Tuesday, November 22, 2016

My Favorite Room

My favorite room in my house is an absolute disaster. Not just right now - all the time. There is glitter stuck to the floor, paint on the tables, and boxes and boxes overflowing with recycling. Abandoned marker tops hide in the dark corners where no one can reach them, nestled next to scraps of paper and those annoying circles from the hole puncher that are impossible to pick up. 
I adore this room.

In my house's previous life it was someone's work room, fully equipped with serious power tools. I imagine the previous owner snuck down to the basement for alone time workroom, away from the fast pace of the family and created beautiful, well planned projects. Not having power tools of our own, we turned the benches and cabinets he'd utilized for his wood working into our art room. 

It is about as unorganized as one can imagine. Every time I attempt to organize it someone comes along to do an art project and the creativity overtakes the room. Typically, by the time the project is complete, we are late to something and nothing gets put away in exactly the "right" spot.

That's OK. I'm making peace with the chaos. 

I love this room. We store cardboard boxes, empty spools of ribbon, toilet paper rolls, sturdy cardboard pieces, and anything else that looks like it could become a project instead of trash. *Note: Only one of the storage bins is actually a store-bought bin. The others are just large cardboard boxes. Even the kids' art table is a large cardboard box covered in white paper. It was a playhouse for awhile and before it made it to recycling it somehow because an art table. Perfect for little hands to kneel and work.
The kids have free access to tape, glue, markers, paper, scissors, stamps, crayons, glitter glue, and tons of other materials. They need to request paints or free flowing glitter from an adult, but that is because one of them is two and a half and is an expert at testing limits. Even with adult supervision we end up with painted floors. Last weekend she stepped on her glitter-glue name that was drying and our floors ended up with a path of glittery 'er' that she stamped with every step.

This summer I dedicated space in the room to my new business. I spend a lot of time here, creating social stories and projects for the kids I work with. I store my book kits here too. This ridiculously messy room is where I become the most creative. Standing here, with a book in hand, I can see what needs to be pulled together so that a particular student can act out a book. I have my two paper cutters and my laminator here to help create all sorts of projects. In the slightly organized area of the room I also have a gift station, where I have easy access to my wrapping supplies. 

I love this room.

On Saturday morning, when we'd planned to clean the house and get organized, somehow my girls and I ended up down there. While my oldest was making a jewelry box out of an egg carton I distracted the two year old with a shoe box. Somehow in our play the box transformed into a school bus. The three of us became consumed with listing the different parts of the bus and then determining how to create them with the supplies we had on hand. The five year old wrote 'stop' for us while the two year old wrote the first letters of their names all over the bus. Even after I'd stepped away to do laundry the two girls worked together peacefully on the project, solving "what if's" and accepting one another's ideas. This does not happen often, so when it does it feels like magic. There is magic in this room.

There is a lot we could do with this space other than covering it with glitter and scraps of construction paper. One day maybe we can turn it into a guest bedroom, or a bathroom, or just use the additional storage space so we can buy more at Costco. But for now, it's our art room. 

A serious mess for serious creativity, problem solving, and learning the power of transforming an idea to reality.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Bloxels and Homework

 A few weeks ago my nephew made the mistake of excitedly showing me his new ipad game, Bloxels, which lets him create his own video game levels. The poor guy... as he showed me all of his creations and how it worked, all I was thinking was how I could use this for his homeschool work. So when I assigned him homework I told him he could complete a worksheet packet or he could use the Bloxels to create levels that showed what we were doing in science. I gave him general topics and told him to be creative. I was pretty sure he could figure something out.  

He did. He built three different levels. In one, the character needs to get across a sink full of water (the character can't swim.) He used the storytelling blocks to show the character's thinking and how if he put salt in the water he would change the salinity, making it possible to float across on a golf ball. 
In another level, he created the ocean floor, with the character navigating his way through the different parts (the vocabulary pops up in the storytelling bubbles). And for yet another one, he made a Harry Potter story.

This week his homework is to demonstrate his knowledge of the parts of a plant cell in a bloxels level. We'll see what he comes up with.

