Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Struggle that has been January

I feel a little apologetic about the fact that I haven’t written any posts in a while. I’ve been busy in some of the most frustrating of ways. I think I heard this concept from Susan: something about paying only the minimum on all of your credit cards of life. That’s what it’s been like for a combination of reasons.

Getting back from Utah, I was asked almost straight-away to cover a half shift for someone on the island. The week after that we had our half-week shift for the magical semi-annual shift-shifting shift. So in the end this has been the first real week off I’ve had since the holidays.

Normally that isn’t such an unusual or problematic thing except for the other things I’ve been pressed to accomplish in my piddly little periods of time off the island. The main point of work and frustration has been getting some lessons ready. I’m in a spot with the maths where it isn’t a problem for me these days. I’ve been doing the 4th grade through Algebra II thing for a while and I think I’ve got a good working curriculum going on. The problem lately has to do with science.

Right now I’ve reached a critical mass of students with really poor reading skills and my usual winter indoor science curriculum is pretty reading intensive. It in fact requires a certain amount of independence in student reading and researching. As far as I’m able to assess right now half of my students are below the third grade in their reading levels and they have serious struggles reading material as basic as a newspaper article. 16-year-old kids can’t read the paper. It’s really frustrating.

This being their situation it occurred to me that perhaps the best service I can do them as a teacher is to try and create my science curriculum for them in such a way that they will secretly be really improving their reading abilities. It seemed pretty reasonable to me. I’m kind of a scientist. Most of the scientific work I do involves reading stuff. Surely there are ways of making them read and learn science at the same time. Right?

I believe there are but I have yet to discover them. There is a perennial problem in teaching special education, something I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. It is the issue of kids who can’t read good detecting that you know they can’t read good and giving them work that they feel is for little kids. It is the shame obstacle.

For whatever reason, I cannot find literature on biology related topics at a second grade reading level composed for teenage audiences. I’ve spent a few hours at the library. I found a book about integrating literature and science instruction, but in browsing it the suggestions for doing it were all pretty commonsensical and all the suggested readings and activities were for elementary school. Readings recommended as being biology related at the lower levels tend to not have any kind of technical information at all. They are usually cutesy illustrated stories about planting a seed and it growing into a tree or the chicken egg hatches and the chick makes noises and eats grain. On the other end are those that are designed to be for kids with lots of good illustrations and information but the language and vocabulary are still too advanced for my students.

So, I’ve been angsting, stressing, and vexing about this stuff with most of my time off and end up going back to the island with yet another couple of episodes from “Planet Earth” with Sir David Attenborough. (I should add that it is a pretty darn good series though I prefer his “Life of ….” or “Life in ….” videos.) And then I leave the island feeling like maybe the kids learned a little something about biology but their reading isn’t getting better. Furthermore I’m not really helping my more advanced students as much as I should be. It appears that I’m going to be moving on to creating a science curriculum more like my math where I have to work with each kid at his own level. This is going to be so much work.

I have thought many times that the whole field of special education could benefit tremendously from the availability of materials that are sensitive to the delicate egos of students such as mine, that very low level academic skills could be developed using materials designed for an adult’s interest and “dignity” if you will. Whenever I get to thinking along these lines it crosses my mind that I might produce some such material but… wow. I think someone could spend their whole life doing things like that, and it’s not really what I intend to do with mine.