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.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Jumping off... part 2.



I don't even really know where to begin. I'm having trouble writing this blog post because of all of my own crazy self doubt and worry that somehow people I thought are my friends will be mad at me, or tell me what I can't do, so stay with me.

I've told you all that I was taking a year off to explore different projects. This summer the different projects came together under one roof ... in the form of a small business.

It's hard to write about, or even talk about, because it still seems strange to me. Who am I to think I can have my own small business? Who am I to think people will actually hire me to work with their children? I mean, forget that the school system hired me to work with lots of children, the idea of parents personally hiring me seems absolutely crazy.

So, while I've been busy this summer connecting with parents, teachers, independent school representatives, and different therapists to talk about what families need and different possibilities I can offer, I've been somewhat quiet about all of this, especially as my different projects started to come together into the form of a business. I think most of me wanted to be able to do this without talking about it, ever. I've blogged anonymously for over 9 years now, so whose to say I couldn't run an anonymous business, right?

BUT, a good friend said I needed to stop apologizing for what I'm doing, so I'm trying hard to talk about it without looking at the floor.

Admitting what I'm doing is the first step.

So how did I get here?

Someone over a year ago asked me what I wanted out of life. I couldn't get that question out of my head. I wasn't really happy with my current job, even though I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. In some ways it was the perfect job, a good mix of working with kids and getting to help parents. But it still wasn't what I wanted. I didn't want to become an administrator in a school system. I wanted to work with kids, have the time to be on a constant search for knowledge to become better at working with kids, and I wanted to support families with children with special needs. I thought I'd find that if I could find the perfect PhD program, but I didn't want to dive into a PhD program without first seeing what I wanted to do with that program when it ended. So I took the coming year off to start new projects and see what sticks and what doesn't.

So that's what this is. A project in the form of a small business, that lets me explore possibilities, hopefully will help lots of families and let my own family not starve in the process.

It's funny when you tell people you are starting your own business. They either become ridiculously excited for you and tell you their own future business dreams, or they look at you like you have three heads and say, "Wow, really? Good luck with that!" I don't take that personally because I have those same thoughts myself. Really? WHAT? That's crazy town. I'm just kidding. I totally didn't mean a small business. You totally misunderstood me. I meant small hobby.

I am terrified. This might be the scariest thing I've done in my whole life. And yet, so far I'm loving it. I love connecting with families and working with their kids. I love putting together learning kits for the children and helping people understand how to use them. I love collaborating with other professionals. And surprisingly, I'm enjoying learning about the business side of things. So maybe one day I'll make money doing this. Until then, I'm learning a lot. And if it doesn't stick? If it doesn't work? It's OK. I'll have learned a lot in my year off and figured out more about what I want out of life.

So, what are these small projects that came together into one business?

I'm doing private tutoring, but really it's more than just tutoring. I'm providing support and materials to families. Kind of like a private special education teacher who can design personalized behavior plans and lessons for the home environment. I have book kits I loan families for a week (or more) and personalize plans to match their child's goals.

I've teamed up with an incredible counselor and we're offering 'drop in' social groups this fall. (Announcement about dates and topics coming soon...)

I'm putting on book clubs for home schooled 4th and 5th graders in Arlington, Virginia. Interested? Let me know.

I'm doing presentations and professional development, and supporting independent schools and community groups in become more inclusive.

I hope to offer adapted music classes with an amazing music teacher I know, as well as different social groups.

All of these projects have bounded together into a small business, Lipsett Learning Connection.

I am still working with my school one day a week, and because I am still employed by the school system I cannot work with any children within my school's boundaries. I also will not sit in any IEPs or eligibility meetings as an advocate for the parent. I want to be very careful in not crossing professional boundaries. From my experience as a teacher it always felt like private therapists were somehow against us in the school. That's not good for the family or the child. I want to help families coordinate their care so that everyone serving the child is working toward the same end.