I love this because he is not just writing definitions of what we are learning, or answering questions about it, but applying the knowledge. He has to understand it to be able to manipulate the ideas into a video game level. Then, he is spending much more time on making the levels than he would be if he was just filling out a worksheet. Even if he's spending time making a fancy background or creating a book that flips back and forth, he is still thinking about the science concepts. The more his mind is engaged in the concepts, the more he'll remember them.

I'd never heard of Bloxels before he showed it to me, but there are so many possibilities here to get kids engaged in curriculum topics while doing what they'd be doing in their spare time anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2016

STOP IT! Everyone. Take a breath. In. Out. Quiet.

Every teacher hits a moment once in awhile where their class goes off the wall and needs to be reset. The definition of "off the wall" is different for each teacher, but regardless, most teachers have a moment at some point during the school year where the class is sent back to their seats. The lights go off. The teacher starts off with a firm, strong voice to show how angry she is.

"Sit down. SIT DOWN! No Talking. None!" She becomes Viola Swamp for a few brief moments to regain control and send a message to the class that what they were doing was NOT OK.

After a moment of quiet she starts slowly and calmly explaining why she was angry. What the class did that was not OK. She calmly shows how they were not respecting their friends, the class materials, or her. Once everyone is calm she invites them to try again. Come back to the carpet, without talking or pushing or laughing, and try again.

After reading Facebook this morning I want to use my angry teacher voice at the whole world.

STOP IT! Now. STOP TYPING. Sit down. Put the phones down. Put your heads on your desks. Take a deep breath. This behavior is not acceptable. This is not how we treat our classmates. This is not how we treat our school, our families, where we live. This is not how we treat our country.

The day after the election the Facebook messages were about love. Sadness, but also love. A few of my republican friends expressed excitement over the election, and they had the right to do that. Those messages of excitement were not racist or angry. What they believed should have happened, did. I don't share their belief, but I am not going to tell them not to say it.

The next day? Now? That's a lot of anger out there people. We've moved from the denial stage (well, I still see a lot of those anti-electoral college posts so some of us are still in denial) of grieving to the anger stage. Like I tell my five year old, it is OK to be angry. It is not OK to use mean words or hurt someone else.

We got into this mess from anger. Anger is dividing us and separating us. We're so angry it's turned to rage. We've stopped trying to understand one another. We haven't tried to understand each other for a long time. We've made it impossible for people to express an opinion that we don't share. We're all so shocked by the outcome because we had no idea so many people were actually going to vote for Trump. People were scared to admit it. People outwardly  lied about who they were voting for, and then in privacy voted their heart. We silenced them so that the only way they thought they had a voice was through the polls. We've taken away open discourse. We made it socially unacceptable to express views different than our own. We isolated ourselves and stopped listening to those outside our walls.

I'm married to a republican. A lot of people ask me how I can do that, which confuses me. I enjoy hearing his opinions and thoughts. It makes me grow. We debate politics, question each other, try the other's opinion on for a moment, and then explain why we don't agree. It makes him grow too.

Through him I know a lot of republicans. Republicans who work for republicans. Whose entire lives are about being republicans. They aren't racist. They aren't homophobic. They aren't filled with hate. They truly believe the free markets and smaller governments will help everyone. It's not about letting big business win, or shipping people out of the country, it's about finding a way to help everyone. My husband and my socialist brother actually agree on a lot of issues. They agree on outcomes, just not how to get to those outcomes.

The last few days I've just read posts about pure hatred of republicans. Talking about them in a way that assumes they are Voldemort. Hatred for them coming across in every angrily typed word. I get that we're angry and hurt. But don't let the anger turn to hatred. That's not going to help.

It's OK to be angry. And disappointed. And hurt. And scared. Use those emotions to do good. Pin the safety pin on your shirt, but make sure that when you do it means you are also there to support the republicans. Make it a symbol that you'll listen to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, and political beliefs. All means all.

