Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Does your Dr have an iphone?

At the wedding (where yes, I continued to introduce myself as teacher, although I wouldn't give them a chance to look around the room, I'd just immediately launch into the intricacies of the job to keep them interested) I was chatting with a first year med student.

She shared that so far the best advice she'd gotten on being successful in med school was to get an iphone. You can find most answers on wikipedia when pressed by drs in during rounds, and they even have apps for things like proper prescription amounts for weight/age/etc.


Before, she pointed out, everything needed to be memorized because looking up obscure medical information took a long time. Now, it's at your finger tips. You just have to know how to access the information and have to be willing to make an informed judgement call on whether or not the information is reasonable. This doesn't mean we can all be drs if we have an iphone, but that med students need to be able to take what they learn in class and apply it to information they hear on a patient in order to make a correct search in wikipedia, and then to decide if whether or not what they are reading fits with what they already know as fact. And they have to do it quickly.

Admittedly, my experience with what it is like to be a med student really only stems from tv drama like Grey's and House, but this iphone news seemed like quite a change to me. An absolutely reasonable one, but a change.

After all, what would you rather have- a dr making an educated guess on what to do next, but announcing his guess as absolute fact- or a dr who uses his educated guess as a stepping stone to get more information? I want my dr checking up on himself.

I wonder how this change in how we use knowledge will trickle down to elementary school. In kindergarten and first grade we obviously can't skip the memorization since we are memorizing things like numbers, letters, and the pilgrims. But that doesn't mean we can't be teaching children how to use what they know to ask questions and learn how to look up new information.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I'm away at a wedding in New England and have noticed that every time I say I'm a teacher people's eyes start glancing around the room.

From now on I'm an Early Childhood Special Education Consultant working in a school.

Unless any of you can come up with a better title. What's a good cocktail party job description?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

how does one become Mary Poppins?

I always thought if I could choose any super power it would be to speak any language fluently. This would certainly make world traveling a lot more fun, and would also make my parent conferences a breeze. Yesterday, however, I realized I have another super power that I'd like to have. Being Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins not only was excellent with children and their parents, but she also had that magic bag. You know, the one she pulled a floor lamp out of while her charges stared in wonder? Yes. I would like to have that bag. (Cleaning a room with the wave of my finger while singing like Julie Andrews wouldn't be bad either, but why get greedy?)

Yesterday was the first day we were allowed back into our classrooms although Monday is our first official teacher workday. Hyped up on a large amount of coffee I went into school to get a start on organizing my desk (and ok, catching up on gossip, because let's be honest, catching up with people takes a good 80% of back-to-school time.)

So I slid my desk and my bookshelf where I think they will go in my kindergarten classroom and got to work organizing everything I'd thrown in boxes at the end of the year. Normally I try to be a bit more on top of it when packing up my things, but apparently last June I had little patience for anything.

After a good hour of staring at my boxes and then staring at my desk and my bookshelf wondering how on earth I was going to make everything fit, I grabbed my keys are headed to Staples for drawer units. $50 later I was back in the same spot in the room, staring at my boxes, my desk, my bookshelf and my new drawer units wondering how on earth I'm suppose to get everything to fit.

Because my desk is in a kindergarten classroom every inch of space is valuable and I don't want to take up anymore valuable floor room than I need to. The last two years I've done a lot with under the desk storage, but after awhile it ends up with me not having any leg room under the desk, and also means I spend mornings crawling under the desk to reach my supply of Velcro strips, stress balls, etc. This year I was determined not to let that happen again. *please note the use of was*

I'm not hoarding- I swear. After a long summer of watching all kinds of reality TV (have you seen Animal Hoarders???) I was sure there were things I could throw away (and there were) yet, there is still a lot I need to have at my finger tips in order to do my job, that just somehow isn't fitting into the desk,bookshelf, or new drawer units.

For instance:
-Therapeutic stress bands- not an everyday use, but when we need them, we need them. And usually it's not something where I'm like, "hmmm, let's try that tomorrow", it's, "wow, that kid is really wound up. Let's see if we can calm him down by letting him use a stress band." Hence why I need easy-access.

-Stress balls. See above

-Weighted vest- See above

-Velcro and magnetic strips- Used for putting together behavior plans, individual schedules, securing supplies on a table for a child who has difficulty with fine-motor skills.

