Saturday, October 31, 2009

Go Dogs, Go!

A comment on my last post about Halloween costumes (I didn't end up being anyone, but wished I'd been Miss Malarky- brilliant suggestion!) reminded me of my first year teaching when I wasn't at The Think-Tank yet. The school held character day in the spring that year, and offered a Popsicle party for whatever class had the most participants dressed up as their favorite book character. I'd hadn't paid much attention to any of the special events that happened earlier in the year since I was focused on more important things like getting through the day without self-destructing. But it was the end of the year, I'd finally gotten a hang of the whole teaching thing and was ready to mix it up a bit. I knew if I ignored this day, like I'd ignored all the others, no one in my class would participate. Maybe one or two would come in costumes, but most likely the day would go by unnoticed.

So the Monday before I announced the contest to the class and suggested we vote on a book we could all be characters from. We'd finished reading Charlottes' Web, had done an author study on Patricia Palacco, and had read many, many Kevin Hankes books. I was sure we'd select a meaningful one.

What did they pick? Go Dogs, Go.

Looking back, I'm not surprised. If there was any book that describes that year, it was Go Dogs, Go. The children and I were all on some crazy up and down roller coaster that ended far better than it started.

The school was not year-round and much of what the children had learned so long ago in kindergarten seemed long forgotten when they walked in the door after labor day. They'd had a summer of Nintendo, Disney channel, and baby sitters. They hadn't spoken English or read a book since they left the school doors in June. To meet their needs the first grade curriculum mainly taught the alphabet the whole first quarter. Some were ready to read, but most were still struggling to understand that print held meaning.

I had two little boys who were further behind than most. We worked. And worked. And worked. On their alphabet, one-to-one matching, phonemic awareness, and all those other good skills they would need to read. Some days it felt like all three of us were banging our heads into the wall.

Then one day I read a professional book that mentioned having students read books in the morning instead of doing morning work. Brilliant! I thought. Not only is that less work for me at the copier, but it's more meaningful for them. My team balked. We were one of those teams that was suppose to have carbon copy classrooms, so you were not suppose to try new things.

I did it anyway.

About the second week of this new 'come-in-and-read' program I finished taking attendance and sat down to have a reading conference with one of my struggling readers. He was reading Go Dogs, Go. We chatted about why he'd chosen the book, what he liked in it, why the pictures were funny. And then, before either one of us knew what happened, he turned to a page and read. READ. As in the words. Correctly.

Now if you're familiar with Go Dogs, Go, it doesn't take many literacy skills to read a page. The pictures clearly match the two-three words on each page. But to this little boy- he was reading. He was doing what he'd only witnessed others do. He was READING. He looked up at me, shocked at what had just happened. We hugged, we laughed, we read it again. We held the book up and did a little dance. From that moment on, he knew he could be a reader.

So when months later he led the class to vote on being characters from Go Dogs, Go I shouldn't have been surprised. I let them have a few minutes at the end of each day that week to work on their dog costumes- making ears out of construction paper and stapling them to paper head bands. In small groups they made signs for the dog parade. One little girl, another struggling reader, wanted to write a dog song. So she and I sat down and worked together to write her song- carefully and proudly crafting each word.

We were ready. On Friday we put on our costumes, held our signs and our song and marched around the school. A parade for no one, but it didn't really matter to us. We were going to a dog party, and what can be better than that?

I think any one's first year of teaching is meant to be full of mistakes. If you make no mistakes how will you learn? But among those moments of mistakes that seem so frequent, are those clear teaching moments- moments that change both you and the children. Now with experience I wonder if I would take the time to plan such an activity, knowing everything that can go wrong and just how chaotic making dog costumes can be. But it's that day- the day of our dog parade, that will stay with me when I think of my first year.

The day we celebrated everything we'd learned by dressing up and acting out our favorite book.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

halloween depression help!

Tomorrow is character-day and instead of happily planning a costume for my favorite book character I am laying out my professional outfit for my very-important-meeting on a student with people from outside our school.

Of all days to have to look professional. Life has just not been fair this week.

I can't very well go the very-important-meeting dressed as the pigeon, or Trixie, or Lily, or even The Paper-Bag Princess. I don't think anyone would take me seriously.

