Monday, December 27, 2010

Magical's (1st?) Christmas

On Christmas eve Mr Lipstick and I were headed out to see my parents but we first stopped to visit Magical in the hospital. We arrived just as volunteers came to take him to see Santa. We followed behind Magical as he walked down the hospital corridor with his IV trailing behind him. As we past some sort of other portable medical machine Magical stopped to check it out. "I want this one!" he announced, already losing interest in Santa's visit with his machine-fascination. We marched on, eventually finding Santa waiting just for Magical. As we walked in he ho-hoed and welcomed Magical by name. Magical wasn't overly impressed. This might be the first year Magical has ever celebrated Christmas seeing that his family traditionally celebrates Ead at the end of Ramadon. Magical eyed the large man in red skeptically. He barely let us take his picture- his eyes nervously jumping back and forth to each adult, looking for reassurance that this large, red man wasn't suddenly going to kidnap him.
I was amazed at the generosity and organization volunteers brought together for the children on the oncology ward. We arrived prepared to be saddened by children stuck inside a hospital room on Christmas Eve but instead found happiness and excitement. None of the adults were truly relaxed but the children seemed to be carrying the holiday spirit with them. Magical was excited by the visitors, vast amount of sponge bob gifts, and the attention. Although he wasn't sold on Santa or the confusion of being handed gift after gift by volunteers he was in great spirits.
What's struck me most though on every visit I've had with Magical is his appreciation for pictures and news from school. On Christmas Eve he sat in his bed, surrounded by new toys clutching a class picture we'd brought him. Despite the piles of sponge bobs at his feet his attention went from friend to friend, naming each as he went, ignoring all the adults chatting away about the holiday around him.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

sick pet?

Happy the Frog is joining us at the Lipstick household for Christmas. In the fight of keeping my cat from eating her I realized that her belly is huge and lumpy and, well, gross. Ack- I'm worried this will be a slow, painful, gross death for the kinders to watch. Anyone out there have any good advice on sick aquatic pets? Or, aquatic pets in general- is this just a normal frog thing? 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

white elephant

Tonight Mr. Lipstick and I are headed out to a white elephant gift exchange with the instructions to bring a gift that we already own- we can't give away anything new.

As a teacher how do I even start?  The loving teacher gifts that did not make it to my Christmas tree as ornaments have been stashed away in a drawer in my gift closet so just in case I one day need to give a gift to someone who will absolutely LOVE Brittney Spears perfume- only available at CVS- I'll have such items at my finger tips.

It's an amazing collection of items I have to pick from tonight. The pedicure kit complete with fuzzy slippers?  The curling iron? The angel snow globe? The Thomas Kincaid t-pot? How do I even begin to choose what to bring? Or will my white elephant gifts be so horrid that none of these people will ever speak to me again?  Anyone out there want CVS perfume?

Monday, December 20, 2010

test:best, which test is best? rhyme:time, time to rhyme?

There's a lot in here- probably more than anyone wants to read pre-Christmas with all the excitement in the air- a quick summary:
1) Neuroscience research on the importance of phonemic awareness/ socio-economic status & predicting future reading ability
2) The difficulties of teaching rhyme & phonemic awareness to children who were not exposed to language until K
3) What should we be teaching in K?
4) Is what we are currently doing negatively impacting our future readers?
5) How do we use our very good assessments and still meet our readers' needs? 

1) Research
One of the assigned readings for my neuroscience class was the 2005 article, Neuroscience Perspectives on Disparities in School Readiness and Cognitive Achievement*1. Many different aspects of the article struck me and I ended up making copies of it for many of my co-workers at the think-tank. I'll spare you my entire 8 page reaction paper, but one of the very first aspects the article touches on how brain development varies in children from different socio-economic backgrounds. Brain imaging technologies have revealed that the regions of the brain that differ dramatically are the left perisylvian region (a language region) and the pre-frontal cortex where executive functioning takes place. The specific language region of the brain is developed based on phonemic awareness, not exposure to print. 

What Nobel, et al's study went on to find was that children's phonemic awareness and phonological development serves as a predictor of reading success later in life.Children from lower socio-economic status are more likely to be successful readers if they have a strong phonemic awareness, where as poor phonemic awareness in children from higher socio-economic status is not an indicator of future reading ability. 

2) When kids can and cannot rhyme
What this says to me is that we need to start ramping up the rhyming and phonemic awareness skills. The minute my amazing co-teacher read it she emailed me, wondering if we should crank up the rhyming activities. (I LOVE the think-tank) Another study I read this year found that neurological changes in children's brains in the region responsible for rhyme do not change after the age of 7. *2. But if this is an indicator of success in reading then we'd better start working our buns off teaching these kids to play with words. 

Most of our kids are not able to rhyme. Many of them were not exposed to oral language at home- they were cared for, fed, clothed, and changed, but were not sung to or even talked to. Some of our kids come in not knowing their own name. If you haven't heard much language it's likely you're not going to be successful playing with language, which is all rhyming really is. Playing with words.

Have you ever tried to teach rhyming?  It's painful. Kids tend to get it or they don't. It's not like teaching kids to point to each word on a page- they get that quickly and if they don't we can quickly figure out what they are doing wrong. We can work with those high frequency words enough that we get them into their long-term memory, and we can teach good reading skills- how to hold a book, turn the page, check the picture and the first letter of a word, get your mouth ready, quite easily. Rhyming is a whole different ball game because it's happening inside their heads. They either smile and name rhyming words or they look at you like you're crazy and just say words hoping you'll leave them alone.

Rhyming requires a level of word manipulation that does not come naturally to some children. And to be honest, it's not something we focus on too much. We do assess their rhyming skills, but in the grand scheme of things we're looking at their ability to read simple texts. The assessment that matters at the end of the year is the DRA, and our kiddos need to be reading a level 3. It's a cold, hard number and we teach our hearts out in order to make sure they meet that goal. 

But you don't have to be able to rhyme to read the level 3 book.  You don't even have to know all your letters and their sounds. You need to know high frequency words like 'like, and, the, you, me,"- words that we memorize- and you need to understand that books have patterns, that words have spaces between them, that we read from left to right, and some simple strategies to use when you get stuck on a word.

In first grade we move on to teaching more decoding skills, but decoding and word families are different than rhyming. We play with words and make new words from the same group of letters:  cat, rat, sat, hat. But when we're manipulating those letters it is all visual- the kids don't always recognize that cat, rat, and sat sound the same. I found that in first grade, my kiddos with special needs understood how to make word families and could recognize that the 'at' in a word said 'at' but for the life of them they could not come across the word 'cat' and read it even though they knew that putting the /c/ sound in front of it made cat. They could not blend the sounds together to produce one word.

3. What should we be teaching?
So here's the thing- and I don't know the answer to this- our kindergartners leave kindergarten reading. Many of them make benchmark- they meet the level 3 requirement on the reading test. When their first grade teachers get them they are happy knowing their scores are pretty good- level 3. But do those kids have the background to support reading past a level 3?  If we didn't teach rhyming, or play with words and manipulate sounds are those kids going to be successful in second grade?  Will they quickly understand the way words work or will they agonize over a set of letters trying to blend sounds together to produce words? If their brains haven't mapped the neural pathways to understand rhyme in kindergarten will they be successful as readers in second and third grade?  

Nobel's research indicates that no, they will not be.

4. So what do we change
My awesome co-teachers and I have sat down and are ramping up the rhyming games- directly teaching the phonemic awareness skills we'd hope our kiddos would enter kindergarten with. But since we know we need to get everyone to a level 3- since we know our scores are compared and the value of our success is placed on the test scores and not phonemic awareness- will we give it the time it deserves?  By doing that are we cheating the second grade teachers out of kids who readily understand how to manipulate words?

5. Which test is best
I don't want to imply that we teach to the test- we do teach our hearts out and we do pay close attention to how we measure our kids. Of course we're always measuring our students- and if we know what the end benchmark is, of course we're working towards it. So do we add rhyming in as well and hope we get kids to a level 3 and improve their rhyming and word manipulation skills?  Do we focus on rhyming and hope that the strong foundation of phonemic awareness will catch them up with their peers when they go to first grade? Do we keep doing what we're doing and throw rhyming in when we can?

coming up- ways we're teaching rhyming

*1 Kimberly G. Noble; Nim Tottenham; B. J. Casey,  The Future of Children, Vol. 15, No. 1, School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps.(Spring, 2005), pp. 71-89.

*2 Coch, D., Grossi, G., Coffey–Corina, S., Holcomb, P. J. and Neville, H. J. (2002), A developmental investigation of ERP auditory rhyming effects. Developmental Science, 5: 467–489.

the heaven of 2 hour delays

When I was a classroom teacher I always had hot chocolate waiting for my kids on 2 hour delays. It was the perfect way to calm them down in the morning as we'd all sip our coco and read our books.  When I left the classroom partner-in-crime took over the tradition.

