Not Giving Up…

I feel like giving up.

Maybe my brain has moved out.  

Maybe I’ve been in the game too long.

Maybe the last five years have just done me in. 

I’m tired of failing. I’m tired of getting it wrong.  

I’m tired of teachers who don’t listen and learn.

I want to just throw in the towel.


As I typed those words about my own frustrations with a personal pursuit, I began to think about my students.  I reflected on what I would say to one of them; what I have said to any one of them who has expressed a similar feeling.

I’ve asked them: What could you do differently?  What could I do differently that might make you successful?  In reality, of course, they have had no real idea of how I could help them. They shrug their shoulders and stare at the floor because they’ve failed…again.

I, of course, knew.  I knew that they needed more time.  I knew they ‘saw’ the answers but couldn’t show their work.  What I didn’t know was why? Why were they able to do the algebra in their head and ‘see’ the answer but not be able to write it down? I understand differentiation.  I understand modifications and better strategies. What I was doing wasn’t working.

What was I missing?

As you may know, for the last 5 years I’ve worked as an in-class support teacher for varying levels of high school math.  I have watched as year after year, class after class, for a total of 2,250 class blocks, teacher after teacher, teach Algebra from the logical left-brained sequential step-by-step process.

And year after year I’ve watch student after student, classified or not, fail their way through these classes.

Teachers describe them as lazy; they don’t do their homework but they get solid B’s on their assessments despite the fact they’re doodling on their iPads.  They end up with D’s because they’re missing homework and the plethora of zeros that get put into the grade book, that brings their grades down to almost failing.

I’ve watched as they try to listen to the lecture and they try to write the process down. But their mind wanders.

Teachers complain that they take too long to do their 30 math problems for classwork; that they don’t finish them.

Enter the Right Brain-LeftBrain Thinker.

Quite frankly, this is not a new idea; that some of us are more logical (left-brained) and some of us are more creative (right-brained).  But what is new to me, and I’ve been doing this for 20+ years, is the idea that kids with ADD, ADHD and Autism tend to share a very common thread:  they think… in pictures.

What is a right brained thinker?

We’re whole-to-part thinkers.  Show me the end and I’ll figure out the middle parts.  Step-by-step?  I can’t.  I can’t hold the picture in my head long enough while you go through the minutia for the left-brain thinkers.  I loose it. I move on. You say I’m not paying attention.  I want you to move faster.  Get to the end so I can go back and fill in the middle. I can’t help it.  It’s how I’m wired. I don’t do it to aggravate you.  I look up when I’m telling a story or answering a question because I’m looking at the pictures in my head.  I’m great with faces but awful with names.

I’m not broken.  I’m just wired differently.

I’m not fast at math.  I have to pull up the pictures I’ve stored in my head.  That takes more time than going step-by-step. But I know how to do it.  I just need more time.  I memorize the formulas and then go back and figure out why they work and how they were derived.

I’m not broken. I’m just wired differently.

True Story

GE Teacher: “Time’s up!”
Student:  “I’m not done.  Can I finish during lunch?
GE Teacher: “No, that wouldn’t be fair to the other (left-brained) students.
Student: “But my brain doesn’t work that way.”
GE Teacher: “Maybe if you studied harder; maybe if you didn’t daydream during class you’d be able to finish in the same time as everyone else.”
ICR Teacher:”You can finish during lunch or meet me after school”
GE Teacher to ICR teacher(aside):  “He/She doesn’t have an IEP.  You can’t do that. It’s not fair to the other students.”
ICR Teacher: “He processes slowly. (I didn’t know  at the time was because he thought in images).  I’m actually leveling the playing field so they don’t have an unfair advantage.”
GE Teacher: (silent)

It’s true.  Right-brained people take longer to process.
It’s true.  Right-brained people have a deficiency in organization and linear thinking: executive function.
It’s true.  Right-brained people are highly visual-spatial, non-sequential processors who learn by remembering the way things look and by taking words and math into mental pictures; think Albert Einstein, Temple Grandin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci.

How do we serve this growing population?

Right-brained people need teachers to teach to them differently. They need teachers who can present information in whole-to-part instruction.  Whole-to-part instruction needs to be added to the differentiation schema. They need alternate assessments and choice boards. They need extra time and fewer problems in math because visual learning literally takes more time to do.

