Community slaughter chute

Our principal shared with all of us a news article that didn’t make the day’s morning editions. We collectively knew the content, but not the student. Another former student was killed by gun violence. He still hadn’t reached the age where he could legally purchase a beer.

While I disdain slogans such as it takes a village, the underlying message is worth considering.

As I wrote earlier, I’ve now lost count of the number of students from our small alternative program who’ve been murdered by means of guns. What I haven’t lost sight of is how many people were involved in channeling these dead students into the slaughter chute.

By the time these young people reached the hours before their deaths, they undoubtedly made their own bad choices. For most people who never knew them, that’s where all introspection begins and ends. We who teach these kids can’t make that deliberate choice to ignore the nuance of murder.

I’m reminded of how crowds in both the North and South would cluster around the postings of Civil War casualties hoping their loved one’s name wasn’t listed. We teachers in inner-city schools instinctively go through a similarly morbid habit each day as we scan crime stories on the various, local news sites. Our humanity isn’t lessened when we feel a fleeting moment of relief when the article or news clip reveals the perpetrators and victims to be strangers, someone else’s children.

It would be trite were I to detail the many factors that contribute to walls our students encounter that, for more than a very few, lead to the coroner’s slab. Here in Indianapolis, the once-thriving African American community, albeit one created in response to segregation, was systematically broken.

Universities wanted land, politicians wanted to curtail a growing minority voice in city government, and developers saw opportunity within urban renewal. Once the poor, mostly black residents had been scattered, red-line zoning and a still-herald scheme to combine city-county government – but not schools – temporarily eliminated minority voices within that new structure while creating what amounted to a ghetto-system of public education.

Our dead youth all reached that last reality in which one awful choice immediately caused a violent end.  We teachers can’t look away from how little choice our dead had during their short lives. For everyone else, though, the choice to ignore, the freedom to explain away shared culpability is blithely embraced.

Transition to digital learning – a misnomer

Courtesy of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Now that our building has been closed for more than three weeks, we who teach are beginning to see under present circumstances how inadequate is the noun transition – as in transition to digital learning.

Just as marsh creatures simultaneously cease all sounds at the approach of a hurricane, teachers and administrators sensed a rapid drop in routine’s barometric pressure. Much to his credit, our alternative program’s principal took steps to stay ahead of the insinuated changes to teaching the novel coronavirus pandemic necessitated. Independently, at first, teachers began creating Google Classroom accounts at the same time the principal created a Google Drive document meant to our student’s access to technology at home. (Our district generated an online survey for the same purpose two weeks later.)

Those of us who follow the news closely anticipated the district’s closure announcement when we learned of the Governor’s planned press conference later that Thursday afternoon, March 12. Neighboring Ohio’s Governor DeWine shuttered the state’s schools that day and many assumed Indiana would prudently follow suit.  However, Governor Eric Holcomb punted, allowing each district to make the call. An hour later, our district’s superintendent joined with those of all Marion County public school districts during a press conference with Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett. The mayor ordered all county schools closed for two weeks, a period that ran until or overlapped Spring Break, effectively creating a three-week fire break.

For my colleagues and me, there was little time for superstition on Friday the 13th of this March. E-mail communication, though sparse, bore testimony that the preparatory work teachers began on or before Thursday was now being implemented. Requests for valid parent-phone numbers and e-mail addresses went out and updates were shared in exchanges among teachers. We were all working on various lists.

“Snag ahead!”

It was only later that I began to think of Mark Twain’s tales of the Mississippi paddlewheels as I updated my own communication lists. Like the riverboat pilots of the mid-19th century, we kept a sharp eye out for snags and quickly maneuvered around the obstacles as they came into sight. By mid-week of what was technically the last week of the grading period, I began to note on my own listing of student contacts those cell numbers that had responded to texts from my personal cell phone. Parent or guardian e-mails that responded to requested replies were shaded, in my case green, to delineate them from those e-mails with no responses.

Hell must certainly have frozen over with the spread of the epidemic as I would never before have even considered sharing my personal e-mail with parents or guardians. For those not in alternative education, such precautions may not resonate, but nevertheless, the snag identified by many of us obviated concerns about sharing our cell numbers.