Any suggestions on a good children's book character who wears suit jackets and nice slacks? Miss Nelson before she turns into Viola Swamp? A teacher from Kevin Henkes books? What's not boring?


I sat with two second graders today after they finished a county-wide standardized assessment. We were coloring while we waited to be admitted back into their classrooms. As we colored one friend chatted on and on about how much she loves her new house, drawing the happy details as she talked. Suddenly she was interrupted by the other friend,

"I hate my apartment. We use to live in a house, but not anymore. And I hate it. Nobody there speaks English and everybody sits around on the steps and spits. They spit everywhere. And don't even clean it up. It just stays there, all the spit. And I can't play outside 'cause it's not safe. And last night I saw them try to rob this woman. At least that's what I think they were doing. 'cause they were outside her apartment and she was yelling and then the guy ran into her apartment and hit her. And then he spit on her floor and left. And he didn't clean up the spit. Gross"

The town-house friend looked as startled as I was at the monologue that just erupted from nowhere. Neither of us knew what to say. As I wracked my brain thinking of nice comments I could make like, "well, do your friends live nearby?" or even, "Yeah, I use to live in an apartment too. It was really loud" the town-house friend commiserated,

"Spitting?! That's SO gross"

"Yeah" the sad apartment boy nodded vigorously, and then happily went back to his drawing, making no more comments on his apartment.

Sometimes all you need is someone to recognize the horrors you face and commiserate with you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

magically high expectations

teacher! fabulous friend held up her juice box in frustration.

can you open this?

what's the magic word? i asked, not about to be ordered around by a 5 year old.

abracadabra she said to the juice box while waving one hand. after a moment she sighed, and looked back at me. i tried that. it didn't work. so now can you open it?

poor fabulous friend. learning self-control is hard enough in kindergarten, but now her teachers expect her to use magic to open her snack? those are high expectations to live up to.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

bananas unite!

The thing I miss most about being a classroom teacher is that I no longer get to burst into song whenever I feel like it. In my classroom we sang all the time. We sang for transitions. We sang during morning meeting. We sang in the midst of long lessons so we could get our wiggles out. We sang when I was feeling ansy and I needed to get my wiggles out.

No, I am not a good singer. I am horrible, tone-deaf singer. The poor, poor student-teachers and co-teachers who were stuck with me were faced with pretending my singing was beautiful and had to go along with whatever tune I started.

But regardless of my own singing ability I found that singing and chanting was the best way to get our wiggles out while I stayed in control of the group. I could never full handle the five minute break where kids got to dance alone, or got to get water and have a few minutes to chat. I needed more control. (And maybe I needed to wiggle too) So instead we sang.

I still sing while I teach when I can, which means not only do my co-teachers suffer from my terrible off-tune ramblings, but students from different classes will chase me down in the hallway and just burst into song. I've been walking along with the principal chatting about something important when a first grade girl has snuck up behind me. "BANANAS UNITE!" she belted out, expecting me to join in with "PEEL THE BANANA" as the principal eyed me suspiciously. This happens more than you think.

Once when I asked a class, "Do you know why the principal hired me?" a boy shouted out, "to sing the flea, fly song".

So you can only imagine my excitement when I found this waiting on my doorstep yesterday.

It has 88 different songs, rhymes and games to sing/chant/play with your class. I was excited to learn new songs, but also thrilled that some of my old favorites were in there. Songs I'd learned years and years ago at Camp Alleghany For Girls in Lewisburg WVA that I've brought to the classroom and thought no one else had ever heard of.

I brought it in this morning and my partner-in-crime immediately flipped through it and found one to play as our activity in morning meeting. It even has little side bars beside each song/activity that tell what skill is practiced (focusing, listening, self-control) so that when the principal comes in and wonders why you're "playing" you can explain you are having a guided-lesson on self-control. (I've found that as long as you can make anything your doing sound like you put a lot of research behind it people will stop questioning you)

I've also been doing a lot of reading on using play to help children develop executive function and improve their working memory. As I was flipping through the games in the book I noticed that many of the games would allow children to practice using their working memory during play.

