Saturday, October 10, 2009

I don't have a car but ...

... I have a blog! Cool bumperstickers:

Really, honk! As in leave a comment. (Thought I'd re-post this to let you guys know I am still out here and teaching. More soon!)

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Equity Project Charter School, Front Page of New York Times Again!

The New York Times has another front page feature on TEP Charter School! TEP's teaching "dream team" has been chosen. The article is currently the NY Times' #1 most emailed story and the #10 most blogged about story.

The article also mentions TEP's fundraising efforts for our permanent school building in Washington Heights, NYC. I am on TEP's Capital Campaign Advisory Board. Please join TEP's Facebook Causes page or visit my TEP drive on Changing the Present.

TEP is an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. TEP does NOT fundraise to support its investment in teacher salaries or administrative costs. The ONLY area for which TEP fundraises is for its school facility, since NY State public charter schools must primarily pay for their own facilities. TEP is a public charter school and does not charge student tuition or fees.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The List

Things I never experienced before becoming a preschool teacher in New York City: strep throat, conjunctivitis, bronchitis, scabies, sinus infections, colds lasting more than a week, head lice as an adult, styes, fun and new stomach problems! (List in progress.)

Noooooo, I'm not bitter that I spent my winter break sick.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Becoming an Autism Educator

Originally published in the New York Times Lesson Plans blog (plus an excerpt in the Sunday NY Times!).

For the first time in my six-year teaching career, I am not completely freaked out by going back to school. I have, however, more than paid my dues to reach this stage of teacher emotional stability. In my first year of teaching, I freaked out not only in September, but pretty much every day (and well into every night) of the school year. At the time, I taught teenagers with learning disabilities in the South Bronx, including many emotionally disturbed students. I somehow managed to stick it out, and the next year, I met a Bronx teenager who would change my life and set me on my current career path.

Jeremy has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. As guilty as I feel admitting this as a teacher, there’s no denying that Jeremy was my favorite student. He may always be. While other teachers seemed exasperated by Jeremy’s autistic quirks, I got along with him easily. We hung out during lunch. He fixed the classroom computers and shared his unique life insights. He also easily passed a New York State Science Regents exam on his first try, which quickly shifted the school administration’s attitude from, “We have to get rid of this kid,” to, “We need this kid for our numbers.” Sadly, Jeremy didn’t exactly receive a stellar public education in the Bronx. I often wondered how much further he could have gone had he received stronger educational support from an early age.

Jeremy taught me that working with students with autism was what I wanted to do with my life. I began training with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, where I learned behavioral techniques for supporting children with autism in the classroom. Simply by circumstance, not choice, I began working with younger kids. This was because nearly all New York City and State funding for autism education is geared toward early intervention and preschool services. When children with autism reach kindergarten, they often lose their services. So it’s actually quite difficult to make a living as an autism educator to older kids in New York. There’s simply no money there. I miss teenagers like Jeremy, but, as it turns out, teaching the little ones is my forte. This is mostly because I’m a 34-year-old with a four-year-old sense of humor.

I now provide preschool and home-based services to children with autism spectrum disorders, mostly in Manhattan. I also occasionally work with children with other special needs. Last school year, I worked closely with a boy recovering from leukemia. He is now in full remission and about to begin life as a mainstreamed kindergartner! I have become a huge proponent of mainstreaming at an early age, and I love working with special needs students in mainstream pre-school classrooms. My goal is to help them prepare for fully mainstreamed kindergarten and elementary school educations. They, in turn, help me stay grounded.

In the ideal scenario, a few months into the school year, if I do my job well, an outsider will walk into the pre-school classroom and have little idea which teacher is the special needs teacher and which kid is the special needs student. My first few months with a student can be challenging, but with the right approach, the next six months of the school year are relatively smooth. Being a special education itinerant teacher (SEIT) requires a balancing act of supporting, but not stifling, my students. I often interact with the other kids in the classroom, and they tend to see me as one of their teachers, too. Most of them don’t really know (or care) that I’m officially there for one student. At the pre-school age, there is little stigma in receiving special needs services. The kids have not yet developed that sort of prejudice. If there is any stigma, it comes from the adults.

Preschool started this week. I had a wonderful summer of teaching part-time and hanging out with kids on city playgrounds. There are moments when I can’t believe I get paid to do this (tempered, of course, by moments when I don’t get paid nearly enough to do this.) This summer, there were more of the former. I worked with two students at their summer camps, and I worked weekends with one student at his family’s country home. Summer seemed to have a superhero theme. Two girls showed up to summer camp dressed as Spider-Man and Batman for no apparent reason (other than the obvious cool factor). I played superheroes on the playground and blasted off with a (highly imaginative) student from the tip of the Egyptian pyramids into outer space. (Yes, my job is cooler than yours.) I saw preschoolers develop seemingly random, yet fervent obsessions with the state of Wyoming and chicken pot pie.

I also experienced several language breakthroughs with a student, one of which came in the form of a clear request: “I want Sesame Street numbers!” So we watched Count von Count, who I quickly realized, like Jeremy, has a clear case of Asperger’s Syndrome. Numbers, numbers, numbers! Mwahaha! I then realized I was diagnosing a Sesame Street character with special needs and that I needed a break from kids before September. This school year, I am working with students at two Manhattan preschools and providing home-based, early intervention autism services to several two-year-olds. There is nothing quite like welcoming nervous and excited preschoolers to their first week. The two boys I will work with at school this year are old pros, having attended preschool before. But things are about to get more serious for them. It’s time to start learning to read, write, and share blocks without fighting.

It sometimes astonishes me that I found my perfect career. I never meant to be a teacher. I meant to be a serious journalist. But when my grad school classmates went off to write for esteemed media outlets, I went off to teach special needs kids. It made no sense. It was the best decision I ever made.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Palin and Special Education: A Closer Look

Jennifer Laviano is a special needs attorney in Sherman, CT. Her guest opinion piece appears here with her permission. - Miss Dennis

Dear Clients, Friends, and Colleagues,

As we near the Presidential election in just two weeks, I have been asked by many of you to comment on my thoughts on Gov. Palin and what she can and will do for special education students. As an attorney whose practice focuses exclusively on the representation of children with disabilities, I always investigate candidates' positions and records on this very critical moral and financial issue. One of my clients recently suggested that I share with others what I have learned, and so here it is.

When Gov. Palin first came to my attention, I was, as I am sure all of you who care about this issue, intrigued to have someone on the national platform who talks about children with special needs. Since hearing her say this repeatedly in speeches, I have been waiting, and waiting, to hear some specifics on special education reform. Most of all, I want to know what her stance is on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal statute that governs special education. The IDEA is up for reauthorization by Congress in 2010, and it is crucial that it reflect the policies and funding structure necessary to protect and appropriately educate our children with disabilities. I needed to know what Gov. Palin thinks about the future of special education legislation in this country.

I know where the other three on the tickets stand. Senators Obama and Biden have issued position statements on the IDEA to various parent groups, strongly supporting full funding for the IDEA and the rights of children with disabilities and their parents. The Obama-Biden website has a direct link to the ticket's position on disabilities. Senator McCain's website does not have such a link and neither he nor Palin have provided those positions on the IDEA to parent advocacy groups. Senator McCain does have a supportive position on the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) which has been published. I was, however, extremely disappointed in his discussion on the Senate floor regarding the Reauthorization of the IDEA 2004, in which he expressed his concerns that parents of children with disabilities who have to sue to secure appropriate services for their children under the Statute and win against districts shouldn't have their attorneys' fees covered. This is not just a matter of self-interest for me; it is the difference between families, especially poor families, being able to vindicate their civil rights or not. But I knew those things, I did not know where Palin stood, and I wanted to find out.

Having waited for some specifics from her on just how she is going to be an advocate for children with special needs in the White House, I finally got close. In her recent interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, she was asked what her position is. While never mentioning the IDEA at all or what needs to be changed, kept, or fixed in it, she stated that the issue that needs to be addressed is "equal access" for children with special needs.

EQUAL ACCESS? Seriously? We HAVE equal access - that is what the original version of the Statute fought for in the early 70's, when children with disabilities were literally prohibited from attending our public schools. Equal access is so far in the minority of what needs to be addressed in special education I hardly know where to begin. Our problems are not that children with disabilities aren't allowed into the buildings; our problem is what happens when they get there! What about a Free and Appropriate Public Education? What about "meaningful educational benefit?" What about giving children with special needs the tools to thrive and prosper and be fully independent adults, which is what the IDEA now stands for? We are decades from equal access being the key question, and apparently Gov. Palin is not aware of that fact.

Now, you might say, "Well, Jen, I am a parent of a child with special needs and I didn't know that either." Okay, my response: "Are you running for Vice President of the United States? Are you telling the nation that you would see yourself as the voice for those children within the federal government? If you were, do you think you might have looked into it a little bit?"