Can you think of a better way to start the morning?

Friday morning's hot chocolate and book party

Saturday, December 18, 2010

wrap around services

One of my former co-teachers from when I was a classroom teacher sent me a clip of Arne Duncan. (A minute on this awesome-former-co-teacher- she's who I try to be as a sped teacher, and I keep trying to get her to come back to the think-tank... )
Back to the clip...  I have my own issues with Arne and am frequently frustrated by him and the way the Department of Ed is going, but occasionally I hear him say something that is dead right. He manages to do that a few times in this clip. 
One of the issues he talks about is the need for wrap-around services for our kids. He acknowledges that what our children from poverty need isn't just fabulous schools but also quality health care and good early intervention. Can I get an Amen?

This week I've found myself thinking over and over again about how much our children need access to good quality health care. In the craze of the health care debate last year I realized that nothing that was being debated was going to make any difference to the kids I teach. No matter how much we pay to give people health care and insurance it doesn't magically make it easier for our families to go to the doctor. It doesn't magically mean the doctors will listen careful to the parents' concerns and give a thoughtful diagnosis. It doesn't mean that our parents will suddenly learn how to read the directions for giving their children medication, or will easily be able to get off work when their children are sick. It does not free up a doctor's schedule so our children can quickly get the care they need when they need it.

Over the years I've run into so many children whose pediatricians have utterly ignored parents' very valid concerns. Children who should have been referred to Child-Find and yet were not because the doctor overlooked many of their developmental delays and told the parents that the child was "normally developing" when in fact they were not. I don't know how many kindergarten children have come through our doors with severe delays and every time the parents told us that the doctors said they were fine, despite the fact that the parents themselves were gravely concerned. In many of these cases if the children would have received early intervention they could have caught up with their peers by kindergarten, or at least greatly increased their verbal abilities.

This week one of my co-teachers and I sat down with a family to share our concerns for their little five year old (not Magical, this is another child all together) and learned that the family shared the same concerns. The parents had taken him to the doctor twice because he's stopped eating, only to have the doctor say he was fine and refuse to run any tests. The five year old has lost significant amounts of weight and yet the doctor would not give the parents the time of day to run the tests. We had to write a letter from the school stating our concerns in order to back the parents up. This happens time and time again. I cannot tell you how many of these letters I have written begging doctors to simply listen to the parents. It's not an overly-worried mother, there are true concerns.

Do the pediatricians see our parents as immigrants with no common sense or second class citizens?  Do they look at our parents come through the doors and make broad assumptions that keep them from truly diagnosing our children? If we are held to standards to meet every one's needs in the school system why are the doctors not held do the same standard?

Don't even get me started on how difficult it is to get our children in to see a neurologist. We basically have to sign them up for clinical trials so that they have access to brain scans and the doctors.

And it's not just the doctors' fault. Many of our parents do not have cars and have to rely on the bus to get them to and from the doctor- something you do not want to do in the winter with a sick child. Many of them do not get paid if they take the day off to work and many work 7 days a week just to pay the rent. They want to make sure their child is really sick before they sacrifice a day's pay to go to the doctor (who may or may not listen to their concerns). Many are fearful of questioning anyone in authority and so do not ask the doctor any questions when they are concerned.

The combination of all these factors leads our children to suffer through something as simple as chronic ear infections to something as grave as cancer. Would wrap-around-services change that?

I'd love to have medical clinics walking distance from the subsidized housing most our children live in. I'd love to have medical clinics that have a partnership with the schools, so that we are all working together to support these families. We know these children- we see them daily and develop relationships with their parents- wouldn't it make sense for us to work together with the doctors in some fashion?  To be honest I'm not sure what that would look like, and right now I can hear Mr. Lipstick shuttering at my socialist ideas- but there must be a way to provide wrap-around services that will protect the privacy of our families while also giving them easier access to medical care, allow all the children's care takers to communicate concerns, and allow doctors to see the whole picture behind each of their patients.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Magical is sick. Really sick. Hospital sick. 

When we first learned about this I walked around in a fog- I tried to make it through my grad school Christmas party, gossiping about who the good professors were & how to best get through their classes, yet somehow following the conversations. How could someone so little and so magical be so sick?

Yesterday around nine thirty the first flakes started to fall and in the midst of all the kindergarten squeals of delight all I could think was, "this better not interfere with getting to the hospital to visit Magical!"  Usually I am leading the snow dance. 

Partner-in-crime had our class hurriedly make cards for him and we rushed off, braving the snow & the drivers in our area who seem to panic at the first snow flake. As we approached the door to his room we could hear his happy voice chatting away with the nurse, and as we entered we were greeted by his happy squeal of, "My teachers!"  

Wow, I love that kid.

He ignored the gifts we'd brought him but analyzed the pictures his friends drew- "they miss me?" he asked, over and over. "They miss me?"  
"I am not there" he told us, "I am not there. I am in the "not here" chart. I am not in my class. I am lost.
When we got up to leave, explaining we had to make sure the kids all go home safely since it was a two-hour delay he looked straight at Partner-in-Crime and said, "You need to go back to my friends! You need to be in class!"  wanting to make sure his friends were taken care of too.

Seeing him all happy and perky was a magnificent gift, but I still cannot get him and his illness out of my mind. Partner-in-crime and I are both still like ghosts, our bodies walking around but we're not really in them. How can any of this be true?  How can we return to our happy children in class pretending everything is going to be ok?  And we feel all of this for a child we've known for 4 months. Our crippling agony of knowing he is sick is nothing compared to his family's. I've felt sorrow like this for children before- homeless children, or abused children. I've felt the sick-to-my-stomach-can't-have-a-conversation-depression for children but many times I can put my angry toward someone- the abuser- the landlord who faked legal documents that led to the family being ousted from housing- even child services when they don't remove a child from the home before something horrid occurs. But in this case my anger has nowhere to go. Sickness happens. 

Today we have a two-hour delay and I hope by the time the children hike to school, knocking the snow off their shoes and giggling about snow men, sledding, and their snow-adventures simply reaching the school door I'll have my kindergarten-happy face on. For now all I can ask is to keep Magical and his family in your prayers!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

i heart my job

Today I sat down with some bright kindergarten girls for guided reading. We were about to dive into a book about one of our favorite characters- a golden retriever named Danny. In this particular book Danny and his dog friend Abby play tag in the grass after Dad mows the lawn. I know, riveting, right?  (Don't mock it, we DIE for Danny books in kindergarten).

Since none of the girls live in houses with yards I wasn't sure that they'd have the schema to know what the man in the picture was doing with the grass. Suspecting this could interfere with their reading I showed them the picture of the character mowing the lawn and asked them what he was doing.


Finally one girl said, "Wait, I know this, he's, he's...."  she gestured frantically...  "breaking the grass!"

I adore listening to kids learning English find ways to describe what their thinking. I think "breaking the grass" is extremely accurate.

**  **  **
During snack I plopped down beside some kindergarten boys to try to work on answering questions on topic.

"What do you celebrate at your house?"  I asked.

"Santa Claus!" one answered, proudly. "My family doesn't celebrate Christmas, we celebrate Santa."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

big mistake

On Thursday my school brought nurses in to administer the flu shot/nasal spray for free. Now, of course this is a great opportunity for our families and hopefully will keep our little ones in class longer and keep us all healthier. When I first heard about this "great opportunity" I was worried. On first introduction it sounded like we'd be responsible for leading a line of kindergartners down to the clinic to get a shot. It was even more distressing to hear that we'd be responsible for getting them back to the clinic in January since some children need the shot twice. We might have been able to get Pixie to sit down for a shot once, but twice? Not on your life.

I was skeptical of the whole thing until they announced that most children would get the nasal spray (praise the Lord) and they'd be organizing getting our children to and from the vaccination administration area. Really, for teachers, it turned out to be ridiculously low stress and ran fairly smoothly.

Or ran smoothly for most.

Not being a classroom teacher I was free to pop in and see if they needed any help. "Help" aka: being ridiculously nosy. But you know, sometimes the being helpful will out-weigh the original nosiness. I found one of our assistant principals and one of our IAs chatting with a tearful 3rd grade boy who was absolutely refusing to sit down to get the nasal spray. Now, this was absolutely none of my business.  I'm sure they had it covered. But I decided that since I'd taught the boy's little brother last year that maybe I should help. (ridiculous, right? It drives me crazy when other adults do this to me, yet I couldn't stand back). SO, I take the 3rd grade friend by the hand and ask him to help me with my kinders. He goes with me to pick up 6 nervous five year olds and helps me hold their hands and tell them it was going to be ok as we walked toward the vaciation station. Ha! I patted myself on the back. Excellent, now he'll be stoic for my little ones, he'll help them AND he'll get his own nasal dose quickly. Still hopeful, I asked him if my 5 year olds could watch him- would he go first so they'd see it was all ok?

Yeah. This was dumb. Perhaps one of the dumbest things I've done in my history of teaching.