Go find a Trump supporter and get them to explain their rationality to you. Don't listen so that you can argue with them. Don't try to find a hole in their argument. Just listen. Understand. Think about where they are coming from. Go for a walk and replay that conversation in your mind. You don't have to change your mind about your own political beliefs to understand what other people think. Understanding both sides of a situation will only make you stronger. Being a republican isn't contagious. You aren't going to come down with some horrible disease from listening to someone's beliefs.

Later, once you understand how they are thinking you may find a counter point. Maybe an article or a podcast that presents a different view. And because you listened to them, they will listen to you and take your data and facts into consideration. No one accepts data that is thrown in their faces as a "Ha! How do you like them apples?" So find another way to get the facts out there.

A few years ago I was helping prepare a group of third grade boy with autism for a Socratic seminar. We had to work hard to get them to understand they could not say things like "I respectfully disagree with you because you are stupid." Or, "I think the author said .... because I know I am right and you are wrong." It was hard to get them to understand that they had to actually listen to one another's positions before responding. Facebook feels like my angry third grade boys before our social skills work. We don't let our kids talk like this to one another.

Before the election a Facebook friend posted about health insurance. She isn't someone I was really ever friends with, but we attended the same rural high school. She's a farmer and from what I see on Facebook runs a small family farm. She and her husband have kids, and because their health insurance went up so much they realized they couldn't afford to be insured anymore. It was cheaper to pay the fine than to be insured. Many other people from the farming community replied to her post and shared their similar situations. These are people doing hard labor every day - putting themselves in situations where they likely will need ER visits, and they are paying to not be insured because they can't afford to pay for their actual insurance. Reading these posts was fascinating to me, because I have no other window into the farming community. It's not a group of people I interact with on a daily basis. I've driven by the Trump signs on the fences of the farms and wondered how these people could possibly vote for him. Must be racists, it's easy to assume. And yet, this post made me realize it's not. They are scared for their families. They are scared about not having health insurance, having a catastrophe, and ending up bankrupt because of the health bills. That makes sense to me. Their votes were not out of racism. It was out of desperation to fix a situation.

Reading this did not make me change my vote, but it did change how I thought about those signs. People have reasons. If we listen to their concerns we can find a way to address them without telling people that their problems are selfish and evil. If we have open conversations we can find solutions. We can't fight hatred with hate.

Please, stop the hate. Stop yelling. Stop assuming anyone who doesn't share your beliefs is wrong or out to get you. Stop telling people that they don't have a right to their thoughts.

Go out and fight. Love your neighbor (all of them, even ones you don't agree with). Get involved. Volunteer. Talk to people. Cry. Listen. Put away the angry Facebook messages that aren't helping anything and look for ways to make a difference in the community.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

College Futures

I begrudgingly got in one of the two open check-out lines at Target, frustrated that on a Saturday evening they would have so few lines open. I had lost track of time and needed to get my five year old home for dinner before the earth melted under us and hangry-ness took over.

Glancing up I realized I knew my cashier and somehow my heart leaped and sank at the same moment. It was the older sister of a group of children I taught and coached years ago. I had not seen her in years. Her family is one of those that will find it's way into your thoughts at strange times when you are not thinking about school at all. I've wondered about them for years, hoping they would all be doing well. It was wonderful to see her, but was she really here working at Target? Please, please, please, I prayed, let this be her job while she is going through school. Please let her be in school.

It turns out she is in school. Nursing school, which is a perfect fit considering her kind nature and how well she took care of her younger siblings. And her siblings are all in school too. Two are at the local community college, one of them is about to transfer to a four year university. The youngest is in her senior year of high school and wants to be a vet.

I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to hear all of this news. Any frustration at the long Target lines vanished, and I became the woman holding up the lines for others as we talked about her family.

There are children you teach who you know will go to college. Their families will make sure of it and financially it has been planned since the day they were born. There are other children whose futures are not so clear. Not because they cannot handle it, but because it will be a financial strain on their families, and they are up against many, many other factors. You desperately hope they will go, but are not surprised when you hear they did not. Heartbroken, but not surprised. Having a family with the financial resources to send you to college is a gift.