-Small stuffed animals- used in daily one-on-one work with kids ("The bear wants to eat the /p/ sound. Can you feed him the /p/ sound?)

-Highlighting tape, cover up tape, lots of fancy sharpies- interactive writing and shared reading

-Sidewalk chalk- used in good weather for children to practice their letters, prompt story retells in pictures, or practicing word wall words.

-Massive amounts of professional books- constantly referred to get ideas, answer my questions, answer other teachers' questions, remind myself that I'm doing the right thing.

The list could go on.

So you see, if I could just access that Mary Poppins magical power of keeping all my belongings in one carpet bag so that I can have that at my finger tips, my teaching life would improve dramatically. Or even a slightly more stylish bag, but I wont get too greedy.

So until I figure out how to gain this magical power it's back to the under-desk storage for me...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

indulging in young adult lit

Our school has a fabulous librarian who has her finger on the pulse of all the great children and young adult literature. This summer she introduced me to John Green, and I have quickly devoured 3 of his 4 books. (The 4th is currently sitting in my to-read pile)

I'm only upset that these books weren't there for me when I was in middle school and high school to get me through my own teenage -angst.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson Green co-wrote, and is absolutely brilliant. As is An Abundance of Katherines. I laughed out loud reading Paper Towns, but I didn't love it nearly as much as the first two. Still, all 3 books somehow reveal the ins and outs of high school and teen angst while managing to give credit and respect to the teenagers making their way through the rite of passage that is being a teenager. In his books Green conveys the importance of this time in our lives and how it sets us up for who we are later in life.

I'm totally in love with these books and the characters. My friends in high school were these characters. My brothers in high school were these characters. These characters are how I imagine my husband and my friends in high school even though I didn't know him then. At least, the characters are who we all thought we were- bright, witty, on top of the world, yet somewhat humble and becoming keenly aware of the limits of our personalities.

Then of course, there is Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games. The third book in the HG series came out yesterday and I basically cleared my schedule to sit on my porch to devour it.

When my partner-in-crime first recommended The Hunger Games I was horrified. Describing what the books are about is not fair to the books- they sound horrible, and you can't imagine why anyone would read them, let alone write them. What could possibly be wrong with that author that this was in her imagination? But if you do read them because you have respect for whoever recommended them, you'll discover they are about so much more than their plot outlines, and you'll be hooked.

So I'm not going to even tell you what the series is about. I read somewhere that Suzanne Collins wanted to write about how adolescence react in times of war, and I think that is the best description of the series. It shows how humanity reacts when stressed, the different paths we take, our different gut reactions when pushed to our limits. Now that all 3 books are out you can read them back to back, not having to wait for months to find out what happens. I'd run to the bookstore- I hear the first one is originally out in paperback. (Unless you live in a town with 0 teenagers you are not going to get this book at the library.)

So, if you're looking for something to read to get your mind off back-to-school stress, go play in the young adult section.

Happy Reading!

Monday, August 23, 2010

and they say teaching is easy

"Stop and listen!" a father at the pool exploded as his child bopped in and out of the water. "I'm trying to teach you something! Put your head in the game and look at me! Don't you want to learn to swim? What's wrong with you? When I teach you something you look at me!"

On another pool date a mother sat her son at the side of the pool, looked deeply into his eyes and said, "Listen, you've just got to do it. You've got to learn to swim. Not when you're 5, now. When you're 4. You can't let life just wash over you like this. You have to live, jump on every opportunity."
"But I don't want to jump, Mommy" the four year old boy replied back, sincerely. "I'll jump into the pool when I've five. I already told you that."

And on yet another evening and yet another parent-swim lesson a mother yelled, "Put your head down! Down, in the water! No, look at me! Swim! Swim! Why can't you just swim?"

I'm sure these are absolutely wonderful parents. I don't doubt how much they love their children, and I don't doubt their ability to raise their children. I am not judging these parents, and I'm not saying they should not be teaching their kids to swim. I'm sure their kids will have great summer memories of learning to swim with their parents.

But if we taught like that in the classroom... Can you imagine? As teachers we learn to watch kids, read them, respond to their needs, break tasks down, talk to them on their level, reward small steps, and understand that if we ask you to do something that requires you to turn your head away from us, we can't yell at you when you don't look at us. We become good at what we do and then we can do amazing things- like teaching a child to read.