It is not terribly surprising to me that Gov. Palin's views on this are so far outdated. I have traveled to Alaska to give a speech to parents and professionals on the subject of the rights of children with special needs, in particular children with autism spectrum disorders. I was stunned by how far behind the State was from the vast majority of the rest of the country on the education of children with disabilities. Perhaps, for Alaskans, "equal access" IS the problem, but it is certainly not the case in Connecticut or most of the rest of the country. I am in regular contact with a colleague of mine who is a parents' attorney in Alaska, who has had to fight tooth and nail for children with special needs in Alaska simply to secure them the most basic of services that we take for granted here. I for one do not want the rest of the country to use Alaska's system of educating our most vulnerable children as a paradigm.

Okay, yes, you all know I'm a liberal ... but that's one of the reasons that I chose to get into the field of representing children with special needs, because I believe in my heart that this last bastion of civil rights is absolutely critical to fight. We need major fixes in our special education system, and if you think that who is in the White House does not effect you on this issue, you couldn't be more wrong. IT MATTERS. It matters in terms of funding and at least as, if not more, importantly, enforcement. Our IDEA enforcement, even in States like CT where we have zealous advocacy, is woefully inadequate. School districts routinely violate the procedural and substantive rights of children and parents and only in a small fraction of cases are they taken to task for it. It also matters because the next President will have at least a few Supreme Court appointments to make. We have had more decisions from the United States Supreme Court in the area of special education law in the last few years than we had for decades. Those decisions have tremendous impact on whether parents have the right to have proper evaluations done for their children, how and when parents can exercise their rights under the IDEA, who has the burden of proof in Due Process Hearings, and a myriad of other issues which directly impact our children with special needs.

Whether we properly educate and embrace our children with disabilities is crucial to the future of this country, as the cost of NOT doing so will be far larger than the cost of doing so ... leaving out the fact that it happens to also be the right thing to do in a great society. This issue should be front and center for any candidate for the White House, and I write to let you know that, at least as far as Gov. Palin is concerned, it has been an opportunity not only missed, but frighteningly misunderstood. It does not bode well for her, for us, or most importantly, for the children we love who need and deserve better in an "advocate in the White House."

I will be casting my vote on November 4th for Obama-Biden, and I hope you will join me. They and their party have been on the side of children with special needs historically, and they will be on their side in the future. As our economy implodes and State and local educational budgets tighten, if we do not turn this around now, I fear that we will, once again, be fighting only for "equal access" for our kids. That is unacceptable to me.

Finally, for any of our more conservative clients who I may have offended, my apologies; I respect your views even if I disagree with them.

Thanks for reading.

Best, Jennifer Laviano
The Law Offices of Jennifer Laviano, LLC
Sherman, CT

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It Bears Repeating

(Originally posted on the New York Times Lesson Plans blog.)

Two of my preschool students with autism are currently going through stages of repeating their favorite words and phrases over and over again. Both students repeat lines from their favorite children’s videos and books — stories and episodes of “Dora the Explorer,” “Blue’s Clues,” and “Max and Ruby.”

Amanda repeatedly says, “Benny the Bull,” who, as I was slow to realize after hearing his name dozens of times one day, is her favorite “Dora” character. She has also memorized many of Benny the Bull’s lines from the show, and she repeats them at seemingly random moments. David repeats the word “notebook.” At first, I thought he just really liked the word, or that he was proud of himself for learning it. Then, after he began repeating lines from “Blue’s Clues,” I realized “notebook,” came from Joe’s “handy dandy notebook” in the show. And lest this excessive repetition be blamed solely on TV and DVD’s, one of my former students, who rarely watched TV, repeated her favorite scene from the book “Harold and the Purple Crayon” — “moose and porcupine eating pies!”

While the ability to remember and repeat words is an important step in every child’s language development, many children with autism tend to repeat words excessively and in socially inappropriate contexts. A child with autism may repeat the same word or phrase hundreds of times a day (which can drive their parents and teachers a little batty). In the autism education field, repeating lines from movies, TV shows and books is known as scripting, or echolalia. (Some people use the terms scripting and echolalia interchangeably, while others distinguish echolalia as repeating words spoken by live people, not in shows.)

Scripting was famously portrayed in the film “Rain Man,” when Raymond Babbitt, the autistic character played by Dustin Hoffman, memorized and repeated Abbot and Costello’s comedic skit, “Who’s on First.” In the film, Raymond seemed to use scripting to calm himself in stressful social situations. At times, my students appear to script for a similar calming effect; at others, it seems to be meaningless, out-of-control repetition. Despite the many challenges this behavior presents, it is possible for young students with autism to use it in socially appropriate contexts. Encouraging them to do so is one of my goals as a special education teacher.

Many of my students have proven themselves capable of memorizing a word or phrase, associating it with a particular emotion or social situation, and then attempting to use the phrase when they encounter a similar emotional or social situation. One of my favorite examples of this is described in Paula Kluth’s book, “You’re Going to Love This Kid.” Kluth tells the story of a boy who said, “Go to hell, lieutenant,” when he was upset. The boy was scripting from the film “A Few Good Men” and he correctly associated the phrase with anger. In another case, one of my students memorized the phrase, “Hello, everyone. How are you today?” — one of his teachers often said this when she entered the classroom.

One day, when I brought the boy home, he walked into his family’s apartment and said, “Hello, everyone. How are you today?” His parents and I were floored. At the time, this was by far the most socially meaningful language the boy had ever used. While he had learned the phrase through rote memory, he showed progress in social communication — a skill that children with autism often lack — by correctly associating the phrase with entering a room and greeting people.

One thing I cannot do as a teacher is miraculously change the way my students’ brains develop or the way they process language. There is clearly something in the brain development and language processing of children with autism that differs from their typically developing peers. Genetic researchers, such as the scientists with the Autism Genome Project, are currently trying to pinpoint the root causes of the disorder.

We don’t yet have all the scientific answers to what causes autism, and it remains to be seen whether a cure will be developed, or whether a “cure” is something that would be welcomed by those affected by autism. Many parents have told me they would welcome a cure, while many higher-functioning autistic adults are offended by the notion of needing to be cured. In the meantime, there are language development techniques that teachers and parents can use to help children with autism begin to socially connect with their peers and families.

One of the programs I learned while training and working with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders is a social questions activity. Using the basic principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), I am able to teach my students to answer questions ranging in difficulty from, “How old are you?” to “What was your favorite part of the book?” While my students typically learn to answer these questions in a rote manner by memorizing the questions and answers, the next step is to take what they have learned through memorization and use it in socially meaningful situations at school.

David, the boy who repeats lines from “Blue’s Clues,” was able to quickly learn the answers to many socially relevant questions. During snack time at preschool last week, I asked him, “What’s your mommy’s name?” We had worked on this question, so he quickly answered correctly. Then I asked one of his classmates at the snack table what her mommy’s name was, and soon all of the children at the table were telling their friends their mommy’s names. We then did the same activity with daddy’s names and favorite foods. (Of course, teachers should be sensitive to kids who may not have both parents.)

These are the kinds of basic, pre-school level conversations that come naturally to most kids. But David needs to be taught to participate in such conversations in a step-by-step manner. That’s where breaking things down through ABA becomes helpful. While I am not a strict ABA practitioner in the classroom, I do find it helpful to use the basic principles of breaking larger tasks into smaller steps and quickly reinforcing my students for achieving each step. Within ABA, there is a more recently developed model that I use called the Verbal Behavior Approach. This model is especially useful for language development activities.

While I can’t get inside David’s brain to know for sure what he’s thinking, something does seem to click for him when he participates in these kinds of peer conversations at school, and he seems to enjoy them. Being able to use his memorized language with his peers, and hearing that they have different answers to the same questions, does appear to be helping him connect with them socially. Throughout the pre-school year, our social question activities will become more complex and, step-by-step, we will build up to asking questions and initiating peer conversations. The ultimate goal is for David to begin talking with his peers more spontaneously. Spontaneity in language is difficult to teach, but I aim to give David more opportunities to reach this stage by pushing him beyond his scripted comfort zone.

Language issues like this, which can be so exasperating for parents and teachers, do not disappear overnight, but I find it helpful as a teacher to keep in mind that the same strong memorization skills my students use while scripting can be shaped into socially meaningful language.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

3rd NY Times Piece Now Up

My third New York Times blog piece is now up. It's about the new school in Washington Heights, NYC, that I mentioned below. As always, feel free to leave a comment on the Times blog, whether you agree with the school's model or not!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

New School in NYC, Washington Heights

I am on the fundraising advisory board for a wonderful new middle school that will open in Washington Heights, NYC, in September '09.