So, if my little kindergarten friend was correct, I now have a whole new list of songs and games to add to my job description.

can you tell what this is a drawing of?

today a friend drew me an "i love you" picture. he started to draw him and me, but then he changed his mind. he drew something deeply important to his heart.


yes, this is a picture of vacuums. beautiful vacuums.

so i can choose my favorite.

i love my job.

Monday, October 26, 2009

being back

I was not a happy camper when the alarm went off this morning. I was not a happy camper as I stood in the shower trying to remember why exactly I was up so early. I was not a happy camper as I drove to work in the dark. Or when I got to work and heard about our crazy kids over intersession. Or when I started wrestling with the large mound of paperwork waiting for me.

Can you blame me? For the first week of intersession Mr. Lipstick and I ran around Peru, exploring Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima. The next week I stayed in- napping with my cat and enjoying the gorgeous show the trees outside my windows are currently performing. How could I deny myself another day of reading, hot chocolate mug in hand, letting the cat nap on me, and watching the sun dance through the spectacular colored leaves outside my window? I mean, going to work today was almost criminal.

I did it anyway, but don't think that I liked it.

Today bounced back and forth between reminding me why I'll be setting my alarm tomorrow morning and making me think longingly of my couch and current novel waiting for me at home.

...we carved a pumpkin in kindergarten. There is perhaps nothing better than watching 5 year old faces twist in horror and excitement as we pull out the "guts" of the pumpkin. Nothing better until their faces light up when we ask them to put their own hand inside the orange goo.

Today we met our new Assistant principal and another new staff member, learned that we still have a fighting chance at keeping our year-round calendar (but now is the time to fight), and learned there would be some moving of offices, which is always stressful. But I was doing ok.

Until I discovered that on Wednesday morning I am expected to be in 4 places at the same time. I have not yet completed my time-travel machine, or my self-cloning technique, so this is going to prove difficult. The minute I saw my schedule I grabbed my keys, dreaming of driving home as fast as I could, curling up under a blanket, looking at the leaves, taking deep breaths, and never coming back to school. But then I uncurled my hand, put the keys back in my purse, and took a large breath. Because

...a little one looked at me and said, "Mrs. Lipstick, I, you, I, you,.... I missed, I missed, I missed YOU!"

To which my story teller responded,

"I didn't miss you. I had too much fun." And later added, "By the way, you shouldn't go to the party store 'cause their costumes will give you nightmares!"

Today I fought with the printer, the fax machine, my files, the copier, and my calendar. I emailed more than I taught.

...but I got to chat with fabulous friend about the new addition to her family- "yeah, my mom's having a baby. It's a GIRL. My mom doesn't want a girl. My mom wants a boy"

To which her friend responded, "I think fabulous friend's parents must be married if they're having a new baby!"

*Can you imagine being fabulous friend's little sister- not only having to share your toys with fabulous friend and living in her footsteps, but also having her inform you, most likely over and over again, that your mother really just wanted a boy? I hope fabulous friend forgets this incident...

And, as I was pulling away from school my phone rang. Our school librarian was on the other end.

"Can I just read you the best first line of a book ever?" she asked,

And she proceeded to read a line from a new Max and Ruby book about Max hiding his pop sickle where no one would find it. And yes, it was the best first line of a book ever. And I love that even on wishy-washy stressful days, right when I'm wondering if this is really the right job for me, the people I work with find a way to remind me just how fabulous the think tank is by sharing a story, brainstorming new ideas, or simply calling just to read aloud from a children's story.

Maybe I'll go back to work after all.

Friday, October 23, 2009

totally jealous

I want to grow up playing in ancient Incan irrigation systems on my way home from school. Some children have all the luck...

Thursday, October 22, 2009


On my first day of vacation I drove to my mother's school, about an hour away from my own. I had things to pick up from my family, errands to run, but more importantly, I had yet to meet my mother's second grade class.

My mother began teaching when I was in high school. During my formative middle-school years she drove to and from a college about an hour away to get her teaching certificate. Sometimes, when I wonder why I got into teaching, I blame that time- when for whatever reason I wanted to know what she was studying, asked questions about what she was learning, and listened to her explain theories of education. We all should have known at that point I was hooked. When it came time for me to take my own education classes I realized the material was all old- it was information I assumed everyone knew, but looking back I realize it is because I was learning it right along with basic algebra and 7th grade language arts. (It also says something about my poor education coursework if they were not teaching anything new in 10 years).