With several iterations of texting and emailing parents, contact with parents began to reveal some progress, but even more obstacles. A small percentage of those households to whom calls, texts, and emails were sent resulted in replies.

All-calls to student homes from both the district and our principal were made asking parents to fill out the district technology survey, (mentioned above). Resource allocation decisions will be based upon the results.

More than ever, we teachers are preparing to provide engaging learning activities under a number of circumstances over which we have almost no control.  In the meantime, there are plenty of metaphoric snags we can see, but we’re about to find out how many lie unseen just beneath the surface.  We’ll either adapt to the novel circumstances of our transition will be like the Titanic transitioning to an artificial reef.

MTSS and Alternative Education

Is there a comprehensive understanding of the Multi-Tiered System of Supports, (MTSS), in your alternative education program? Simply asking that question may be more common than you’d imagine, but it’s hardly going to give you a truly valid answer. Unfortunately, digging deeper for the truth is frequently trumped by a strong desire to avoid discomfort. To find out if an alternative ed program is effectively using the MTSS framework, you have to endure a high-stress process in an already high-stress environment. It may not be fun in the short-term, but all of us should be playing our best long-game.

Get serious about evaluating staff understanding of MTSS

“If you want to find out if your Marines understand something, ask probing questions in private, then compare answers.” – Old Marine leadership trick

In the case of MTSS process knowledge, I highly recommend informally polling teachers during one-on-one conversations and then looking for the presence of patters. Those patterns may reveal diverse – and incorrect – responses. It’s important that these interviews be anonymous. Our colleagues are already weary of data being used against all of us for all the wrong reasons. There’s a time to individualize remediation of MTSS knowledge, but when that time comes, it’s critical that a teacher is intrinsically motivated to learn how the process works.

A comprehensive approach is key

Is your school/program’s MTSS an event or an integral part of each and every component of your operation?  Use these questions to find out whether or not you have a monthly committee meeting or a real process.

  • Do the referring schools provide MTSS data for students assigned to your alternative education program?
  • Does your onboarding/orientation of new students result in the identification of both behavioral and academic supports for the individual student?
  • Does your master schedule include dedicated counseling resources, e.g. support groups with assigned staff?
  • Do individual teachers know how to document observations and other data relevant to the MTSS process?
  • Do weekly Professional Learning Communities, (PLCs), produce actionable data about a student’s behavioral or academic support needs?
  • Are supports assigned and coordinated by the MTSS Committee, (as opposed to individuals acting with good intentions, but without group consensus)?
  • Are all forms for recording and tracking data standardized?
  • Is your MTSS Committee staffed with special-education, administrators, counselors, social workers, and behavioral specialists?
  • Does the MTSS Committee meet at least weekly to act upon referrals?
  • Is there a scheduling mechanism in place for providing supports for students identified as needing Tier 2 supports?
  • When your students return to their boundary schools or a new location, is there a mutually agreed upon and coordinated transition?

Of course, this list of questions is hardly all-inclusive, but there are two essential questions that still need to be answered to determine if your program has a high-speed MTSS operation.

  • Are students routinely provided with supporting activities as a direct result of your MTSS Committee’s recommendation?
  • Is there a written plan in place detailing the corrective action taken if any of the previous questions can’t be answered with a truthful yes?

What to do with all that bad news

If your inquiries were honest, you’re probably looking at a disturbingly high number of NOs. However, don’t despair. Many schools never go through the discomforting process necessary to produce a valid picture of where you are with your MTSS process.

Start from the beginning.

  • Identify and gather all of the stakeholders.
  • Conduct a more formal assessment of knowledge about the MTSS process.
  • Train to instill in all parties a common understanding of the academic and behavioral components of MTSS.
  • Use reverse planning techniques to rework problem areas.
  • Fix problems, not blame.

One final word. The Multi-Tiered System of Supports, when done well, is an iterative process. Each school or program should have built-in to that process a cycle of self-evaluation. Many a program goes sour when too many people become sure that a lack of complaints equates to a trouble-free process.  Truth is, hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil probably means you’ve gotten good at the very human habit of avoidance.