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP)
was featured on the front page of the New York Times back in March. As a member of the school's Capital Campaign Advisory Board, I will be raising $100,000 in the next year for the school's new building. To accomplish this, I will recruit 100 Finance Committee members, who will either donate or raise $1,000. TEP Charter School is a non-profit 501(c)3 educational organization. Since I only know a handful of people who can donate $1,000, I am focusing on recruiting people who can commit to raising $1,000. It only takes knowing 100 people who will donate $100, 20 who will donate $50, etc!

If interested in becoming a Finance Committee member for TEP Charter school, please get in touch! You can email me at Also, stay tuned for my third piece for the NY Times Lesson Plans blog!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

New York Times Education Blog

The New York Times education blog is up and running with its first piece of the school year! Six teachers from throughout the U.S. are contributing. The first Lesson Plans piece, by Joseph Santini, is wonderful. Check it out! My first article for the blog should run either tomorrow or Thursday.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

New York Times Blogger!

Hi Everyone, I am excited to announce that I will be writing for a New York Times education blog this month! More details and a link to come when the blog launches next week. The focus will be on back-to-school time and "learning to teach in a complicated world."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Purple Stapler

Dear Mad Tedious Readers,

Thanks for the emails encouraging me to get back to writing about teaching! I am still teaching special education in NYC, but my teaching position has changed significantly since I started this blog. I have gone from teaching high school special needs students in the South Bronx to working with much younger kids in Manhattan, mainly preschool to kindergarten-aged kids on the autism spectrum. I've also become a sort of special needs consultant, working privately with several schools and families. I still have amazing teaching experiences every day with amazing kids, and I do want to get back to writing about them.

I'm not quite sure where to take the blog from here, so for now, I'm re-posting an old "favorite," The Purple Stapler. I wrote this at the height of my frustration in the South Bronx, and since first posting it two years ago, I've received a steady trickling-in of emails and comments from amazingly dedicated teachers in similar positions throughout the U.S. The sad truth is that most of us cannot stay in these positions without developing insomnia, losing our minds and/or becoming numb. Purple Stapler conditions still exist in far too many schools in our country. How can we work to change such deplorable learning and teaching conditions while maintaining our personal sanity and professional integrity?!

The Purple Stapler

There are hundreds of reasons to freak out at work each day. Those who haven’t spent much time in a South Bronx high school may think I’m exaggerating or stereotyping. Unfortunately, I'm not. My school’s administration is in shambles. The school district is grossly neglecting the educational rights of students with learning disabilities. I have 17-year-old students who are reading and writing at a second grade level. Not because they’re dumb (talk with them for a minute and you’ll hear their wit), but because they never received help for learning problems ranging from dyslexia to autism. They are among the few teenagers in their situation who haven’t dropped out. Two of my brightest students are constantly in and out of sketchy foster homes. They come to school smelling of urine and worse. One of them has learned to deal with neglect by managing to find a way to get high every morning before 1st period. A 15-year-old girl in my English class still sucks her thumb. She's six months pregnant.

Yes. There are hundreds of reasons for a teacher here to freak out. Fly off the handle. Go ballistic. Hit the ceiling. Wig out. Flip a lid. Fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Go off the deep end. Or, in other words, break down. My students call it beastin’. There simply aren’t enough idioms in the English language to describe what can happen when a normally rational inner city teacher decides she's had enough.
Before today, I had remained relatively calm in the classroom. I would weep at home, vent to friends over the phone, laugh when I meant to cry, and stay up worrying at night. But for six months I managed to wake up each morning, take the painfully slow train up to the Bronx, and put on my game face in front of my students. I knew it couldn’t last.
So today marks the day that I finally went loca en la cabeza in front of my students. I didn’t snap over something worthy, like drugs or dropouts or a student telling me to fuck off. No. I, Miss Dennis, snapped over a stapler. A miniature purple stapler. It was missing, and I was mad.

Mind you, I teach at a school where several computers are stolen each year. Teachers’ wallets and cell phones have gone missing. I've been lucky. My stapler cost $4.99. In an attempt to make myself seem slightly less ridiculous about freaking out over this, let me explain that at my school, teachers have to buy their own paper to make photocopies for their students. We also spend our planning periods individually stapling student packets because the stapler function on the copier never works. (Administrators pay themselves overtime, but they won’t buy paper or staples for the copy machine.) Since I was given no appropriate books for my special education students, I make countless photocopies from books I purchased myself (don't sue me), and I end up stapling countless packets for my students each day. My little purple stapler was part of my daily routine, and it made me happy. Its theft, of all things, pushed me straight over the edge.
When I discovered the stapler was missing, I completely shut down my class and demanded to know who'd taken it. I was on the verge of tears. My students stared at me in shock.
“Are you okay, Miss Dennis?”
“What’s wrong Miss?”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong! Look around this classroom. Look at all these books and posters and videos and highlighters. Do you know who bought these? I did! With my own money! That’s right! The Board of Ed gives me nothing! Nothing! That was my purple stapler, and no one has the right to take it! That’s it! I’m taking everything home with me.”
I began pulling down and piling up everything I'd bought with my own money. (It wasn’t quite true that the Board of Ed gave me nothing. I received $150 to spend on classroom supplies. Other teachers got $200, but the genius Board of Ed CFO decided that special ed teachers should get 25% less than all other teachers. The NYC teacher's union - which I am forced to pay $80 per month in membership dues - agreed. Way to go guys! Way to motivate teachers in your highest need area to keep working for you.) So I got $150. Which I spent on 10 copies of The House on Mango Street. I paid for the other 15 copies myself. I’ve spent an estimated $550 on classroom supplies already this semester, and many teachers I know have spent much more. Clearly, my rage was not simply about the missing purple stapler.
I finished piling up all of my belongings as my students looked on in disbelief. 

I calmed down and pathetically tried to salvage a lesson out of my tantrum.

“Now. Who can tell me why I’m bringing all of this stuff home with me?”

The Class Sycophant actually raised his hand to answer my question, but he was thankfully stopped by The Student of Reason.

“Stop playin’ Miss. You're not gonna’ take all that shit home. You take the 6 train. Seen you yesterday. You can’t take all that shit home on the 6 train!”

"I'll take a cab."

"You can afford that?"

He had a point. I might have been acting a little ridiculous.

“Miss, are you crying over a stapler?"
“Not just any stapler Joseph! My lovely, miniature purple stapler!”

Laughter, finally.

I was sure my students would hate me for this incident. Instead, something strange happened. They began to see me as human, and they began to respect their classroom.

“Miss, did you really spend your own money on all that stuff?”

“You must really care about teaching!”

I had my suspicions about who’d stolen the stapler, but I knew no one would snitch. In high school (whether in the wealthiest of suburbs or the grittiest of inner city neighborhoods), there’s nothing worse than a snitch.
Amazingly, after class, one by one, each student came back to the classroom to show me where the purple stapler had been stashed – in a desk drawer in the back of the classroom. Apparently, whoever had planned on stealing it couldn’t go through with it after my tantrum. Even the toughest, most seemingly uncaring of students came back to the classroom to make sure I was reunited with my beloved stapler. One of them helped me put back all of the books, posters, videos and markers.

“I knew you were just playin’ Miss.”

Right. It was all a big plan.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Latest on Teacher Licensing Fiasco

I took and passed the four NY State Teacher Certification Examinations that a certification specialist at the New York State Education Department told me I needed to pass. I'm applying for a teaching license in Students with Disabilities, Birth-Grade 2. I passed the Students with Disabilities Content Specialty Test, the Elementary Assessment of Teaching Skills Test, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, and the Elementary Education Content Specialty Test.

I took the Elementary Education Content Specialty Test (CST) in 2003. Education schools generally recommend that teachers take this test in the first or second year of their teacher education programs, which I did. Since then, however, a new test replaced the test I took. The new test is called the Multi-Subject CST and, based on study guides, it is basically the same test under a new name. At most, it's a slightly different version of the old test. The state certification specialist I spoke with six months ago specifically told me that my passing score on the Elementary Education test would “be sufficient” for licensing requirements. Not so.

Rather than do the logical and fair thing (accept the Elementary Education CST for people who took and passed that test before the Multi-Subject CST became the new requirement), NYSED is of course making teachers jump through hoops again. The state is requiring people who already took and passed the Elementary Education CST to pay another $88-$150 and waste another Saturday morning taking the Multi-Subject CST (again, basically the same test). Not only is this a waste of money and time, it will also add at least another two months to the time teachers have to wait to get their licenses processed, potentially keeping many teachers out of the classroom come September.

How much more ridiculous can it get? Seriously. What’s sad is that this is just a drop in the bucket of ridiculous red tape roadblocks I’ve come across during the teacher licensing process, and I have many teaching friends and colleagues going through the same thing. I usually try my best to have a sense of humor about it (it's not hard to make fun of NY educrats), but I'm too exhausted now to be funny.