Since then I can't think of a year I have not met my mother's class. It's become harder since I started teaching myself, but our year-round calendar makes it easier. So, on that Friday, my first day of break, it was time to meet them.

I did a read aloud because what's a better way to get get to know a class than a read-aloud- you see who hangs on every word, who asks questions, who wants to talk about their dog, who adores books. This read aloud was one of those quick, short read-alouds you do when you grab a book you know well, but don't really think about how you'll present it- expecting it to be old hat.

and I began to read- in the same way I'd normally read for my first graders or kindergartners, who are learning to speak English, and have special needs. As I went on I started to feel ridiculous. The arm motions, the repetitive language I was using, the animated nature of my voice, was all what has become second nature to me in order to keep the attention of the students at my school. My mother's children- who speak English, entered kindergarten from preschool classes, or, if did not have preschool experience, had 4 strong years at home with a stay-at-home mother, did not need the sort of acting my read-aloud was giving to them. They stared in a kind of awed confusion, as I repeated key words from the story, asked questions in a dramatic voice, acted out 'thinking aloud' and made large arm gestures every time I said certain words.

I felt ridiculous.

And scared. I am so use to the developmental progress of the children I teach that I forget what is typical. I forget how behind my children are in so many areas. How at my mother's school, like so many others, they are focused on getting 100% of their children to earn passed advanced on the tests- not desperately trying to get 86% of their students to simply pass. I forget that while my children are working so hard to understand what the teacher is saying other children in other schools are listening to the teacher while their minds race- making connections, applying their prior knowledge, asking questions- all without being asked by the teacher- simply because that is what you do. Because when your family sits around the dinner table you listen to adults talk about their days, make connections, and apply prior knowledge- and so you just assume that is what you do. You do not need a teacher to repeat everything she says, make wild arm motions, use funny voices, or do back flips. In fact- to you- that is distracting.

But then, the following day I was on a plane to Peru. And I walked through the streets of Cusco at lunch time and watched the children run through the streets during their lunch break, unattended and free from adults prying eyes. As our train slowly crept along through the country side of the Sacred Valley on the way to Machu Picchu I watched the children walk to school through the corn fields- making the long walk by themselves when no school was in the line of sight. How much further would they walk before they arrived at school, only to turn around and make the long walk back that evening?

I listened to our tour guide talk about how frequently the children raised in the countryside drop out of school because education will not get you as far as a good knowledge of working in the fields and helping your family. He talked with sadness about his friends who went to medical school in Peru only to become doctors and realize that being a doctor in Peru wouldn't earn you as much as being a waiter in America. So they left the country and their education to try again somewhere else. He explained that being educated just wasn't valued or necessary in the countryside, and those who were found it difficult to make a living.

I thought about a little boy I taught years ago, who had come to us from Peru. He was with us for a few months before his mother came to me, crying, telling me they'd decided to go return home. They'd come so their children could get a good education, learn English, and know there was more to the world. But now, realizing the only job for their father- an accountant back in Peru, was to be a day laborer, they decided to return home and pray their children could return to the US for college.

The world is larger than making sure we make AYP. It's larger than the schools trying to get a 100% advanced pass rate. We're educating the world's citizens- teaching skills to help with life- whether those skills will lead someone to college or lead them to be successful farmers. We're preparing students for their futures- whether those futures are thought to be "successful" by popular thought or not.

So, without ranking our schools, without altering expectations, without assuming what is the best for all students, everywhere- we each, individually do what all teachers do- and what all teachers have always done, and will always do despite what debate on education is raging over our heads. We teach the children in front of us. We watch what they need, we adapt to give them exactly what will let them take the next baby step forward- and baby step after baby step they grow into the people they can be.

somehow this post rambled on and became something i didn't intend for it to be when i started. it was merely suppose to be about visiting my mom's school. i'm not sure how all that about peru slipped in there, or the thoughts on testing and ayp. so, now, overwhelmed by trying to figure out exactly what happened and why it took on a life of its own i'm simply hitting 'publish'. i apologize for the rambling and the disconnectedness. but i'm on vacation and my mind is allowed to wander, right?