They need to be taught how to speed-read.

Surprised?  Consider that a whole-to-part brain needs to see the big picture and fill in the parts.  Speed-read a chapter for the overview. Go back and scan for the details that fill in the whole.  Different? Yes.  Effective? Very. For right-brained people.

My hurdle isn’t convincing my readers.  My hurdle is convincing math department chairs that going slowly and ‘trying harder’ and not ‘day-dreaming’ isn’t the answer.  My hurdle is not being in a position to make the impact that needs making because 25% of Algebra students, nation wide, are failing algebra. I believe we are failing the students and I want to do something about it.

The answer is in changing the understandings of what’s best for kids to doing what’s best for all kids and teaching the teachers how to get them there. The answer is changing the paradigm of how right-brained students are taught.  It’s the challenge I’m embracing for this new school year.

This blog was inspired by the book, “Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child” by Jeffery Freed  & Laurie Parsons (1997)

Why I Embrace Technology…

I’m sure that I’m like a lot of people.  When the house is quiet, the TV is off, and I’m doing mundane but necessary tasks like putting away laundry or watering my plants, my mind wanders to places I hadn’t visited in a long time.

Like today. I was enjoying my first Saturday of summer break.  The house was quiet and I was unencumbered by the pressures to do other things.  I meandered through the house putting away the things that pile up while I’m working.  In women terms, I believe I’d call it tinkering or puttering.

Nothing ground breaking about putting away laundry or changing the sheets, except that when I try to sing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Mama Cass Eliot.  I’d heard it recently in a 2014 movie and was surprised because I wondered how many millennials actually knew who she was or what her music did to the music scene back in the day.

So there I am, puttering this morning and I begin to hum… or at least try to hum the song in my head.  Of course I then tried to put the words to it and was grateful that I was alone in the house with no one to hear my crackling voice.

I remembered that there was a day that I had a pretty good voice.  I sang in the Madrigal choir in high school and I loved music and ballet.  But I grew up in large family.  And what I remember most was always feeling invisible.  My parents were busy doing what parents with five girls do: work, cook, clean, delegate.

That’s why I embrace technology

Technology lets everyone be visible to someone.  As my thoughts continued to chain together, I thought about how lucky the children are today.  They never have to feel invisible.  There is always someone just a click or two away with whom they can connect about whatever they’re interested in.  Granted, this idea can be a scary proposition, which is why not all school boards and administrations embrace social media in our schools. But let’s stay positive.

Technology let’s everyone be heard.  Every child can have a voice.  Every child can find a mentor who will help them get to where ever they think they want to go.

Wendy Whelan started her career in Louisville, KY at the age of 3 as a mouse in the Nutcracker Suite, ultimately joining the New York Ballet from which she retired in 2014.  I bring her into this conversation because a statement she made in the documentary I recently watched about her really stuck with me.  She said that someone had said to her, “Wendy, there are people in other places who can help you become the best dancer you can be.  You should go find them.”

There are people in other places…

And that’s why I embrace technology.  Not because it’s got great gizmos.  Not because it’s the lasted craze.

I embrace technology because it truly opens windows to a world we would otherwise not see.

In education, we use the words ‘career and life skills’.

I think what we should say is that we need to embrace all the amazing people and ideas that are speeding about us so we can be inspired to do what we love, even if it seems like a long shot.  We need throw the world of moonshot thinking at our students, particularly our high school students.

There really is a fabulous world out there.  And we do a disservice to our students every minute we restrain them to minuscule work in our classrooms.

An Open or Closed Porch?

My husband and I recently updated the front of our house.  We’d had a closed in porch that I loved from the inside.  It gave us shelter from the winter winds, kept us dry from the summer thunder storms, and gave us some spare ‘kid’ space whenever we needed an extra play room.

But from the outside, it was uninviting. We knew 25 years ago when we married and moved into this house that the porch needed… redoing.

Over those 25 years, my husband and I often discussed what we’d like to do when we changed and updated the porch.  I, of course, wanted a closed in porch. Not because an open porch was a bad idea, I just thought that giving up the extra 150 square feet wasn’t a good idea.  Our family is still growing and when we need it, it’s a great play space.  Add on the fact that I liked the shelter it provided from our southern exposure during bad weather, and I thought it was a no brainer.