After watching frustrated parents at the pool all summer I've found myself wondering, so why does everyone think teaching is so easy?

my name is mrs. lipstick and i have a relaxation disability.

In some totally unfair, cruel twist of fate, our internet has been going in and out- and when it is down it is down for long, extended periods of time. This wouldn't be as much of a problem during the school year, but in my last week of summer break being without internet is absolute torture. It left me with the horrible dilemma- without internet do I clean the house or watch the Housewives of NJ marathon? I mean, look at the torturous questions forced upon me! What is a girl to do? (Clearly not clean the house. Is it even possible to clean the house if you can't check facebook every ten minutes to see what happened while you were slaving away?)

At this moment the internet works, and I am praying it will work until midnight, at which point Mockingjay, the 3rd book in the Hunger Games series will be magically downloaded onto the kindle app on my itouch, so that tomorrow, while I am waiting for the cable guy to come fix our internet woes, I'll be able to find out what's happening in the world of District 12. On the chance our internet is out again, I will be forced to drive to Borders and buy a hard copy of the book.

I know, the woes of my non-working life are just too painful to read.

I need to go back to work. I cannot watch another episode of trashy tv. At this point I am going through a novel a day- I never thought I'd get to a point when I was tired of reading. Volunteer work is over. Other teacher-friends have gone back to school. I re-designed our home office (anyone want to buy a desk?) I've cooked new meals. I've read Southern Living cover to cover. I've spent an hour in Home Depot looking at the millions of different wooden pegs and wondering which one is right for me. I've walked slowly through Target, taking time to pick out just the right back-to-school binders and folders. I've run errands. I hate running errands. I can't even think of anything insightful to blog about, because nothing is happening. It is a sad, sad state of affairs.

What job forces you to take such long vacations? If I want to work I should be able to work. What sort of torture is this?

I realize there is something wrong with the fact I am so desperate for work, but I'd like to think of it in terms of special ed- it's not that some thing's wrong with me, it's that something is different. I have a relaxation disability.

Here is my iep goal for the next few days:

When given a period of 5 days, Mrs. Lipstick will take deep breaths, read for fun, tell herself it is OK to watch trashy tv, and take naps without feeling guilty, with no more than 2 prompts from her husband telling her it is OK to relax, on 3/5 days measured in the time before school begins.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Data obsession

I have to admit I have a small data obsession. I love collecting data on my students, analyzing it, graphing it, comparing it, tracking it, and interpreting it. I was never one for numbers, statistics, or math, but when you connect it to the little ones I care about, I become obsessed.

Last spring a colleague of mine sent our whole staff the link to Kids Count, which collects possibly all of the data you'd ever want on children all over the country. I've spent hours looking at it, comparing the rate of 4th graders who scored below proficient on their standardized test in one state vs another state, comparing the number of children living in poverty in one area of my own state vs another area of the state, or looking at which area in the state has the most parents who do not read to their children more than 3 times a week (Texas) and then comparing that to test scores.

It's an incredible time-waster, yet somehow spending an hour clicking through their graphs seems better than wasting an hour on facebook.

Some of the graphs are no surprise: In 2009 94% of 4th graders who are English Language Learners scored below proficient on the 4th grade reading standardized test.

Some is just heart-breaking: From 2006-2008 19% of children lived in households that did not have secure access to food at some point in a 12 month period.

26% of US immigrant children live in linguistically-isolated households.

40% of children between the ages of 3-5 in Virginia are not enrolled in preschool, nursery school, or kindergarten.

16% of children between the ages of 1-5 in the United States are read to by family members less than 3 times a week.

One thing that got me was when I looked at my specific county. The county itself has a very small percent of children eligible for free and reduced lunch, yet there is a significant number of children at my school are eligible for free and reduced lunch. (These are not the specific numbers, but it would be as though 6% of the children in my county are eligible for free and reduced lunch, but 75% of children in my school are eligible). It is not as though there are not wealthier neighborhoods near my school- it is just how the lines are drawn. Now, to be honest, I probably wouldn't want to work at my school if the lines were drawn differently- I love our population- but something seems very, very wrong with those numbers. Especially when in the end you compare our test scores to those of schools down the road who have less than 2% of children eligible for free and reduced lunch. Especially when you consider this statistic:

In 2009 82% of children qualified for free and reduced lunch did not pass the 4th grade reading standardized assessment. (In Virginia). I don't think their failure rate is only because they are sentenced to go to their neighborhood schools where their teachers hate them and refuse to teach. In fact, I don't think it is because they all have teachers who are just sitting around collecting a pay check.