This family in particular stuck out to me. We traveled together for a jump rope competition and they were the ones who taught me that Taco Bell is the cheapest fast food by far, and told me exactly what the cheapest items on the menu were. As elementary school students they had a firm grasp on how to maximize their money so they would not be hungry.

I taught one of them in one of my remediation reading classes, back when our school was year round and every 9 weeks we would offer a one to two week optional class at the school during our intersession breaks. That year my class was designed for kids in danger of not passing the 5th grade reading standardized test. (The group did not know this. They thought they were hand picked to be reading coaches for new first grade readers.)

I never did learn if those children passed their tests, but I knew school was a struggle for each child in that class. These were kids who did not just struggle academically, but were also up against many, many challenges in life. School was understandably not a priority.

Yet all these years later I was learning that one of the students is headed to a four year college. Sometimes as educators we forget that passing the end of year tests is not an indication of how well the student will do in life. Struggling in fifth grade does not mean that they will not go to college or have a job in the real world. Not passing a test is not a sign that a child cannot make it in academia. Thank goodness for that. We are not in the business of giving kids a set future. We are there to give them as many skills as we can to get them on their way. We may not even see their successes when they are in front of us, but that does not mean they will not have success down the line.

Ever since Saturday the family has been in my thoughts more and more. I hope everything the older sister said was true. I hope one day the youngest is my vet and that a four year college goes well for all of them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Creating an Edible Ocean Floor

 One of my projects this fall has been to help homeschool my cousin's son. They are a military family and are headed overseas in a few months. Rather than start and stop another new school this fall we decided to try homeschooling. 

So when when were studying about the ocean floor and he jokingly said "We could make a model of this out of brownies and cake" there was no reason not to say sure, let's try it.

The worst thing that could happen would be that the project was a total disaster, but from a learning perspective, even if it looked frightening or never turned into an actual cake, he would still have to know the elements of the ocean floor in order to create a disastrous looking cake. We'd learn something in the process. So why not? It's oddly freeing to not have any time restrictions when planning a project. Of course, in this case we did need to worry about the over excited younger children (both my daughters and his brother) who were obviously fascinated and a bit horrified that we were absolutely destroying a cake like this. My two year old kept telling us "No! You don't cut cake like that! NO!" 

He drew out a model of what we were going to do, and then I baked two sheet cakes. One chocolate and one white with blue flood coloring. (I did not use enough blue food coloring though so the final outcome was a bit greenish. But that's more appropriate for ocean water anyway, right?)

Then he spent time figuring out how we were going to put the cakes together to reflect the ocean floor and water. In the end we cut the cakes in half so we had four blocks to work with. The bottom two layers of chocolate were the ocean floor, and then he cut into them to create the Continental shelf, slope, rise, and abysmal plain. From there he had to figure out how to make the blue cake fit onto the chocolate cake like a puzzle piece. 

Part of his plan was to use an upside down ice cream cone to reflect an underwater volcano and fit it into the cake. 

As we worked he also decided the cake needed waves on top, so we used some of the scraps of blue cake to put "waves" up above.

The end result was a fantastic cake that required not only a knowledge of the ocean floor but a large amount of vision, problem solving skills, and perseverance at set backs to create. Oh, and it was delicious. So there is that too.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Teacher Influence. What happens when we find the hidden talents inside our students, and when we don't.

At this year's National Book Festival, my family gathered around the children's stage to hear Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewis read from their new book, Click, Clack, Surprise.*

The new book is delightful and my girls rocked back and forth with the rhythm and giggled at the silly baby duck's antics.

Toward the end of the talk, another child asked Doreen Cronin when she started writing. Cronin explained that she had been a very shy child, and although she had a lot to say, she often had not said it. Instead of expecting her to talk in class, her first grade teacher encouraged her to write down what she wanted to say. That was when she became a writer. First grade. She would write at home, adding extra homework to her plate.  As her first grade teacher watched this unfold, she told labeled Cronin a writer, which made that little first grader think of herself as a writer. That thought carried her through the rest of her life. In college she majored in journalist because she was a writer. She went to law school because law school was a place she could read and write and she was a writer. The choices she made in her life were shaped by the self-image her first grade teacher gave her of being a writer.