So I gather my sweet little girls around him as he's beginning to realize that he's been tricked. Suddenly his eyes flash into a deer-in-the-headlights look and he bolts like he's going to run. A nurse caught him and pushed him into the chair while another held his head back. The original nurse stuck the vaccine spray into his nose while he desperately tried to escape- his body literally bucking as though he's the victim of some horror movie. The nasal spray also happens to be in thin little viles that, if you're not watching closely enough, appear to look just like a thin-shot.

 To my five year old girls, already nervous about going to the doctor at school, it appeared that the evil nurses were holding him down in a headlock and shoving thin glass tubes up his nose in order to inject his brain, or perhaps, pull his brains out. From my 3rd grade friend's behavior, it also looked like the vaccine caused his body to go rigid and flail all at the same time.

And here I was, smiling, pushing them toward him, saying, "Look, it's not that bad" until suddenly I'd thrown my body between them and him and tried to distract them.

I was too late.

All my girls burst into tears of horror before they'd even been given the nasal spray.

In my nosiness I managed to add extra chaos to an already slightly chaotic day, and added extreme trauma to what may have other been a smooth experience for my 5 year olds.


Thursday, December 9, 2010


Me:  Magical, this is a numeral 3. Can you find the card with 3 dots?

Magical:  Hmmmmmmm

Long pause


Me: this is the numeral 3. Can you find the card with 3 dots?

Magical: (moves hand toward the cards and then stops suddenly while making an electrical dying noise) oh no! My computer just died. The batteries are dead. I have to recharge. Can't find it 'til I recharge.

Me:  Guess what?  I have the secret power of being able to re-charge kids!  Ready?

I put my hands over his head and made some noises.

Me: All re-charged.  Now, this card has the numeral 3. Which card has 3 dots?

Magical:  Oh no! My hair is too long, I can't see, I can't see- my hair is falling in my eyes, oh no, oh no.

Me:   Why don't I help you?

I pull his bangs back (which are not long at all and are no where near his eyes).

Me: There, now find it.

Magical:  Here it is. 3 dots. Phew, that was a close one.

****  really? Some days I think it is amazing that my head does not literally explode. ***

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Are you golden?

Once PJ left Partner-in-Crime (my awesome co-teacher) and I knew we needed to re-visit the rules and our classroom community. We adored PJ and worked hard to meet his needs, but from the uniformed kindergarten student's point of view it sure looked like we let him get away with a lot of behavior that just isn't ok for most kids. We wanted to remind our friends that it really, really is not ok to climb onto a shelf in the teacher's coat closet to hide, yet still wave your index finger out from behind the door screaming, "shut up stupid lady" as loud as possible. Yeah. Not really ok. Or breaking crayons into teeny tiny pieces to throw at the teacher. Not ok either.

So partner-in-crime came up with a fabulous idea, sort of a twist on the 'crumpled heart' idea from responsive classroom. Every year our kids come up with a team name. Last year they were the Magical Bloomers- (because kindergarten is magic and they were learning to bloom like Leo the Late Bloomer) .  This year they came up with Team Golden.

To re-visit our rules and our community Partner-in-Crime made a huge gold poster and had all the kids sign their names. She put it up in the front of the class and had all the children ohhh and ahhhh over it's fabulous shiny color (it's amazing what works in kindergarten).

Then her voice got soft and dark. She began talking about things that could happen in our classroom like when children push each other, or call each other mean names, or *gasp* don't share. For each tragic kindergarten event she quickly placed a black piece of paper over the golden poster. In the end the entire shiny gold was covered in black.

The class sat silently staring at what had been a beautiful, shiny, eye catching poster.

Then partner-in-crime's voice changed. She calmly and warmly began talking about ways the class could fix the problems, what they could do to remember to share- what they could do instead of pushing. Each solution meant a child could come up and take a black piece of paper off our puzzle to make it shiny again.

Now the poster is hanging up behind the easel. When something happens that just "isn't golden" all Partner-in-Crime has to do is silently pick up a black piece of paper and put it over the golden poster. "Let's see if we can be golden again" she whispers, and the class silently watches the poster, fixing their behavior so we can eventually take the black piece down.

It's magic and worked beautifully in re-integrating our class with our rules post-PJ.

see or no?

During reading workshop today I noticed a few girls polling the class. They are allowed to use their white boards during reading time to practice writing word wall words. Both no and see are on the word wall. If you speak Spanish then you would probably assume that one way you could use these two word wall words meaningfully would be in a survey. I didn't have the heart to explain that although they'd spelled see correctly it didn't mean what they thought it meant...

btw- the question was "Do you like Justin Beber?"


Monday, December 6, 2010

stress & something to think about...

I am currently holed away in my home office writing papers. Somehow I have 5 (FIVE) papers due this week.  I am not a happy camper as I would much rather be sipping on hot coco by the Christmas tree.  But alas, instead I am crouched over my netbook writing about the brain. I'm not sure I can put together sentences coherently anymore. SO, if I can't, ignore this post. Perhaps tomorrow my brain will have recovered.

Anyway, as I was writing away I came across some research that I found startling that I want to keep in mind when working with kids.

Research was conducted on how abused and non-abused children detect facial emotions. Children who had a history of abuse were far quicker than the children who had not been abused to detect anger in a picture of someone's face, even if that person simply was not showing emotion. Children who have been abused are quicker to detect anger with less information

*What this indicates to me is that as teachers we need to understand that not all our kids see us in the same way. To some kids our Monday morning "I am SO not excited to be here" faces may be interpreted as hostile, while others simply understand we're still waking up just like them. Not that we have to be fake-chipper all the time, but I think we need to be conscious that some children might perceive us as angry when we're not.*

The research went on to look at how the children's brains reacted when shown an angry face. Children who had a history of abuse showed far more brain activity than children who had not been abused when they looked at angry faces.

*What this says to me is that our children who have experienced abuse are going to be more alert and aware when we're angry. Which isn't a good thing (we can't get angry just to wake them up) but it shows they are not having typical responses to anger and emotion. When a non-abused student is able to calm himself down from an angry-teacher moment quicker children who experienced abuse will most likely experience a more heightened sensory-reaction. Their central nervous system will kick into the fight or flight mode much faster than 'normal' reactions*

*I am drawing these implications based on nothing but my own thinking, which at this moment isn't too strong,  take it like the hmmmm....  what if....  pondering I intended.*  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Magic wand #4, collaboration for creativity & achievement

I've written about collaboration a lot but the more I work in a collaborative environment the more I see how it may be the most important 'magic wand' to improving education.  Collaborative teaching encourages us to always look for new magic wands- new ways to teach, new ways to approach learning, test current research, and be willing to take risks. Collaboration is what moves us forward.

My magic-wand series began a few weeks ago after I attended the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston. All of the sessions caused me to reflect on what we're doing at the think-tank (my amazing school) and let me realize why what we're doing works (the research behind the practice). I regret calling it 'magic wands' because it implies that it is magic- which it isn't. It's hard work, and it's not just one magic wand- it's many- all working hard together to improve learning outcomes. 

Sunday morning we listened to Keith Sawyer present on 'Educating for innovation' (Thinking Skills and Creativity 1 (2006) 41-48). His spirited talk referred to what happens inside Google with their 10% time and how that it's not just one person being given 10% time but those people all working together that drives progress. He called collaboration "general tinkering" and called teachers to realize the importance of being creative professionals who are collaborating together to create knowledge.

Collaboration is truly what drives the think-tank. The elementary schools in our county have "half-day Mondays" when children leave a few hours early so the teachers have a chance to plan. At our school that time is expected to be done together- we have an hour of "sacred planning" where nothing else can be scheduled so that co-teachers can sit down together to analyze the lessons from the past week, decide where to go next, and how best to teach it.

In many ways collaboration frees us up to not be driven by a set path of teaching the same thing each day. Instead it lets us look at what the kids need and set up "if this, then this" plans. A lot of times we feel safe saying "If we teach this Tuesday and Wednesday then let's look and see what needs to happen Thursday. If they don't get it we'll do X activity. If they do get it we'll do Y. And we'll know whether or not they'll get it because we'll look at Z."

So instead of just heading on with our plans because we have to cover content and we have to all be on the same page, we're able to actually drive our instruction based on the kids we teach. Shocking, right?  Because we're working with another adult somehow we feel a sense of freedom to be able to plan our lessons around the kids, instead of planning lessons around what the other adults in the building are doing.

There are schools out there that use "collaboration" as a way to force everyone to teach the same thing on the same day. It's a very top-down version of collaboration and in truth, isn't collaboration at all, but creating factory models. I understand how tempting it is to want to know that on December 2nd every third grader learned how to multiply by 5s, but what if one class was ready to multiply by 10s and one was still working on understanding the concept of multiplying and needed another day to use manipulatives?  Teachers collaborating can identify how to measure when children are ready to learn the next step and when it needs to be re-taught.

