Wednesday, May 27, 2015

End of Year Testing Season

Yesterday as I walked a student from our reading group back to class she innocently asked me if we were going to have reading group on Friday. "Because if you are," she explained, "I won't be here. I'll be in Paris to see my dad. And after Paris I'm going back to Africa because I miss my mom."

My heart stopped. And I am ashamed to say, it did not stop because she was leaving, or because this sweet, lovely girl has been in this strange country all year without her mom and now will finally go back to see her (as a mother this makes me tear up just thinking about it). My heart stopped because if she leaves on Friday she will only be able to take half of her SOL test.

Yes, my  thoughts immediately went to testing and not to the actual child's well being or what is best for her. What has happened to me? What has happened to all of us? There was a time I called this time of year pool-brain season because once the pools opened it seemed impossible to get any work out of the kids. Now it's testing season, and once testing has started it is impossible to get any non-test thoughts out of the teachers.

Sadly, because she gave us so little notice we have two choices, we can give her the test early and let her last two days of school in the United States be while taking the standardized test, or we can let her miss the test and get dinged as a school for a sub-group student who didn't participate. I don't know what the decision is, or even who is involved in making it. A large part of me is hoping that it will turn out she was wrong and she isn't going to Paris this Friday, but on the last Friday in June so she can finish out the year. Or that she is only going to Paris and Africa for the weekend and will return the following week. (Because people do that, right? Go to Paris and Africa for the weekend?) 

More than anything I'm hoping I can use this as a reminder to myself to keep focused on the students first. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Staying Strong to the End

This is a rough time of year in schools. We are in the depths of testing. The upper grades are administering the state standardized tests while the younger grades are giving the county assessments, many of which need to be given one on one. Every room in the school is being used for some sort of testing, and the school hallways are full of "Quiet! Testing!" signs. When we aren't testing we are trying to cram in last minute meaningful lessons to prepare for the testing, and when we are testing we are holding our breath that all of the hard work throughout the year will show up on the test. Beyond actual academics, much of our energy is spent trying to keep our kids quiet in the hallway so that they won't disrupt other students' testing.

As a teacher it is so easy at this time of the year to let the stress get the best of you. We start to snap at the kids and our colleagues, feel resentment towards anything that is getting in our way, and put up defensive barriers towards any challenge. It's easy to stop working as a team with our co-teachers and parents and to start focusing on what went wrong during the year. "Well, if only she'd taught it this way..." "He would have passed if ______ would have done this." We feel defensive and powerless. We know how hard we worked and we still aren't happy with the results, so we start to question other people's work and choices. We watch these young kids take long standardized tests and then want someone to blame when they lose focus and don't pass even though we know they know the information. Blaming Pearson, the state, and the education reformers starts to get old, so we start to turn on ourselves.

This is a slippery slope because it quickly goes from a moment of expressing frustration with a close friend to losing trust in what all your colleagues are doing. We stop having truly collaborative conversations with each other and start having one sided dialogues where we are only listening to one another for a chance to prove our own point. We stop thinking about problems from multiple angles and instead focus on proving our own original view point. Once we lose the trust we have with our coworkers and the parents of our students we are left feeling powerless, frustrated, and angry. We stop solving problems and start looking for excuses.

Regardless of how we feel about all the testing, we still must teach with our students in mind. We are teachers, and we are teaching our students through every moment of the day, whether we are intentional or not. How we respond to frustration during the standardized testing, how we act toward our co-teachers, and how we listen to parent concerns is all conveyed to our students in one way or another.

We need to stay strong and united, no matter how frustrated and powerless we feel. We can't let the tests take away our love for teaching, our collaboration, and our ability to problem solve the toughest situations. We need to keep our sense of humor, our love of our students, and our pride in the work everyone put in during the year, no matter what the tests show. When we start to get angry at the situation we can't control we need to focus on what we can control. We can let our students know we believe in them. We can let our colleagues know that we trust their judgement and that we know together we worked hard. We can let parents know how proud we are of their children, and how much we love them. We can find reasons to laugh out loud every day. We can remember we are here to prepare students for their future, and that job does not stop when testing season starts, but continues until the last day of school.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Age Appropriate Books

The other day I was in a hurry and I ran to our school's book room to grab a good book for my fourth grade reading group. They are reading on a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) level 3 (the level expected for the end of kindergarten). These are students in the intellectual disability program, so their reading is significantly below grade level, although they are making slow but steady progress. It is hard to choose books for them because so many of the books at the lower levels are written for kindergarten and first grade students. I flipped through the pages of a book about models, saw some pictures of objects like a real boat, a car, and a house and decided it would be OK. Models are something older kids can get into. 

Sitting down with the reading group I quickly realized there were pages I hadn't read. As we walked through the book to work on the vocabulary my students and I saw the juvenile pictures of toys in the book at the same time. We looked at the picture of a real boat and we assumed there would be a picture of an exact model boat on the next page. The book, after all, is called, My Models. Yet when we turned the page we didn't see a model at all. We saw a plastic baby toy. We all sat staring silently at the toy boat on the page, as though it was giving us the middle finger. I apologized to the students, and explained that I thought the book was going to be about actual models- not toys. Especially not toys for preschoolers. 

