Friday, July 30, 2010

teach me

"Um, excuse me," a rising first grade student said to me in the library, holding a Maisy book. "After you read that book to me, will you teach me to read?"

I love my job.

labor pains

This summer we're keeping our school library open once a week so that children and their families can come, check out books, use the computers, and not forget how to get themselves to school.

This week I came in to see one of my third grade friends working away on a computer. He already had stacks of books beside him. His library selecting complete, he'd decided to take advantage of our Internet. When she saw me the librarian raised her eyebrows.
"Ask him what he's doing" she mouthed.

"D., what's up? What are you doing?"

"Oh, I'm just googling Think-Tank Teachers to see their pictures. I miss them, and I want to look at them. Especially my old teacher, she's so beautiful."

"You're googling teachers? Have you found anything?" I asked, scared to find out what may be out there.

"Just this," he said, pulling up a staff picture. After he told me the name of every single teacher in the building (which is impressive since we have a huge staff and he's only in 3rd grade) he settled on his third grade teacher.

"You know, she had a baby" he told us. "want to see a picture? She emailed me a picture." he proceeded to go into his email (which, by the way, is in Korean- his entire email account is Korean. I wish I spoke Korean and English when I was in 3rd grade) and pulled up the picture of his teacher and her baby.

He gave a long sigh, staring at it.

The librarian and I suggested he print out the picture and add it to the staff bulletin board in the office of teachers and their babies. He excitedly complied and a few minutes later D and I were walking down the hallway toward the office.

"You know," I said, "You'll also see pictures of Mr. F's baby. Did you know Mr. F had a baby?"

D's eyes widened. "Mr. F was pregnant? He had a baby in his belly?" He looked truly horrified.

"No," I corrected, "his wife was pregnant. You can see a picture of his wife's baby."

"Thank goodness" D said, obviously extremely relieved. "His stomach did not look very big. You know though, sometimes boys have babies. I've read all about it. I hope I'm not one of those boys. It hurts. A lot."

There was a pause as I contemplated how exactly to respond to that.

"Are you going to have babies?" he asked.

"One day,"

"Well, just a word of advice- it hurts. A lot. Don't say I didn't warn you."

With that, we opened the office door and were greeted by the principal, the assistant AP and a few teachers. We showed off the picture and immediately went to hang it on the bulletin board along side other pictures of his teacher and her new baby.

When he saw the pictures of his teacher (and Mr. F) he stopped and sucked in his breath. Then he began to slowly traced his finger along the pictures of his teacher, shaking his head.

"Poor, poor Ms. B. It was rough for her, you know, so much pain. She had a hard time."

And with that, he turned around and skipped (yes, skipped) out of the office, leaving the office staff to contemplate whether or not D and Mrs. B were such good friends that she had shared her particular labor stories with him, or if he had actually been present at the birth.

Just wait until D gets to fifth grade and participates in Family Life Education. Who knows what tidbits he'll bestow on his teaches and friends...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

the magic of teacher language

Walking into the warm, brightly lit toddler classroom I was immedietly greeted by a little one with a huge smile and a paint brush. Large cardboard boxes sat in the middle of the tables and each two year old swung his paint brush toward the box, covering it with blue, pink, and green streaks.

"Up and down, up and down" a teacher narrated, as a little one used his brush carefully. He grinned at her and changed his brushing to match her directions, up and down, up and down.

At the same time the teacher and I looked up to see one friend in the puzzle corner, paint brush in hand, carefully working on covering each animal in the puzzle with blue paint. And the wall, and the bookshelf. I watched, amazed, as the teacher slowy went over.

"Friend, paint is for the boxes." she said, firmly, kindly, matter-of-factly. There was no anger or frustration in her voice, just a stated fact. "Paint brushes go on the paper or the box." She led him away from the paint to the box, and directed him to paint again. "Paint goes on the box."

Eventually, when he put his brush down and took off his smock, she led him back over to the painted puzzles with a wet cloth in hand.
"Now we have to clean the puzzles" she stated, again, matter-of-factly, no judgement, no frustration, no anger, though not overly sweetly or sing-songy. "We clean the paint off the puzzles."
The child diligently took the wet rag from her and cleaned the puzzle, wall, and bookshelf without complaint.
I couldn't help marveling at the simple, yet powerful even that had just played out before me.

At the think-tank we spend a lot of time talking about teacher language- how to choose our words carefully so we teach through every interaction instead of simply disciplining, how to change a student's behavior without shaming them, and how to empower students with our language instead of controlling them.
(Great books for this are The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton, Choice Words by Peter Johnston and How to Talk so Kids will Listen )

I know what poweful teacher language looks like and sounds like in an elementary school, but until this summer I had no idea how one would apply this to one and a-half to two year olds. I mean, they are so little and developmentally different that it seems like a whole different ball game. Especially when they are going through the terrible twos- shoes off right when you say "let's go outside", turning a spoon into a drum stick and banging on the table as loud as one can- these aren't behaviors I usually manage with my six year olds.