He, of course, wanted the porch open.  As many times as we had discussed it over those years, I didn’t find out until the porch was actually finished why his heart was so set on an open porch.  As it turns out, he wanted to be able to see outside without screens or windows.  He wanted to be immersed in the peacefulness of the street on which we live.

Ultimately, we  decided on an open porch with two rocking chairs. While I begrudgingly acquiesced to the open concept, once I truly heard his heart, I was glad I had caved.   As it turns out, we really love it.

The Open Porch

I have made a surprising discovery.  The porch has given us the opportunity to have wonderful conversations.  We drink our morning and evening coffee there.  Together. We talk about stuff. And it makes me feel more connected to him.

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Are people like porches?

As I thought about how our conversations made me feel more connected to my husband, I wondered about how great it would be if I could have those kind of conversations with my students. You know, conversations about ‘stuff’. I wondered what kind of things I would learn about them.  What kind of stuff is happening that really makes them smile? What keeps them from doing their very best?  How can I help them do better?  As a teacher, I wondered about my most challenging students.  The ones that I like despite their determination to sit inside a closed porch. The ones who work hardest to make themselves unapproachable.  I wondered if my students knew I was an open porch with an empty rocker just waiting for them to sit down so I could listen and connect to their heart.

Leaders should be like an open porch.

Leadership means modeling the behaviors that will bring your staff to the best they can be.  In “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader” John Maxwell lists listening at number eleven.  Maxwell says, “leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand. That’s the Law of Connection. But before a leader can touch a person’s heart, he has to know what’s in it. He learns that by listening” (p.41). Many school administrators wall themselves into their office, accessible to only those in the the golden circle. They are missing so much.

According to My Future, people work because they like to be productive and to contribute to society.  People also work to feel a sense of well being and accomplishment and to meet and interact with people of different backgrounds and cultures. Work provides a social life and makes us feel good about ourselves.

Administrators who do not freely flow among their personnel miss making the connections that bring meaning to the staff’s work as well as, quite frankly, their own. The people in his/her building have many great ideas swirling around it.  Making time to chat to all members of the staff opens this administrator to the lives of the staff.  Perhaps someone is dealing with a dying husband. Perhaps another has had her son hospitalized.  Perhaps others have heard news of a new baby or a new house. They call this relationship building.

As I continue my journey toward leading a school, I reflect back on graduate school where we discussed that one of the first qualities that distinguishes a leader is his/her ability to move people toward a joint vision.

John Maxwell says that before you can ask for a hand, leaders need to touch people’s  heart.

I’m thinking that have a rocking chair mentality just might be the first step a new administrator should bring with them.

SpEdcampNJ

As you may know, my involvement with Twitter has led me to find a renewed passion about teaching, leading, engagement of students and teachers, and… the list goes on and on.  (See my article, My Digital Transformation.) As a member of the NJASCD Executive Board and Technology Committee co-chair, I have also had the opportunity to meet and work in a group of incredibly dedicated educators; new, veteran, techie and not.  Each of these individuals have added to the colors on my palette of life experiences that help me be a better me.  A better me in the classroom, in my work, and in my relationships both personal and professional.

I started my amazing journey after I completed my work at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education in 2011 and felt it was time for me to leap into the world of educational leadership.  Along my journey of enlightenment through NJASCD,  I was introduced to board members who were active in a professional trend called EdCampNJ.   I don’t know every member of EdCampNJ, but those with whom I have been fortunate enough to meet and learn from have taught me that the time for personalized learning for students must be translated into personalized learning for teachers, too.  Just as students who sit in our classes everyday have personal tastes in topics and styles of learning, so too do the teachers with whom we also work every day.  The Edcamp process honors, celebrates, and supports the individualized learning of teachers in the very same way we work to honor our students’ personalized learning needs.

So… what exactly is this Edcamp idea?  What could possibly make it such a ground breaking idea?  PD has been around for… a very long time.  What could possibly have changed that it is creating such a stir in the PD circles around the world? (Yes… really… around the world!)