Columbus Day and why historians revise

Columbus Day and why historians revise

All history is nuanced, and therefore, all history is revisionism. For many Americans, though, particularly those whose livings aren’t made researching, studying, and teaching about the past, updates to the understanding of an existing historical narrative is often seen as less-than-legitimate. Take, for example, the contemporary wave of scrapping Columbus Day for the honoring of indigenous peoples. Isn’t this cultural phenomenon just another example of political correctness and historical revisionism?

Yes. On both accounts.

Defining terms

Let’s start by understanding that knowledge of the past grows as new information is uncovered, or in the case of Christopher Columbus, his Spanish crews, settlers, soldiers, and those who’d already discovered the Bahamas and Hispaniola, given a voice.

While what’s known about Columbus’ most famous of his four voyages to the New World has been available to researchers for most of the past five centuries, several reasons hindered its distribution throughout those years. I’ll comment only on those most relative to what some still call a controversy.

While nativism likely played some role in Columbus Day only becoming an official federal-holiday in 1934, (there were celebrations in the U.S., usually during centennial years, and including one world’s exposition), the account was almost entirely a celebration of European conquest. That the explorers were Eastern European as well as Catholic was not honorific except in certain immigrant enclaves. Still, public accounts of how the Tainos who resided in the Carribean region explored by Columbus was, at best, overlooked, and most often what I’d call Disneyfied. Again, records attesting to Columbus’ policies of lopping off hands of 14-year-old Tainos who failed to fetch a specified amount of gold for Ferdinand and Isabella existed and were well enough known in academic circles, but these didn’t fit into the hero mythology of Christopher Columbus.

As for the boorishly trite label of political correctness leveled at teaching the past through multiple perspectives of those involved, we need to understand the term political correctness. A Thought Company article attempts this challenge.


The term political correctness describes written or spoken language that’s intentionally phrased to avoid offending or marginalizing groups identified by certain social characteristics, such as race, gendersexual orientation, or ability. Beyond the obvious avoidance of overt slurs, political correctness also includes the avoidance of terms that reinforce preconceived negative stereotypes. The elimination of verbal discrimination is often considered one of the main goals of political correctness.

It’s hard to argue that honoring a man who rewarded other Europeans with Tainos women for the purpose of becoming rape victims is offensive to marginalized groups; you know, indigenous peoples, women, men, decent human beings. By no longer omitting material facts about Columbus’ overt cruelty certainly qualifies as politically correct.

Why historians revise

The nature of the discipline history, the systematic study and scholarly interpretation of past events demands that each generation revisit the account of historic events. It is foolish to accept that each generation is free from its own blind spots, or more accurately, biases and prejudices. For that reason, the study of history must include a healthy dose of revision as these predispositions favoring power are recognized and mitigated.

When teaching new generations about the past, especially generations whose makeup is increasingly more diverse than that of the current and past generations, having a good explanation for why historians revise is essential. Students need to understand that historic revision doesn’t mean changing facts, but rather including once omitted details and perspectives while weeding out even cherished myths.

One of my personal favorites among the many new ways of teaching about the past is the Zinn Education Project. Specific to teaching about Columbus is the activity that puts Columbus and associated practices and persons on trial. The People vs. Columbus, et al has been one of the most engaging lessons I’ve used to tell the full story of European contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

If you happen to have today off from work, (or even if you don’t), I hope you’ll take the time to think about what this day means for more than just Europeans. More to the point, I hope you’ll take the time to think if Columbus’ record really reflects your values.

Taking off my pack

Taking off my pack

This will sound familiar to many teachers. It’s the first morning of fall break, but my brain is still fighting to work on lesson plans, rework social studies units, and think of innovative ways to reward students for improving behavior.  We’re good at those things, but honestly, what we’re not good at is turning off those thoughts when our brains, our bodies, and our souls need a break. I’m struggling now to, as the military saying goes, take off my pack.

When the buses arrived to take away our students on Friday afternoon, I was exhausted.  It was the end of my first grading period as a middle-school teacher in an alternative ed program and I’ve been working harder than I did as a first-year teacher. Adding to the workload was the extra effort of helping steady vulnerable students facing nine days of chaos, hunger, and danger that comes with extended breaks from the safe, stable environment of school.