I am utterly blown away by this one teacher's language. It was as though she'd read every book on the subject- every word was perfectly placed to address the behavior, redirect the child, reinforce the good behavior, and remind the child of what the correct behavior is. (The 3 R's of responsive classroom language, redirect, remind, reinforce). Every sentence is firm, clear, and simple.

The simpleness of the language combined with her controlled, neutral tone seem to stop the two year olds in their tracks. They listen, heads turned, contemplate what was said, and then comply. And when they are on task- (which, ok, they are two, when is that ever suppose to happen) her words continue their simple neutral reinforcements.

"Up and down" for the paint brush. "Friend is painting up and down."
"Red. Friend is using the red marker."

The sad thing is that since I'm so engrossed in trying to keep up with the toddlers myself I'm not remembering her words and her reactions to the situations perfectly. I'd like to come in one day and just sit and record- taking in how she reacts to each child in a way that always gives the two year old respect and control while still stopping the misbehavior. It's magic that I want to learn.

A study frequently refered to by scholars showed that by the age of 3, children from poverty have heard an average of 20 million less words than children from professional homes. Of that 10 million words children from poverty have heard, the study found the majority of those words were discouraging statements, while children from professional homes mainly heard encouraging statements. The study concluded that language- both the amount of the type of language children hear as toddlers- was one of the greatest predictors of success in elementary school (Hart and Riley, 1995).

Early childhood teachers like this are everything. Getting our children into early childhood programs is the first step, and then giving them teachers like this- who increase the positive language they hear, instead of adding to the negative statements. Teachers who empower and respect even our youngest with language.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Today's walk, #2

On my own walk from the metro to the daycare center I passed a mother and son who seemed to be on their way to school as well. The boy had silly bands up to his elbows and was frantically pointing to a long back alley that ran behind a busy city street.

"See Mom? I told you we could go that way!"

His mother, eyebrows raised in sudden horror, frowned, "Yes, you're right, I guess. It does look like we could walk that way."

"It's a short-cut" the boy said happily, looking as though he was about to head off the long alley way himself.

"I said you were right, you don't have to show me anymore" she said, clearly a bit put off that:
1) her 4 year old son seemed to know the city better than she did and
2) her son's daycare clearly took him down this long, dark, sketchy back alley frequently enough for him to know the way.

As I walked past them I could see the boy continuing to attempt to pull his mother into the dark alley, which I am sure is full of lots of fascinating objects any 4 year old would love. If he'd been 15 years older and not calling her mom I would have called 911.

My own school walk today was with three-four year olds. Being older they don't hold a rope, but instead each grab a partner and walk in pairs down the sidewalks. The wicked head of the last two weeks has let up somewhat, but the result seems to just make the children cranky. I suppose last week they were too hot to do anything but comply. Of course, it is also a full moon...

The destination of our walk this morning was a new playground. I've quickly learned that the secret to surviving the day in daycare is to known exactly where all the playgrounds in the city are, and just how far a walk it is to get there, and exactly how much shade it will offer you once you arrive. Despite the promise of a new destination, the children melted when they realized we were taking a different route. Tears and anguish followed us down the new path, most of the children uncomfortable with a change in routine. Once we arrived, however, at the brightly painted brand new playground, all sense of uneasiness lifted and they took off to explore the new slides, monkey bars, and swings.

The walk back, when everyone knew exactly where we were going, everything became alive again. Every bush needed to be picked, every curb needed to be pranced upon as though it was a balance beam, every baby stroller needed to be peered into despite the mothers' disapproving looks. Every vehicle identified in detail- "Dump truck!" "Fed-Ex Delivery Truck" "McDonalds Ice Cream truck" "Metro Bus". The helicopter passing overhead sited a whole series of airplane stories, and we walked the last block hearing about both real and imaginary trips on airplanes- whether to visit Grandma in California, or to visit Dora the Explorer in Hawaii. As we turned the corner to walk back to school I tried to ignore the snorts of laughter coming from the men leaning on a fence who clearly overheard the detailed description of the airplane bathroom I was receiving from a friend.

I heart children's books

Can you do this?

Better yet- do you know the 2nd line of these books?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

ok, that's enough

I've hit a wall.
I'm finished.
Put a fork in me.

In the past this would be my last day of summer. Tomorrow would (should) be the first day of teacher work week. I should be meeting my kids in 2 weeks.

Even last Wednesday I was saying that I was thankful for this long summer. I had so many projects to do that I was excited to have the whole month of August. Wasn't it glorious, this long summer?

Then Thursday came. I'm not sure what happened, but somewhere during Thursday I lost my summer love. Maybe it was the heat, or walking past an office supply store and checking out all the school supplies, or the fact that I've broken all the needles on my sewing machine, read every book on my summer list, spent an afternoon at every museum exhibit in the city, given way too much of my hard-earned money to the nice folks at Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Ann Taylor Loft, and spent beyond too much time at the pool. By the time Mr. Lipstick came home I was rocking in a corner with boredom.

I have to go back to work.

This forced vacation is utterly unfair. If I don't teach someone to read soon, I may throw myself off the balcony. That, or my cat may just learn her abc's.