I learned of this new testing requirement after spending several hours on the phone today (mainly waiting on hold) with both city and state bureaucrats, trying convince them to speed up the processing of my license application. Instead, I learned I have to take another joke of a NY State teacher test. (The tests are all complete jokes, by the way.) I can take the test on July 21, but I have to pay $88 plus a $70 emergency registration fee. Then I have to wait until August 20th to get my score. Then I can call city and state bureaucrats all over again to try to get my license application expedited in time to begin working in early September.

Meanwhile, until this is resolved. I have no guarantee of a teaching job for next school year, despite having glowing references from parents, preschool directors, and co-teachers. One dad, who was referred to me by a preschool director and wants me to be his son’s special ed teacher for next school year, is talking with his attorney on my behalf. We’ll see if anything comes of that.

Oh, and by the way, for some reason, this testing requirement was waived for people applying for a license in Students with Disabilities Grades 1-6, but not for people applying for licenses in Students with Disabilities Grades 5-9, or Students with Disabilities Birth to Grade 2. This is what a New York City Dept of Ed “Certification Hotline Supervisor” told me. Sheer brilliance.

When I asked for this policy in writing, I got “shushed.” The supervisor literally said, “ssssshhhhh” to try to get me to stop asking questions about the policy. Then she said that this was “verbal information” she’d been given by “someone” at the state. I swear these people aren’t even sure of what their own policies are. Who even knows if this is actually the policy. But it’s easier at this point to just pay for and take the new test than spend a week of afternoons calling and emailing pinheads and getting frustrated, and then still probably having to take the test in the end.

Well, all in all, it's just another chapter in my book exposing how the inefficient and laughable city and state bureaucracies are crippling New York City’s public schools and convincing talented teachers to either change careers or teach elsewhere. I've learned that public exposure is the only thing that motivates some people to change.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Autism and Excess Nitrogen – A Possible Connection

I finally got a chance a few nights ago to really pore over the recent findings of the Autism Genome Project (AGP). The most significant finding was that abnormal functioning of glutamate neurons (related to a mutation in a gene called Neurexin 1) may be a key cause of genetic autism. An even more recent study from the University of Iowa found that the same genetic mutation occurred in the sperm cells of a father with two autistic daughters.

What do these finding mean in plain English? As a special education teacher, I have little scientific or medical expertise. What I do have, as a teacher of children with autism, is a huge motivation to understand this stuff. I also have some pretty good instincts when it comes to autism. Some of my instincts come from the fact that, although I am not autistic, I do at least mildly share some of my students’ symptoms, such as sensory sensitivities, patterned thinking, and abnormal metabolism. (I wrote about this in a previous post.)

So a few nights ago, I felt incredibly inspired to understand and interpret the AGP findings. I think I could be onto something, but I could also be a total quack. My theory is just a theory, so please take it as that.

The AGP research leads me to believe that an abnormally low level of glutamate - an amino acid essential for neurotransmission, protein metabolism, and the bodily disposal of excess nitrogen - may be a primary cause of autism.

While AGP’s pinpointing of a specific genetic mutation is groundbreaking, the idea that autism may be caused by insufficient glutamate functioning is not entirely new. In 1998, a Swedish researcher questioned whether autism was a “hypoglutamatergic disorder.” In other words, is autism related to a glutamate deficiency? AGP’s research suggests it is. (Hypoglutamatergic disorders have also, interestingly, been linked to schizophrenia.)

Since the late 1980’s, two parent-run groups, the Purine Research Society and the National Urea Cycles Disorder Foundation, have also been advocating for scientific research related to abnormal glutamate functioning in children. Both groups point to the urea cycle, which involves the bodily disposal of excess ammonia. The National Urea Cycles Disorder Foundation explains on its website, “In urea cycle disorders, the nitrogen accumulates in the form of ammonia, a highly toxic substance, and is not removed from the body, resulting in hyperammonemia.” The Purine Research Society discusses how children with Purine Autism “excrete too much uric acid in their urine,” and the role that metabolism and genetics play in this process.

The Wikipedia glutamate entry explains the metabolic relationship between glutamate and urea (thank god for Wikipedia):

“Glutamate also plays an important role in the body's disposal of excess or waste nitrogen. Glutamate undergoes deamination, an oxidative reaction catalysed by glutamate dehydrogenase, as follows:

glutamate + water + NAD+ → α-ketoglutarate + NADH + ammonia + H+
Ammonia (as ammonium) is then excreted predominantly as urea, synthesised in the liver. Transamination can thus be linked to deamination, effectively allowing nitrogen from the amine groups of amino acids to be removed, via glutamate as an intermediate, and finally excreted from the body in the form of urea.”

Autism, once considered a strictly neurological disorder, is now being viewed by many cutting-edge doctors and researchers as a whole-body disorder, specifically involving the connection between the digestive/metabolic system and the brain.

Dr. Joan Fallon discussed the possible relationship between protein digestion, amino acids, and autism in her article, Is Autism a Brain Disorder or a Gut Disorder?:

“If protein digestion is not taking place, then the proper number and amounts of amino acids will not be present to make other proteins. The body therefore must prioritize the use of the available amino acids, and it is possible or at least theoretical that the body will sacrifice the use of the available amino acids to allow the most function not necessarily the highest function.” (Caveat: I have no idea why this article was published on a chiropractic website.)

Discover Magazine recently published Autism, It’s Not Just in the Head. The article features Harvard pediatric neurologist Martha Herbert, who writes on her website, “After much thought, I have come to the formulation that autism may be most inclusively understood and helped through an inclusive whole-body systems approach, where genes and environment are understood to interplay.”

This makes total sense to me, since our brains don’t function in isolation from the rest of our bodies, and our bodies don’t function in isolation from our environments.

So here’s my theory, based mainly on the AGP findings and other research cited above: In at least some people with autism, protein digestion is impaired. The amino acid glutamate is thus not being properly broken down in the digestive system, and glutamate is not being sufficiently utilized as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Normal glutamate functioning is necessary for the bodily disposal of excess nitrogen. Insufficient glutamate is causing a build-up of excess nitrogen in the body.

To understand how excess nitrogen may affect our bodies, consider how it affects the earth. Nitrogen pollution in soil and water causes algae blooms - similar to bacterial build-up - and reduces oxygen flow. Biodiversity suffers. Bodies of water become cloudy.

In humans, excess nitrogen may result in bacterial growth in the watery areas of the brain. This may explain the brain inflammation common to many people with autism. It may also explain what some people colloquially call, “brain fog,” or mental/communicative confusion. Neurotransmission, already limited by insufficient glutamate, may be further limited by bacterial build-up.

Magnesium supplementation has been shown by some researchers to reduce autistic symptoms. This may be because magnesium aids protein digestion, which perhaps allows for higher glutamate functioning. Could glutamic acid supplementation possibly help reduce autistic symptoms? (There also exist food additives called “magnesium glutamate” and “magnesium aspartate,” which I don’t totally understand yet. I also don’t totally get how Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is created or why it causes headaches in some people and addictions in others. Also, if any scientists out there are clear on the difference between glutamate and glutamine, please explain.)

Thinking along bio/environmental lines, I find it interesting that Dr. Herbert earned a doctoral degree in History of Consciousness from U.C. Santa Cruz (my undergrad alma-matter), where she focused on the “evolution and development of learning processes in biology and culture.” She then earned her medical degree at Columbia University, and she trained in neurology and child neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. I find her approach to autism research refreshing, and I believe it will take doctors like her, who think outside the neurological box, to uncover the mysteries of autism.

Again, the above theories are a special education teacher’s interpretation of the Autism Genome Project’s recent findings, and they may be on or off the mark. If nothing else, I hope the links I've provided above will help a few people understand the scientific aspects of autism a bit better. Hopefully, in the next year, we’ll be hearing more from the likes of Dr. Herbert and the AGP researchers.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

WGBH Eye On Education

For those of you in the Boston area, WGBH radio (89.7) will be re-airing my interview with Tony Kahn and the podcast version of The Purple Stapler tomorrow morning (4/10) at 6:34am and 8:34am. They are airing it as part of their Eye on Education series.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

You can checkout any time you like, but ...

I've been trying for over a year to resign from the New York City Department of Education. I haven't actually worked for them since early '06. I'd been under the impression for the past few months that I had finally succeeded in resigning and was free from the Court Street beast.

Then, yesterday, I took on the terribly frightening task of making human contact with the Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York (TRS). I wanted to try to get a few thousand dollars of mine out of the city's low interest pension fund. I needed to be sure I was mailing in the right forms, so I called TRS.

My call was clearly annoying to the woman who answered. She pulled up my info on her computer and told me she could see that my resignation date was listed as March 5, 2006. She then went on to tell me that I hadn't actually resigned, so I couldn't access my money. My status with the Department of Ed was still listed as "active."

Here's how the conversation went:

Me: But you said I have an official resignation date listed in your system.

TRS: I see the resignation date, but above the date, it says "status, active." According to our system, you're an active employee.

