Sunday, March 27, 2011


Leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, along with everyone else, sacrifice to get there. Author Unknown

Dear President Obama,

I think I just stumbled upon the school the rest of the country is looking for -- Thornton Creek Elementary School in Seattle, an alternative public school. Last week I was called to substitute in a kindergarten class there, and I was blown away by what I observed and learned by talking to teachers and parents there. There are many fine schools in Seattle, but I believe this one is exemplary. Why?

The school brochure, complete and slickly designed, refers to the Thornton Creek difference. Academic rigor based on exploration and discovery is key. Parental involvement is mandatory – 40 volunteer hours a year. Involvement can be anything from working in the classroom and serving on committees to chaperoning and helping to maintain school grounds.

Based on a model called Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (ELOB), ten principles are built into the program:

  • Primacy of self discovery
  • The having of wonderful ideas
  • The responsibility for learning
  • Empathy and caring
  • Success and failure
  • Collaboration and competition
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • The natural world
  • Solitude and reflection
  • Service and compassion

I get excited simply by looking at the principles and imagining what they mean for the children attending this school. Each class decides what the expeditionary learning will be for the year and the students are immersed in that learning.

Looping is the form of instruction used. This allows a teacher to remain with her students for at least two years, then returning for a new group of children. When a child is in a looping classroom it means that he or she misses out on a possible teacher for the second year. I asked one parent if this was seen as a problem because of the potential of having a less skilled teacher for two years. She told me that there were only good teachers at Thornton Creek and she was comfortable with whomever her son had.

The first six weeks are spent “setting expectations and building community” which encompasses rules for behavior, school goals and a foundation for a productive year.

The mission is for “staff administration and families to work cooperatively to meet the diverse needs of the students.” These include addressing all needs of the child, supporting experiential learning, promoting involvement by the parents and community, and extending learning to the world beyond.

So why aren’t all schools in Seattle built on this model, with the potential of educational excellence for all? I guess, as usual, it boils down to lack of funding and parental involvement.

This school started in l974 with parents who wanted a “private school” education in a public school setting and were willing to fund it. There were 125 students and four teachers. Now there are 325 students enrolled with a large waiting list for many others.

One sad commentary: It is troubling that there is little diversity in the sea of student faces, but I was told by one of the instructors at the school that this program can work anywhere, even in the less advantaged areas, if resources were committed to implementing ELOB. How might this be possible? Since parent involvement is a major part of the success, and since that's missing in many underserved schools, could TFA and Americorps teachers take the place of parents? Is there some other way of filling in the parent involvement piece where it is so deeply needed? Are there groups of volunteers that would dedicate themselves to fundraising such as auctions, like that which takes place at Thornton Creek?

I respectfully bring this school to your attention and that of the Secretary of Education, with the hope that someone in a position of authority will determine how we could use this educational format for our schools in crisis.


Jan Lind-Sherman

A Seattle Public School Substitute Teacher

Sunday, March 20, 2011


"Many things can wait. Children cannot. Today their bones are being formed, their blood is being made, their senses are being developed. To them we cannot say "tomorrow." Their name is today."
Gabriela Mistral (Chilean teacher 1899 - 1957)

After retiring in 2006 I turned my hand to subbing, first all day, and now half days in the afternoon. This so that I could spend mornings writing a blog, poetry and children's stories. The latter remains a publishing dream. To date, counting those which have since closed, I have been in about fifty elementary and K-8 schools. This experience has afforded me a firsthand look at what is going on for elementary age public school kids. My opinion: The news is mostly good.
A snapshot of Maple and Olympic Hills Elementary Schools follows:

Last week I saw an example of excellent team teaching in the third grade at Maple Elementary , a warm, welcoming school located on Beacon Hill in Seattle. It features an open concept setting which means that the three classrooms are separated only by partial partitions, with the back part of the room devoted to computers and round tables for smaller groups. The learning area is called a pod and this was the D pod - D1, D2, and D3. By peering around the partitions one can catch a glimpse of what is going on in the other rooms. The noise level is surprisingly manageable.