Do you see what I've been reduced too? And that's even with spending two days a week at an inner-city daycare. And another day at the library at my school.

And yes, come October, I am going to be dying for a break. Longing for a day or two off. But that doesn't make this long ridiculous break any easier.

Yes, I would like a break in October, when the weather is perfect for reading outside, or sipping coffee on the back porch. Right now it's too hot to put one toe outside.

And in October I will only want one or two days off. A week max. None of this weeks on end forced holiday. This is crazy. Who ever thought this schedule was a good idea?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go read Brown Bear, Brown Bear to my cat.

** ** **
I welcome any summer reading recommendations you think will somehow get me to the end of August.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

today's walk

My adventures this summer include spending two days a week at a daycare in DC. Part of the day includes walking with the children, whether to one of the many parks in the neighborhood, to a basketball court, or just slowly walking the sidewalks, enjoying being outside. I'm seeing the city through the eyes of two, three, and four year olds- looking at fire trucks with new found excitement, having conversations with pigeons, and viewing cracks in the pavement as reasons to jump and dance.

On the surface every walk is the same. We get out the rope, the kids take hold, we walk down block and around the corner, past the same buildings everyday. But can anything actually be the same from one day to the next when you are two?

Today I walked with the two year olds- children on a rope, each grasping onto one colored ring. Each hand on the ring promises that at least it is busy doing something- holding on- leaving only one hand on each child free to explore the city's textures as we walk.

Everything must be felt. The smooth medal fences separating us from the restaurant patios, the poles holding stop signs. The rough bricks of the building, the freshly painted exterior of a row house. The pebbles on the ground from where the sidewalk is breaking apart. The flower boxes with their yellow and orange flowers, so tempting to pick if one has the fine motor skills to pinch off a blossom with one hand before a teacher can remind, "look with your eyes."

Anything that cannot be felt must be invited into a conversation. "Hello statue. Hello statue. Hello statue. Goodbye birds. Hello car. Goodbye car. Goodbye car. Hello airplane. Goodbye Fire truck. Goodbye fire truck. Goodbye fire truck" And hola, hola, hola, to all the people we pass. I am forever amused that the children speak in English to the objects we pass, but when we pass people, 9 times out of 10 they greet them with "hola".

As teachers we search the paths in front of us for what will give us the most shade, but the children don't seem to notice the heat. The fire trucks going by- two today- take precedent over everything else- leading us into a chorus of "whooo, hoooo, whoooo, hooooo" for another block.

Spontaneously someone begins to count, and the others join in, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!" over and over again. They swing the rope in rhythm with their choral counting. A counting activity that was completely child-led. If any adult had attempted to start the chant it would have been abandoned after getting to 4. But since it was started by the little boy with big brown eyes at the end of the rope- everyone else joined in.

One boy leans down to grab a small unseen item from the sidewalk and a chorus of "look with your eyes" arises from his friends. That turns into song too, until we see the basketball court. "My basketball court!" a girl shrieks, and her friends argue back, "My basketball court!" "Mine!" "Mine!" Until someone hits someone else over the questioned ownership of a city structure that is too big to be grasped and held in a two year old's fist.

Distracted by the colorful flags flying above us, we start to call out colors, "red, black, blue" until all hurt feelings have disappeared. We walk back, chanting nursery rhymes, until one friend reaches up and smacks the teacher in front of him.

She turns and sighs. "They are training him to be a man" she says, shaking her head at the little one, whose hard two year old eyes have already moved on, scanning the sidewalk for something new.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Creativity, working memory, & trivial pursuit

If you have ever played Trivial Pursuit against Mr. Lipstick, most likely you have lost. I try my hardest to always be on his team, just because, against him, there is little hope. I mean, why does anyone walk around with such tiny little facts swimming in their head? Mr. Lipstick doesn't watch much tv, and he doesn't watch any movies, but he can still rock the entertainment category. He's like a trivia freak of nature (and I say with complete and utter love).

In college I hated playing trivial pursuit. Absolutely loathed it. And because I went to one of those colleges that isn't an ivy league school, but most people that go there thought they should have gotten into the ivy league, people played it a lot to prove how smart they were. (It never occurred to me to compare actual grades- I immediately figured that if I couldn't pull random trivia out of my rear end then I wasn't nearly as smart as any of those peeps walking around talking about how they turned down Harvard. Hmmm....)

Anyway, I absolutely assumed that something was wrong with me because I didn't walk around with these little facts swimming around in my brain. I couldn't figure the game out. Really? I was suppose to know every movie Carrie Grant was in so I could identify which one he didn't wear a bow tie? It didn't seem possible.

Then I watched Mr. Lipstick play and I realized that despite the fact he really does know a lot of ridiculous trivia, most of how he plays the game is in his strategy. He reasons things out, he uses what he knows and then pulls what he knows together in order to tease out a guess. (A guess that is usually right). So he's actually not a walking encyclopedia on useless facts. He's pulling information out of his long term memory and pulling it into his working memory, where he can link it together by making connections between what he knows. Because he has random facts in his long-term memory he's able to group facts together, make these connections and distinctions. He does not know every answer to every question. He is able, however, to answer questions correctly because he's able to play with the facts that are already in his long term memory.