Not that we want to change who comes to our school only to bring up our test scores. It is not that at all. (After all, we made AYP this year!) But there is something wrong with the significance we place on test scores if we know the trends. Yes, we should know these numbers and we should use these numbers to close the achievement gap. We should be working our tails off as educators to make sure that every child passes the test- we should be monitoring their scores, analyzing them, and tracking them so we can see what works and what does not in terms of teaching. We should be using these numbers to inspire us to do better.

But we, the teachers, can use these numbers. We are capable of using numbers to improve our teaching without politicians standing over us declaring we are failing. How can we be labeled as failing when our students on free and reduced lunch have a significantly higher pass rate than the rest of the state's students on free and reduced lunch? Why are the people yelling about our failed education system only pointing fingers at the teachers and not the resources the communities have access to, the bigger picture, the neighborhoods, early childhood opportunities, and parent education opportunities? I hate to even write this because one could argue that I'm trying to make excuses for failing, and I'm not. Every child I teach can learn to read, and we will make that happen. But in the bigger picture, in the national debate that is constantly giving me a headache- there is more to look at than lazy teachers- what else as a society do we need to do to close the achievement gap? What else is missing?

Play around on the site, check out the data yourself, compare/contrast, draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

new books!

I think my absolute favorite part of going to school is going to the bookstore to pick up your new books. It is, after all, mandatory book shopping. Is there anything better than opening the cover for the first time- before it is a requirement- and skimming through the pages, reading bits and pieces for the pure joy of new information and not because it will be on the test?

These are my text books for one of my classes this fall. I am so excited.

The other class is Intro to Educational Statistics. I can't bring myself to buy those books yet. They are big and scary and expensive. I'm going to pretend that class isn't happening until it is here.

One more week of summer break before graduate school and the chaos of back-to-school begins. I feel like I'm treading water while I wait for everything to come into itself. My days are suddenly filled with mandatory laziness (get it in now since I wont have time to get it in later) and desperately trying to finish all those projects and errands I'd told myself I'd do this summer when school ended in June.

I spent the morning reading in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, followed by frozen yogurt for lunch at one of those new fro-yo places in downtown dc. It was the perfect lazy summer morning. Then I came home and tried to organize our home office. It's not going well, so I'm flipping through my new textbooks instead. :)

one more week.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

education saviors

On Saturday my school community gathered in a nearby church to honor the memory of one of our most amazing co-workers. For years she was our parent-liaison, and I cannot begin to put into words all of the wonderful things she did for our community. She bridged the gap between parents and teachers- taking the time to teach us about one another, help us as teachers to understand where the parents of our students are coming from, and helping the parents of our students understand how American school systems work.

She made it possible for us to teach- through her we could understand how to approach parents, they understood us, and we were able to reach the children. She knew what was happening in our families' lives, she kept us updated on their ups and downs, helped our families find housing when they lost their own, helped them set up schedules for their children's bedtime routines, helped them find English classes, parenting classes, and helped them navigate life in America.

One of my favorite memories of her was listening to her tell parents of 5th grade students how to protect their children from gangs. "Start kissing them on the lips every night!" she declared, laughing in light hearted way only she could do when discussing such a weighty subject. "That way you will smell alcohol on their breath, and they will know you love them, all in one."

I can't begin to write about everything she meant for our community, what an amazing person she was. I can't begin to capture her in words, so I am not going to try.

At her memorial service I found myself thinking- she is the answer to education. It is people like her- not policies, not tests, assessments, accountability, scores published in the paper, debates over curriculum- it is people like her that will save our children, no matter what else is falling down around us. Her dedication to our children did not depend on our SOL scores, whether or not we made AYP, whether or not we were using best practices (obviously we were, but this is not the point). She was there for us, and for our children. She dedicated herself to them, making their lives easier so they could learn to read, write, and prepare to be good citizens. No policy could dictate how she interacted with our families, no politician needed to pass a law to put her in place.