Me: With a resignation date of over a year ago?

TRS: (Losing patience with me) Ma'am! It says you're active.

Me: I resigned. Your database shows I resigned on March 5, 2006.

TRS: As long as you're active in our system, we can't mail you a check.

Me: How do I become inactive in your system?

TRS: You need to send the Dept of Ed an official resignation letter.

Me: Done. Three times.

TRS: Well, they never got the letter.

Me: Ok. Ok. It's not your fault, I know. But I just have one more question. If the Dept of Ed never got my letter of resignation, then why is there a resignation date listed for me in your system?

TRS: (Puts me on hold for ten minutes.)

Me: (Downloading and then memorizing Styx, Mr. Roboto, while on hold.)

TRS: Here's the Dept of Ed number you need to call.

Sooooooooo ... Monday morning, I'll call the Dept of Ed to try to resign. Again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What Math Teachers Can Accomplish

Former high school math teacher Brenda Pfeiffer discovered that a computer glitch was causing the U.S. Department of Education to overcharge her for student loans. After repeatedly attempting to resolve the issue with the Dept. of Ed, she started a class action lawsuit on behalf of millions of people with student loans. The article appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

This gives me faith that I did the right thing by getting involved in a class action suit related to special ed teaching fellows.

Oh yeah. A small group of teaching fellows and I started a class action.

It's related to the NYC Teaching Fellows and Mercy College. It's complicated and a major headache. I've been wondering lately if I'm doing the right thing, since it's turned into such a major hassle in my life. A friend of mine, to whom I cried about the difficulties of the case, sent me the above article, and she said she thought I was doing the right thing.

More on my class action later. I really don't know how much info on the case I should divulge here, since it is an ongoing case.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


I received the following message, word for word, from the New York State Education Department when trying to access my Teach Online account: "Attention! Your account is been disabled."

The more experience I gain with New York educrats, the more comfortable I am becoming with this feeling called "not knowing if I should laugh or cry." I think I might even miss this feeling if I ever leave New York.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Latest from the Autism Genome Project

The Autism Genome Project is conducting the most advanced scientific research yet on the genetic causes of autism. The results of the first phase of the project were published yesterday in Nature Genetics. Don't bother looking for the article on the Nature Genetics website, though. It's either hidden or for pay only (believe me, I searched for a while). The best summary of the results I've found so far is on China View. (I think one of my old journalism classmates must be working there.) Autism Speaks, which partially funded the first phase of the project, also has an announcement. Great work towards a biological/neurological diagnosis of autism. It should really be an embarassment to the medical community that psychologists are still diagnosing autism. This project gives me hope that we're moving out of the dark ages!


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Amazing Moments in Autism

Happy New Year Blogosphere!

Today David reminded me how amazing and sometimes downright hilarious the world of autism can be. I usually walk David straight from his apartment building to school, but today we were early, and I was desperate for caffeine. We stopped at the Starbucks across the street from his pre-school, and I ordered my usual. In typical Starbucks fasion, the cashier called my drink out to the barista, and the barista repeated it. Having now heard the name of my drink three times, David had it firmly planted in his memory. Three hours later, during circle time, David blurted out (much to his teachers' amusement), "Grande no whip mocha!"

Guilty as charged. I'm sure his parents will be thrilled to learn that their 4-yr-old frequents Starbucks.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

From Rockefeller Center

Happy holidays everyone! I've been on a blogging lull but I'll be back in 2007. Enjoy the pictures from Rockefeller Center and this adorable Christmas slideshow from the NY Times!


Miss Dennis (on kid sabbatical til '07)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Suing for Autism Services in New York City

Excellent article in New York Magazine: The Autism Clause. After reading this article, you'll understand why my mildly autistic Upper East Side student gets 35 hours per week of one-on-one autism services while my more severely autistic Bronx student gets 5 hours. (And he's one of the few in the neighborhood who get even that.)

One parent's brief response to the article is also worth reading. "Apparently my demands are appropriate, but the Board provides the services only when sued for them. In other words, if the Board of Ed turns down all 1,000 children needing specialized services, and then loses, say, 250 cases that are brought against it, it would still cost less. It saddens me for the kids whose parents are unable to fight for their rights."

My two students live three miles apart. One is getting excellent services and is beginning to speak clearly and spontaneously. The other is getting less than mediocre services and is rarely understandable through echolalic speech. One lives in a luxury apartment in a doorman building. One lives in a one-room studio neighboring the projects. They are both at the age when services matter most.

I wonder how the Board of Ed would feel about their autism funding strategies after paying a major class action settlement to inner city children with autism.

P.S. Interesting fact hidden at the end of the article: "Last year, Chancellor Klein, who complains that too many lawsuits result in private-school placements, hired ten lawyers specifically to fight special-education claims."

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Case of the Cat on the Motorboat

Preschoolers come up with the best stories. I have the privilege of working in two preschools every day (Mon-Fri) - one in the morning, one in the afternoon. I go to the schools to support kids on the spectrum who are in mainstream classes. During lunchtime at one of the preschools today, I was half listening to this little comedian boy on one side of me, and half listening to the adorable boy I was there to support. I was basically trying to get the two boys to socialize during lunchtime, but they both ended up talking at me at the same time, vying for attention. I was trying hard to understand both of them, when suddenly I realized Comedian Boy was telling me about his cat flying off a motor boat.

I was like, "Wait, whoa, whoa, what? Your cat flew off a motorboat?"

So he starts the story again from the beginning. His family went out on a motorboat - only he doesn't say motorboat, he says "mozobo." So the family took their cat mozobo-ing with them. (??Who takes a cat mozobo-ing??) They went really fast in the mozobo, and the cat flew out.

I lost it. Once you get the image in your head - I mean a really clear image of a cat flying out of a speeding motorboat - it's really hard not to start cracking up. One of the other teachers overheard me say, "So that's a true story? Your cat really flew out of a motorboat?" The other teacher and I made eye contact for a second and started cracking up. But we tried really hard to contain our laughter, because we were both thinking the same thing: "Oh, no! Maybe we shouldn't be laughing. Maybe it's a true story, and the little boy's cat really did fly off a mozobo!"

So I asked the boy again if it really happened, and he said, "Yep." I asked what happened to the cat. (I'm picturing the family jumping into the water, rescuing the cat). The kid thinks for a few seconds, and says matter of factly, "He died."

So now I really don't know if I should be laughing, but the image of the cat flying out of the motorboat is stuck in my head.

I'm 70% sure this story is mostly fiction. The kid is seriously going to be a comedian. When I remembered the story later in the day, I started cracking up again. I laughed harder than I have in months, and it felt really good.

But what if it's true? What if the family really did bring their cat motorboating, and what if the boy's cat really did fly off the motorboat and die?

Still, you gotta' admit, it's pretty funny.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Amazing Moments in Autism #1

Remember the toothpicks scene from Rainman? I had an experience like that with one of my 5-year-old students, only with dogs and fewer of them.

We're walking down 1st Avenue. Jude is 'scripting' - repeating various phrases he's memorized from cartoons, computer games, and electronic Elmo toys. "It's a watermelon. It's a pineapple. They're getting on the train. We're going to the zoo. Bye bye! See ya later!" This is generally how he communicates. (And I seriously want to throw all those Elmo toys out the window of his parents' 29th floor apartment. "Bye bye! See ya later!"). Jude is taking in nothing from the environment around us as he scripts. Or so it seems. Just as I begin feeling exasperated from hearing, "Bye bye! See ya' later!" in a high-pitched Elmo tone for the 30th time, Jude busts out with one of his amazing talents.

We walk by a dogwalker with a bunch of dogs on the sidewalk. Jude doesn't look at the dogs at all. To try to break up his scripting, I say, "Hey! Look Jude! A bunch of dogs!" He doesn't appear to be listening to me at all, but then he glances at the dogs for half a second and says, "Twelve dogs. It's a watermelon. It's a pineapple. They're getting on the train. We're going to the zoo. Bye bye! See ya later!" If I hadn't been watching him carefully, I wouldn't have even noticed Jude's split second glance at the dogs.

I start counting the dogs. They're moving all around, and I'm looking back as we pass the dogs, going "one, two three," in my head. I re-count the dogs to be sure my number is accurate. Fifteen seconds or so later, and halfway down the block, I feel pretty confident that my tally is correct. Twelve dogs.

I don't know why I even bother to verify these things anymore. He's always right, and he's always immediately confident in his calculation. But how the hell does he do it? How do you glance at a bunch of moving dogs for a nanosecond and immediately know that there are twelve? What's going on in his brain to make him be able to do that? I'm not particularly bad with numbers myself. I've been known to count things for no apparent reason on occassion, and I sort of understand that it can be relaxing. But this kid blew me away.