National Standards Report on Autism

The National Autism Center has published a report of the effectiveness of teaching practices for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder under the age of 22. It is great to see the research out there all summarized into one document. They give you 3 options to view the report- a summary, a shorter 53 page pdf (page 11 is where the results start if you want to skip to that), and then the full report 100+ page. (I'll admit I've only looked at the first two.) They say:

The culmination of this rigorous multi-year project is the National Standards Report, the most comprehensive analysis available to date about treatments for children and adolescents with ASD.

It was reaffirming to know that what we're doing is backed by research.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I told myself that I'd use my last 4 days of vacation after we returned from Peru to get on top of my applications for phd programs. I told myself I'd be very productive- not having work or grad school work, well, I'd have plenty of time to get the applications together. Right?

I have caught up on shows on my dvr. My cat and I have napped. I've done laundry. I've made lasagna. I've caught up on my google reader. Spent way too much time on facebook. Played with pictures from my trip.

Yet every time I sit down to work on my application I sit frozen at my computer. I can't move. My fingers can't even bring themselves to type in the web address for the online application site.

I'm terrified.

The program I've discovered, just a few miles away, is perfect. Reading the course catalogue makes me want to cry with joy. It's description of its program is:

This approach links neuroscience and cognitive science to the development of interventions for individuals at risk for atypical growth, development, and learning. Interventions are viewed as multi-layered and include evidence-based actions targeted at the development of the individual child, the family and school system and at social policy.

neuroscience and cognitive science to the development of interventions for individuals... I want to have that knowledge. I want to do that reading, sit in those classes, study those facts. I want to know more about the science behind the children I work with. I want the knowledge.

I cried when I saw that one credit at this university (the most expensive undergrad in the country), one credit is 1,400. I can't even take a class to see if I want to go there- 3 credits is a budget for a vacation overseas.

SO, I've told myself I'll apply, see what happens. They have a lot of scholarships. Maybe I'll get a scholarship. Or something. Maybe we'll win the lottery. Maybe they'll suddenly pay teachers a million dollars.

So I've decided to do it. Try it. And so I come to the essay. The part where I'm suppose to write about why I want to go to their school. Why I want to be a leader in the field.

And the screen is blank.

Because what do I say?
To Whom it May Concern:
I am a big dork and I really just like learning. I want to have your knowledge, but I don't want to be a leader in the field. I want to keep the very job I have now. I love my job. I love the kids. I work at the think-tank for kids I adore. I just want to be better at my job. I want to sit in your classes, write papers for you, and soak up knowledge so I can understand kids even better than I do now. Please give me lots of money so I can do that while still keeping my current, fabulous job. I will not bring fame to your program. I will not change the way people in the field approach education. But I will use what you teach me to change the lives of children and I will do that every day, in a public school, for the children who need it most. Thank you, Mrs. Lipstick

Somehow I don't think that will cut it.

But it is the truth. I love my job. I don't want to over-educate myself out of a job I love. Sure down the line (a long time from now) I think I'd enjoy being a professor. But one at night school so I can still work with children during the day. I know that when I go too long without teaching I start to get depressed and anxious, as though I am not a complete person. But I also love learning about being a better teacher. And yes, I could do as many professional development workshops as I can handle, but that's not the same. I want to dive into knowledge. I want to understand more about the brain. I want to understand the neuroscience and cognitive science behind special education.

And if I finally get this written, get recommendations, do all the various paperwork that goes along with the application- what happens next?

if I get in?
Do I have to make the decision for us to be poor for awhile just because being in classes is a fun hobby for me?
Do I decide to balance work, school, and family for another few years?
Do I decide not to- choosing family and money over my dying curiosity about neuroscience and special education? Where am I then? Will I be ok with my decision?

And so, I am obviously blogging about this as a way, once again, to push off getting the work done. Funny how that works out. Maybe I should check facebook one more time... who knows what's happened in those last 20 minutes...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


At the doorway of the ancient Incan site Ollantaytambo a girl does her homework during her lunch break.