The Newsweek article on creativity made me think about playing trivial pursuit with my husband. When we're memorizing facts and trying to get children to regurgitate them on a test, we might be putting information into their long term memory (we hope...) but we're not actually teaching them how to use that information to make connections, problem solve, and apply what they know to other tasks. In fact, sometimes they're not even able to use that information on a test because although they know the information in one form, they aren't able to pull it into working memory and use it to answer an awkwardly worded question. They know the trivia, but not the strategy.

Our education obsession with accountability and standardized testing has left us teaching scared. We are giving them facts but not anything to do with those facts. And somehow (which is a post for another time, when we teach scared, people seem to like it. It makes people more comfortable to know that we're teaching facts because it's clear, defined, and controlled. It seems measurable and makes everyone accountable.)

We have to put information into our student's long term memory. Whether it is the names of the letters, the sounds they make, or the laws of physics, there is some information our kids need to have in their back pockets that they can pull out without even thinking about it. Allowing them to have this information tucked away frees up more room in their working memory for them to be creative, make connections, analyze new information, and problem solve. But knowing the information isn't enough. If we only teach to knowing the information you are left with me, depressed college student, listening to a trivial pursuit question, thinking there is something wrong with me because I didn't automatically know that small detail even though I know information on the topic of the question being asked. I didn't know how to use what I knew in any successful way. I might as well have not known the information at all.

The Newsweek article points out that a Creative Quotient predicts what a student can do more than an Intelligence Quotient. It makes sense. It doesn't necessarily matter what you know- it's whether or not you are able to use & apply what you know.

The article also sites that creativity can be taught with practice over time. It makes it essential to not just be teaching our students facts, but also teaching them how to be creative. How to think, not just what to think.

Of course, once our students know how to use their long term knowledge in new situations, and how to apply it, analyze it, transfer it, question it, compare it, and connect it- they'll be better off at answering standardized assessments. Like Mr. Lipstick, they wont have to know every answer, but they'll know enough to reason out the answer. And isn't that what we want our students to be able to do- use reason?

The Newsweek article's stance on creativity made me think of Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School? which I read a few weeks ago. Willingham makes the case that in order for our children to be able to problem solve, they need facts in their long term memory.

So as teachers, our tasks (along with keeping them safe, making them good citizens, collecting lunch money, etc, etc) is to:

1) Determine which facts are essential for our students to know

2) Get those facts into our students' long term memory to free up room in their working memory

3) Teach them to think creatively so they can use what's in their long-term memory along with new information, in order to problem solve and think quickly within their working memory.

Now, just how do we do that?

Monday, July 19, 2010


Have you read Newsweek's article on the Creativity Crisis?

If not, you should.

These are a few quotes from the article that struck me:

1. "The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ." (when discussing a creativity assessment developed by Paul Torrance.)

2. "Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling." (this falling trend began in 1990).

3. " A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future."

4. "Around the world, though, other countries are making creativity development a national priority. In 2008 British secondary-school curricula—from science to foreign language—was revamped to emphasize idea generation, and pilot programs have begun using Torrance’s test to assess their progress. The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, holding conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, financing teacher training, and instituting problem-based learning programs—curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults. In China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach."

5. " When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’ ” "

6. "University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern."

I have so much to say on all of this that it's far greater than one blog post...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

social skills, inclusion, & success

With my busy schedule of napping, volunteering, napping, reading for pleasure, and um, napping, I've managed to take an entire week to blog about this article I read last Sunday in the Washington Post.

An 18 year old with Asperger's Syndrome was arrested for loitering outside a library. The exact details on the story seem a bit fuzzy. It seems too be the police's side verse the mother's (who wasn't there). So what the boy was actually arrested for is tough to put a finger on. Did he threaten police like the police claim, or did the police react inappropriately to his race and his odd behavior?

For an educator, the details don't necessarily matter. I can't shake the story, perhaps because it brings up the same questions in Jodi Piccoult's fictional book, House Rules, where a boy with autism is arrested for murder. Yet, with Piccoult's book we could tell ourselves it was fiction and not worry about it much more. Yet this is real, and reminds us that innocent or not, our children with special needs have to live in the 'real world'. Are we doing enough to prepare them? How do we prepare them for how to deal with police and other authority figures? How do we help them understand reading social cues enough to not endanger themselves when they are outside of our care? Can we teach them to advocate for themselves when they are in stressful situations? Will they understand the importance of advocating for themselves with authority figures?

I'm always an advocate of teaching social skills. But when I really examine my teaching, I have to admit, I tend to lean toward academics over everything else. It's not that I don't teach social skills- it's that when it comes down to what is important- learning to read always wins.

In kindergarten and first grade I feel like learning to read is essential- and not only is it essential, but every child MUST learn to read. If they can only do one thing- either sit quietly or read, I'll choose reading every day. It's a nonnegotiable. We will learn to read.