It's easy to assume that kids with autism are taking in nothing from their environment. But in a way, they're really taking in everything. It can just be hard for them to communicate all the details of what they're experiencing. They see, hear and feel details most of us miss. Jude doesn't think in terms of "a bunch of dogs." He has a hard time seeing the big picture. But he gets the details right every single time - right down to the perfect, annoying pitch of Elmo's voice. "Bye bye!"

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Best Teacher Blog Post Ever

I can't believe I only just discovered this. Thanks to the Science Teacher Formerly Known as Ms. Frizzle for leading me to this Hedgetoad gem, "Why I Miss Teaching Junior High." There are no words.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Teacher Licensing Issues - Still

They are driving me mad. Beating me down to the ground. Not the autistic preschoolers. The adults who run the New York City Department of Education and the New York State Education Department. Two completely out of control bureaucracies with employees who only give cookie cutter responses - if they give responses at all. It's dehumanizing. So dehumanizing I can't even muster up the energy to write complete sentences. I want out. Of this state. Of this city. Of this system.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Job

Back. Exhausted! Started new job with preschoolers with autism. Lots to tell, but no time to tell it yet. Major tantrum from one kid wore me out today. How do you tell parents that they are overcoddling their kids and encouraging bad behavior at home? I already know I need to have this conversation with one kid's parents. I can't be the only one who pushes him to change his behavior, or he'll make my life a nightmare. Autism and bad behavior. Two different things. Oh, and potty training. The best part of my new job.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


In South America. Will be back Monday!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Purple Stapler Podcast

Public radio veteran Tony Kahn interviews Miss Dennis about teaching special education in the South Bronx. Miss Dennis reads a version of The Purple Stapler. To listen to the podcast, visit WGBH's Morning Stories website, or download the MP3 file here. On the website, it's currently the second story down - "My Little Purple Stapler." No need for downloading on the site.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Dear Commisioner Mills,

Thanks to Statcounter, I am aware that you, or someone who works for you, found my letter on this blog on August 11 at 10:48am through a Google blog search for "commissioner mills." I am impressed that your office is interested in what bloggers have to say about you. Clearly, you are savvy to the wieldy presence that bloggers now have in national political and education arenas. Being appointed, after all, does not make you immune to public outrage.

I think it's great that your office was able to access the letter on my blog before receiving the paper copy that I mailed to you. You (or your colleague) spent four minutes on the page, just enough time to read and consider the letter. Since I now know (and have proof) that your office accessed the letter, I am holding you accountable. I expect a response. My current teaching license expires on August 31st, and I still have not received a response from the Office of Teaching Initiatives. I do not expect you to allow an inefficient licensing system to keep a fully qualified special education teacher out of the classroom in New York City.

By the way, you may also be interested in checking out some of the blogs that linked to my letter: USA Today's Tech_Space, The Carnival of Education - Week 79, Teach Effectively. Enjoy.


Miss Dennis

P.S. If you did not conduct the Google blog search, and would like to know who in your office did, I'd be happy to provide you with their Internet Protocol address. The Internet Service Provider is New York State Education Department in Albany, New York.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Will Politicians Respond to a Special Ed Teacher?

Mr. Joel Klein
New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007

Mr. Richard P. Mills
State Education Department
Education Building
Albany, NY 12234

Mr. Michael Bloomberg
Mayor of New York City
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Dear Messrs. Klein, Mills and Bloomberg:

I am a highly qualified special educator with a Master’s degree from U.C. Berkeley. I teach children with autism. I completed the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) program in June ‘05. I would like to inform you of the types of bureaucratic roadblocks that many highly qualified New York City and State teachers experience when applying for their teaching licenses. I would also appreciate your help in getting to the bottom of why my permanent special education teaching license has not yet been issued.

I have called and emailed NYCTF and the NY State Office of Teaching Initiatives about this matter. I have not yet received a response. The details I describe below are rather complicated and lengthy, but I feel it is important that you follow them so you can better understand the extent of the hassles that many of your current and potential teachers are experiencing. We are not the ones creating these complications. We just want to teach.

I began applying for my permanent teaching license more than one year ago, in July 2005, when I completed the NYCTF program and met all qualifications for the permanent license. At that time, I discovered that my Transitional B license had never been issued, despite the fact that I properly submitted my application via NYCTF and Mercy College in Summer 2003. NYCTF and Mercy staff assured me in Fall 2003 that my Trans B license had been issued, but when I asked for a copy of the license, they told me that NYSED did not issue paper licenses. Even Vicki Bernstein (Director of Alternative Certification) told me during a telephone conversation that my Trans B license had been issued. She was wrong. It is now clear that she never even bothered to check.

So after two years of teaching special ed in the South Bronx through NYCTF and taking night and weekend education courses, I discovered that I didn’t even have a basic teaching license. Mercy College and NYCTF blamed the state for the problem, and the state blamed Mercy. Mercy acknowledged that they had a copy of my correctly completed Trans B application dated August 2003. Still, I had to submit an entirely new Trans B application. This mess with my Trans B application was finally cleared up in January 2006 (almost 2.5 years after it should have been issued). In the end, my Trans B license was issued 01/27/06, made effective 9/1/03, and it expires 8/31/06. (Yes, these dates are correct.)

Once my Trans B license was issued, I was finally able to apply for the permanent license (which, again, I’ve had the qualifications for since 7/05). I received confirmation through USPS return receipt that my permanent application was received by NYSED on 3/23/06. My information was entered into the Teach Online system on 4/29/06. I applied through individual transcript review (since Mercy dropped the ball on offering a special ed degree, but that is another long, frustrating issue). I received a letter from the Office of Teaching Initiatives dated 4/29/06, stating that my permanent application had been received and that the evaluation process could take up to 4-6 weeks because of the high volume of applications.

It's been over 14 weeks since that letter was written, over 19 weeks since my permanent application was actually received by the Office of Teaching Initiatives, and over one year since I began the process of applying for my permanent license only to find that my Trans B license had never been issued. I still don’t have my permanent license.

This is beyond outrageous. If I were you, frankly, I’d be mortified that this is happening in New York. I began my teaching career in Vietnam, and I never imagined that the New York City Department of Education and the New York State Education Department would subject me to more red tape than the Hanoi Ministry of Education.

I am currently transitioning to a new teaching job, and I do not appreciate having to live with the anxiety of not knowing whether or not I will be able to keep my new job because of all this trouble with my license. I am quite sure that my students and their parents would not appreciate losing a highly qualified autism teacher due to a bureaucratic snafu. My Trans B license expires in just a few weeks. There are no deficiencies in my qualifications for a permanent license. There is no reason for the hold up.

New York is in desperate need of special educators, particularly highly qualified special educators who have extensive autism training. Why put someone in my position through so much trouble when I am eager to teach children with autism, and I am more than qualified? There is something seriously wrong with this system, and I am by no means the only teacher who is fed up with it. I hope each of your offices will take action to help me and the many other teachers in simililar situations. No qualified teacher should have to put up with such nonsense.


Miss Dennis

Saturday, July 22, 2006

How NYC is Failing it Special Ed Students

Edweek’s blog led me to this three-part WNYC radio story, “How NYC is Failing Its Special Education Students.” I highly recommend listening to the whole series. It originally aired in June.

Below is one of the WNYC graphs depicting how New York City’s high school administrators dole out disproportionate numbers of IEP (Individualized Education Program) diplomas. IEP diplomas are not really diplomas at all. What they communicate to potential employers and colleges is, “This is a special ed student who does not have the intellectual ability to graduate from high school.” From my experience, administrators in NYC use these “diplomas” as a way to get rid of their “problem” learning disabled students (rather than taking the time to actually educate them).

Two of my former principals issued IEP diplomas to students who showed up to school maybe 20 percent of the time. They also gave them to students who showed up every day, tried their best, and could have easily gotten local diplomas, if not Regents diplomas, if they had just stayed one extra semester in high school. Such students should be encouraged to stay in school for a few more months to get a diploma that will actually help them succeed in the future. High school special education students should also be clearly educated about what an IEP diploma actually entails. WNYC reporter Beth Fertig does an excellent job covering this and other issues affecting NYC’s special education students and their families.

Monday, July 10, 2006

I'm Insubordinate, Part 2

The day after Principal Puffschmuck charged me with insubordination, I gave her a copy of the relevant section of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). I was still hoping she’d see the light - or at least something remotely resembling logic in the area of special ed.

IDEA is basically the bible of special education professionals. It clearly states that a minimum of two teachers must be present at special ed annual review meetings – “at least one special education teacher of the child” and “at least one general education teacher of the child.” (The general ed teacher requirement is waived if the child doesn’t participate in general ed at all, which was not the case for students at my school.) This bare minimum requirement was also clearly spelled out in a NYC Dept. of Ed “high priority” memo that was given to all principals.