It is people like her, with her love, dedication, and commitment to our children that teach each child to read. We need more of her, whether as parent liaisons, as teachers, as administrators, counselors, or volunteers. Everyone else, all the other noises about what is going on in the field, will mean nothing if we don't have people like this.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

the introverted reading geek in me rejoiced

"No Mom!" the 5th grade-ish girl moaned, stepping off the metro car. "I don't think it will be fun. I'd rather be home, curled up in front of the fire with a good book!"

and later, I heard her sigh again on the escalator, "I just want to use my brain, Mom!"

I wanted to hug her. We are long-lost introverted book-sisters. Yet as introverted book sisters we wouldn't actually hug. So she will never know I rejoiced in her proclamation. I hope she got to spend at least part of her vacation with a good book.

Friday, August 13, 2010

city walk, #3

The rain was quickly evaporating from the city streets and sidewalks as we headed out on the rope, a line of two year olds off to see the world. Perhaps it was the scent of fresh rain slowly vanishing under the smell of steaming asphalt that sent the two year olds into a frenzy. Or perhaps they could detect the city coming back to life after the morning's thunderstorm. Whatever it was, it quickly become clear to us that it was a day of exploration.

Everything needed to be hit- the iron fence posts, the posters advertising drink specials, the cool frosted glass in basement windows right at their level, window screens, even people standing to the side letting us pass were not excused from the fast, rhythmic hits of the two-year-old hands, investigating the different sounds, textures and reactions as they thumped each different object.

The rain left behind puddles and every child took a giant jump somewhere near the puddle in hopes of landing in the cooling water. Only a few managed to succeed in a proper splash. Some jumped over it, some started in the puddle and jumped out of it, others jumped sideways instead of forward. Each child that missed looked down at their feet in sadness and confusion when they landed without a splash, as though their feet had betrayed them.

On a day of exploration pigeons are too tempting. As they flock together in the square, bobbing their gray heads up and down, walking in circles, they must send out a message only two-year-olds can hear, "come pet me, I'll stay right here" or maybe "I bet you can't catch me..." The middle of the rope bowed toward them as two little boys tried to pull us straight into the flock. The pigeons only glanced at the on-coming little feet and slowly moved to the side, knowing that children on a rope do not threaten their party. Eventually one two year old couldn't stand it any longer and left the rope behind as he sprinted toward the birds.

Chasing him down didn't take long- my fully grown legs against his wobbly ones- but I could hear the others in the square chuckling. You can hardly blame the child for making a break for it. The power you feel when you move an entire flock of birds with just your nearing presence is too much to resist.

Down the street of an area known for its late night parties, we marched along, counting the motorcycles parked outside, thankful the children could not read the signs announcing dance parties, happy hour prices, and upcoming bands. Every doorway needed to be ducked into, and every step walked up and down by each rope-holding child. We plodded along ritualistically, in, out, up, down, again and again.

Suddenly the rope jerked and we realized we'd yet again passed something the two year olds could not resist. Someone in the middle of the rope had grabbed a single crutch resting alongside a brick fence. We pried the prize from his hands- a prize taller than he was, and returned it to its resting place, giving hurried apologizes to everyone standing near by.

Two fire trucks, too many metro buses to count, dogs, construction men, brick layers, runners, toddlers, professionals hurrying to lunch dates, we passed them all. One construction worker had left his lunch out on the side of a brick wall while he chatted with his friends, the cap off his water bottle. Quickly the water bottle was in the hands of one friend, but we were quicker and grabbed it away before he could get a sip.

"Look at that tiny car" we announced, trying to distract them- waving at the smartcar ahead of us. The kids looked down at the sidewalk and then back at us, confused because they could not see anything that small. To them a smartcar is just another car.

We finally turned the corner to our own block and headed back to school, exhausted from the adventures and explorations of the short walk. I will never look at those city streets the same way again.