We got in from Peru yesterday and I've spent the last 24 hours avoiding real life and doing nothing that didn't involve looking at our pictures. When I finally decided to check my google reader (because that seemed like a good first step toward accepting reality- small and painless, but slowly bringing me back down from my traveling high) I read this well put together piece.

And now, I'm back.

Reality has spoken.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

amazing, incredible, awe struck

i've decided that i clearly need new words in my vocabulary to begin to describe the experience of machu picchu. around every turn i found myself repeating the same generic words over and over again, which it is the kind of sight that should inspire whole new words created out of the air.

experiences like this always make me wish i was 7 and had a vivid imagination. then again, if i was 7 and playing in the many, many stone structures it may have been impossible to get me to leave.

we're currently waiting for our train to take us back to cusco.

earlier today we passed a little girl sitting outside her mother's shop, working hard on her math. peter must have felt me slowing down because he leaned over and whispered, keep walking, you can't teach her. we're on vacation.

yes, this is true, but after a week of not teaching i start to try to pull little kids aside and teach them to read for the fun of it. maybe i'm going through withdraw.

Friday, October 9, 2009

como se dice...

Mr. Lipstick and I are getting ready to head to Peru for our international no-baby trip of '09. We made a deal when we got engaged that we would leave the country once a year until we had babies. aka- a no baby trip. Our year-round school schedule is perfect for this plan. So far, so good. The first year took us to Ireland for a friend's wedding (where a leprechaun stole the memory card of my camera), the second year took us to Switzerland where I met my Swiss cousins, and this year Mr. Lipstick decided he wanted to go somewhere that would allow us to use our Spanish.

"Our Spanish" as though we have some to call our own.

I started taking Spanish in 8th grade and continued until my sophomore year of college. 7 years of hard studying and I can ask where the bathroom is, tell a kindergartner to keep their hands to themselves, put their eyes on me, and that their work is very good. Not in actual sentences, mind you, or with proper grammar, but I find that being very expressive with ones hands makes up for any oral miscommunication. Right?

So I'm not really comfortable with this idea of "using our Spanish". I've done just fine in countries where I didn't speak the language- Greece, China, Italy, Switzerland. I've learned the basic survival words, relied on hand-motions, and kept a translation guide nearby. Now that I'm going to a country where I have a 7 year history of speaking their language I'm a little nervous. I'm convinced we'll be nodding along happily with a native speaker, thinking we know exactly what they are saying, and before we know it we'll be on a bus to some random town and our passports will be gone.

(I'm an expert at imagining the worst possible situations. It's my super power. I try to keep it quiet as much as possible, but sometimes it slips out. I'll make my own child miserable one day.)

So to prepare for this language immersion I've set my GPS to the Spanish settings. I've tried reading novels in Spanish and spent parent/teacher conferences listening very carefully to see what I can pick up. (not much- I am screwed.)

I also tried to convince the children I teach to teach me everything they know. I took advantage of our afternoon dramatic play center to get them to teach me Spanish. This did not go so well. Little Carlos yelling, "caliente!" when he ironed the clothes on his own body was about as far as I got. The children are not all Spanish speakers so the poor Vietnamese, Korean, Arabic, and English speakers just wanted to get on with play- stop the boring vocabulary lesson.

And the children who did speak Spanish were kind of confused with why I'd want to learn it anyway. After all, they were working so hard to speak English, why was I repeating the words they were saying? And, as anyone who works with 5 year olds knows, they are not the pinnacle of perfect diction. Especially if they have actually been diagnosed with a Speech/Language impairment. So yes, I am headed off to Peru clueless that I may be saying words with a stutter or a lisp- thinking I'm pronouncing it just like Carlos taught me.

On top of this I am just not a strong auditory learner. My auditory memory and auditory discrimination are pretty awful, so I spent a lot of time sipping imaginary tea in dramatic play pronouncing Spanish words only to have the children glance nervously at each other, then repeat the word again, not knowing if I was correcting their diction, or if they should correct me. I was, after all, the teacher- how did they know I wasn't trying to teach them to speak in Spanish. And how does one, at 5, correct a teacher when the teacher is butchering their native language?