I hugged my five year old, hoping she picked up on the message that Doreen Cronin had not liked to talk in class and that was OK. I'm pretty sure at that moment she and her sister were wrapped up in tickling each other, but it does not matter. I heard it, and I can repeat the story to her all I want. It is OK to be quiet and thoughtful. Just find another way to share your thoughts. 

I was an extremely quiet child, and I see that playing out in my own daughter as well. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I did not have a teacher that accepted this character trait and found a strength hiding inside.

 In fourth grade my teacher decided that my quietness was unacceptable and was going to end with her. When she called on me she would walk outside the classroom and stand in the hallway, refusing to come back in until she had heard my loud voice. Let me tell you one way NOT to motivate a child to talk. All these years later I think about those moments and I feel the panic building inside me. Just the memory of that skinny woman standing in the hallway makes me never want to speak again. At the time I remember thinking, in pure anger and humiliation, that one day I would write a book to get back at this teacher who would only accept my answers if I yelled them loud enough for her to hear them outside the classroom. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I have not accomplished that goal yet. One day. Apparently, positive encouragement from teachers is a more powerful motivation than revenge.

There is power in her story for teachers. Instead of seeing her shyness as a weakness, or assuming she had nothing to say (another assumption teachers made about me over the years), Doreen Cronin's teacher found a hidden strength. She turned the quietness into a powerful positive force, that gave Cronin an identity that carried her throughout her life and influenced the choices she made.

In comparison, I spent my life fighting the message that what I had to say was not worth listening to because I said it so quietly, or infrequently. That because I did not speak up in class, I was not a valuable member of the classroom community. I did not go to law school because, if I am honest with myself, I saw that as a profession for those other kids. The confident, self-assured ones who thought quickly on their feet. I tried to find a safe place to land, one that would not require too many people looking at me or demanding that I be loud and different. 

It is amazing the power teachers have. Amazing, and terrifying. Those decisions we make when we are frustrated, the way we snap at kids who are on our last nerve, or how we interact with kids who we do not even consciously realize bother us, have lasting impacts on the little people in front of us. We have the power to form a future adult's self image. What we say to children sticks with them, long after our days with them end. When we mine for the positive under a child's weakness, we can create a long lasting impact for that child, who will go into adulthood knowing their strengths. When we break a child down without finding the positive under the "problem" we will do the exact same thing, except this time it is not an impact we want to have.

When I sat down to write this I was not planning on sharing about my own adventures as a quiet child. I just wanted to focus on the power Cronin's first grade teacher had on her. But I suppose something about the story struck a nerve. I obviously don't blame my fourth grade teacher for all of my life choices. I made those myself. But I can blame her for hating fourth grade, and perhaps the terror that struck me for years whenever I was asked to speak in class. In college I just told teachers that I was not going to participate. They could dock my participation grade or give me extra papers to write, but I would not talk. If I had to talk in class, I explained to them, I would become so fixated on what I was going to say that I would stop learning in the class. I would not pay attention to what else was being said. I was in their class to learn, and I truly wanted to take in everything everyone else was saying. So I would not be participating. Some teachers were very concerned, others accepted this as long as I was OK getting a B because I would not get my participation points. I was. As long as I did not have to talk, I would take anything.

Don't be my fourth grade teacher. Find the positive and bring it out of every child, even if they do not fit in with how you think a child should be. The world needs more authors like Doreen Cronin.

