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.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

More Children's Museum Love

Little Lipstick learning how to use a crane to move blocks 
As my girls get older I am getting more and more obsessed with children's museums. I love visiting them, especially if they are done well. When they are designed with children in mind and encourage tinkering, exploring, experimenting, and questioning they encompass what learning should be. Every time I visit one I start thinking about how we present learning to our students. Museums don't have a teacher in front of the room to remind students to pay attention and stay on task, instead they are relying on what they can physically present to engage their audience and get their information across. Of course they don't have standardized tests either, so their incentives are different than ours, but we can still steal ideas from them on how to engage students and create meaningful learning experiences.

Experimenting with the green screen
Over break my girls and I were in Charleston, West Virginia and were able to visit the Clay Center. If you find yourself in Charleston I highly recommend going to play. We only visited a small portion of the museum, but we were able to play in their room dedicated to exploring concepts of building, a five and under room with a ball pit and structures to climb, and their STEAM room with its exhibits that encouraged kids to experiment with animation, try out a green screen, perform puppet shows, write poetry, act on stage, and create their own puppets.
What I think I appreciated the most about it was the use of space. In the three rooms we visited everything was spread out. There was room between the exhibits within each physical room, which meant Little Lipstick could really focus and dive into the task at hand. She didn't feel an urgency to run as fast as she could to touch every exhibit in the room without fully experiencing it.  Although there was plenty to do in each room there was not the sensory overload one often feels in busy museums. The way the exhibits within each room were laid out with the use of strategically placed high panels created open but separate spaces so that even a corner of excited, noisy children did not interfere with other children's ability to focus and dive into learning.


The museum is so well designed with it's audience in mind that it even offers a quiet room for mothers with young babies (aka a nursing room). This is something I've come to appreciate greatly. Check out those comfy couches tucked away inside the tiny space.

Everything seemed to be created with it's true audience in mind. The quiet room, the stools at the bathroom sink, and the baskets of books throughout different rooms all called out, "this is for kids." This is not a space for what adults think kids might like- this is truly a kid's space. Simple yet engaging, with fun and play seeming to be as emphasized as learning. Even the massive ball pit had a pulley system where children could use buckets to pick up balls, raise them to the ceiling and have them fall down again. Play with physics thrown in for maximum engagement.

Even the cafeteria is set up with a giant two-story marble maze in the middle so that while you eat you can watch the wonder of physics. (And the food was delicious- fresh sandwiches and salads made in front of you.)


The puppet center was carefully laid out with four large, clear tables next to organized material bins so that it was easy to grab materials and get to work. Little Lipstick selected her own puppet-making materials in a heartbeat and was suddenly begging us to help her cut the pink yarn. It was as though you couldn't walk past the station and not make a puppet.

 The thoughtful and effective use of space made me think a lot about how we use space in our classrooms. Are we carefully designing areas of our classroom where students can engage in tasks without being distracted by what's around them? Are we creating child-friendly stations that give kids access to everything they need to perform tasks, and allow them to be independent with getting their materials? Are we creating places (both physical and metaphorical) for them to experiment and play with the world around them while secretly learning? We obviously do not have a warehouse-size room in which to spread out our learning areas, but we can think carefully about our audience and how we want them to interact with their learning environment. Do we want independence? Do we want to encourage questioning and experimenting? Are we asking for them to focus their attention, or for a general exposure? How are we thinking about our space in order to maximize what we want from our students?



A giant magnetic poetry wall
 My one wish for the space was that there were more labels and vocabulary to help parents explain the learning behind the exhibits. It would have been perfect to have a list of vocabulary words on the wall behind the crane so that I could introduce simple machine concepts. Sure, I should know it myself, but when I'm frantically trying to keep my eyes on a one year old and a three year old I'm not always thinking about the best way to explain why a crane works. I would have loved an explanation of why the green screen works so that I could have explained it to Little Lipstick who was enthralled with making herself disappear on the television. Having simple vocabulary words displayed near the exhibits would promote additional language between parents and their children.



