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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Parent's View of Responsive Classroom

I've written about Responsive Classroom often over the years. As a classroom teacher I lived and breathed Responsive Classroom. I read all the books, went to as many trainings as I could, and worked hard on making my classroom as RC as possible. I did this not because I was trying to be a groupy, but because through my teacher eyes I saw that it worked. If I followed RC then my life was easier. I was putting out less fires and I was teaching more.

But that was through my teaching lens.

My daughter just started a new preschool and she's ridiculously happy with life. The change in her at the end of the day is noticeable. She's calmer and yet has more energy than she did two weeks ago at her old preschool. We loved her old preschool, and so did she, so it seems strange that we would see this shift in her at the end of the day. As she described what she did in school one day I made comments to my husband that this new school was "Very RC". He of course has no idea what this means, so just nodded in agreement. Then I read her teacher notes from the day and felt this was all very familiar. I've taught this before... not in preschool, but this structure, this plan. I could almost tell you what was coming next. Yesterday morning I walked in to see the blue First Six Weeks of School book sitting on a table, tabbed and well-loved. When I asked her teacher about it she beamed. Yes, it's what she's been using, every year. She loves it. (Of course she does. Anyone who has used it loves it.)

For the first time I'm seeing Responsive Classroom through a parent's lens. I'm seeing how my daughter appreciates the slow, deliberate nature in how everything is introduced in her classroom. She knows what the rules are and what to expect on a daily basis. She has more energy at the end of the day because she hasn't spent her energy anxiously trying to interpret what is going on in the classroom and what will be expected of her. But it is a calm energy. She has the energy to re-count her day, tell me what she learned, model how to line up, and how to be a "good schoolmate". Before she had good days at school but she came home and crashed. She was exhausted from trying to teach herself the social curriculum.

While we loved her other school and her teachers, we did not know what the world could be with a little Responsive Classroom in place. I feel like I am re-discovering RC in a whole new light. I want to preach from the rooftops, yes, yes, yes! People, this doesn't just work because it is a trend or a program or something to do because the school system suggested it. It is a way to talk to kids to get them ready to learn. To help them feel secure and safe in their learning environment.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Riding Out the Waves

Teacher work week started this week and it's been strange to not be a part of it except for one day. Even when I missed the first three months of school for maternity leave I was still there for teacher work week because my daughter thoughtfully decided to join the world after I had everything perfectly set for the long term sub. 

The anxiety of taking a risk and doing something new is absolutely numbing. The waves of self doubt that come are those from an angry ocean, knocking me off my feet and holding me under water so I have to fight to come up to the surface, gasping for air to breath. In between the waves varies from a sense of calm, where I can look out at the wide ocean and know I am exactly where I need to be right now, and a sense of excitement, because when the anxiety is not there I love what I am doing and could work for hours on plans for my clients. Then a wave comes and knocks me off my feet again. What am I doing? What on earth am I thinking? I had a perfectly fine job with a benefits and a steady salary that contributed to my children's college fund. 

It is just scary. I'm working on being able to better handle each crashing wave and get to my feet faster each time. I know the anxiety will come each day, and that it will also go away. At least, that is the mantra I am telling myself. 

I am fighting a constant battle of trying not to sabotage myself. This is my year at sea. My year to explore, yet waves of self-doubt come with a desperate desire to get out of the ocean and back to land. Steady land, where I'm not moving forward but I'm not under water either. I have to fight the constant pull to get back to safety. This may not work, and that is OK, but I need to give myself a full year to figure it out. A full year to find my footing, see if I can swim in the ocean, and if I even like it out there. But until then I need to keep fighting the anxiety and following through on the risk. At the end of the year I don't want to be back on land because I was too scared to swim out further. If I'm back on land, I want it to be because I either realized my plans were not sustainable, or because I truly like the security of land better than the unpredictability of the ocean. 

There will probably be many more of these anxiety posts this year as I work on handling my own emotions along with figuring out the taxes and banking of having my own business. There is so much to learn, from the practical aspects to just learning about myself. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Collaborating for Successful Transitions

For the past three years our school has started our back-to-school teacher work week with a meeting about the students who qualify for special education. Almost everyone attends this meeting - all of the special education teachers, the resource teachers, the music, art, PE, and librarian, instructional assistants, and all of the administrators. The meeting takes all afternoon, and each grade level cycles through so that each team can talk about setting all of our kids up for success.

As we sat in the meeting yesterday, I couldn't help but be in awe of the teachers I work with. Every child was spoken of with love. As we passed the children from one grade level to another, teachers were full of recommending strategies that work, sharing the children's strengths, and the children's favorite things. "He loves to write about dinosaurs! If he can't think of something to write, prompt him with dinosaurs" "It is important to build a strong relationship with him early on, so one thing you can do is ask about his little sister. He loves talking about her." The art, music, and PE teachers shared their perspectives on the children. The art teacher discovered that one child works best when she lets him stand up, and the music teachers shared favorite songs, or which children love to dance. We shared behavior plans from the year before, but also considered how it is a new year and some children may have matured, or may be ready for a different plan. Teachers were volunteering to be lunch buddies for some children, and check-in buddies were put in place for some kids for the first few days. Every discussion centered around how to set each and every child up for success. How are we going to make sure every one of our students has the skills to be a successful member of the classroom, and what are we going to do as a school to help the child get there?

When we considered doing something like this for the first time a few years ago we worried about the risk of tainting a teacher's perspective of a student before the teacher was able to form a relationship with the child. To counteract this, we start the meeting with each team by reminding all of us that we to be mindful of the language we use when we discuss our students. We ourselves are very careful in how we present the students. We want our children set up for success. If we know a child gets overwhelmed by loud noises, needs an extra warning before cleaning up, or does best when standing up to work, it helps to share those tips with this year's teachers. They may find that the child has matured and these tips no longer ring true, but they are able to be prepared day one. Teachers are prepared with tips on how to build positive relationships with these students the minute the walk into the classroom, which is essential for so many of our students. Because we are doing this in a formal meeting, instead of a second grade teacher just grabbing the third grade teacher in the hallway to pass on some tips, everything is kept professional, positive, and the tips are shared with everyone who may work with the child that year.

It is stunning to sit in a room full of educators who devote so much time the first week back to going over each and every child who needs something extra. Teacher work week is not a time teachers have extra time to drop everything for three hour long meetings, and yet so many people came willing to share strategies and volunteer time to create smooth transitions for our students.