My awesome co-teachers and I are currently using Google Docs to collaborate in real-time. It is amazing and I plan to write more about this later. Our writing workshop is a dream because of it and we're leading a conversation on it in January at EduCon. Stay tuned for more...

To be licensed in special education you have to take a class on collaborating with other teachers. In the beginning of this class I made a lot of fun of it and called it the "how to be nice to people" requirement. By the end of the class I realized how important it was to my professional development, and found it upsetting that only special educators are required to take a course on collaboration. We're trained to collaborate with gen ed teachers, but the gen ed teachers have no requirement to collaborate with us. Kind of an uphill battle...

Regardless, I am lucky to work at a school that values teacher collaboration so highly. It  might not be the 10% time at Google where they get to work on anything they like, but we are encouraged to work together to be innovative in order to improve student achievement. And so, we do. In the end we watch our kids and find the best methods to teach the information we need to teach to the kids we've been hired to teach. Not the kids we taught last year, not the kids in Kansas who the text books were normed on, not the kids someone in central office observed in a classroom 10 years ago. We're teaching the kids in front of us and because we are able to be collaborate creativity we're able to truly engage them and make sure knowledge gets into their long-term memory.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

run, girls, run

I've finally de-thawed from my morning Girls on the Run race. GOTR is a fabulous organization that trains elementary and middle school girls for a 5k while also working on their self-esteem.  As a former college (D3) cross country runner it combines two of my great loves- working with kids and running. I absolutely love the program and the twice-a-year races always prove to be true adventures. (They tend to make me very, very thankful that I work with the students I do- every year I am horrified by how the upper class parents treat each other, their girls, and the teachers out helping.)

This year I ran with Fabulous Friend's big sister, who is equally fabulous. However, Fabulous-Sister forgot to run. Not the whole time- I mean, we'd start running and then she'd get distracted by something and stop.
"What's the school bus doing here?" she asked, slowing her jog to a walk, "I wonder what's heavier, an elephant or a school bus. You know how to find out?  We need a lever. So let's get a see-saw. And we'll put a rock in the middle of the see-saw and we'll put a school bus on one side but we'll have to go to the zoo to get the elephant. Do you think they'd let us borrow the elephant?  Well, if they did, then we'd put the elephant on the other side and we'd see which one is heavier. Hmmmm...."
Somewhere in this monologue she actually started walking backwards. It's amazing we finished at all.

The ubber-competitive parents pushed their daughters past us yelling things like "This isn't girls running like slugs! Run, Run!" but Fabulous-Sister didn't notice at all.

"Hmmmm...  why do they call that Best Buy and not Buy Best?" she asked, slowing down again.

"Why are we throwing our cups on the floor?  That hurts the Earth's heart.  We have to take care of the Earth. I saw it on a movie. Ew, that man spit- that is disgusting. Thing what would happen if we all spit. Instead of spitting you need to swallow. My heart told me."

"This is so weird. All these people are throwing things on the ground, they don't care that they are losing their expensive things like gloves, we are running in the road and the police are not arresting us, and men are spitting."

"This is the best race ever!  This is so fun!"

"I don't want to win. Sometimes when you win you hurt someone's feelings. What does that sign say? Oh, This is fun!"

"That guy cheering- he didn't say the right thing- he left off the ing. Do you know other words with ing?"

"Maybe I should take my hat off so people will know who I am. Oh, you don't have to hold it for me- you're not my mom!  I'll hold it myself!"

For over an hour.

It was a glorious- yet cold- hour inside Fabulous Sister's head, which I learned is a very busy but imaginative place.

Fabulous Sister fell twice- the first time she picked herself right up and brushed herself off. A parent running by smiled, "What a trooper!" she commented.
Fabulous Sister looked at me. "I was a tripper!" she laughed, not at all hurt that a complete stranger had just called her a 'tripper'. I tried my best to explain the phrase trooper, as well as why Best Buy is called Best Buy, why it was ok to throw the water cups just this once, why the water on the ground was freezing, why I said "Oh, man!" when she pointed out the many lost gloves on the course, or why we were running at all.

All I can say is that it was fabulous, and was even better to watch Fabulous Friend herself give her sister a bear hug at the end.

Friday, December 3, 2010

*it's friday*

Monday afternoon we sat down to hold an IEP meeting for our friend with the magical stroller. A lot of people were involved and there was a large agenda so as the meeting began we settled in, knowing we'd likely be there for a few hours. Magical, of course, had joined us at the meeting since it was held after school hours and we were the only option for child care.

For the first half hour he sat on the floor, surrounded by toys, crayons, and paper, glaring at me. I've never been glared at by Magical before, so I wasn't sure what was happening. It was one of those one-eyed glares, more like a stink-eye, as though he was letting me know he was watching me and he wasn't thrilled with what he saw.

Then right around the half hour mark the robot showed up. And we proceeded to have the rest of the meeting ignoring the fact that Magical was lively engaged in games with his robot. Do you have any idea how hard it is to seriously go over the legal wording of a Free and Appropriate Public Education, or the Least Restrictive Environment, while trying to ignore the fact that a magical robot is carrying on with one of your students? Yet none of us blinked an eye.

Somehow, to us it became normal.

Which leads me to question not Magical's sanity but ours.

It's meetings like that that make me love my job even more. Because without a magical robot, a meeting really is just a dreadfully boring meeting.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

intelligence, self image, and hard work

I took the day off work today to study for my stats final. Or rather, not just so much to study but to remain calm.  The day of my stats midterm PJ threw a beautiful, massive fit that began with him refusing to come in from the playground and ended with him, me, and two administrators in a dark room while PJ threw himself against our principal. By the time I left school I was shaky from PJ. I didn't do overly well on the midterm.

So, even though PJ has moved on, I wasn't taking any chances. With my luck today would be the day that another child would decide to have a massive fit. So instead I stayed home to study and work on the 5 other papers I have due in the next week.

The mission to stay calm has utterly failed. I am in a state of absolute panic and have pretty much convinced myself that I will fail stats causing myself to get kicked out of the program, throwing away my money and time, and embarrassing myself to everyone in my life. (notice however that I am writing this instead of studying. See how this calmness is playing out?)

I've never thought of myself as automatically smart. I'm quite use to not being the quickest person in the room, but with hard work I'm use to understanding what I'm doing. Sure college calc was a bit painful and computer programming turned out not to be my thing, but with elbow grease I made it through.

Now?  Maybe it's the full time job and part time doc program or maybe it's just stats, but I'm not picking up what's being put down. I'm struggling despite locking myself away for hours over Thanksgiving break to study despite the fact we'd flown down to Atlanta.

What I realized last night, in a frantic email I wrote to my best friend (again, not studying, just panicking) was that I'm putting a lot of self-judgement on myself for not being "smart enough" at stats.  And yet, I am a special ed teacher. I work with kids who work harder than everyone else in the room and still do not learn as successfully as those around them. I defend these kids to their classmates and to their teachers. I know these children are good people who will live wonderful lives, and in some cases will probably be happier and more successful than their peers who are easily learning to read.

But last night, in my long, rambling, stressed email to my friend about how I can't figure out what's going on in everyone else's head in class because everyone gets it faster than me, I realized that I haven't really internalized everything I believe about my kids. I'm judging my own worth around my intelligence based on my understanding of stats- something I would never, ever let one of my students do.

Then I think about the sad little boy I taught my first year in special ed- who wanted to learn to read so badly but despite all our hard work he still cannot read, although he is now in 4th grade.  If I feel this way about stats, how does he feel?

I'm leaving this post half way through because I actually do HAVE to go study. And maybe now I'll try to use this opportunity of struggling as an opportunity to relate to my students. There's a bright side in every situation, right?

Monday, November 29, 2010

just like you

One of my favorite parts of the holidays every year is getting a Salvation Army doll from my church and then going shopping to dress her in the most stylish doll clothes out there. It's the one time a year when it is still acceptable to play with dolls.

This year I was horrified to learn that the Salvation Army only gave my church white dolls with blond hair. I don't know anything about the children who get these dolls, but I assume that they are not all white little girls since we live in a very diverse area. Grant it, you don't have to play with a doll that matches your color (I was the little girl who'd fight other girls in my preschool so I could play with the African American baby doll) but most girls like to play with a doll that looks like them. The American Girl Company is making a lot of money off that theory, so I think, based on their success and how they continue to let girls design dolls that look like their owners, we can assume that most little girls want similar looking dolls.

Whose idea was it to order only white dolls? Was it an oversight? Was it cheaper or easier to only order one color? If we were going to pick one color shouldn't we choose a darkish skinned doll with brown hair that could go in many different directions? Why the Scandinavian looking doll who looks like she's been kept in a closet her whole life? I'm sad for the little girl who will open her on Christmas morning only to find a pale white but well dressed toy. Maybe I'll make mine a Russian Orphan so the little girl who gets her can pretend she's adopting a little white child to give her a better life.