But when have I sacrificed social skills and survival skills for academics? We all do it, after all, we've been hired to teach. Our job is not to make sure that our children are prepared to handle being arrested in a social appropriate way.

Except, in special education, it kind of is our job.

And when do you teach it? If I don't do it in first grade 'cause we're learning to read, then do you get it in second grade? They're busy polishing up those reading skills to get ready for testing in third grade. And after that, it's the tests are what become non-negotiable. There is no time for anything else. And with inclusion (and don't get me wrong, I love our full-inclusion model), when do we teach these straight forward skills that typically developing children do not need to be taught? When do we teach strategies for dealing with authority figures, how to stay calm in a crowded public situation, how to advocate for your own needs when you are stressed?

The ironic thing with autism is that the higher functioning the child is, the more we keep them with their peers. Which is how it should be, 95% of the time. But the higher functioning someone is, the more promise they have of living a successful life in society, making those social skills they struggle with essential for them to fully meet their potential. People with high functioning autism in society are less likely to have had any social skills coaching- and most likely that will lead them to missing out on opportunities, rubbing others the wrong way, and in some cases, ending up in dangerous situations that could have been avoided with the right amount of social skills training.

But when do we do it? We don't want to keep our children away from their same-age peers just because of their disability, but we do want them to be successful- not just academically, but socially as well.

How do we prepare our children with Asperger's to not just be successful academically, but also be successful navigating the real world? How do we, as special educators, help our students to never end up arrested over a misunderstanding due to their disability?

Friday, July 16, 2010


Last August I blogged about a little boy I taught years ago, and my journey with him in our year together as we worked together on his behavior. Responsive Classroom contacted me about turning the post into an article for their newsletter. Needless to say, I was thrilled and honored since I usually read every word in RC's newsletter, devouring it for all the great ideas it usually holds.

We spent the last year tweaking, re-writing, and then re-writing it again. I absolutely loved working with an editor and seeing all the different ways the original piece of writing could be driven in so many different directions before finally settling on one piece.

The print addition is due out in August, but the on-line version is now available!


"We paint on paper, not on our friends...
Show me painting on the paper...
Paint on the paper, not the table...
Wow, look at how you paint on the table.
WE DO NOT PAINT OUR FRIEND'S EAR! Paint on the paper...

Paint goes on the paper.
Show me the paint..."

And he did. Right across my pants- his paint brush, dripping with bright orange paint, ran smack into my pants.

Bright orange paint, smeared from hip to hip across my pants, while I was reminding his friend not to paint on his ear.

Wonderful. And I was embarrassed by carrying around a stack of children's books on the metro Tuesday? That was nothing compared to walking around the metro with an orange waistline.

I am volunteering to learn how two year olds learn, and yes, I'd say, I am learning.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

the bad guys against us

I am always struck by how children categorize community members in their play as either good guys, or bad guys, and everything that label seems to imply about their lives.

Growing up when my little brothers played cops & bad guys it was always a fight between who got to be the good guy- the cop, and who was stuck being the bad guy. The line was specifically drawn- the police were GOOD and the other guys- whoever else it was- was BAD.

In fact, even when I was student teaching in rural Virginia- where the children lived in extreme poverty- worse than anything I see from my students in DC- the police were usually categorized as good. The police were always called in to help during free play- to save the day and avenge the do-gooders. (Just once did we have a little boy come to school upset over a run in with the police- but even then the police were not categorized as "bad". His father's friend who had tipped the police off about where the marijuana was kept in the little boy's house- that friend was bad. The police were just trying to help.)

The kids I teach at my school rarely categorize police as good. In fact, the police usually tend to be the bad guys during their play- the police break into their houses, take away a family member, yell at them for no reason, and create an un-ending sense of fear. "The police are coming!" is all someone needs to squeal and everyone else dives for cover.

The children I'm meeting while volunteering show the same police = bad guys labels as the kids I teach during the year.

Is it indicative of living in an urban area? I certainly don't have much faith in DC police after the ridiculous number of parking tickets I've gotten that were written when I was parked legally (tickets that said the meter ran out when it hadn't, tickets that state I parked at different meter than where I was parked, tickets that are time stamped with a time BEFORE the ticket claims I left my car-it would be one thing if it happened just once. The fact that it's happened more than once is absurd. Apparently DC cops have no problem writing bad tickets).

Or is it something else? What makes them automatically see police as "on the other side"? Why do they love to walk past fire engines and ambulances on the street, but shake their fingers at the police vehicles we pass? What instills that sense of mistrust in their little eyes?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

you can take the girl away from teaching...

The man glanced at me skeptically, and then looked down again at the contents of my bag. I'm sure I looked like your average DC citizen on lunch break, complete with the professional bag large enough to hold folders, files, and a laptop. His eyes scanned the contents of the bag, his eyebrows raised, and he glanced at me again, clearly questioning my choice of reading materials.


this is all because, while you can take the girl away from teaching,

but you can't take the teacher out of the girl.