What I liked: The three teachers rotated every 45 minutes from one third grade to another, each teaching to their areas of interest and expertise. I took the place of a teacher who was teaching writing. The other two teachers were experts in math and science. I remembered the teacher who was responsible for science as the district coach for that subject years ago when I was at Martin Luther King Elementary School. She was an outstanding coach then, and seemed equally skilled in her present post. I liked going from one learning area to another rather than having the children move. As I taught the same lesson for all three I felt confident that I was following the day's objective and that I was not just "baby sitting" as a substitute.

What I didn't like: The teachers are under such stress to get their scores up they are worried they might have to give up a teaching format they all seem to like. These days If the overall scores aren't high enough the teacher risks losing his or her job. The burden is on each individual teacher to have high enough scores. In team teaching each teacher has to have trust that his or her teammates are doing their jobs. Never mind that the playing field is not level for schools like Maple, with a high level of students on free and reduced lunches and homes where English is not the first language. In my view, teachers using best practices, and working together to provide an excellent education, should not have the constant threat of test scores driving their programs.

Two days later found me at Olympic Hills in Lake City. My first impression was of a front office staff that, like Maple, was also warm and welcoming. As I went down the hall to a second grade traditional classroom my next impression was the face of true diversity. The staff was wide ranging in age and race, and one teacher was conducting class from a wheel chair. I later learned that the student population represented thirty different countries and eighteen different languages.

Before the teacher in my assigned room left, she shared some information that I found interesting. One new student was from Eretria in Northern Africa. He spoke little English and was unused to classroom rules. Luckily another student, whose parents came from that country, spoke the language and was able to communicate with the newcomer. I was also told that, contrary to what occurs in most schools, I would not have to go out and get the children as they lined up from their lunch recess. They would come in on their own. This they did, quietly taking their seats and waiting respectfully for me to speak. Perhaps my biggest surprise was the class size - 15 students in all. This is indeed a blessing in today's world of shrinking dollars causing growing classrooms.

In my experience this is unique. For students to line up and come to their classrooms can often be a trying experience. When the bell rings for entering the building, usually the teacher meets the students and escorts them to their lockers or rooms. Recess behavior usually comes in with the children, ranging from complaining about a playground problem to tattling about someone "taking cuts" and running ahead. To minimize this all kinds of ploys are used. "Lip-Hip" means putting a finger on one's mouth with one hand while the other hand is touching one's hip. Hugging oneself to keep from touching a student in front or behind is another. None of that was necessary.

Many schools have a self-manager program, where those students who show they can manage their own behavior get special perks, i.e. going to lunch or out to recess on their own, an extra recess for all self managers at the end of the week, etc. Unfortunately, as good as it sounds, it isn't always as effective as it could be in many buildings. At this school they have a successful Self-Manager program in place. Their school-wide expectation is that students be kind, helpful, safe and responsible. They indeed walk the talk, and it's a refreshing change.

In speaking with the principal at the end of the day I learned that Olympic Hills has several programs providing academic rigor. Five staff members were trained in the Lucy Calkins model of teaching reading and writing. She said O.H. is called a "lab school" where colleagues from other schools, twenty so far, come to observe good teaching techniques. All teachers provide readers' and writers' workshops, and an overall curriculum plan for the school is followed. She was particularly proud of the fact that community money makes it possible to provide free musical instruments for 4th and 5th graders to have music one day a week.

I understand this wonderful program may be at risk in the future because of funding woes. If so, what a shame! Perhaps the public relations department in Seattle Public Schools should feature
how schools are benefiting by community money, and what will be lost without their continued support. Individuals won't help fund what they aren't aware of.

The computer lab is manned by a former 4th and 5th grade teacher who helps students to become computer literate, and gives a strong focus to the academic program. Parents and students can log on to the computer and see homework assignments, academic activities for reading, writing, math and English language learners, games and more. Check the Olympic Hills site, and go to the computer teacher's classroom page to see the many activities available.

In asking about the small class size she explained that they chose to spend their money in a way that would allow for the smaller numbers, which meant that they had to give up on other things. As an example, teachers needed to incorporate art into their own classroom lessons rather than having an art teacher. She pointed out that their success comes despite 71% of the students being on free or reduced lunches, 30% of the student body being bi-lingual, and 18% designated as special education students.