Or maybe I'll stop looking for things to write about and go back to studying stats for my final tomorrow...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

magic wand #3, teacher language

While I was attending the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston I couldn't help but think about how many of the research-based methods are being done daily in the think tank. In our current national education debate it seems that everyone is looking for that one silver bullet or magic wand that will suddenly turn around struggling schools, teach all children to read, dance, lose weight, and be nice to each other in a single motion. Those of us in the trenches seem to know it takes many magic wands waving all at once, with everyone holding the wands talking, collaborating, researching, thinking, and constantly making improvements on the practice. Not so magic after all it seems.

One of the important practices I heard mentioned again and again at the conference was how we talk to our students through praise, questioning, and motivating them to do their best. Many of the researchers as well as presenters like Alfie Kohn mentioned Carol Dweck's Mind Set research which examines how we praise children- explaining the need for specific, deliberate praise and that we are actually doing children a disservice when we simply say, "good job!" or, "you are so smart!"  I wrote about applying Carol Dweck's research in the classroom back in June you're interested...

Responsive Classroom has a fabulous book called The Power of our Words by Paula Denton that also discusses how we talk to children. 

How we interact with the students we are teaching says more to them than what we teach, or even directly what we say. Sometimes simply saying, "good job" doesn't send the message that we think they are capable of doing a better job. Sometimes our fast, witty comments actually undermine the relationships we're building with our children. I attended many sessions on how stress interferes with brain development and learning, and it goes without saying that stressful interactions with a teacher can impede learning and memory. How we interact with our students matters, even when we're truly cranky and really just wish Johnny would raise his hand.

What the think-tank does so well when looking at teacher language is that we have many groups that sit down and examine our language. A few years ago we put together a book group on Mind Set and met to discuss how we could use it to improve our interactions with children. We are hoping to do the same with The Power of Our Words and Choice Words. It's not just that we know to watch our teacher language- it's that we're constantly reflecting on how we interact with our students knowing that by paying intentional, conscious attention to our language we will make our actions more meaningful.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

magic wand #2: home/school connection

In Boston I sat in on numerous sessions presenting research on stress, childhood temperament, the effects of poverty on children's brain, and the importance of the home school connection.  Once again I couldn't help but think that we're on the right track at the think-tank.

I started to summarize some of the information on the impact of poverty on kids but it's too depressing. I'll save it for another time. Research continues to find exactly what we know- children raised in poverty have so many aspects of their lives working against them that they tend to show less achievement in schools. 
I know that in the education field we're not suppose to use this as an excuse, and I'm not arguing that we should- but I do think we need to realize what our kiddos are up against so we can help them fight it. Sure, some kids are resilient even in low socio-economic situations, but we want all kids to be resilient. We have the ability to help the non-resilient kids become more resilient.

One study out of Boston called City Connects brought a parent liaison into the schools- someone to be the connection between the teachers and the parents, encouraging the parents to come in, helping the teachers address the children's strengths and needs when talking to the parents, and supporting the parents with their school needs.

From what was presented to us (I haven't read the actual study) the results were astounding. Parents feel less stressed and feel supported in the school. This of course immediately carries over to the attitudes in the home- parents who are less stressed are more likely to take time to play with their children. SO, parents who feel more supported in school are more likely to show an increase in emotional support given to their children, and an increase in cognitive stimulation. (I'm taking this information from the slides presented at the conference and my notes. The studies cited in the slides is: Dearing, 2004, Dearing, 2008, Dunst, 2010)
The study also found that parents who spend time in high-quality schools pick up on good parenting techniques and begin parenting better. 
The study found that schools with a parent liaison had students with higher grades, higher test scores, better work habits and better behavior. 

We have something very similar at the think-tank. We have a staffed parent center where parents can come in, use the computers, get help filling out forms, have someone listen to their concerns, help them navigate the school system, and help them connect with teachers. We do programs (I've written about them before) directed at teaching parents about the best way to support their child's learning. This year we're tailoring a series of programs to specially meet the needs of kindergarten parents. 

To me, the parent center is one of the most important aspects of our school and it was great to see that a similar program, directly connected with research, is proving that it works. 

Beyond the parent center though there are so many ways to bring parents in. I highly recommend checking out the Responsive Classroom book on connecting with parents (I can't remember what it is called right now) as well as Ruby Payne's book on bringing parents into school. Both of these may not be considered research based, but now that we have research that shows connecting with parents works, we know why both these books work so well. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ah, Pixie

Today, as we tend to do in elementary schools around the country, we celebrated Thanksgiving by making butter as a class, each student taking turns shaking heavy whipping cream very, very hard until it turned from a liquid into a solid. And, just like every year after I told the class to pretend they were pilgrim children whose pilgrim mother needed them to make butter for the first Thanksgiving, the children pondered if butter comes from bees, if it comes from a plant, or if it comes from the refrigerator. Throughout this discussion (before I let them in on the whole cow-secret) Pixie sighed loudly. Finally she raised her hand.
Not waiting to be called on she signed again, "Come on guys! Let's not be pilgrim children, go to the store, get the butter, and then be pilgrim children again."

With one hand she brushed her long bangs out of her face as she shrugged with her other hand, as though this was the most obvious solution ever.

It serves me right. 8 years of telling children to pretend to get inside a time machine to go back in time to when the pilgrims lived and she's the first kid who ever suggested going back to the future to solve the butter crisis.

Luckily the large picture of the cute cow on the smartboard distracted her from her time-traveling adventures and we were able to get on with the butter churning adventure.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Waving all the magic wands: Wand 1- strategies & planning

So I know that you must get tired of me bragging about the think-tank, but I'm going to do it again. Throughout the Learning & Brain conference I found myself thinking, "Oh! That's why that works!" or "Yeah, already so on top of that research, my school was transformed from that study", or, "thank goodness now I have actually research to back up what we're doing at school."

But it's not just one thing- not one study or one aspect of our day that is the silver bullet or magic wand, miraculously turning our school around. Listening to speaker after speaker I became more and more aware of all the ways we're doing things "right" at the think-tank- but each project, method, or theory we are using is just one small part of the big picture. The education field keeps looking for that silver bullet- superman- or some magic cost-saving-brain-opening-achievement-making magic wand. But it's not just one magic wand that we need to teach our children successfully- it's lots of them- and the people holding the wands need to be working together, collaborating, determining what works and what doesn't, taking risks, reflecting, and researching.

I was going to try to sum up all of the amazing studies I heard this weekend and how we incorporate them at the think-tank in one post, but I'm beginning to realize that not going to happen, or if I did it, no one would read it.  So, I'm going to try to tackle one study a post. Fingers crossed I don't give up half way through...

Magic wand #1- Strategies- teaching planning as a way to facilitate development in the prefrontal cortex

Sunday morning we heard Jack Naglieri speak about the truth behind intelligence and achievement tests. If you're not familiar with Naglieri he created a norm-referenced non-verbal assessment that allows us to assess the potential and intelligence of all our students, not just the ones who speak English. We give this test throughout children's school career and I always love getting the results. There are always a few children whose results make you stop and think. Surprised by their high score you go back over their work in your head, run over some of your interactions with them and slowly begin to appreciate the small sparks of intelligence that were masked by behavior or their limited language. Using the Naglieri test itself and putting emphasis on its results has created a school culture where we look at our children as whole beings and work on teaching to the child's potential.

But more than his test, Naglieri discussed the importance of teaching children strategies as a way to teach them to plan. Other studies presented at the conference discussed how children growing up in low socio-economic status were more likely to show delayed development in their frontal lobe- the area of the brain that promotes critical thinking and planning. By teaching our children to plan and develop strategies for conquering academic tasks we're facilitating their executive function development.
At the think-tank we use the word strategy a lot. We teach reading strategies beginning in kindergarten- or "what to do when you're stuck on a tough word". We teach math strategies, writing strategies, and critical thinking strategies. We even have a strategies lab where students go to play games and then discuss the strategies they used to play those games, and then we scaffold their thinking about game-strategies to real-life strategies.
We do love our strategies at the think-tank.
But they work. They teach our kids to think critically, and allow them to be active participants in their environment. Something's hard? Do you have a strategy to figure it out?

The last session I attended was on how social disparities shape learning in the brain, a recent study out of Children's Hospital in Boston. What did they find when they looked at the association between areas of the brain and socio-economic status in childhood?  While there seemed to be no difference in hippocampal volume between high and low SES kids, there was a difference in the function of prefrontal cortex in high and low SES kids.

The hippocampus is the area of the brain that controls memory. We were all surprised by their findings- our assumption was (and I believe theirs too) that children from low SES backgrounds would have a smaller hippocampus that was causing their difficulties in remembering information like school facts, the letters of the alphabet, etc. Instead the study found that the area of the brain effected by a low SES is that prefrontal cortex, the area associated with planning, or executive function.

Applying what we know about brain function and Naglieri's theory on teaching planning through teaching strategies, we're on the right track at the think-tank.