I'm slowly relaxing my way through summer with lots of reading for fun, short trips, sewing & knitting projects, some arts and crafts, lots of naps, and a little bit of volunteering (mainly to force some sort of structure into my life).

I'm spending two mornings a week at a day care project in DC. It's an amazing place with a mission I strongly believe in, and so I felt like I should take advantage of my long summer to get to know such a great organization, and gain more experience working with two-four year olds. I'm extremely interested in early child development, and hope to look into the brain development of young children in my doctorate program, but the youngest children I work with are five years old. I feel like I need to know how two year olds manage their world.

Yesterday I was scheduled to do a read aloud- something I do many times a day during the year. No big deal. But as I scanned my bookshelf looking for the perfect book, I couldn't decide. Alice the Fairy? Knuffle Bunny? Caps for Sale? Which children's book would I be longing for when it came time?
Knuffle Bunny is a classic, but what if we're in the mood for some good monkey business? Or if we want to feel magical, like in Alice? Or do we need something ridiculously silly from Robert Munch?

And so, when I left the house today, ready to schlep into DC on the metro bus and the train, I had a bag full of children's books. I just couldn't leave any behind. I mean, really, I could almost hear Alice the Fairy calling to me, begging to come along. And the Pigeon? We all know how he feels about not getting his way...

Despite the fact that my bag was unnecessarily heavy I thought it wasn't really a big deal that my indecisiveness had left me with a plethora of options for story time. Until, of course, I was settled in for lunch, enjoying the fact that like most people in the city, I was out for lunch on a weekday. It was then I noticed the man eyeing my bag that had fallen open. He didn't look like he was about to swipe my wallet, but I saw his eyes scan the titles of my favorite children's book, and then look back to me.

I fought the urge to take one out and begin reading as though they were my choice reading for pleasure books.

Maybe one day I'll be able to walk through DC blending in as though I am an actual real-live adult and not just an impostor enjoying playing for the day in the city...

Monday, July 12, 2010

2 different models of school culture

One of my friends shared this on my google reader and I couldn't help but be horrified by how close it comes to dysfunctional (and even some functional) schools. It's a blog post on how to keep your employees loyal to you with a sick system.

The rules:

1) Keep them too busy to think

2) Keep them tired
1 and 2 go hand in hand. I have good friends who work at schools where everyone is exhausted, overworked, and stressed beyond repair. No one has the energy or time to think about anything meaningful (including finding another job)
3) Keep them emotionally involved
This is the biggest trap we fall into as teachers. It's all emotional, and usually there is no way to not be emotionally involved. Leave right after the kids leave? But how can you- there are children involved. Children learning. Everything is "for the kids", right? You can sacrifice a night of sleep or family time "for the kids".
4) Reward intermediately
In some schools it's so rare to hear anyone say "good job". Mostly rewards are all internal and come from the kids (going back to the emotional piece again). Although I know of principals who reward just enough to keep everyone in some sick competition to please, but not enough rewards to let teachers feel they actually are doing well.
5) Keep the crisis rolling
In a classroom, or public school, isn't there always a crisis? Good administrators keep things from getting out of hand, and keep even the largest crisis downplayed. But, again, we all know of principals and schools were every windy day, every angry parent, every low test score is the cause for absolute alarm bells.
6) Keep rewards distant
Rewards? What rewards? Good test scores once a year? If they are good?
7) Chop up their times with meetings, visits from supervisors, bells and whistles, time clocks, etc.
Ah, yes, now, this describes many, many public schools. (not to brag but again this is one thing the Think-Tank does well- if it can be done in an email it is- we have few staff meetings.)
8) Enmesh your success with theirs
I've heard of principals who always take credit for their teachers' work. "Look what my teacher did with what I gave her!" "I created an amazing teacher!" "My school has turned around with my guidance"
9) Keep everything on edge: make sure there is never enough time, money, goods, status
As public school teachers do we ever have enough time or money? Supplies? Paper?
10)Establish one small semi-occasional success
Again, success is always intrinsic, unless it is correlated to test scores. You have to find your own path to reward yourself- otherwise it is a long, painful, frustrating journey.

I have many close friends who have worked at schools that fit into these 10 rules. In fact, I know more schools that adhere to these rules than don't. Is that the secret to keeping us in low paying jobs with long hours? Is this what public school is built around?

On the flip side, in his new book Linchpin, Seth Godin lists 10 factors that motivate professionals to do their best work:

1. Challenge and responsibility
2. Flexibility
3. A stable work environment
4. Money
5. Professional development
6. Peer recognition
7. Stimulating colleagues and bosses
8. Exciting job content
9. Organizational culture
10. Location and community

Good public schools, or any school, can create this culture (ok, minus the money). I hate to keep bragging about my school because we're not perfect, but there is something to be said about the leadership style and culture that exists. When we look at how to "fix" education we talk about how to "fix" and evaluate teachers, but we forget to look at them as professionals as part of a working community. When administrators put these 10 in place as much as they can, and limit the use of the ten from above, it frees teachers up to do amazing things inside their classrooms.