I recall how hard I worked for nearly every day during the summer break as I prepared to transition from teaching high school social studies classes to middle-school classes. It had to be done, however, I didn’t feel rested as I usually am after the “long” hiatus between mid-June and early August preceding a new school year.

Like most teachers I know, I love my job and enjoy the challenge of providing experiences that help students grow. Still, there’s a cost. Just as a student benefits from what I call a percolation period during which time information is organized in a student’s brain as connections form after exposure to new concepts, teachers need time away from hard mental work of crafting lessons.

I liken what I’m now experiencing to the challenge faced by anyone meditating – or fighting insomnia. How do you turn off those thoughts of the best way to solve not only your own problems but those of others? At first, it’s uncomfortable to consciously not harness your mind to brainstorming the means to an elusive end. There’s even some, (irrational), guilt I feel in the morning when I’m not honing a new idea for incorporating a promising learning strategy.

Age and experience serve as a rare comfort in this case. I know and understand the benefits – the necessity – of taking off my pack. My subconscious mind will still work on those problems, but the intentional rest I’m taking will provide, hopefully, the fuel for future epiphanies.

The balance of these next nine days will see me camping and enjoying the good company of close friends and aging parents. I’ll explore a few books, museums, and a movie or two, and while all of these may be tied to my content are, I plan to fight that urge to pick up my pack, to saddle up, and return to my teacher mode – until the night before school resumes.

Happy moments

My 7th graders had done a respectably good job using latitude and longitude coordinates to locate continents and oceans. They’d earned a short break from work, and being 7th graders, were bubbling over in excess energy. I offered a conditional reward of going to the gym if the entire class completed one more task and they comported themselves appropriately for the next thirty minutes.

About half-way through the assignment, two students began a bit of low-intensity horseplay. I cautioned the two, “you need to get back to work; you know I’ll pull the trigger on going to the gym if you don’t live up to our agreement.”

With that, one of the students asked, “what do you mean, pull the trigger?”

From the opposite side of the classroom came the type of response we teachers dream of hearing.

“Don’t you know what a metaphor is,” another student incredulously asked.

I immediately rewarded that student with a ticket.

I shared the incident at our staff meeting, the account receiving a spontaneous smattering of applause.

After school, I called the student’s mother who was delighted to receive the news about her son’s display of learning.

Putting the F in Failing Students

Putting the F in Failing Students

My first job after graduating from college was teaching in a new alternative education program. I learned many things during that time, but most of the learning didn’t happen until after I’d moved on to another district.

I use the term learned, as in what I learned, but there is a more precise, more forthright description. What I thought I knew about students and teaching wasn’t quite right. This isn’t an indictment of my teacher preparation in college. It is, however, an indictment of my perceptions that predate my enrollment.

Among my dead-wrong beliefs were:

  • Students assigned to alternative ed programs were bad kids.
  • Parents of students assigned to alternative ed programs were bad parents.
  • Academic failings of alt-ed students were the primary result of poor choices those students inevitably made.
  • Academically gifted students didn’t end up in alternative education programs.

Now, we all can laugh, (and cringe), at my new-teacher biases. However, it appears that some of those same wrong-headed assumptions are alive and well in district policies guiding their own alternative-education programs.

Student focused or student blaming?

One observation that surprised me some twenty-one years ago was how much progress students made in our alternative education program during just one semester. By progress, I mean measurable improvement in reading and math. Foundational to my present understanding of learning is that these students already had the capacity to learn and learn well. So what are the implications of this?

Unlike some alt-ed programs, that first school was well designed in many aspects. Every student assigned to our program came with detailed records, not of what they’d done to be faced with expulsion, but of where they were academically. We had student transcripts, recent testing information, (against which we could later measure progress), and existing support services to include contact information of probation officers. This is the good news. Still, there was and is bad news that schools should face in order to improve learning.

Alternative Education is all about great teaching

Inescapable is the conclusion that students who demonstrate significant progress, (relative to the student), during a semester or two of instruction in an alternative program were not receiving something they needed in their general education program. By no means am I shifting culpability of bad choices or behaviors by the student, but then neither am I glossing over shortcomings implicit withing the general education programs from which our students come.