For me?  I need to teach Pixie some strategies and encourage her to plan. She has a genetic disorder that typically impacts children's prefrontal cortex development. We've been working so hard on teaching her the rules, the letters of her name, and just enjoying her singing that I hadn't thought about encouraging her to using planning and strategies academically. I'm going to attempt to try to find a way to embed a planning piece into my morning language group.

Tomorrow's wand:  Alfie Kohn, Donna Coch and Carol Dweck- Talking to kids to support strategies and planning.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

learning styles, et al, Education myths no one bothers to tell us about

Someone commented yesterday wanting to know about learning styles as a myth.
And, yep, at this point they are considered to be a myth, or if not a myth, at least ineffective. I believe the study published in 2010 by Pashler is a metanalysis (statistically looking at all the studies examining learning styles) and they found that matching teaching styles and learning styles had absolutely no effect on learning. We use our whole brain when we learn, and many times children have to use their entire brain in order to effienciently take in the information- when we learn to read we are connecting sounds in our environment and words on a page- we can't just teach kids to read through a visual method.
I'm not explaining the research behind it well, and to be honest, I haven't personally read any of the research studies on this. But I've heard it presented a lot, both here, and in almost everyone of my master's classes. Of course, in the school system itself we rarely hear anything about research saying something doesn't work, especially if it is something the school system spent a lot of money to teach us about ten years ago. So I don't think many teachers are actually aware of the new research.

Personally, I don't believe the learning style method put us backward in education. I think it actally moved us forward. It gave (what we thought was scientific evidence) behind why we should spend more time looking at our student's needs as teachers than simply delivering the information. It allowed us to move from being teacher-led classrooms to student-driven classrooms, and when we teach to the kids in front of us and not to a text book we tend to get better results. Plus, it encourages teachers to repeat their information over and over again in each different way, and repetition helps children learn. As does presenting the same information in new ways because you can make connections to the world around you. So I personally think there is a lot of good that came out of this movement, but the reality shows that teaching to learning styles doesn't actually improve learning. We don't need to label our kids as auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners. In fact, we probably shouldn't do that anymore.

However, including kinesthetic activities in the classroom isn't a bad thing either. While the research shows that Brain Gym is a complete myth (yes, another method that's been totally disproved but no one tells us about in the school system itself) but actually getting kids up and moving is good for them. Paul Howard-Jones, one of the speakers yesterday, and an author of one of my neuroscience education textbooks, talked about studies that show simply having children run short sprints improved their attention and learning in the classroom.  Which makes me frustrated that my kiddos have recess at the end of the day, but what can you do. We'll just sing a lot to get them up and moving.

Omega-3s are also a myth- what really improves children's learning?  Eating breakfast. That's where the omega-3 myth developed (according to Howard-Jones, the speaker yesterday).  

And now I actually need to get ready for the last day of the conference.  Yesterday afternoon I took away so much great information on early childhood and home-school connection research- so much more to say about all of this!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

ok, honesty...

Last night I was working really hard on being positive. Really, really  hard. But as magpie pointed out, last night's conference was kind of a waste of time. A painful, degrading waste of time. But I wasn't prepared to decide the conference was a total waste yet. I tried to be positive.

So, now that we're well into the next day I feel better saying that last night's presentations were horrid (two of the three) because today's has been 100% times better.  We had one rather painful speaker this morning who treated us like we were five, wanted us to think-pair-share, and even made us stand up to do leg raises. Why does our profession do this to us?  Why does one think the only way to connect with teachers is to treat them like their students? And why do we do this to ourselves? No wonder the rest of the world doesn't think we are professional when we can't treat ourselves this way.

 BUT the rest of the speakers have been fabulous. For real this time.

The other speakers have been actually discussing neuroscience accurately, discussing the difficulties in connecting neuroscience and practice, and have not been referring to their own book sales. Today's been more like a true academic conference than an amway convention.

Two of the speakers have even taken on the neuro-myth of learning styles, despite the reaction from some of the teachers in the room. For a moment I was embarrassed for my profession as they all angrily fought the research on learning-styles. But eventually everyone moved on and hopefully everyone learned something.

So, just wanted to apologize on the complete lack of honest last night and I appreciate being called out on it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Initial thoughts from Boston

So far I think my absolute favorite part of this conference is simply the spontaneous conversations I've had with teachers, neuro-psychologists, principals, and other educators. Just waiting in line for registration, walking down the streets of Boston, or random chatting during the happy hour left me excited about the innovations and great teaching and reflection are going on all over the country for our kids. The principal excitedly telling me about the brain-based changes they've put in place & the neuro-psychologist explaining how many new ideas she gets out of the conference so she can collaborate with teachers and parents. I love knowing there are great things going on out there in other schools. How do we never hear about the amazing things other schools are doing?  The only thing we ever hear about in education is what's going wrong out there in the public schools.

The first key note speaker was Paul Nussbaum, whose written the book Save Your Brain. And, um, yeah. We know he wrote the book. He mentioned it. A lot. And while some of the things he shared were great, other little "brain facts" were exactly what our text book had cited as "brain myths". (The author of this text book is a speaker tomorrow, so hopefully these little myths will be corrected.  One of Nussbaum's slides on Brain Research even showed a cover of Newsweek...  not exactly what we want to see at an academic conference. So the first presentation ended and we started to wonder what we were doing here.

10 minutes later the conference redeemed itself with Deborah Waber, a neuro-psychologist, who spoke on the dilemma of diagnosing specific learning disabilities. As someone who spends a lot of time preparing files on students to present them to the local screening team in order to determine whether or not a student has a learning disability, I found the entire presentation fascinating, partly because it offered a different perspective on learning disabilities than I'm accustom to. As teachers we're bound by not only federal law, but also by how our state interprets IDEA, how our school system interprets the state's interpretation, and how our individual school interprets our school system's interpretation of the state's interpretation of the federal law. That's a lot of people to answer to in order to determine what a child needs. Waber's presentation left me with a lot to think about so another post will be coming soon just on learning disabilities.

We ended with Paul Houston, an education speaker who has experience as a superintendent in Princeton, NJ and in Arizona. He's a fantastic speaker. He may have mentioned his new book a few too many times, and he didn't touch on neurology necessarily, but he did give a refreshing look into education policy. After following the education debates in the news and on blogs I'm always left depressed and frustrated with the state of education. Especially after I heard that Arnie Duncan recently spoke about increasing class size, decreasing the students in special education, and decreasing teaching regulations.

Houston counters this by arguing that the problem with school reform movement is that it is led by ameatures. (amen!)  As he pointed out, although he flies constantly, he realizes his flight experience does not mean he can tell the pilots what to do. Yet somehow, in education, under a business model approach, people feel the need to tell educators what to do, despite their lack of knowledge about teaching and learning.

Houston continued to argue that it's time in education to use what we know about how people learn to improve our schools. To me, that arguement is everything. Hearing education policy groups praise Duncan's recent speech about how he's going to "fix" our schools causes me to grind my teeth more than when PJ is throwing every item off my desk. My co-workers and I spend a lot of time studying children. We watch what works, we take child development into account, and we are always looking for new insight into how children learn. The more we know about how kids learn the better we do in the classroom. Which is why I get so confused when I hear about policy makers wanting to put people into classrooms who don't have teaching coursework. I get that there are bad teacher prep classes out there but when did someone decide teachers don't need to know anything about children and learning to be able to teach?

I'm hoping that the next two days will give me more insight into how children learn, what the current science is leaning toward, and how we can improve our teaching to meet their needs.

Now, I just have to figure out which sessions I want to go to tomorrow.  Do I listen to Jerome Kagan, Stephen Rushton, and Eric Dearing discuss how biology and environment shape children's psychopathology, how education & neuroscience are impacted by NCLB, and more, OR do I go to listen to Jack Naglieri, David Sousa, and James Byrnes discuss a neuropsychological approach to reading and math interventions, how the special needs brain learns, and how to apply brain science to literacy, reading, and math disorders?

Choosing just one seems so unfair...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

All in a day

Since I'm headed off to Boston for the Learning & Brain conference today was my last day with PJ.  Although it had sweet & endearing PJ moments it also included PJ telling me to "shut up", calling me stupid, and hiding from me on the playground while sticking his tongue out at me between screams. Lovely. Somehow none if it phased me though- perhaps at this point it's all par for the course, or perhaps it was knowing it was the last day.
I gave him his very own copy of PJ Funny Bunny. I'm going to miss that kid.

Outside of PJ today seemed to be one of those days filled with children being completely honest with their questions, expressions, and excitement. It was one of those days where you remember why we teach.