All I have from these kids is their effort. They have been reading at a level 3 all year, and while I will try to push them up level 4, 6, and 8, we often fall back to the level 3. They are applying all the strategies readers  need to be able to read- checking the picture, the first letter, thinking about the story, looking for parts of the word they know. Reading is significantly harder for them than it is for other students and they know it. The one thing I don't need to do is remind them that despite how ridiculously hard they are working, they are still reading on the level of a kindergarten student.

Finding age appropriate books at their reading level is surprisingly harder than it should be. And it isn't just a problem for the students in the intellectual disability class. We often get students who are brand new to the country and to speaking English, sometimes from war-torn countries where they were not able to go to school in their home language. These kids also use the lower level books. You can imagine what it's like to hand a street-smart, new-to-school fourth grader a book like this and expect them to happily read it. If we want these kids to buy into what we're selling, we have to give them something worthwhile.

My school has an amazing book room, and we are frequently updating it so it's not that we aren't looking for age appropriate books. It seems they just aren't out there. If you know of some that are out there, please share.

Otherwise, my plead to the publishers is to please make some books at lower levels that will appeal to older children. I'd be happy to help. In fact, I have lots of ideas about topics older students would like. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Messiness and Beauty of Inclusion

As I was walking down the hallway toward my office the other day I walked past a group of fifth grade girls gathered around the published writing I had displayed from my fourth and fifth grade students with intellectual disabilities. The authors of the writing had been so proud of their animal reports that I had to display them in the hallway. They beamed when they saw their colorful illustrations and typed words hanging up for everyone to see. Part of writing is about having an audience, and they were proud to have an opportunity to share their work.

My heart stopped as I heard the fifth grade girls giggling and pointing to the words. They were reading the reports line by line to each other, pausing after each period to giggle some more. I immediately wanted to take the work down to protect the authors. I fought the urge to gather up all of those beautifully illustrated reports, hug them to my chest so no one could ever laugh at them again, and yell at these girls. Instead I took a deep breath to remind myself that I was the adult and no longer a fifth grade girls (why is a large group of almost-middle-school girls so intimidating?) and said in a low, hushed whisper that I hope expressed the horror I was feeling, "Are you laughing at someone else's hard work?" The girls turned, looking sheepish. "Um, no," they feebly said, "We were learning from them."

Yeah, right.

The girls stared at the ground, not meeting my eyes. I think I said a few more sentences about how would you feel if someone laughed at your work, and I walked on, seeing red. I struggled with whether or not to take down the writing. If  I did, the authors would want to know why. And what would I say? I'm protecting you from the mean kids you didn't see? I'm hiding your work so that other kids won't know that you don't write like they do?

Later in the week I started bringing three fourth graders in the intellectual disabilities program into a general education fourth grade classroom for the writing block. We wanted to see how they would do in the general education classroom since writing is more open ended. I spent time pre-teaching the lesson to the students, prepping them for what was to come, going over the teacher's smartboard lesson ahead of time, and starting them on the writing assignment so that they would know exactly what to do in the classroom. When we got to the classroom the three students sat on the carpet with the rest of the class, listened to the lesson and raised their hands to participate. Their understanding of the lesson remained very literal and their comments reflected that. I held my breath while Sarah shared, worried about how the other students would respond to her very simplistic and seemingly illogical thought. The mean fifth grade girls weighed heavily on my mind. Please don't laugh at Sarah, I prayed. Please. The room was quiet and I thought everyone was going to move on with the lesson when Jane, a quiet girl in the front row raised her hand.

"I agree with Sarah," she stated firmly, "and respectfully disagree with Johnny" referring to a general education student who had previously shared his thoughts (which were correct). Jane went on to justify her statement of agreeing, searching for some sort of logic chain that would connect my student's comment with the truth.
Sarah and her two friends sat up a little straighter, beaming with pride that they were a part of the discussion. Other hands went up around the room, each respectfully debating whether or not Sarah's comments were correct.

And just like that, the three visiting students were a part of the class.

Inclusion is messy. We can't make all students fit in, answer questions correctly, and produce the same quality work. We can't protect them from all the mean comments out there. But we can foster students like Jane and positive classroom communities that respect everyone despite different opinions and abilities.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"We're gonna get you back!"

Four days a week I get to do guided reading with the students in the intellectual disabilities program at my school. This is far and beyond the best part of my day. The other day of the week I'm in meetings or doing paper work all day. This is not my favorite part of the week, although as the year has gone on I've enjoyed it more and more. At this point in the year all the students know I won't see them on Wednesday, so on Tuesday they'll start talking about how they won't see me tomorrow. Lately, one student in particular has been pretty clear about his plan to solve this little Wednesday problem.