Of course, successful annual reviews involve not just two teachers, but all of the child’s teachers and service providers. How Puffschmuck thought it made sense that the teachers at annual review meetings did not need to be the child’s actual teachers was beyond me. Aside from being a law, it should be common sense to anyone who even remotely considers the purpose of annual reviews that the teachers attending these meetings cannot be any random teachers from the school. They must be teachers “of the child.”

The purpose of annual reviews is to discuss and write the child’s academic (and in some cases behavioral) goals for the upcoming year. Responsible parents attend these meetings and take them very seriously. High school students are also encouraged to attend their own annual review meetings. After the meeting, the agreed upon goals are entered into a legal document called the IEP (Individualized Education Plan). The child is then promoted or held back based on whether or not s/he meets these goals.

So … uh ... yeah … it’s kinda important that the teachers who run this process and write the goals actually know and teach the child. Yet Puffschmuck had ordered me to conduct annual reviews and write IEPs for students I did not teach or even know in any capacity. And when I told her I could not follow through on this order because, as a special ed professional, I knew it was not in the best interests of my students and their parents, she wrote me up for insubordination and threatened my job. When was it that Puffschmuck lost sight of the fact that she was a public educator and not a military dictator?

One of the many sad realities of inner city teaching is that some parents don’t show up for their kids’ annual reviews. This seems to make some administrators think it’s okay to cut corners and further disservice the child by turning the annual review process into a meaningless charade. I don’t care how much of a pain in the ass a child is or how irresponsible his or her parents are. Every special ed student has the right to a meaningful annual review process. Living in the projects, having a learning disability, and having parents who don’t show up for school meetings does not make a child open game to further educational injustices. This is not an issue I am willing to waiver on. This is why the fight with Puffschmuck was so important to me. This was why the annual reviews needed to be done right. They needed to be meaningful. We owed it to the students.

But back to being insubordinate. The Individuals with Disabilities Act was not proof enough to Puffschmuck that she was wrong. She told me I’d have to go through a union grieving process if I wanted to try to get the letter of insubordination out of my file. A letter like this can ruin a teacher’s future career options. The teachers’ union rep in my school was a nice enough guy and a well-respected veteran teacher, but I’d often heard other teachers accuse him of being in cahoots with the administration, so I was skeptical. My district union rep was awful. He knew nothing about special ed. He was condescending, and he liked to claim credit for victories teachers actually won on their own. I also tried speaking with a union rep who supposedly focused on special ed issues. She was not even aware of the wording of IDEA.

So one day I said, “F*** Puffschmuck. F*** the union.” (Note: I didn’t begin cursing until I became a teacher.) It was clearly all a big charade. Sadly, that was how I was beginning to view the entire NYC Dept of Ed. A big charade. But if there’s one thing I learned in journalism school, it's how to pick up a phone and get through to people. I called the Superintendent’s office. With a little persistence, I reached the Deputy Superintendent. By some amazing stroke of good fortune, I found myself communicating with a South Bronx administrator who still had his wits about him and who did not view teachers as the enemy. (They exist!) We had a rational conversation. I faxed him my letter and Puffschmuck’s letter. After reading them, he called me back and said, “When you’re right, you’re right, Miss Dennis.” The next day he told Puffschmuck to remove the letter of insubordination from my file.

The end. Or so you’d think.

One of the UFT (teachers’ union) reps later reprimanded me for speaking to the Deputy Superintendent directly. “You shouldn’t talk to them. You can’t make deals with them.” Well …. no, that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the UFT, would it? Teachers and superintendents actually communicating directly and respectfully? If this trend caught on it’d be the death of the UFT. Of course, the UFT still took credit for my victory. (Glad to know my 80 bucks a month in union fees were worth it.)

Puffschmuck never mentioned her conversation with her boss - the Deputy Superintendent - but it became obvious that she wasn’t going to let it go. This was the same woman who’d fired one of our English teachers (the only teacher who’d ever attempted to start an AP program at the school) after he showed other teachers a story he’d written about his experiences with Puffschmuck. Puffschmuck was portrayed unfavorably, to say the least. And then bam! The AP teacher was gone. He didn’t put up much of a fight, though. I think he wanted to get as far away from Puffshmuck as possible.

Now it was my turn. I’d made Puffschmuck look bad, and she just couldn’t stop herself. She began lurking around my classroom, hoping to find some technicality to nail me on. Meanwhile – in other news - the school’s hallways were a zoo, even during classes. Most students didn’t even know who Puffschmuck was. Seriously. She was an interim, first-year principal, and she had no idea how to lead. (She came from teaching ESL in Brooklyn, and I still don’t get why she was so clueless as a principal.) She had never even introduced herself to the students. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. This is the kind of sad leadership that makes bad South Bronx high schools even worse.

Puffschmuck would occasionally walk down the hall, and the students would just keep doing whatever they were doing. They didn’t even know she was the principal. One day, she came into my classroom and said she needed to see one of my students. I told the student to go to Puffschmuck’s office at the end of class. He said, “But Miss! I don’t even know that lady!”

Puffschmuck had a difficult time finding anything wrong in my classroom. My room was physically immaculate. Puffschmuck herself had encouraged other teachers to model their classrooms after mine (this was before our insubordination battle had begun). I'd put my all into turning a tiny, crappy classroom into a pleasant learning environment. I planned my lessons weeks in advance. I returned my students’ papers with abundant comments that they were eager to read. I had applied for and received a private grant for one of my literacy units. My students’ test scores were (relatively) good. Several of my special ed students – who’d been classified as 3rd-5th grade readers - passed the English Regents Exam.

I’m not saying I was the perfect teacher. It was only my second year of teaching special ed. Some of my students still had severe behavioral problems. Some still cut class. My emotions sometimes got the best of me (especially after a night of work-induced insomnia). I had - and still have - a long way to go. But considering the conditions, and compared to the quality of teaching around me, I was doing a pretty damn good job.

So after snooping around my classroom for a few weeks, here’s what Puffschmuck came up with. I didn’t respond. Puffschmuck was fired at the end of the year.

Dear Miss Dennis,

When I entered your classroom on Wednesday during the double block English class, periods 5/6, I observed that the shades were completely drawn and the room was darkened since there was evidence that the students had been watching a video clip.

There must be accommodations made for either natural light or ceiling light to be present. Students should have some interactive activity that they can engage in during a pause or break in the viewing, such as, writing answers to questions or a “turn and talk” activity and light is necessary for them to perform these activities.

Also, please ensure that lights are turned on for all other classroom activities.


Principal Puffschmuck

Friday, June 30, 2006

I'm Insubordinate, Part 1

Nothing scares ineffective administrators more than teachers who know how to write effective letters calling for educational change. It took about six months of teaching special ed in the South Bronx for me to get fed up and start writing such letters.

I was amazed when my first letter to the NY State Education Department actually got a decent response. I think it helped that I signed it “Miss Dennis, Teacher/Journalist.” Shortly after I wrote that letter, by coincidence, the NY Times published a piece about how badly the NYC Dept of Ed was screwing up special ed, and the reporter used my school as an example. I had nothing to do with the Times article, but my bosses assumed I did. Then the mother of one of my students started a lawsuit through Advocates for Children. A school social worker had recommended the mother to Advocates, but again, my bosses thought I’d done it. (Some of my co-workers were good at making complaints behind the scenes while kissing ass and stroking egos on the surface. This has never been one of my talents.)

All this finally led to my school getting placed under state investigation. At the beginning of my second year of teaching, I actually saw some improvements. We got two more special ed teachers and smaller classes. As usual, my bosses blamed me for the state investigation, but even if I really was to blame, I can’t say I felt terribly bad. Improvements were being made. Of course, the principal and assistant principal began to hate my guts, and they set out to make my work life hell. They were big enough to acknowledge the whole time that they thought I was a good teacher, but that didn’t stop them from trying to cover their asses by isolating me from the new special ed teachers and trying to get rid of me. I was a threat to their jobs. Never mind that my actions were in the best interest of my special ed students.

I was amazed by the sheer desperation of my bosses' tactics. We could have had a great school if they’d spent the same amount of energy on improving education as they did on devising tactics to save their jobs. Despite the basic changes they were forced to make because of the state investigation, they continued to mistreat special ed students. About half of the 95 special ed students at my school were still programmed in the wrong classes. One of my students had his class schedule changed 8 times in one semester. Another student sat all semester in a science class he had already passed. Most students were not getting their related services. Very few of my "emotionally disturbed" students got counseling. Parents received a letter about how the school couldn't offer speech therapy. The letter came with a list of outside speech therapists, but when one mother called every number on the list, she found that not one of them was accepting new cases. It had been two years since her son had received his legally mandated speech therapy.

As all this administrative bs was going on, I was still trying my best to do my actual job - teaching learning disabled and emotionally disturbed teenagers. I became pissed off and emotionally drained at work each day. I also began to develop a strange sense of humor about the ridiculousness of everything that was going on around me.