To be clear, mandated smaller class sizes are a true advantage for teachers working in alternative ed. Nevertheless, districts that permit class sizes of thirty or forty students need to take a hard look at even tight budgets and rethink every salary decision that results in unmanageably large classes.

Failing to identify and then remediate gaps in student skills and academic discrepancies is, contrary to practices, inexcusable. I’ve long since lost track of the number of high-school students clearly in need of testing referrals for deficits that had to have been apparent years earlier. Lacking agency, so common among impoverished families, is no excuse for a student to have special education needs ignored.

While it’s not within the scope of this post to wade into social promotion policies, it is necessary to point out what makes for very bad policy. A young student who fails to meet standards, especially reading and math expectations must have additional, targeted support in addition to content area instruction. The number of students I’ve seen assigned to alt-ed programs with records clearly indicating this did not happen is disappointingly high.  And with this comes my final observation.

How to build a behavior problem

There are, of course, always exceptions to generalizations. I get that. Still, I’ve yet to meet a student assigned to an alternative program due primarily to behavior issues who received adequate academic remediation for learning shortcomings.

If you happen to be interested in provoking humiliation, frustration, and rage in a student, make sure he or she falls behind their peers in learning. Too often, this is what happens to students assigned to alternative education programs. We practitioners know what to do when they arrive at our alternative school – but so should have those who preceded us.

Meeting the student

A large group of cheerful diverse young adults looking up and smiling at the camera. The group includes male and female African American, Hispanic and Caucasian ethnicities.

As the fleeting days of summer break take their toll on my anxiety level, most days see quite a bit of course planning. After all, one of the luxuries of this seasonal respite from teaching is time. My transition from high school to middle school social studies a whole new set of lessons. This means beginning with a final set of expectations from which all other activities derive.

There’s something that seems to get lost when planning for students assigned to alternative education programs. Does our reverse planning really meet the students where they are academically or do we plan for where we think our students should be?

Building a scaffold around the standards

The easy part of reverse planning is organizing the district’s academic standards for each course. But what if your students don’t have a good handle on the vocabulary that makes up those standards?

Long before you pre-teach the vocabulary for a lesson, it is critical that students, particularly those from poor households, really understand the terms of the course’s expectations.

I’ve taken key terms from Indiana’s 7th and 8th-grade social studies standards and broken them down into three groups.

  • Measurable action verbs
  • Vocabulary possibly unfamiliar or with more than one meaning
  • Domain-specific terms
Action Verbs by Bloom’s Cognitive Domains
Survey – Standards Vocabulary









Meeting the students where they are

During that first week of school, (or soon after the student arrives during the semester), I’ll give the survey of words found in the standards that may be unfamiliar. Already on an interactive word wall will be the action verbs. Revealed when the term is lifted will be the applicable definition. The domain-specific terms will be introduced throughout the course as content requires.

By ensuring the students receive a good grounding on the terms that set the expectations for the semester, we can take some of the shock out of returning to school in August. More importantly, by meeting the student’s academic needs early in the year, we’re mitigating a source of stress that could be an obstacle for real growth.


New year, new assignment

For the past six years, no matter how trying the day was, I consoled myself with one thought: At least I don’t teach middle school.

Beginning in late July, however, I’m my program’s middle school social studies teacher. I’m actually excited about the new assignment.

Anticipated news

When word filtered out that Mr. Ferris had taken a job in his hometown, I was both happy for his own good fortune and concerned about the impending loss to our school of an excellent, middle-school social studies teacher.

Of the four members of our middle school team, two had accepted other positions. That level of turnover is tough on a grade-level team universally seen as strong. In an alternative program, having a cohesive group of teachers working with the most challenging population – middle schoolers – has critical implications. A strong team means the difference between an administrative team able to advance a program’s big-picture goals and one increasingly beleaguered by chaos.

While I thought about approaching our principal about the open social studies position, my satisfaction with teaching high school as a member of a strong cadre of veteran alt-ed teachers won out over my idea. Perhaps the principal had another vision for filling the job. So, when he did announce that he was moving me from high school to the middle school, I believe I detected signs of relief when I enthusiastically approved of his decision.