So, the language lessons in dramatic play failed, and I'll be getting on a plane tomorrow to plunge into using a language I may or may not speak with a lisp, incorrect grammar, and large hand gestures. They're going to think I have my own special needs. Perhaps I will pretend I don't know this "our Spanish" of which Mr. Lipstick speaks...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

it's that important

We were confused why another parent was waiting outside our door with her daughter- her conference was not for another 45 minutes and typically parents are running late- not early. We watched her walk slowly into our classroom, her hand on her full, expectant belly. She turned to her 6 year old daughter with instructions to tell us why she was early- she had to go to the Dr's today- to maybe have the baby- so she could not come at the planned time. Was now OK?

We told her we could meet later- no big deal- to go, take care of herself and her baby, our conference about life in first grade could wait.

She looked confused for a moment, and hurt, and through her six year old daughter's translations we learned she'd come because she thought this was very important.

So important that she lowered herself into the tiny blue first grade chair, trying to make herself comfortable.

Her daughter listened carefully to our English remarks and then carefully choose her Spanish words to tell her mother. Her mother's eyes grew wide with pride as she listened to her daughter translate the wonderful things her daughter is doing in school. "I'm so proud of you" she almost whispered between the pauses.

I could feel the tears welling up in my own eyes- this mom who thought our conference was so important that she needed to walk to the school on the very day she may have a baby.

Then she turned to her daughter with another question to translate, "Does she sit quietly, and listen, and do her work, and work hard?"

Her daughter's face scrunched up so mom repeated her question. The girl looked at her mother and then at us- did she really have to translate that? Was she going to translate an honest answer? Before she could go through the moral contemplation in her head we jumped in (surprisingly having understood enough Spanish to know what mom was asking), "yes! she listens, she does her job and she works hard!"

The young translator grinned with pride and her mother turned and once again said, "I am so proud of you."

I love my school. I love that this little six year old girl will never doubt the importance of school.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

the 7 year old in me is sticking my tongue out at the world

For those of you who enjoyed your August- enjoyed sleeping in, relaxing, going on trips, or staying in your pjs 'til 11 while we were working our tails off at the think tank- it's our turn. Now you'll be dragging yourself to work every day for the next two weeks while we get to play.

Nothing is as relaxing or rewarding as October intersession. The air is crisp, the leaves are changing, and the tourists have all left DC so it's actually possible to enjoy a week day at the museusm, and I don't have to go to work. It's my turn for the pjs 'til 11, sleeping in, shopping during the day, or reading a book for pleasure at a coffee shop.

We have two days of parent conferences and then we're off for two beautiful weeks.

I really have the best job in the world.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

task analysis, scissors, and rock stars

Task analysis was something that was taught to us over and over again in grad school. It's simply breaking down larger tasks into smaller pieces to make them teachable and achievable. This sounds like what all teachers do every day, but it generally refers to more specific tasks like how to use a microwave or how to brush your teeth. (During the summer of '08 when I regrettably took 3 grad classes, all 3 classes made us do the same activity- compose a task analysis on teeth brushing. i believe one class came up with 21 steps)

In a lot of ways it's something you'd use working with students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but it comes in handy with students with autism since they tend to be very literal- it reminds me to teach each step and make no assumptions. And, with kindergartners you never know when you're going to break down the most basic tasks.

The other day splatypus and I were tag-teaming it with one of our little friends. (I LOVE co-teaching because it means one teacher can work with a student for awhile and just when the teacher thinks she's reached the end of her patience and she is about to run out the door and never return to teaching she can look at the co-teacher and say, "your turn" and the other teacher can magically swoop in, full of energy and not yet grinding her teeth. This saves a lot in dental bills and advil, and rescues our students from our frustrated outbursts of "how many times do I have to tell you?" My partner-in-crime and I have this down to a science. All it takes is making eye contact across the room and we know when to switch.)

Back to our little friend who was having trouble using scissors. It's very possible she never saw a pair of scissors before she walked into the classroom in the beginning of August. So, we were taking turns slowly showing her how to hold the scissors and cut. A lot of times children just learn from watching others use scissors and copying what they see, and occasionally children may need to have certain steps demonstrated or corrected. This little friend required a bit more.
Take a moment and try to list each step you'd need to include when teaching someone to use scissors.....