I've never done anything this scary before. It feels very much like jumping off a cliff without being able to see the bottom. So stay with me and my family on this journey as they support me from going from a household with two incomes, to a household with one income and one absolutely crazy person.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Class Updates and Teacher Pride

Yesterday everyone in my undergraduate class received an email with our class updates. These weren't the ones that people bother to send into the official magazine. This was just for our class newsletter, which is published sporadically via email. They solicited updates from us earlier in the summer, and for days I tried to figure out what to write.

I went to a pretty good college. Not an ivy, but a lot of my classmates got into ivy schools but went to my college because of it's scholarships. I graduated with some very intelligent, driven, and well-connected people.

Those people now have incredible updates to submit. I read them with a glass of wine yesterday and tried to tell myself that I too have a good life.

Johnny became a partner at the Best Law Firm in Atlanta. After the birth of his twin daughters, he realized he wanted to give back to the community so he started his own non-profit where he is helping families with their legal paperwork. 

After completing both medical school and law school Sally was appointed by President Obama to the head the "save all children everywhere" team. Here s a picture of her and her gorgeous children vacationing in Spain. Her husband will be competing in Rio this summer.

Rachel just finished writing her eighth children's book, which will be on the shelves in November. When she isn't writing, she is managing the accounting firm she owns and keeping up with her twin boys.

After completing his time in the Peace Corps in 2006, Chris has been busy starting up nonprofits in the Charleston area with the help of his wife, who is completing her residency in pediatric surgery. 

In trying to decide what to write I considered my choices:

Do I go with giving as little information as possible:
"Mrs. Lipstick lives outside of Washington, DC with her family. She is a teacher."

Or the truth?
"Mrs. Lipstick spends her days racked with guilt from being a working mom of two little girls, who are beautiful when their hair is brushed. To accomplish that feat she sits on them every morning, occasionally growling at them when they turn their heads and mess up the braiding. She just completed her 13th year of teaching, but is making less than all of you lawyers made your first year out of law school. Before your bonus. As school systems do not offer "partnerships" as your law firms do, she continues to hold the same job anyone just out of college is eligible to hold, despite her years of experience and her masters degree. Her husband is extremely patient with her as he watches her put in late nights of completing special education paperwork and writing reports."

That might be too much of a downer and sounds way more bitter than I intended it too, even just for this blog post.

(Truth be told, any of those people above could also write depressingly realistic updates about the tedium of their jobs and day to day lives, their job titles would just continue to make the tedium sound more impressive).

I wrote my best friend's, because sometimes when you are going to brag you need to have someone else put the words together for you...

TeacherMom continues to live in Virgnia with her beautiful family. Her Wonder Woman skills continued to be revealed as she completed her masters in Education Administration while taking care of her two active and sweet boys. Her creativity will be on display this coming year in the art room, where she will revolutionize elementary art before taking the world by storm as an administrator. Yet even in all this glory she continues to find time to socialize with other alumni including the equally incredible Mrs. Lipstick! (she added that last part.)

There isn't anything like Class Updates if you are a teacher to make you ponder your place in the world (except maybe cocktail parties hosted by lobbying firms). Us teachers need to get better at selling ourselves. We need to brag on ourselves and the AMAZING work we do day to day. I was so glad my friend submitted the one I wrote for her because it is true. She IS wonder woman. She may not have a law degree, be competing for partner, or starting her own private equity firm, but she is rocking it out. She took all that intelligence and promise that got her into our "good" college and applied it to helping children. Helping them every single day, teaching them to read, write, and get them passionate about school. She puts in so many extra hours that I don't think she sleeps.

It's hard as teachers to make ourselves sound successful in two to three sentences. We don't get promoted if we want to continue to teach children everyday. We can't say we've become a CEO or made partner, or become chief resident. To get promoted we have to actually reduce the time we work with kids.

Reading over this post I worry it came off more bitter than I intended. I hope not. Maybe it's because so many people I went to school with used to ask me why I was going to go to my school if I was just going to be a teacher. (The school has since started an education program, but it didn't exist when I was there.) As teachers we make sacrifices that many people don't even consider. It's not about the pay, but committing to a lifestyle where some people are going to make assumptions about your intellect and your capabilities because of your profession.