It is my understanding that this is a certified Advanced Learning Opportunity School which means that daily classroom learning contain educational experiences above the children's grade level. This seems to be reflected in the school district data. I checked out the stats for this school on the Seattle Public Schools web site, and was not surprised to see their positive results. See for yourself by going to, then clicking on "schools" which will take you to this school or any other school in which you are interested.

With all the bad news in Seattle, l'd like to give my own personal "shout out" to Maple and Olympic Hills. You are doing right by your students, the families, and the community. You represent what educator Deborah Meier envisioned when she said "Good schools, like good societies and good families, celebrate and cherish diversity." You are doing what you can to make sure your students are reaching their potential.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home. Confucious

Note: Check out this special site for children called Earthquakes for Kids.

Nearly twenty five years ago my husband and I honeymooned in Japan. I was struck by several things:

Streets in Tokyo were packed with smallish people scurrying purposefully around the city. Pint sized vehicles, especially delivery and other trucks, reflecting the lack of space, jammed the streets. Underground one found a network of subways and what amounted to another city filled with stores and restaurants. The bullet train moved people across the country at 300 km per hour. Mount Fuji's majestic beauty seemed to float in the distance. The population was both friendly and welcoming. Schools were huge and filled with large classes of well-behaved children focused on their learning. These same children took responsibility for taking care of and cleaning their learning environment. People practiced moderation in their food portions, and there was little sign of obesity. And most impressive of all, one experienced a general attitude of respect for others.

The latter was evidenced when I accidentally left my purse on a bench in a busy part of the city, only to find it in that same spot later that day. When discussing this experience with some Japanese acquaintances I learned such honesty was a rule rather than an exception. I was amazed at this level of honesty which often seems missing in large urban areas of the U.S. , indeed in much of the rest of the world.

Now we are watching in horrified disbelief as the entire population of a very small country deals with the devastation of a 9.0 earthquake and a following Tsunami, terrible in scope and damage. The destruction and cost defies understanding, but a couple of things stand out.

The Japanese people are still respectful and purposeful. Yes, they might be used to earthquakes, and the resulting fallout, but nothing prepared them for "the big one" last week. How they are dealing with this tragedy should be a lesson for all of us.

We see no signs of looting or violence, and we see people, whose hearts must be breaking, pitching in to help each other, even to the point of sharing their precious water. This level of respect should give us all pause, since we in America have come to expect both looting AND violence in our own catastrophes - witness what happened in Katrina.

The question is, " Why there and not here?" We have long heard about the tight-knit families in Japan, their respect for elders, and their emphasis on education and personal responsibility. Does it break down to family values then?

An article from Country Studies, states that the Japanese people value harmony, order and self development, and believe that anti-social behavior will doom society. Children are taught from an early age about their society's interdependence, first in the family and later in the society at large. Group harmony is especially important.

The influence of Confucianism on social order is strong. From the essay "Da Xue" (The Great Learning), comes this statement: "Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. They states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy."

Because the country's population is both small and homogenous, control over social order is easier to exert and maintain than in a country like ours that allows for greater inclusion of other cultures. It would be difficult to fully discuss here the cultural differences that cause the Japanese to be so respectful to others while many of us seem to have such a profound lack of that trait.

To me, this is the defining difference. Japanese society is homogenous, and children learn their values from the cradle. The United States is an ever-changing population of people from all over the world who bring their own belief systems with them, some of them violent. Add poverty, access to guns, little media censorship, and a feeling of entitlement by many, and you have a recipe for disrespectful behavior.

Here are two scenarios that might be illuminating. In Seattle, if I have a class of learners from homes where respect is the norm and education is valued, the children are respectful and open to learning. If a new student comes into the class who acts out and is prone to disrespect, that student is absorbed into the class which, as a group, forces the "lone student" to conform to the class norms.

On the other hand, if I have a class of students, many of whom are disrespectful and act out, those students who have been taught to be respectful at home will often cave in and either add to the chaos or become passive. After all, it sometimes feels like more fun to be naughty than nice.