Bring your A-Game

Teaching at-risk students assigned to an alternative program requires at least two unique student-needs. For a variety of factors, these students are far behind their age-peers in skills. More specific to their socio-economic circumstances, they have learned behaviors that serve as barriers to a good education. Add to this the attendant issues with all middle-school students and the responsibilities of teaching become daunting. To borrow from the Scout motto, be prepared. Be very prepared.

I’ve come to understand that teaching social studies in the conventional, cookie-cutter fashion is no way to help alternative education students learn. Over the past several years, I’ve made the transition from the factory model comprised of district pacing guides and chronological approaches to the past. While teachers are required to teach specific standards, the use of thematic units come with the obligation for competent teachers to differentiate the pace of learning appropriate to each student.

My summer break has already seen the regular application of reverse-planning. From the standards come evaluation, from evaluation comes assessment. There’s no shortcut to doing something right.

My own best-laid plans call for the heavy use of stations in my classroom. By including skill-building activities in these stations, (so my current thinking goes), instructional time will be maximized to the point that I’ll avoid that terrifying experience of running short of meaningful activities during a class period. I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to recharge and relax during my break. However, I do understand the sense of urgency of joining a four-person team in which all of the licensed teachers are new to middle school.


Teaching student skills

Disheartening as it may be, many at-risk students arrive in high school alternative programs as a consequence of being – at-risk students.  For those new to alternative education, teaching student skills most learn by their late primary school years is a necessity that often goes unrecognized.

Without the skills for being a student, behavior problems are almost guaranteed.

Without an egg, there is no chicken

There exists what I believe to be a misconception about why students are placed in alternative education programs. Conventional wisdom has behavior as the root cause of why placements into alternative schools are made. Flowing from this popular belief is the assumption that poor grades and a lack of academic skills are the consequences of bad behavior. This particular narrative is both popular and pervasive, but I argue that it’s acceptance has more to do with the expedient convenience of letting teachers off the hook.

To look at this cause and effect premise a bit more objectively, we can begin by examining the one skill at which nearly all students assigned to an alternative program excel – avoidance strategies.

While passively dodging work isn’t an exclusive behavior of at-risk youth, it very often coincides with some deficit the student finds embarrassing. By high school age, the student lacking in basic student skills has learned at least one thing; for years, trained professionals have failed to remediate these strategies. If the vagaries of life spent in poverty haven’t produced enough frustration, distrust, and socially inappropriate behaviors, a system that demands levels of performance from teens without the basic skills to meet those expectations often proves to be the last straw.

Alternative education students intrinsically understand this. It’s time we practitioners not only understand this but change how we teach as a result.  Our first responsibility as teachers in alternative education settings is to remediate the skills our general ed counterparts failed to impart.

Implications for teaching student skills

To successfully teach students in an alternative setting, one has to master the fine art of differentiation. Often times this means, not so much throwing out the book on how to teach, but rather cutting the book apart and reordering the pages.

Pacing guides. As written, pacing guides are the antithesis of the differentiated classroom. They are the one-size-fits-all plan to which many neophytes desperately cling, and yet are highly impractical for students with the learning profiles common among at-risk youth. Still, the concept of having a set of milestones for teaching standards over a grading period, semester, and school year is still quite sound. What this means for the alt-ed teacher is that you must create your own pacing guide that includes, but isn’t based upon standards. To do this, go back to what we know about differentiating process.

Student skills – Standards – Thematic Blocks

Though much of my career was spent outside my role as a social studies teacher, I’ll limit the scope of my recommendation to that domain.

Also, for this post, I’ll omit my own views on around what specific student skills a teacher should teach. You, the reader, already know.

To create your own pacing guide, start with the student skills as informed by your experiences. I recommend no more than eight of these, though your student’s needs should drive that number.

A great teacher tool, post-it-notes with your content standards written one to a sheet make for a good way to group standards. As we’re reconstructing the book, I suggest you begin with the higher order standards that can be applied more appropriately to thematic blocks or units of instruction.

Finally, create thematic units. In the case of history courses, you can use these blocks of learning to teach students how to construct meaning by making connections among similar events.

Most importantly, build the type of relationship with your individual students so that they feel safe in letting you know which skills they’re trusting you to teach.