In this month’s Principal Magazine, Meredith Barnett does what I wish I’d thought to do. Meredith has written a wonderful article presenting the Edcamp idea to those many principals who do not know about or who have ever heard of Edcamp before. (I’ve attached the PDF of Meredith’s article here.)   The Edcamp model is fairly well known in the South Jersey/Philly area and the North Jersey/New Brunswick area.  But Central Jersey has yet to get the news: Edcamps are the wave of the future.

As I work to develop a team of teachers who are willing to become part of my leadership team for this annual SpEdcampNJ project, I am frequently asked, “What is Edcamp?”  I am frequently dismayed by the responses I get when I explain that these are workshops that take place on a Saturday. “Saturday?  Who would go to a workshop on a Saturday?  You should consider having it during the week when teachers can be released from their classrooms.  You’d get a much better turnout…”  The thing is that Edcamps have FABULOUS turnouts.  Imagine the energy created  when 300-400 teachers from around the area, sometimes from around the state and neighboring states as well, come together to share ideas… of all things… on a Saturday!  (When I was asked, ‘who would go to a workshop on a Saturday’, I answered, ‘I guess that teachers dedicated to improving their craft and student outcomes come on Saturdays….’  The look on the teachers’ faces when they processed my answer… (‘right… dedicated teachers…I guess you don’t really want everybody  to come… just those who really want to be there…’)  was priceless.

The fact is that not everyone belongs at an Edcamp.  Edcamps are for people who truly want to expand their understandings on things they may have never considered and feel it is important enough to take time away from their personal lives to do so.  The topics and discussions are participant driven and the energy and conversations among like minded individuals is, for me, a priceless experience.  I’ve attached a video of one of the workshops created, designed, and developed completely through a Voxer chat group among six people we’ve never even met face-to-face about bringing music into the classroom.  (The discussion had been framed out with enough room for spontaneous participation from the group.) We had a blast putting it together and the 20+ participants had a blast too!

To be fair, EdCamps happen all the time around the US and are popping up around the globe.  This is a link to the EdCamp Foundation site where more information about the wonderful work being accomplished can be found.

I’ve been able to attend EdcampLeadership in Philly during the summer 2014 and EdcampNJ 2013 & 2014.  I found them to be so inspiring and uplifting that I’ve decided to put start SpEdcampNJ 2015.  I am currently looking for a central Jersey location where my team and I can host special education professionals from around the state to share their energies and practices that will inspire us, bring fun learning to our classroom and raise achievement in our special education classes along the way.  I will keep you posted as we move along our newest journey toward bringing SpEdcampNJ 2015 to fruition.  Stay tuned!

6 Tips for Teachers New to Technology by Lisa Van Gemert

Some great thoughts for New Teachers out there. Thought this was worth sharing.

NAGC Computers & Technology Network

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1 - embrace learning curveEmbrace the learning curve: One reason children learn additional languages more easily than adults do is that they’re willing to speak the target language without fear of sounding childish.  The same is true of technology. One of the things that holds us back is fear of looking foolish. Do you remember the feeling you had when you had been teaching a few years and thought back about your first year teaching? Were you like me and wished you could go apologize to the poor kids who had you for a teacher that year?  You’ll feel the same way about technology!  You will work with it for a while and then realize that what you’d done before was terrible, but that’s okay. It’s exactly the way the pattern goes.

Make sure it’s the right fit: Keep in mind that technology is for the classroom, not the classroom for the technology.  Don’t just…

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Leaders Need to Learn Too

Here are some thoughts from Scott Rocco, Superintendent of Spotswood Schools, on how administrators can be great technology leaders.

Evolving Educators

On Monday, August 4, 2014 educational leaders from around the United States will come together in Philadelphia for Edcamp Leadership (#edcampldr). It’s a wonderful opportunity for educational leaders to connect, collaborate and learn. Too often educational leaders preach to those in their charge about the value of professional development and the need for others to engage in it but they themselves do not do so. The opposite is true with Edcamp Leadership. Those who will attend are committed to the professional development of all educators, including themselves.

Here are 5 things all educational leaders should commit to when it comes to their own professional learning:

1. Be a role model with your own learn for those you lead. It is vital for all educators to stay current with professional development training. As educational leaders we can not promote its value if we don’t engage in the learning ourselves. By committing…

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