In a way I think it all comes down to respect. If you have little respect for someone and feel the need for constant control, you create a culture represented in the first ten rules. If you respect some one's ability to do their job, and value their contributions, you create a culture that represents the last ten.

So why do so few schools operate within the last ten, and most stay in the first ten?

An easy-read on Cognitive Science in the classroom

When I first heard about Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School? I immediately ran to the nearest bookstore to buy it. (It helped that the Borders on 14th and F is closing and is having a whole-store sale... but regardless, I immediately went out and bought the book.)

The subtitle reads: "A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom" so I immediately thought it was right up my ally.

It was, but as fascinated as I was, I was equally disappointed. While it is easy to read, I couldn't help feel that Willingham isn't a fan of teachers. He seems to go out of his way to tell us what a hard job we have, but in a way that is almost condescending. He seems frustrated by teachers, and writes in a way I wonder if he was told by his editor, "You know, this book is great, but it's above teachers' heads. Dumb it down a bit, add some pop culture references, use slower language, and pat teachers on the back a lot so they'll keep reading".

Or maybe I'm just too sensitive.

Regardless, the book is fascinating and does an excellent job of explaining working memory. As a teacher there is nothing more frustrating than sitting through a Staffing meeting with your school psych, guidance couselors, admin, etc to go over the results of the Psychological evaluations for a particular student and learning that your student has almost no working memory. What does that mean, and, more importantly, what on earth are you suppose to do about it?? As a classroom teacher I remember the absolute feeling of loss I'd feel staring at those numbers. SO, now I'm suppose to go back to my room, by myself with 20 other kids, and teach him to tell time when he can't hold the names of numbers in his head?

I know I'll be sharing the first few chapters on memory with my teachers and coworkers when we're back in school.

I guess what disappointed me the most was that overall, the book was just a repetition of classes I took while getting my Masters. I did get my Masters from the same university where Willingham teaches, and it seems that my Masters curriculum could have spun off of Willingham's work. Then again, I always hear people lament about their poor education classes, which at times surprises me. My undergraduate education classes were horrid, so I know that awful education classes exist, but my Masters experience was fabulous. It made me a better teacher, and I know I wouldn't succeed in special ed without it. That being said, Willingham's book covers a lot of exactly what I found important in my classes, and exactly what changed my teaching. Throughout my special ed classes we all frequently found it frustrating that the only reason we were getting these classes was because we worked with the special education population. I suppose our kids are the ones who need the absolute most help, and therefore it is far more imperative that we learn how to get information into their little heads, despite their small working memories and limitations due to their disabilities. Still, what I learned there, and what is covered in Willingham's book, I use with all kids.

The book tackles the questions that we struggled the most with in classes- and had many classes to fight back and finally feel comfortable with the answer that yes, our professor was correct. Willingham discusses learning styles and how Gardner never intended us to use them in education, and how they are not actually helpful. (Many of our classes were spent argueing with our professor until finally, after reading enough studies & doing our own projects with students, we realized she was correct- learning styles are somewhat of a myth). Willingham also covers the importance of learning facts, putting information into long-term memory to help free up space in working memory (ie, memorization) and other techniques that may feel wrong, but in fact, once you accept them (as we eventually did in our Masters classes) we realize our kids absolutely need this kind of teaching. This understanding is exactly what truly changed my teaching and turned around non-readers.

So, I do recommend Willingham's book if you're looking for an interesting read this summer- it's quick & easy to read, and maybe you wont be as annoyed as I was by his teacher attitude. What's in his book is what made me a better teacher, and it served as a great reminder/refresher of what good teaching truly is.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Teaching Inside a Think-Tank

The day after the Education Sector event on teacher evaluation/professional development I found myself on my co-worker's porch, along with 15 other teachers from my school, discussing A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough. No one asked us to get together this summer for professional development. No principal, administrator, or master teacher identified a weakness in our teaching and thought we would benefit from spending our time together, reading and discussing ways to improve.
In fact, the group grew organically. Jenny heard about the book on education blogs and wanted to read it. She emailed a group of us and we all got excited. We planned to meet 3 times during the summer. Somehow the group grew into 35 interested teachers, all of whom were willing to spend time during the summer doing professional development simply for the fun of it. We were even going to buy the books ourselves until our administration heard about what we were doing and stepped in. (Did I mention we have the best admins ever?)

I couldn't help notice the gap between what we'd heard discussed the day before by the New Haven teacher project and DC's IMPACT. They'd been analyzing teacher buy-in, discussing how to bring in outsiders (Master Teachers) to observe teachers, education the administrators so they'd be prepared to evaluate and support teachers with professional development.

So how do those groups have to worry about teacher buy-in and my school (and others like it) have teachers self-selecting to participate in professional development and starting their own professional development groups?

I call my school The Think Tank for this reason- we're a group of educators always looking to better ourselves and our teaching any way we can. Everyone is always actively engaged in improving their teaching. I think there are some factors that play into creating a think-tank school culture, and sadly, these are the factors that programs like IMPACT and the New Haven project are missing. Of course, these are factors that can best be supported within single schools, and require strong administers with clear visions and strong back-bones.