~~  ~~  ~~
I sat with one of my higher reading groups today prompting them to think about whether or not what they are reading makes sense. All four little girls are extremely high readers for kindergarten, but they mainly just sound-out the words since that's all they'd been taught to do by their parents. Today, however, I prompted them to stop and think "Hey brain, does that make sense?" if they read something that sounded a bit off, or if they struggled with a word.
One little girl didn't need a prompt, but she over heard me discussing this strategy with her friend. As she neared the end of the book she clearly decided to try the strategy out herself. "WOW!" she exclaimed, "THIS makes SENSE!"  she read it again just to be sure.
"Hey, this one too!" she read the next sentence. "This makes sense! That's what we'd say if we were talking!"

and that my friends, is why we teach children to read for comprehension in kindergarten. No one should be that shocked to discover the words on the page make sense...

~~  ~~  ~~
My magical-stroller friend was having another amazing day today. As we went out for our math group he began running up and down the hallway, twirling in circles with his hands flowing out at either side. He'd turn his body so he was leading with his right leg and then his left. "Magical!" I redirected him, "Go back and walk." so he did, but he continued his dance, just very slowly. For a moment I stopped and pondered whether or not I should ask.
"Ice skating" he explained. "Very dangerous. Very dangerous. But I go so fast. And then they'll throw me up high and I'll twirl, and flip. Then I fell. Very dangerous." He went on, but he was "skating" away from me as he spoke.
 Later on the playground he asked me if I could see his robot. When I reminded him his robot is not allowed at school he just pointed. "But he's right there" he said, "He's at school."

~~  ~~  ~~
Today we sat down as a class in the cafeteria for the "Thanksgiving luncheon" which entails processed turkey smothered in mass produced gravy, mashed potatoes made from flakes and water, and some truly horrendous green beans I can never bring myself to eat.
As my kindergarten friends dove into the turkey one of them looked at me inquiringly. "How do they cook the turkey?" he asked, "Do they saw it up?"
"Excuse me?"
"Do they saw it up?"
"Ummm...  they put the turkey in the oven." was all I could go with.
"Oh. for how long?" he asked as if he was going to go home and cook a turkey.
"Maybe 4 hours." (I have no idea- I've never cooked a turkey.
"Oh." he said, nodding. "So they saw up the turkey and then put it in the oven for 4 hours?"
I could almost see the mental picture he was making in his head of exactly how they'd sliced up the live turkey and then stuck him in the oven for 4 hours only to produce slices of meat.

~~  ~~  ~~
PJ was having a difficult time coming inside from music today. Since our music is in trailers by the playground PJ ended up curled up by a brick wall next to our playground. Some of our 4th graders came over to see what was up. To keep them from giving PJ too much attention I tried to chat them up by asking what they were learning in 4th grade.
"Oh, we're learning about James Town." they explained, as though it was the most boring thing in the world. "But," one went on, "did you know that in Jamestown they had slaves?" and she went on to tell me about the slave trade as though she was telling me about the horrid gossip from trashy tv the night before. She was horrified and seemed to really believe she was explaining something brand new to me. "Can you believe it?" was all I could say. How do you nod and accept slavery as though it's a common fact when someone is clearly filled with horror from learning about it for the first time.

~~  ~~  ~~
This morning in our language group Pixie burped. Loudly.
PJ gasped.
"That" he stated, "is disgusting"
"OH, sorry" Pixie said.

When PJ is gone who will keep Pixie in line??

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

least restrictive environment

In special ed everything we do is dictated by federal law IDEA-II. Part of this law says that children must be educated in the least restrictive environment that will meet their needs. For every IEP we write for students we sit go over what the least restrictive environment is, every factor we must legally consider about placing a child in the least restrictive environment, and then we assign the child to certain service categories that will meet that child's needs best. At my school we typically assign children to access special education services in the general education environment, which means, in layman's terms, that I, or other special ed teachers, go into gen ed classrooms to meet the children's needs right there. None of kids actually know I'm the "special teacher". They think I'm just another teacher and I work with all kids, but I do give extra support to certain children.  (I love having the highest reading group in the class though just to confuse any child who may start to think, "Hey, Mrs. Lipstick only works with the kids who don't know their letters". )  

This year I have two children who are moving on to a more appropriate environment under IDEA. What we provide for them in the general education setting is actually considered restrictive to meet their needs- we're not able to provide what they need, which in terms limits their academic success. So they are moving on to other schools. This on paper always makes sense, and it even logically makes sense. I wouldn't have it another way. We are actually limiting a child's success when another placement could help them grow faster. These two children need these interventions.

It doesn't make it easier to say goodbye, or to look at a kindergarten student and try to explain why they are moving on to another school.  PJ is one these students.  Yesterday PJ, my awesome assistant principal, PJs mother and I all drove over to PJ's new school to check it out (he'll officially start there Monday).  It will be great for him- he'll be working full time with teachers who are trained to work with students just like PJ. When we first pulled up to the building PJ announced, "That's not my school."
"What do you think is inside it?" we asked, totally ignoring his out-right un-acceptance.
"Mrs. Partner-in-Crime" he said loudly. We inwardly groaned.  This didn't bode well.
But once inside PJ hit it off with the teachers over there.  They allowed him to explore the school, showed him what to expect, let him ask questions, and introduced him to teachers so he'd know faces on his first day. By the time we left I think we all felt it was going to be a great place for PJ. 
Then, right as we were getting out of the car PJ looked over at me. "Mrs. Lipstick," he asked, "Can I have a hug?"

I know PJ will do wonderful things at his new school. I know that early-intervention with children like PJ is the best chance at giving him a wonderful, successful life. It's still hard to see him go. Part of me feels like we failed, even though I know we did everything we could and more. 

The other child leaving us has a significant hearing loss.  Again, she is going to a place where every teacher who works with her is trained and has experience working with children just like her. She'll learn cued speech which will open the door of language to her world.  And yet, every time she gives me a hug or giggles with me in the classroom my heart breaks. It is going to be hard to see her go too.

Both little ones start their new school Monday, which means their last day at the think-tank is Friday- when I'll be away at the Learning & Brain conference in Boston.  It's hard to think I wont be there to say goodbye when the class sends them off. I want that one last hug and I want to be a part of making their last day special.

It's hard loving these kids- wanting what's best for them and at the same time selfishly wanting to keep them to myself. They'll both do great things in their new schools and hopefully I'll stay in touch with their parents and I can hear about all the amazing progress they've made. In the meantime I may pout for a few days about losing some of my friends. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

The power of silence

It's taken us awhile but we've finally begun to figure out how best to interact with PJ when he is upset. It hasn't been easy to determine- when PJ is upset he demonstrates all sorts of behaviors that make any teacher cringe with the mere fact that they are expected to somehow handle this. Everything changes, nothing is constant, and as an adult in the situation it's easy to begin to feel powerless.

As teachers when we feel powerless we begin all sorts of rituals to show we're in control.  It's not always clear who we're trying to prove this to- other teachers, the child, or ourselves, sometimes what we do isn't productive.  We yell, we set limits, we give choices, we say routine canned phrases like, "You're making these choices, not me." or (my personal fav I use all the time) "I'm sorry you feel that way." We may speak sweetly, we may speak firmly, we may ignore the behavior.

Yet with PJ we finally realized that what works the best when he is upset is the opposite of any of our instincts. We sit quietly, rub his back, and wait for him to come around.

We don't talk. We are silent.

Do you have any idea how hard that is to accomplish as teachers?  Every part of our body wants to teach him. We want to help him calm down, show him what he did was wrong, help him assess the situation or navigate his way through his emotions. But it doesn't matter what we say. No matter what words come out of our mouths, in whatever tone of voice we use, all PJ hears is Charlie Brown's mother. And not a nice, happy Charlie Brown mother. A pissed off, angry at the world, out to get PJ- version of Charlie Brown's mother. Every word out of our mouths stresses him out more.

I can offer PJ his favorite toy, I can ask him if he wants tons of chocolate, I can ask him if he wants to go to the movies. It doesn't matter- when he's upset all he'll say is "NO". Just hearing my voice, or anyone's voice, when he is upset keeps him cycling. Any adult authority, whether he knows you or not, will continue to trigger his emotions. He'll become more and more agitated and upset and eventually he will truly spiral out of control. 

Ignoring him does not work either. He's scared and unsure of his feelings and the more we ignore him the more upset he becomes. Instead we sit, slowly rubbing his back. No words. Just our presence. And after a bit if we offer our hand he'll take it, stand up, and allow us to re-enter the classroom. 

It's been such a difficult lesson to learn. It goes against every teacher instinct we have, especially if another adult is around. Between the silence and the waiting it just seems wrong. But it works. PJ needs to know we're there for him and our presence says that without words. Sometimes as teachers we have to learn when it's ok to have a few moments here and there where we're not actively teaching.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

geeking it up

I'm ridiculously excited about some of the upcoming conferences and events I've got on the horizon.  Next weekend I'll be at the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston.  I absolutely cannot wait. Check out this list of speakers and presenters. Alfie Kohn, Nagleri, Howard-Jones, Kagan... all people whose work I've read, cited repeatedly, and wondered what else they had to offer. Some of the session objectives include:
  • brain-based strategies to improve learning, memory and executive skills
  • How stress, sleep, exercise and obesity affect brains, learning, and test scores
  • Neuromyths and ways neuroscience can improve teaching and achievement 
  • Rethinking learning, multilingual, reading and math teaching and treatment
  • The effects of unhealthy brain and school-family environments on learning
  • Strategies to help struggling students, math learners and multilingual children
  • The role of environment in early education, temperament and creativity
I'm totally geeking out over this conference & hopefully will have opportunities to blog from Boston in order to begin to process my thoughts on it all.