"We're gonna get you back Mrs. Lipstick," he starts telling me every Tuesday. "My friends and I are gonna come to your meetings and get you out. We're gonna take you. We're gonna come get you back."

I now sit through my Wednesday mornings with my eye on the door, hoping at any moment a band of fourth and fifth grade students in the intellectual disabilities program are going to break into the room and kidnap me, taking me back to their room so we can have our guided reading lessons. Just the thought makes my Wednesdays a bit more exciting.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Let me try my best!"

 "Mommy, let me try my best!" my three year old exclaimed in frustration as we had a silent tug of war over who was going to squeeze the glitter glue out of its tube. 
I could tell there was no way her three year old fingers would be able to get the glue out, and my fingers were itching to do it myself. She was struggling with it and getting more and more frustrated as the glue refused to drip it's pink sparkles onto the paper. In my mind all I could think was, "just let me do it!" Her struggle was taking forever and I could so quickly do it myself.

"Let me try my best."

 Ever since she's said it those words have played over and over again in my head.

 "Let me try my best."

Not 'let me do it,' but 'let me try.' Almost as though she knows she may not accomplish her goal but she appreciates the act of trying. 

How many times do I jump in and do something for a student because I can do it faster? How many times do I take over for a student without thinking? What kind of opportunities are we denying pour students when we assume they aren't capable? What message are we sending to them? We don't believe you can do it? My time is more valuable than your effort? 
There was no way my daughter was going to get the glue out. But that didn't mean she shouldn't try, as painful as it was to watch the struggle. I had no where to be and no reason to jump in. Sometimes as an adult we need a reminder that it is OK to try and fail. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Middle School- The great beyond?

As an elementary school teacher I often find myself wondering what happens to my students after they leave the sheltered world of our K-5 community. Those of us who live inside those elementary school walls often think of middle and high school as the great beyond, and fear that our children will become forever lost between their locker and their classroom. In fact we often say those words, "I'm worried he'll get lost in middle school" as we try to predict what sort of plan will be best for our students. My principal finally called us out on this worry, which sent a few of us over to the middle school to see just how it works. Do our students actually get swallowed alive inside those walls, or are their passionate educators just like us working just as hard as we do for the students?

I've been over to our local middle school twice now, and each time I ran into students I taught. Students whose names I first read on paper when I was handed their kindergarten transition packet eight years ago. Students whose hands I held on the first day of kindergarten, whose mothers I promised that we would take care of their baby, students who I taught to read. It is shocking to see a familiar smile beam from a seventh grader who you still think of as a first grader. Even more shocking when the student calls out, "Mrs. Lipstick," in his deep middle school voice, so different than the voice that came from the tiny kindergartner so many years ago.

In one class my eyes fell on a student and I audibly gasped. He was hunched over his reading material, not even distracted by the visitors in the room. But I knew it was him. My birthday buddy. He was on my case load my very first year as a special education teacher. He and I spent many, many hours learning to read, write, recognize numerals and add. Learning was extremely difficult for him and once he exhausted all of the level 1 books in our book room I started writing my own. They are still saved on my computer- my series of monster books- I suppose in case I run into another student who loves reading about monsters. 

He was the student who told me Santa Claus skipped his house- that he went to other kids' houses, but not his. He was the one who pointed to a picture of a living room with a book shelf and said, "Books at home? No! Books at school." A telling comment about his home life. 

He and I shared a birthday, although I quickly realized that he didn't know when his birthday was, and didn't celebrate it in any way with his family. So for years we celebrated together. My birthday celebration was to decorate cupcakes with him. Year after year I'd contact his teachers to get approval, find him before the big day to find out what kind of cupcakes he wanted, and plan if we'd actually bake or just decorate the cupcakes. Even after my school changed their birthday policy and announced that students no longer could celebrate birthdays with cupcakes at school my friend and I kept up our annual celebration. We couldn't not make cupcakes. I worried when he left for middle school and I left for my new school that he'd get lost. I worried that his birthday would be forgotten, that no one would know he didn't have someone in his life to celebrate with him. I felt sure he was going to be lost in middle school.

Yet as I watched him read in his middle school classroom he looked confident, not lost. He was in a small class with other students, and the teachers clearly knew him well. I mentioned to one teacher that he was my birthday buddy and she smiled. "You know," she said, "We always make a big deal out of his birthday here. We don't think anyone celebrates at home. His teacher buys him a present every year. This year we had a teacher work day that day and couldn't celebrate with him and we were all disappointed." 
He isn't lost. He was found by more educators who love him and care for him just like we did in elementary school. He even has people going above and beyond for him just like we did. 

It was a wonderful reminder that educators- all of them, not just the ones in my building- are my favorite people for their caring insights and compassion. A reminder that our students will be working with educators just as passionate about taking care of kids as we are, and that they will not be allowed to fall into a locker and never come out. Those kindergarten babies whose transition plans we laid out so carefully are still being thoughtfully looked after even though they are no longer five years old.