*I LOVE the Click, Clack, Moo series, probably more than an adult should love a children's book series. But there is so much you can do with the books. On face value they are silly books about unruly animals on a farm, who drive poor Farmer Brown crazy with their antics. On another level, they are perfect for getting budding readers engaged in a read aloud because of their repetitive text, which allow kids to "read" sets of text from memory. They can sit down with the book by themselves, or during a read aloud, and proudly recite "Click, Clack, MOO!" every time the phrase comes up in the text. It is perfect for teaching beginning concepts of print and encouraging those early literacy skills. On a whole other level, the books are strategic thinkers. Click, Clack, Moo and Giggle, Giggle, Quack are about the power of literacy and what a group of people (or animals) can do with an ability to write and non-violent protests. Duck for President is the perfect intro to presidential elections. Each book gives an opening for deeper discussion on particular topics. Or, if your readers are just too young for the seriousness, allows you to just have fun in with the text.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Go Baby Go

 On Saturday I had the privilege of spending the day at Marymount University, watching teams of volunteers put together cars for kids with disabilities. The day was like nothing else I've ever experienced before.

Just on the surface, this is an incredible initiative. Take those battery powered cars kids ride around in, adapt them so they can be operated by a simple push button, and then figure out how to best adapt the car so that a child with disabilities can safely sit in it and operate it independently.

By giving a child with a physical disability a motorized car, the team is giving them the independence to move themselves around without relying on someone else. For many of the kids this is the first time they have the power to run away from their parents. Suddenly their world is going to look different as they realize that they can move, and turn, and manipulate their environment through their motor planning. And unlike when they are in a motorized wheelchair, the cars are just cool. If you take one of these cars to the neighborhood bike-ride, the kid is immediately going to attract some peers, not because he is different, but because he has something other kids can relate to, or even want. A very cool car.

One of the participant's older four year old brother leaned over to me as he watched his brother's first solo drive and said, "Oh man, now my brother's car is so much cooler than mine." Yeah. Pretty much. I bet that doesn't happen very often.

Watching kids begin to realize that through the push of a button they could zip around the halls of Marymount choked all of us up. The children's unsure expressions quickly changed to smiles as they got farther away from their parents. Others were able to drive around their siblings in a two-seater jeep. I am sure the typical pattern in their households is for them to be depending on their siblings for access to toys, food, or play. The change in play-power brought many big smiles, both to the drivers of the cars, and their sibling passengers.

Beyond just how amazing this was on the surface, I was fascinated by the process. There is a lot we could learn from how the day went down. This is creativity and teamwork at its best.

A team trying out different seating options.
The morning started in a room full of cars, where volunteer teams were given a car, a tool kit, an iPad with instructions, and told to go at it. After the car was able to be drive through simply pushing the button, a team of physical therapists joined each car and started looking at the child's physical needs to determine how to fit the car to the child.

From there, the creativity started. Everyone had one task to achieve, and they could use any available material to make it happen. One wall of the "garage" was lined with a variety of PVC pipe, harnesses, pool noodles, foam, foam kick boards, decorations, and different seating options.

Every team had the task of looking at the child's needs and then using what was in the room, in any way possible, to make the car work for the kid. There was no choice but to problem solve until it was perfect. The car had to work for the child, no matter what. People stood over the cars, brainstorming, trying different things, re-purposing anything around, stripping down seats, cutting PVC pipe, trashing ideas that didn't work, and trying again.

There could not be any ego on any team so there just wasn't. It was not an option. There wasn't a "this is the best we could do so now we're going home." This wasn't about pleasing a boss or winning a contest. It was about the simple goal of safely making a child mobile.

Every car ended up being drastically different. I wish I'd had the opportunity to take pictures of each car, but I am sure the various news crews that were there captured them. The big buttons were placed anywhere in the car the child needed it to be placed, whether that was up at the child's head or by the child's hands. PVC pipe and pool noodles created structures to help a child sit safely in the car, and kick boards went behind seats to provide back support.

Planning the PVC pipe structure
The event took over the entire second floor of Marymount's Arlington campus, and included a playroom for kids to hang out, a room with therapy dogs, quiet, calm rooms where kids could go to get away from the noise, food, and of course the "garage" where the magic was happening.

I hope that today, the day after, there are twelve happy kids spending the afternoon zipping around their driveways, exploring what freedom and play can feel like. I hope there are shared laughs, children driving a little too fast, sibling fights over who gets to use the car, and just pure exhaustion from the new activities.

Kickboard back support with PVC pipes and a red pool noodle for additional side support.

One participant zips down the hallway, testing out his new wheels.