now what was that other thing?

Back tracking support?  Each year we teach our students the mandated standards.  In exceptional education we teach those while offering accommodations and services to keep them on pace with their peers and in line for the next year.  Sadly, it doesn’t always produce desired results. Those on the outside may be asking what? How could that be?  You must be failing as teachers? Not really, we are doing what we can  in an inept system to benefit the child. We don’t want to hold them back, we want them to move ahead along side same aged peers, they are just as capable, the just need more than we can offer. We don’t want them to miss positive services available to them in more abundance at a future age, so we send them forward with more the opportunities awaiting. Furthermore, we don’t want to declare; the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and the system it is based on is failing. So we push them ahead, along side their general education peers hoping that they rise to the high expectations. Sadly, it doesn’t necessarily happen that way. Students are continually asked to keep pace with general education peers.  Students are learning, but cannot keep the pace; even with the magic cure all accommodations. A gap appears. Yeah, I said it….the buzz word.

Reality:  many, most, and everyday students keep moving forward with the standards of achievement while meeting those expectations. Meanwhile, disadvantaged and exceptional students move slower and slower than their same aged peers gradually and squarely falling behind.  In turn, and also additionally these students test lower and lower. These students fall into classes alongside other disadvantage and exceptional students, expectations naturally are askew.  Meanwhile, others just keep moving forward, supported, successful. (I hear Dory, “Just Keep Swimming, Just Keep Swimming.”) And gleefully, successfully, and unaware they do keep swimming onward and measured accordingly. However, those magic accommodations  in exceptional education aren’t magic and time is never an option. Then, the year ends. The tests are given. The standards are measured. Students move forward, even if their measures are subpar. Here we go…gap widens each year.

Ok, so that’s where the break down happens and that’s where the math elective gets celebrated. Well at least by a teacher that wants to bridge the gap. We focus on going backwards, looking at data (gasp) seeing where the holes are and attempting to fill them in. For some its a lengthy bridge for others a threshold, regardless our mission is the same.

Without the math elective, what happens?  The gap widens.  The students sit in math class pondering, why does everyone get this, and why don’t I even know the basics? The students that once tried, stops trying. Avoidance and deflection become more prevalent…oh my gosh, the student is reprimanded, removed from class, and wow guess what, gets out of math class.

I’ve spent great amounts of time trying to explain to those outside of education why teachers sound so negative when they talk about education. I try to explain the burn-out of a career in exceptional education. I try to explain the giant mishap we call education standards and high expectations….AND NOT SOUND LIKE NEGATIVE NELLY. I have decided, its just impossible to do. However, if you read this, if you even slightly understood the gist, maybe, just maybe you see the frustration within the system, the feeling of futility we feel as we push students forward on a mandated pacing before they are ready; furthering their gap far from their same aged peers.  Perhaps Negative Nelly makes just an ounce of sense and you think; Oh, so reform isn’t reform!  Reform is throwing out the entire philosophy and looking at true individualized pragmatism while honoring the intelligence of the professional.

So, I simply cheerlead. I know some students need more.  Not accommodations and services, but more.  More time (not some extended time on tests and quizzes…more time).  More time to learn, to really comprehend, to succeed at a task. To succeed at a task, before we send them forward. See sending them forward isn’t preventing the gap; its creating the gap. So I teach an elective, one I prepared for and talked about for two years before anyone said, “Oh yes, let’s try that.”  And now I teach students the real life foundational concepts and the back tracking support of the standards they so desperately need to get back in step.

It doesn’t feel like enough, we continue to push them forward with the mandated pacing and measure against the same aged peers. Frankly, what we do is not ever enough in 2015. However, I see the bridge and hope they are built of elastic bands.  I look at esteem and hope it bounces back. I see the bridges and think, can we make amends in a unfit system?  And so, I teach a math elective.

Interested in it’s curriculum?  Stay tuned for future article about the class, its logistics and philosophy.


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