AND, in terms of geeking it up in the future, splatypus, my awesome co-teacher, and I are leading a conversation at EduCon 2.3 this January in Philly about using Google Docs as a collaboration tool.  I've never gone to EduCon in person before, I've always just attended virtually, getting up early on a weekend morning to hover over my computer in my pjs to follow the conversation. Needless to say this time I'm psyched to be attending in person (although I will miss contemplating the greater meaning of education in my pjs.)

This Tuesday I'm hoping to attend a Global Summit on using technology with people with disabilities in downtown DC. Although I am also really excited about this opportunity, much of me being able to take off work will depend on PJ.  And so, I'll keep my fingers crossed, but I wont be holding my breath.

Friday, November 12, 2010

some days simply are amazing

amazing in that 'I can't believe this is my life' sort of way.

It's been a long week. Actually, it's been a string of long weeks all backed into each other. Mr. Lipstick has informed me that my nightly teeth grinding hit a new level a few weeks ago, and I know I wake up with my jaw hurting. It certainly has been a challenging fall.

I was barely making it through Friday, going through the paces of the day, trying to be productive and not make any glaring mistakes. During math I settled in beside my friend with the magical stroller to play a number sense matching game. We started out working at his table, but when I realized he was a bit distracted by the other kids I moved us to the floor. Something about the move to the floor changed everything. Suddenly he wasn't just a little distracted, he was extremely distracted. But not by anything apparent. In fact, he kept stopping mid-sentence while talking to me to turn to his side and mumble words.
Finally I had to ask, "Are you talking to someone?"
"My robot" he informed me, mater of factly. "He's trying to talk to me. He's right over there." and he pointed under the table where we were sitting.

I took a moment and considered this. When I was teaching my smart cookie she started the year bringing her imaginary friend to school. Having been a child with imaginary friends myself, and having gotten in trouble in preschool for yelling at a real friend who sat on my imaginary friend, perhaps I have a soft spot for imaginary friends. With my smart cookie I simply informed her she was no longer allowed to bring her imaginary friend to school. The friend has to go to his own imaginary school, where he could have an imaginary teacher and imaginary friends. Being smart enough to pick up the fact I was playing her game along with her this strategy completely worked. Any time she mentioned her imaginary friend I just had to remind her of the rules. Imaginary friends stay at home. I did hear reports that she was late to school because she made her mother drive to the imaginary school to drop off her imaginary friend, but you know, at least he wasn't coming to my classroom anymore.

So I tried this same strategy with my magical-stroller friend.
"Your robot is not allowed to come to school" I said. "Robots stay home."
Stroller-friend looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and then glanced over at the empty space where his robot sat. "Did you hear that?" he asked the empty space. "go home."
Back to me he said, "He didn't go home. He went over there. He's hiding. He'll play with me later. He'll play with me outside." 
"At home." I stated. "He'll play with you at home. Now, this is the number two. Can you find the card with two apples?"
He looked down at the cards for a moment before he paused and tilted his head to the side. "I said GO AWAY" he announced to the air, and then shook a finger.
"Your robot went home." I said, "he' not here."
"No, he's right there" friend argued with me, pointing a table across the room. "He wont go home. He's waiting for me."

Clearly this wasn't working.

"Your robot is pretend and in kindergarten we only have children who are real." I launched into a real/pretend speech for a bit. Friend eyed me suspiciously. Mid-talk he turned and yelled at his robot. "Stop it!" he said. Clearly he did not care one bit if I thought his friend was pretend. He still wasn't going home.

Giving up I returned to the math games hoping I could just distract him, "Find two apples" I prompted. Just as friend was about to count a card with four apples he turned and giggled. "No, robot, not now" he said.

My head exploded.

"If your robot will not stop he is going to be in big, big trouble" I heard myself say, hoping that Friend's empathy would kick in and he wouldn't want his robot to get in trouble. We went back to math for a moment before once again Friend turned to his robot to whisper.

And now I had to punish the robot. The imaginary robot. I'd given him a warning, and now I had to follow through.

"Robot!" I heard myself saying not even realizing I wasn't speaking to a real human being, "GO HOME. No robots in school!  Friend has to do his math" and at that I got up and opened the door. Partly to pretend I was sending the robot home, partly so I could laugh out loud in the hallway. This was ridiculous. I'd just yelled at an imaginary friend.

The robot might have been imaginary, but my frustration toward the robot certainly was real.

When I re-entered the classroom, having assured myself that I was not going crazy, I found Friend happily chatting away with his robot. After several more attempts to get back to our math game Friend and I ended up walking to the office. Not because Friend was in trouble, although if I'd let it go on any longer I was worried he would be. I figured that 1)  I needed a walk before I started yelling at an imaginary robot again 2) Our amazing administration needed a good Friday afternoon laugh and 3) maybe, maybe hearing the "bosses" say that the robot was not allowed in school would hit home.

It didn't.

I think I bit my lip so hard it almost bled. As we walked back to class I felt myself relax for the first time in weeks. Robot just reminded me of exactly how much I love my job.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

totally inappropriate...

I knew my panty lines were showing today because a kindergarten friend "snapped" them to get my attention.

I feel violated, horrified, and more than a bit distressed that my outfit isn't quite what I thought it was.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

blown away

At the end of the day today I was standing in the hallway chatting with one of our literacy collaborative coaches. I was showing her the work from the wonder center and I mentioned that I was blown away by some of their work. As we stood looking at the backwards s and the phonetically spelling posted on the wall I heard a voice behind me.

"Mrs. Lipstick was blown away?" 

I turned around to see one of my former students standing there with a small smile on his face. Until today he'd barely said two words to me all year and usually responded to my "good mornings!" and "How are you?s" with grunts. So I was surprised to see him initiating conversation with such enthusiasm.

"Mrs. Lipstick, you were blown away?" he asked again, curiously.

Ah, yes. It wasn't that he had any interest in talking to me. It was only that he'd happened to be walking by when he heard a particularly fascinating tidbit from a teacher. I'm sure the mental picture in his head was too good for him to pass by and despite his best efforts he had to confirm whether or not I really had to knocked over by a sudden gust of wind.

Once we explained what I'd meant he looked disappointed, but he continued with the conversation, filling me in on his year and telling me about his family.

"Oh, and Mrs. Lipstick?" he asked as we walked down the hall.
"I hit those kids. I said I was sorry, but I hit my friends."
"When? This year or last year?" I asked, confused. How did hitting his friends have anything to do with anything?
"Last year. I hit them. Yeah. I said I was sorry. Ok, bye!" and he was off.

Did he finally want to come clean about some incident I can't even remember? Did the idea of me being blown away encourage him to confess his sins? Or was it just a six year old brain bouncing from topic to topic on a conversational trampoline?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dear Paper Towel Dispenser,

Dear Paper Towel Dispenser,
Don't take it personally, but I hate you. Do you have any idea how difficult you've made my life?
Do you have any idea how noisy you are?  Have you ever tried to read a story to a class of antsy kindergarten students while one student bangs away on you, desperately trying to coax a tiny slip of paper out of it?
There seems to be a direct correlation between the number of bangs required to dispense paper and the inches of paper you release. Kindergarteners are smart kiddos- they pick up on this quickly. The only want to get a piece of paper, any size piece of paper, is to repeatedly slam ones hand into the lever on the bottom as hard as possible, causing a clunking sound to echo throughout the entire room. No book, no matter how exciting, can compete with the constant jarring noise of your dispenser.
What's worse, is that 3/4 of the time you don't share your paper.
This is kindergarten. We're learning to share. We spend a lot of time talking about sharing. And yet you, the great paper-towel sharer, seems to refuse to share more than half the time. How are we suppose to get the kids to share if you wont do your job?
Instead you hoard the paper yourself, crunching it up inside so that each time the lever hits you release paper inside yourself, taunting us, because you refuse to actually let the paper slip down so we can get it. Sometimes, of course, just to tease the children, you'll let one tiny corner dip down below. This inspires more banging, over and over again, and occasionally some grunting, until a teacher has to come and tell the student that no, once again, the paper towel dispenser isn't going to work.

I don't ask for much, really. All I want is for everyone in our classroom to learn to read. That's it. It's kind of important. But to do that we need it quiet. It would be nice to have dry hands, but having it quiet is more important. Anything you can do to work on that?
Mrs. Lipstick