It's my belief that we probably can't be like the people in Japan overall in terms of respect. We can only try to influence our unruly citizens to see that being respectful and law-abiding is more advantageous in the long run.

Luckily for Japan their citizens are honest, hardworking, ambitious, well educated, and understand the importance of working in groups, They will need all of those traits and skills to survive the coming days, months and years ahead. They did it in the past after WWII. I think they can do it again. In the meantime we, as Americans, should learn a lesson from our Pacific Rim neighbors by modeling honesty and integrity in our daily lives. Good luck and God bless to Japan and its people!

Sunday, March 6, 2011


"We see a lot of openness and willingness to accept kids of all abilities. At this age, they don't know to be prejudiced." --Sandy Davalos, a special education teacher in an inclusive classroom

I enjoyed teaching kids of every ability level during my twenty five years as a K-5 teacher and continue feeling good about my career even now as a substitute elementary school teacher.

Last week I had experiences in two classrooms that brought home a problem facing many teachers today – namely, how to provide a good education to children with special needs. One class of fifth graders had four or five students who went to another room for a major part of the day. When they returned to their home room two of them brought along their negative energy resulting in disruption. I was frustrated. Their classmates were irritated.

The other class, in a different school, had one student with severe behavioral issues who was in the regular education room full time. I learned from the teacher that their school had switched to an inclusion model this year, even though many teachers were not happy about the change. Promised resources did not follow. After several months, however, she had finally found ways to achieve some success with the student, but the cost to that student's classmates was a lot of lost learning.

I remembered all too well how difficult it was to maintain a high level of learning in an environment where disruptions occurred frequently during the day. I often wondered if the people making special education decisions really had the best interest of the majority in mind, or understood the resulting impact to learning.

Here is where understanding the different available learning environments gets confusing for people, even educators. Most people understand the regular education classroom. Some may not realize that the “pull out” model means that children go out of the room for a certain number of minutes per week to work on areas of weakness in reading, writing and/or math with a smaller group of children and the special education teacher or instructional assistant. Some schools have a fully self-contained classroom which has a small number of students, a special education teacher and an aide. During my last years as a teacher the word “inclusion” was added to the learning options.

WEAC (The Wisconsin Education Association Council) has a great article providing us with a common vocabulary of inclusion learning environments beyond the regular education classroom, the pull-out model, and the self-contained special education classroom. They explain the differences between mainstreaming, inclusion and full inclusion, and it would be worth a few minutes to check out this easy-to-read article.

In short, mainstreaming refers to putting students who qualify for special education into the regular education class for certain work. Sometimes the mainstreaming only includes music, P.E., library, science, social studies and other such classes.

Inclusion involves bringing support services to the classroom so that a learning disabled student can spend the day in a regular education setting. The benefit is largely one of being with one’s peers rather than actually keeping up with the work.

Full Inclusion means the student will be in the regular education room at all times regardless of the handicap, and services are brought to the child.

For my part, I taught a regular education classroom. Over the years I experienced children being pulled out, and aides coming in to help those needing assistance. For two or three years our school had a special education self-contained class with an amazing teacher who was so exciting and talented that all of the students wanted to go out to the portable where she was teaching just to be with her. That was a lucky time for those special education children who ranged from low i.q. to severe behavior disorders. Her students became writers who were later published in a book of poetry, the poems actually written by and credited to them.

It’s important to remember there are several kinds of handicapping conditions, i.e. physical impairment, learning disabled (because of such things such as dyslexia, low IQ., etc.), and behavioral disorders. I experienced many students who had a hard time learning. Some examples included ADHD, ADD, Muscular Dystrophy, Asperger’s Syndrome, hearing and vision impairment, Down’s Syndrome, and severe anger management resulting in destruction of school, student and personal property. Home environments exacerbated some behaviors so that students coming to school angry, hungry or abused often acted out. This resulted in disrupted learning and a potentially unsafe situation. Some of these children should have been in special education classes, but did not qualify or the available programs were not funded at the school.