1) Our coaches are all in-house. The two programs we heard discussed all brought in outside observers. I think that's a great step beyond only relying on a principal to come in and observe (and let's be honest, that doesn't always happen, does it?) but bringing people in from the outside continues to promote a dog-and-pony show aspect of evaluation. Make it look good they day they come in. Surprise visits? Prep your kids to notice when a stranger is in the room and to be on their best behavior to earn stickers/Popsicles/anything once the stranger leaves. It's also more likely for teachers to buy-into a program that is done in-house, by people who know their kids, the population, the school culture, etc.

2) Our coaches are teachers too. Our coaches are in one room a year, for half the day. We buy what they're selling because they are still in the classroom, reminding kids to wash their hands and flush the toilets while teaching those fabulous writing lessons they want us to use.

3) Our administration is flexible, even when our school system is not. Our admin feels comfortable taking risks, which encourages us to take risks as well. We feel free to try new things, read new books and implement what we've learned. We have a strong teacher-research program that even broke away from the county's program because we outgrew the rigid structure the county created.

4) It's not us verse them. Mostly when we're working with coaches it is not about evaluation. It's about letting us become better teachers. We don't have to put on a dog-and-pony show because when we're being coached it is ok for the coaches to see us at our worst. That way they can offer real, meaningful feedback that in the end makes us better teachers.

5) A structure is in place for fixing mistakes before the evaluation cycle. Our admins might not get into our classroom enough. It's a reality, and while we'd like them to be in more, it's not the end of the world that they are not. (I know, *gasp* how can we be doing ok without teacher accountability? Doesn't someone need to be there to slap our wrists when we mess up?) Instead, our collaborative model insures that good teaching is going on in every classroom. Every teacher has a co-teacher for at least an hour a day, if not more. This promotes discussion, reflection, and a way of looking at teaching beyond "shut my door and do my own thing". And if something isn't going well the support system is in place to improve things before the admin gets involved. Which means if the admin gets involved, it is because they need to be.

6) Trust. Our admin trusts us, and we trust them. And that sums up everything, really.

IMPACT and the New Haven program sound like they are on the right track. But there are legitimate issues when it comes to teacher buy-in as well as having the resources for the Master Teachers and administrators to actually get into classrooms and observe the 5 mandatory times, and have the meaningful conferences with teachers. By putting coaches into classrooms, making sure they are teaching while they are supporting the staff as a part of the school community, a school can create a collaborative model that pushes teachers into a mind-set where they are always looking for ways to improve their teaching. I'm not sure anything I heard from IMPACT or New Haven was going to promote the problem-solving teaching styles I benefit from at The Think Tank.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Happy Freedom Day!

Every year on the 4th of July I find myself thinking about the families I teach.

5 years ago I checked my email on the 4th and found an e-card from the mother of one of my former students. I'd taught her son for a few months before the family returned to Peru. They'd come to America for a better life for their children, for education, for the American Dream. Once here, they realized that as long as they were illegal immigrants they wouldn't be able to promise their children the future they wanted. So, unlike most of our families here illegally, they returned to Peru hoping that eventually their children would make it back to America for college, where they could later become legal citizens. On their last day of school I watched the family slowly walk out of our school, crying, sad because they were leaving our country.

That Fourth of July I clicked on the e-card and found it said, "Happy-Freedom Day" from someone who was not American, and not even in America.

I always find myself thinking about that card because of everything it represented. The hopes this mother placed on our country, the answers she felt it held, the Freedom she wanted for her children one day.

This year I also find myself thinking about another family from my school who is leaving our country. They are an amazing family- with children ranging in ages from high school to kindergarten. When my partner-in-crime and I did our home visit last year we were amazed by the love, kindness, structure and support the family gave one another. The youngest boy was in our kindergarten class, a bright boy with a quick sense of humor and insatiable curiosity. The next child was in 3rd grade and was one of my jumpers. She too was bright, quick, and a hard worker. From what I understand so was her older sister who graduated from 5th grade this year. She'd started her own bracelet-making business.

This summer the family is leaving to go back to the Middle East.

When I first learned of this I was devastated for our school. These are some of those amazing children you hope to teach- smart, fun, full of energy and always ready for a challenge. But then I started to think about the girls. The two girls in the family I knew were headstrong. As an adult watching them you know they are destined to do amazing things.
And now they are leaving, to go to a country where women are not given the same respect they are here. Growing up these girls have had the freedom to be as smart as their brothers, to question their teachers, to dive into anything they wanted to try.
And now? What will happen to their excited minds when they arrive in the Middle East? When they are told how to dress, how to act, and given guidelines on what they can and cannot do simply because they are women?

I hope my limited knowledge of their country is wrong, and that once there the girls will still thrive and do great things. Or, if I am right about their cultural norms, the girls will continue to do great things anyway, in spite of their surroundings.

But I wish they would stay. And, it makes me even more thankful that I grew up in a country where my freedoms were in place.

Happy Freedom Day.