I want to take a moment to discuss an activity that schools are participating in, but are going through the motions and as a result of this, in my opinion, are teaching the wrong lesson. If you have read some of my previous posts or followed me on Twitter, I have a son who has some health issues and is on an IEP. He is now in sixth grade and is pretty much behind by two or more grades. My son also is integrated in the regular classroom for some subjects and in a smaller group setting for the core subjects.
For kindergarten and the first five grades of elementary school, working with the school was a challenge. Some of the reasons why my son is behind is because of how they approached educating him. Yes, he has learning disabilities. I know the job is not easy, but they could have done better. They are supposed to be the experts. During these five years I also learned a few things about the world of IEP, which I can summarize as:
- Nothing happens quickly. Every step along the way is full of delays.
- The education representatives reluctantly participate, and are going through the motions to meet a legal requirement. Costs are always on their mind and impede a realistic discussion of needs and solutions.
- Goal setting and progress seems to be erratic and a facade. First of all goals do not have a duration. My son basically had the same goals on day one of first grade through the day he left the school in fifth grade. Even if a goal was measurable, I can not believe they really did document the progress. For example the goal would be "The student will make progress on his assignment without teacher assistance three out of five times." Do you really think they documented this every day to draw a conclusion? I doubt it. In five years my son only successfully completed one goal. The rest of the goals were labeled "making progress" and usually concluded with a negative comment about my son. The odd thing is he is in a new school for sixth grade and this school inherited the IEP objectives and conclusions from the earlier school. In our first IEP meeting, the administrator and the teacher went through the objectives and comments from the previous school. They indicated that they did not see the same issues as the previous school had documented. Their remark was, "It is as if he is not the same child. Your son does not have any of these issues that they have described." In an effort to possibly explain this, one of the teachers said, your son has really matured from last year. Yes, he has matured, but that has nothing to do with the supposed "changes." Rather than there being a change in my son, I think there is just a change of teachers and perspectives.
- The school themselves made the parent/school relationship adversarial. Since they are the experts on education, I expected them to enlighten me regarding what was needed for my son. Instead, if I didn't bring forth an idea myself, they would never come up with an objective or a solution on their own.
- The education participants were not honest with me, and I think the reason is that they knew I would challenge them and they were not prepared to defend themselves.
Enough ranting. I need to get to the main point of this post.
Our schools use as a tool called an assignment notebook. I am sure you have run into them at least one time in your child's life. Each student is required to buy one every single year. I understand why they require it, because it is a good tool. It is my understanding that the purpose of the assignment notebook is to get students prepared for the upper grades and start being responsible for homework and assignments. It also should guide a student to organize their activities which will be a useful lesson in life in general. To ensure that the lessons learned from using an assignment notebook are adopted by students, it is important to consistently use it as a tool. The steps of working with an assignment notebook include:
- The students should be given time daily to fill out the assignment notebook with information by subject and specific assignment.
- Teachers may also use it as a means of communicating to the parent.
- The student is supposed to check it to see what they might have for homework each day.
- The student takes the assignment notebook home.
- Parents check to see that homework is complete.
- Parents sign it.
- The student returns it the next day.
- The teacher checks it.
It's a pretty simple process and if followed would teach a student about creating to-do's and organizing themselves. It also is a great tool for the parent to know what the student is studying and if the child is doing what he is supposed to be doing. Keep in mind the goal for using an assignment notebook in the early grades is to prepare themselves for when they are in the upper grades and learn to keep track of the work they need to do. If the teachers, students and parents followed the eight steps listed above, and the process was repeated every day consistently, and was used for every year in elementary school, the process would achieve its goal. It would become a natural process for a student to make a list and then use the lists to make sure they get their work done. I applaud the goal and the process. It is a good lesson for life, and I even use this tactic in my day-to-day work environment.
Now what happens if the execution of using an assignment book goes as follows:
In the morning the teacher writes on the blackboard a list of items that the class will be doing throughout the day. Typically this list is topical by subject. Most, if not all, of the items on the list are topics they will be working on throughout the day and are not necessarily what the student needs to accomplish as an assignment. So it is more like an agenda.