Someone over Chaos Theory described this blog as “painful and hilarious at once.” That’s inner city teaching for you – painful and hilarious. These letters from my ex-principal are painful for me to look at again, but they’re also kinda hilarious in retrospect. The principal has since been fired. I saved her letters of reprimand, knowing that one day they’d be great fodder for a book – or, as it turns out, a blog – just like Up the Down Staircase, only 40 years later.

The principal’s below letters are in response to this: Dear Principal, You Want Me to Do What? I’ve been meaning to post her response for months now, but I actually have a strong, negative physical reaction to even touching her letters. So it took a while. It helps if you know a little about special ed laws here, but those who don’t will still get the gist. First, read my letter.

So after giving that letter to my principal, word quickly spread in the mouse-infested teacher's lounge that I would be officially charged with “insubordination.” Somehow, I missed that I had signed up to work for the Politburo. The next week, I got this:

Dear Ms. Dennis:

Please report to my office on November 3 for a meeting to discuss your refusal to send the parent notification letters to conduct the annual review. You are advised to bring the UFT Chairperson to the meeting.


Principal Puffschmuck

There was no discussion at the "meeting." Principal Puffschmuck immediately told me she was writing me up for insubordination. I again tried to explain that what I was being asked to do was not in the best interest of my students and that it went against special ed laws. (You’d think the principal of a school currently under state investigation might be concerned about this.) As I was speaking, Principal Puffschmuck got a phone call and yelled, “This meeting is over!” The next day, I got this:

Dear Ms. Dennis:

On November 3, I met with you and your union representative to review your refusal to complete and prepare for mailing, parent notification letters to conduct an annual review
when directed to do so in a memo, dated October 29, that I personally handed to you and which memo you accepted.

Also, in a verbal exchange on that day, you told me that you would not create the draft of the goals and objectives for the special education students whose annual reviews had not been completed.

At our conference, I afforded you an opportunity to respond. You stated that you felt it was not in the best interests of the students to draft the goals and objectives that had been assigned to you because you did not service these students in any of your classes.

Based on the above, I conclude that you failed to comply with my directive in a memo dated October 29, requiring you to complete and mail parent notification letters for the purpose of conducting annual reviews for special education students. As such, you were insubordinate. While you may disagree with the reasoning behind the assignment, that does not give you the right to refuse to comply with an appropriate directive from your supervisor. I am always happy to discuss any concerns you have, however, I cannot accept your refusal to follow my directive when given.

This incident may result in disciplinary action, including an unsatisfactory rating and termination.

Yours Truly,

Principal Puffschmuck

Apparently, a "directive" asking me to do something against the laws of my profession is "an appropriate directive." Stay blogged for I’m Insubordinate, Part 2, in which Principal Puffschmuck writes me up for turning off the lights while showing a DVD program.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Hip Hop Radio Wars

I have often cursed Hot 97's influence on South Bronx teens, so I was happy to read this column by Errol Louis. Well worth the read. Hot 97 - R.I.P.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Thanks Yahoo

I've been neglecting Your Mama lately, but it's nice to know someone over at Yahoo Picks still noticed. New readers, welcome! Here are some of my popular posts:

The Purple Stapler
Old School Wisdom from a Burnt-Out Counselor
Word of the Day: Tedious
Beautiful Absurdities
Dear Principal, You Want Me To Do What?
El Bronx Comics
Miss Dennis is a Latin King
John Stossel: Stupid in the Studio

Thanks for visiting! I'll be posting more stories and commentary soon.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

How Aspergery are You?

It's my favorite new adjective. Aspergery. I came across it while reading Time Magazine's series of autism articles. In one of the articles, The Geek Syndrome, reporter J. Madeleine Nash writes, "There is no question that many successful people — not just scientists and engineers but writers and lawyers as well — possess a suite of traits that seem to be, for lack of a better word, Aspergery."

I'm currently making a career move from teaching kids with a range of disabilities to exclusively teaching kids with autism. Why? While other teachers seem to get exasperated by their students with Asperger's and autism, I get along with them easily. I really don't get the problem. These kids are amazing. Who wouldn't want to teach them? At the beginning of the semester, I was warned by several teachers about Jeremy, a 9th grade "troublemaker." Teachers apparently couldn't control him. One teacher said, "I just don't know what his problem is." This is why EVERY teacher needs special ed training. I realized within two minutes of meeting Jeremy that he has a classic case of Asperger's. As yet another example of the stellar special ed services in the South Bronx, Jeremy, despite having a very clear IEP indicating that he should be in small classes, had been placed in large high school classes with no special ed support. According to a guidance counselor, Jeremy's IEP had been "lost in the shuffle." He wasn't placed in my class until spring semester.

Jeremy is wonderful. I hang out with him during lunch. He fixes the classroom computers and shares his unique life insights. One of his more colorful insights came during a fixation on breakfast cereals: "Apple Jacks make sense. I realized that this morning. They make sense. They just do." (He went on for about 15 minutes.) Jeremy also easily passed the Living Environment Regents exam on his first try. Although I try not to show favorites, the other kids are obviously becoming jealous of my relationship with Jeremy. One day, hyperactive Christopher began banging on my classroom door during lunch. Jeremy was absent that day. When I ignored Christopher's banging, he shouted, "If I was Jeremy Stevens you would let me in!!!" (Christopher actually banged out each syllable of the sentence on the door as he yelled this - we'd had a grammar lesson earlier that day.) What can I say? He was right. I love kids with autism, and I know that teaching them is what I want to do with my life.

As I've begun to interact more with my students with autism, I've also begun to realize that there is a reason I understand and get along so well with them. I'm a bit Aspergery myself. I would certainly never claim to have any form of autism, because I don't, but mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder does seem to run in my family, and I believe OCD and Asperger's are neurologically linked. In his brilliant portrayal of an OCD-inflicted detective on the hit USA show Monk, Tony Shalhoub shows us just how quirky, exhausting and lovable people with severe OCD can be. Some Monk fans believe Shalhoub's performance more closely resembles a person with Asperger's or high functioning autism. In any case, Detective Adrian Monk reminds me of Jeremy. A lot. He also reminds me, to a lesser extent, of my sister, several friends, and - oh crap! - myself.

I suspect there are many people out there who have more Aspergery minds than they're willing to admit. Taking a look at my own mind helps me better understand my students with autism. I recently began working with Pre-K kids in their homes. One four-year old girl lines up all her stuffed animals on her bed in a particular order, and she has a tantrum when they're out of order. (We're working on this.) Another student fixates on symbols. On the playground, while his non-autistic classmates naturally socialize and play together, this boy naturally gravitates toward every letter or number to be found on the playground - usually on signs. This is in some ways great because he's learning to read at an unusually early age. But it's not so great when he socially isolates himself. Like Adrian Monk says, "It's a blessing. And a curse."

Hanging out with these kids has helped me recall some of my own childhood 'quirks.' Like many of my students, I have hypersensitive hearing, and I've always been easily overwhelmed by certain noises. I used to get unusually upset by seemingly minor sounds around the house. I also remember fixating on symbols, creating patterns, and repeating them in my head when I was a kid. I used to sit in my childhood living room, stare at the digital clock on the VCR, and repeat in my head, "Eight flash flash ten. Eight flash flash ten." The "flash flash" came from the blinking colon on the digital clock. Who even notices that? I also remember fixating on street signs while sitting in the back of the family car and having to repeat, "Stop ahead, stop ahead, stop line, stop" eight times before reaching a stop sign. (There was a "Stop Ahead" sign, then "Stop Ahead" was also written on the road, then "Stop" was written on the road, then there was a white line on the road, and then, finally, there was the stop sign. Thus, "Stop ahead, stop ahead, stop line, stop.") I'm not sure what I thought would happen to me if I didn't repeat this phrase eight times, but I just had to do it. I think it started when I was eight.

As many girls do, I kept these things hidden, and no one knew what was going on in my mind. (I believe both autism and OCD are under-diagnosed in girls.) I still occasionally catch myself memorizing a license plate for no apparent reason or washing my hands far too many times. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to check the alarm clock that I already checked ten times before falling asleep. Of course, my apartment locks can never be checked too often. Sound familiar? I think we all, to some extent, have minds that cause us to do seemingly bizarre, repetitive things from time to time. We all have our neuroses. (And I'm willing to bet that those who spend time in the blogosphere have them even more so than others.)

I'm one of the lucky ones. My life has not been held hostage by OCD, Asperger's, or any form of autism. I believe fewer lives would be if, rather than judging and fearing children with neurological disorders, more people - especially more educators - were willing to take a look at their own minds and see how much they have in common with these kids. Often, when I tell people I teach kids with autism, they'll say things like, "Oh I could never do that. It would be too sad." Sad?! I don't find it the least bit sad. Kids with autism are amazing. Frankly, there's something sad about people who don't get that.