I want teaching to be a profession where the teachers in the room are given the same awe-inspiring respect as lawyers and doctors. We shouldn't feel ashamed in telling our classmates we are teachers. We should shout it from the rooftops.

I must admit, I enjoyed reading what my classmates are up to these days, and how successful they've become. I'm proud of them and their success, but I'm especially proud of the ones who became teachers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Olympics, Belly Buttons, and Life Lessons

Since the start of the Olympics, my daughters have become obsessed with beach volleyball. Mostly, because they think it is hysterical that they are "in their underwear" as my four year old said. "Nobody wants to see their belly buttons, right Mommy?" she asked the first time she saw them in the sand.

They giggle hysterically while watching it. Last night, after getting out of the bath and before getting into pajamas, my two year old started acting like she was hitting a volley ball. It's the new thing to do while naked, apparently.

Asides from giggling about belly buttons, my girls also noticed something else about the players. "Mommy! Look!" my four year old exclaimed in complete awe, "She fell down IN THE SAND and she got right back up! She didn't even cry!"

"Yeah," my two year old agreed. "No crying!"

It always surprises me the difference in how children view the world. I honestly hadn't even registered the fall.

The NBC newscasters can tell us all about the athletes strict training regimens, the obstacles and injuries they've overcome, and their extreme perseverance, but the visual image that stuck with my kids is the athlete falling down and getting right back into the game. They zone out during the inspirational cut aways, but are somehow inspired by falling athelets. It makes sense, I suppose. Early morning gym workouts mean nothing to them. But falling in the sand? Total connection there.

Our Olympic viewing has now become a constant stream of "She fell!" "He fell!" I SEE A BELLY BUTTON!" "She fell!"

Then they act it out. One of them will fall down (laughing hysterically) and will get right back up. "I"m up! I'm ready to play!" she'll say.
"I SEE YOUR BELLY BUTTON!" the other one will scream.

My facebook feed is filled with videos of how the athletes overcame obstacles and ways they can inspire us in our own lives. As adults we're in awe of these athletes and are constantly looking for ways we can copy their dedication and determination. It makes sense our kids would want to do the same. We just need to bring the conversation to their level.

While it's so important to talk with our kids about how hard these athletes worked and the grit and perseverance it took to get them to the Olympics, that is still a fairly intangible concept for our little ones. But we can point out in-the-moment perseverance that will give our kids a visual image of these grand concepts we want them to demonstrate themselves.

While watching swimming we've talked a lot about how tired they must be. "OH MY GOODNESS! They are turning at the wall again!! They must be so tired! But they aren't stopping! Wow!!"

We've paused the DVR after the swimmers shake hands with each other at the end and talked about how they don't even know each other but they are still shaking hands and saying good job.

We've talked about how those gymnasts are nervous just standing their, waiting for their turn. We look at their faces and talk about how we can tell how nervous they are. It must feel like the first day of school for them. It's OK to be nervous. Even Olympians are nervous.

We talk about how much fun they are having too. They are tired, nervous, and keep falling down, but they are still having fun! Wow! With all those feelings they are still smiling and laughing. Falling down didn't make the fun go away. Being nervous didn't mean everything needed to end. They kept going and now they are so happy.

Hopefully, even after the games are over we'll be able to refer back to these conversations when things come up in our own lives. Saying "You have to work hard at gymnastic class now so you can be like Simone!" probably won't have much of an impact on my kids, but saying, "I know you are nervous, just like Simone looked. What did she do next? She took a deep breath and then tried her best. Think you can try that? Let's do it!"

I read that Michael Phelps' mother had a visual cue she would give him when he was having trouble with sportsmanship as a child. For older kids that would be a great tidbit to share and apply in the moment.

Sometimes I worry that these blog posts are what my kids will one day bring to their therapists to say "She even wrote publicly about how she tortured us. We couldn't even enjoy the Olympics!" So, daughters 20 years years from now- think about the money I'm saving you. Just printing this out and giving it to your therapist will save so much time in you having to explain it. Right?