Each morning the teacher gives the students five minutes to get their assignment book out and copy the list of agenda items. This is where the problems begin with this process. The students are going through the motions of making a list of things. Some may make a connection that this is an agenda for what they would be working on for the day, and some won't. I suspect it would be more meaningful if the list evolved as the day went by and the assignment book was updated throughout the day, along with the assignments to be done. The students could then correlate the agenda items with the assignments they must get done, and begin to understand the purpose of the assignment notebook.
Now keep in mind this is an integrated classroom. There are students in all ranges of capabilities and limitations. As an example my son has a requirement in his IEP that says he should be given additional time to complete his work. For five years he was never able to completely write the list of information because he could not do it in the time frame provided by the teacher.
Due to some dysgraphia problems, my son is supposed to be able to use other methods to document information, such as a computer. He was not able to legibly write for the first five grades of school. He would try to write, but the teacher couldn't read it and he, himself, could not read it. For five years my son was writing down an incomplete list of things in his assignment notebook that nobody could read, making it absolutely useless.
The biggest offense of this is there is one list for all students, but all of the students are not at the same level in the subjects or do not participate in each item on this "agenda" list. For example my son was not in the regular classroom for reading, language and math. So the reading, language and math agenda items on the board were not even relevant to the education he was getting for the day. In addition, the other teachers in charge of his special education, did not use the assignment notebook.
My son also has a difficult time organizing things and keeping to a schedule. It is an objective in his IEP. For five years the assignment notebook came home from school maybe fifty percent of the time. When it did come home, I signed a page in the assignment notebook that may or may not have a list of illegible things on it. Over five years I may have gotten five comments from a teacher in the assignment notebook.
So here I have a son who has been taught for five years that he has to write down a list of things every morning. It is okay to not write down the complete list. There are no consequences if the list is not complete. The list of things are not used for anything and have no purpose. The items in the list do not even mean anything to him because it does not cover the activities that he participates in. He is also highly aware that not all of the things are relevant to him. Not all of his teachers use this assignment book . He is supposed to take it home and have his parents sign it, and then bring it back to school. If he forgot to bring it home and his parents didn't sign it, there were no consequences. This same cycle repeated itself year after year. So what do you think my son's perspective is about the assignment notebook? Will he understand that it is a tool and has a purpose that would benefit him. Obviously, the answer is no.
In every IEP meeting I had for the last three years of school I brought up this topic about the assignment notebook. I understand the value of it. I understand what it would be teaching my son. I understand that it is a tool that he will use in the future in school and in his life in general. No one in my IEP meetings ever took me seriously about the assignment notebook. They totally blew me off. I told them that if they were not going to properly use it with him with relevant information, then I don't want him using it at all. By making him go through the motions it was creating a bigger, detrimental problem, which is not a lesson I want to encourage because it will lead to nothing good. The teacher, the IEP administrator, the Principal did not have a clue what I was talking about. They didn't see the issue. They didn't see that they were actually teaching my son something that will lead to bad behavior in the future.
So, that's my rant. It is also an example of incompetent people who were in charge of my son's education. The bottom line for me is, if they couldn't properly teach the goals and usage of an assignment notebook, what makes me think they can teach my son regarding core subjects? Now I know I am going to make some educators angry with me. They are going to say the job is hard and they don't get paid enough to do the job. They are probably going to blame me or blame my son. My response to this is, bull! If you can't teach something properly, then don't teach it at all! Don't add to the problem that already exists. Be a positive experience not a negative one. Care about what you are doing. There are consequences. Unfortunately these teachers won't have to deal with the consequences because they have moved on to the next student. Not their problem.
Bio on Cindy Nemitz
I am a daughter, a mother and a wife. I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. I went to college and got my B.S. in English, and my M.A. in English. It is at college that I met my husband, who was an international student, and we have been together for thirty years. We have one son who is in 6th grade this year. I work full-time at a large company as a Lead Business Analyst in their technology department. I have been doing this type of work since 1985. You can reach me at my blog: http://snowflakesofwinter.wordpress.com/