One example of the latter: A first grade student in my room had behavior problems that would later be deemed Asperger's. On one occasion I looked up from a reading group to see him stand on his chair, fling himself in the air and land with a thud on the floor. You can imagine the reaction - mine and the other students. The child sat stunned, blood dripping from his chin. 911 was called and he was taken to the hospital for stitches. I later asked him what made him do such a thing. He said he had seen the movie Matrix where the hero had done something similar, and bounced on the floor. He thought it looked like a fun thing to try.

Here are some of my thoughts about special education based on (1) assessing my ability as a teacher, (2) how parents of special needs might feel and (3) how students in a regular education classroom look at children who learn differently.

Regarding my ability as a teacher, I can honestly say this. I am proud of my teaching, the creativity and academic rigor I brought to the classroom, and the love and compassion I felt for my students. I believe I maintained that excellence with students who had physical handicaps and some learning disabilities. It became more difficult when students had emotional problems. Sadly, I know that I am less effective when I have to spend an inordinate amount of time managing behavior.

Regarding parents of special education students, my experience told me that many were worried their children were not getting a top notch education, or had poor self esteem because of being out of the regular education classroom. Some had had negative special education experiences themselves which colored how they felt. Others were unwilling or unable to help their students at home with homework or behavior modification.

Regarding negative interaction between special education students and their peers because they are either in a self-contained class or are being pulled out for help elsewhere, I believe that concern is largely unfounded. I should point out here, though, that I am referring to elementary age children. The situation may be quite different in middle or high school. In the younger grades most students don't know or care what is going on in other rooms. Actually, a special education child's learning deficits become more obvious when in the regular education room. On the flip side, kids love helping each other learn. The one thing you can be sure of, however, is that children with behavior problems are often disliked or feared.

Here are some additional thoughts:

1. It's good to be inclusive where we can -- in the library, P.E., music, social studies, sciences and other similar classes. It is not o.k. to be inclusive in basic skills such as reading, math or writing if by being inclusive the students do not get the help they need or disrupt others when their needs are not being met.

2. Every student who either cannot or will not function well in a regular education program should be in a special education program that has specially trained teachers and aides equipped to maximize that student’s learning experience. Every available resource should be given to help them reach that goal.

3. Recognize that pulling out a student whose IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) says he gets a prescribed number of minutes, i.e. 20-30 minutes a day in reading and/or math, is short changing that student.

4. Recognize that bringing an aide into the regular education room for twenty or thirty minutes a day to assist a struggling student is short changing that student.

5. Think about the fact that these days it costs nearly $40,000 a year per inmate, to incarcerate that inmate in a Washington State prison.

6. Then recognize that it costs far less than $10,000 to educate a special education student.

7. Consider restructuring our educational system and the way the money is spent. Take a hard look at how and when we identify special needs students and get the resources to them earlier when it can make a greater impact. Too often so many "Ts" have to be cross and "Is" have to be dotted that months of lost learning go by before students get the assistance they need. Let's help them and their parents with anger issues, abuse and learning problems so that they will not need to be incarcerated later in life at triple the cost.

8. Stop worrying about the self esteem of the child in a self contained classroom. If the self-contained classroom is an outstanding classroom, the other children will want to be there as in the true example I cited above. Make all classrooms, especially special education rooms, great places to be. Make sure the special education teacher has competent assistants to avoid burnout and keep the learning going. Appreciate the special education teaching staff. Their work is difficult in my opinion.

9. Regarding self-esteem, consider that kids who are acting out in a regular classroom are looked down on or feared by classmates. Bullies are born here, and need help. Others need protection. Consider also that those who can't keep up academically know they are not able to do so and often feel better where they are learning at their own pace in a setting where they don't feel ignorant. Ask yourself which is better for self esteem?

10. Help parents of struggling students undertand how they can help their children be more successful.

I just keep thinking about all those dollars spent to keep people incarcerated, when the possibility of spending some of that money in the early years could minimize this social problem. If you think this way as well, write to your congress people. In the meantime, get involved with your local school and see if you can at least mentor a child in need. If that child is one with special needs, so much the better.