A long wall with art encouraged visitors to write the background story, or even tweets to explain the paintings

Monday, March 30, 2015

Background Knowledge

Last week I hurriedly grabbed a non-fiction book I thought would be perfect for teaching that we can make inferences with non-fiction texts. VGLA binders (the alternative to the state assessment for students who are learning English) are due in less than a month and we are frantically trying to get them completed. I was really focused on getting a text that would lend itself to inferences and would be at the right reading level (which is harder than you think. Inferring from non-fiction turns out to be not nearly as simple as with fiction.)

So I sat down in my group of two and explained the worksheet in front of them. In the first box they would need to record their background knowledge on the book's topic, then record what the text said in the next box, and then write the inferences they made in the last box. They nodded along until I handed them the book, titled "Africa". One student messily scribbled, "Africa is big," as his background knowledge. Fair enough. I don't know what other background knowledge a fourth grader in Virginia would necessarily  have. Yet the other student stared at me awhile before she wrote, "Africa is a wonderful place to live but you can't go into the forest by yourself or you might get hurt." Then her pencil hovered over the paper for awhile as though she couldn't decide to write next.

That's when I realized. In my frantic focus on teaching nonfiction inferences I'd forgotten about the actual students I was working with. She was from Africa. A year ago she was still living in Africa. And here I was asking her to tell me her background knowledge on the entire massive continent. You know, just write a few sentences in this tiny box to pretty much sum up the place you called home until a few months ago.

She looked at me and began to tell me a story about her and her mom back in their kitchen in Africa. The other member of the group stopped reading and we both sat and just listened- her insights about how different her kitchen was there were far more interesting than what we could find in the leveled text book I'd chosen. Slowly I took the worksheet away and replaced it with a piece of blank notebook paper. She didn't need to worry about fitting her story into a box- just write what comes. We'll figure out non-fiction inferences another day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"That's me. Sad." My personal reminder to respond to students' emotions

When I arrived at the door of a classroom to pick up my reading group of upper elementary students with intellectual disabilities I was met by some unhappy faces. It was a Friday afternoon after a very long week (the first full week we'd been in school since January because of all the snow days) and it was clear that the week was just as long on the students as it was on me. One of the students in particular was having a bad day.

He mopped into my room, begrudgingly sat down at the table with his book box, and reluctantly went through the lesson. He got up occasionally to get a tissue to wipe the tears from his eyes. After he completed the assignment he spontaneously drew a picture of himself, crying. "That's me," he labeled. "Sad."  Once he had my attention he stood up and walked over to the feelings target we have hanging on our wall from the Unstuck and On Target program. "I'm number four" he stated. "Four."

I've worked with the student since September but I've known him for three years now. I don't think we've ever had a conversation about emotions. What he likes, his weekend, what happened in his reading book, but never how he's actually feeling. Then again, he is usually a fairly happy fifth grade boy.

I looked at the picture, the feelings target and then at his writing. It wasn't his best work. In fact, he'd left out a lot of words out of his sentences. My entire goal for the activity was for him to write complete sentences, so I was going to have to ask him to redo the work. Then again, he clearly was not in a space to begin to re-write. "Why don't you write about how you feel?" I suggested. He nodded vigorously and then got to work, head down, pencil flying across the page. He filled five pages of pictures and writing, drawing how he felt, how he wanted to feel, and writing phrases and sentences with his thoughts. He included numbers from the target- 4, 4, 4, around the pictures to reinforce how he felt. Some words he wrote even included, "Go home to cry. I'm done. The end."

When he finally put his pencil down he was smiling. I went over each page with him very seriously, taking time to make eye contact with him and ask questions about why he drew what he drew and what had happened that day. At the end I asked him how he was feeling now. "Happy." he said. "Happy?" I asked, almost confused because he was not anywhere close to happy when he entered the room. I pointed to the target just to make sure that's what he meant. "Yes, number 1."
Taking a risk I asked him to go back to his work and re-write it. He did, almost perfectly.

The break to write about his feelings didn't detract from his academic work. It let him decompress, get his emotions out, connect with me, feel as though someone cared and then, get back to work. When he left my room he was smiling, which was a stark contrast to the crying boy who had entered. It was such a strong reminder to me of how important it is to respond to what our students need and remember that they are human beings.