I have-

-Pick up the scissors
-Turn them so the blade points away from you and the handles are straight up and down with the larger of the two holes at the top
-Put your thumb in the hole on the top
-Put your fingers (at this point I didn't really care which fingers) into the hole on the bottom
-Stretch your fingers away from your thumb to "open" the scissors
-Pick up the piece of paper you want to cut with your other hand
-Put that piece of paper between the blades of the scissors
-Bring your fingers and thumb together to "close" the scissors
-Repeat the opening and closing of the scissors while moving the scissors slowly away from you, a little further on the paper each time
-Stop and check- is it cutting the paper? If not, check if you are holding the scissors up and down and if you are remembering to open and close the scissors each time
-When you have finished cutting the paper STOP opening and closing the scissors
-Put the scissors on the table
-Take your fingers out of the holes

Give you a headache?

Now, try to do all that in Spanish.

Now, try to do all that in Spanish with other kindergartners arguing over the correct pronunciation of abrir and cerrar so you have to stop and explain to them that people from El Salvador and people from Bolivia may say their words a little bit differently, but it's all still Spanish.

It was at that moment that I sat back and thought, wow, splatypus and I, and all teachers really, are just amazing. The things we can do- all at one time, with no planning, in different languages. We rock.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

read to me

1) Are these not the cutest?

2) Do you not want to sneak into a hospital and put one on every baby so that the mother takes it home with at least 1 instruction?

3) Just how much trouble would I get into if I did that?

that's what i've been saying!! (and what we've been doing)

After running across the new book NurtureShock on many different sites including Chip Wood's blog Yardsticks I knew I had to read it. I'm a little more than half-way through, but I'm loving it. To be honest I feel like I'm reading a book about my school, or at least written by my school. It's not necessarily new information, but it is great to see the brain research behind what we are already putting into action.

The first chapter is about the power of praise, and repeats what we've learned from Mindset by Carol Dweck. Dweck found that vague praise like "good job" or "you're so smart" actually has an inverse effect on students causing them not to try. Instead, she argues praise should be specific. We should be praising children's work habits, noticing exactly what they worked hard on and details we notice in their work. Last year I participated in a teachers-as-readers group with this book with our incredibly talented gifted and talented teacher.

NurtureShock looks into detail about Dweck's study on praise. Some of the interesting points that struck me were:

1) By 12 children think that getting praised by a teacher means you have maxed out your ability, while getting constructive criticism means you have the ability to do better. By then students have noticed that teachers frequently praise those students they think tried their best but couldn't do it, and will push other students to go farther.

2) Children who get frequent, generic praise are more likely to work harder on maintaining their image through tearing others down.

3)Children with frequent praise get the message that they have an innate ability. Once life gets harder for them they start to believe their previous praise was all a lie and that they've really just "been dumb all along". Their frequent, generic praise as children never gave them a strategy for handling failure.

4) Brain research shows that areas of the brain can actually switch on if there is a lack of immediate reward to remind the brain to keep working, a reward will be coming. Delayed gratification can actually be conditioned into the brain in order to encourage us to gain perseverance.

This is a shift in thinking I feel like my school has been making for awhile. Between Responsive Classroom's training on praise and books like The Power of Our Words by Paula Dunton (we're reading it as a school this year) we're really examining the language we use with our students. We've also read Mindset. We even have a strategy lab where we take our classes to play brain games (like games you can get at the ThinkFun company) where we talk about how to use strategies, praise children for their strategic thinking, and encourage children to transfer their strategic thinking from the strategy lab to the world around them. And of course we're also encouraging this type of thinking with Thinkblocks from ThinkWorks. I knew what we were doing was great, but knowing that we are actually conditioning their brains to accept delayed gratification is really pretty incredible.

The second chapter in the book is about sleep, how our children are missing an hour of sleep compared to children in the past, and all of the problems the lack of sleep is contributing to. More on this later...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

dirty faces

mrs. lipstick?

friend, i'm listening to your teacher read the story. eyes forward please.

but- but- you have brown dirt on your nose. she says with wonder, leaning in to study my face.


an immediate check in the mirror reveals nothing but freckles - something fairly rare at our diverse school. it was that exact moment i realized i'd forgotten make-up this morning.

*sigh* it's been that kind of week.