Teaching with Dignity

I woke up this morning to find this post at Momastery in my google reader. The author's father wrote a letter to her one Christmas where he touched on her belonging in the teaching profession. He wrote,
It is good to see you settled on teaching as a career. It is even better to see you excited and enthusiastic about it. It is better yet to see you defend its importance. If you continue your pursuit of this career, and I believe you will, you will find yourself involved in some mind boggling contradictions. People who tell you that the most important person in their lives was a teacher will also ask you why you do it for a living. People who work with no goal in mind but to accumulate money will pity you for wasting your talent in teaching. People who tell you that your efforts are crucial to the future of the country will resent you for making a decent living at it. It is uniquely American to be uncomfortable with teachers. Especially those who teach the very young. Whether because of their subconscious or some other involuntary reaction, all of them will ultimately respect you for what you do. But their reactions can serve to diminish your beliefs and sense of self. So Never, But Never, allow yourself to become defensive about being a teacher. Take’em on whenever and wherever. When you confirm your choice to teach by defending that choice, you are affirming yourself, your dignity, your pride, those you most admire, and even your ancestors.

I love that. I love his acknowledgement of the American contradiction alongside his firm stance not to become defensive. I teeter on the edge of defending the profession yet becoming defensive about being a teacher. The times when I want to beat people over the head when they act like I have the cutest profession ever, or they think they understand schools become they went to one themselves 20 years ago, I'm trying not to scream that I could have gone to law school. I grind my teeth at parties when I run into people who hear what I do and quickly turn away to find someone else more connected to mingle with.
I love this letter and Glennon's father's words. I'm so thankful she shared this because his message will now be able to touch all of us, reminding all of us to teach with dignity and pride.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What do Educators Need to Know?

John Lloyd, an education professor at the University of Virginia is asking educators what they want to know about teaching and supporting students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, as well as when teaching students with Learning Disabilities.

I'm drawing a complete blank at the moment, but hopefully by the end of the day I'll have thought of some questions. Meanwhile, I'm sure the rest of you have plenty of questions floating around in your head- click over to his two blogs (links above) and ask away!

He gives some examples of the type of questions he's looking for:

Possible research questions about teaching students with LD:
  • Does RTI really help prevent problems in (a) reading, (b) writing, (c) math, and (d) social-behaviorl outcomes? Does effectiveness vary by age?
  • Do curricular approaches produce different benefits for students with LD?
  • What procedures produce the best outcomes for students with LD when they are 25 years old?
  • What specific competencies make teachers more or less successful in promoting learning by students with LD?
Possible research questions about teaching students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders:
  • Do consultation teams have greater benefits than school-wide behavior plans in reducing problem behavior?
  • Do students with EBD benefit differentially from highly structured classroom arrangements?
  • What procedures produce the best outcomes for students with EBD when they are 25 years old?
  • How can teachers monitor progress in student behavior across time, a la CBM for academic performance?
  • What specific competencies make teachers more or less successful in promoting learning by students with EBD?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

instructional costs again

I received an email yesterday explaining that for the most part instructional costs are anything that occur within school walls. That makes perfect sense, and is easy to draw the line between what is considered instructional, and what is not. (I did not mean to imply that I did not think any of the items I listed should not be considered a part of instructional costs... guidance counselors, sports, the clinic aid- all of these things I find very, very important and all help support us in the classroom. If there are two people I over-rely on in our building it would be the counselors and the clinic aid. In fact one year I even gave us a team name since the three of us, along with a classroom teacher and the principal, were in such close touch working with one family.)

If some school systems are able to divide their costs between what happens within school walls and what happens on the outside, while don't all the districts do this? Is it more difficult for smaller districts to divide their funds? I'm just curious about the differences.

I currently work in a very large, wealthy school district. After growing up in a small/poor district and student teaching in an even smaller/poorer one I am constantly aware of the vast differences between large and small districts and the resources/funding/opportunities available in larger districts.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

instructional costs?

Yesterday I was flipping through a local magazine when I noticed an article about education spending in the greater DC area. It included graphs of almost all the local school districts and how they divided their spending. The larger districts sited the category of "instruction" as where they put all their money, while the smaller school districts gave more descriptive titles to their categories- salaries, benefits, materials/supplies, transportation, school food, etc. The big districts didn't include those detailed headings, so they had fewer, more general categories.

It looks great to be able to say that well over 75% of your money goes toward instruction, but what does that really mean? What gets to be included in 'instruction' cost? Teacher salaries and benefits, I assume. Materials, school supplies? Where does school food come in? Does teacher professional development include instruction since it will benefit the children in the long-run? What about building costs, lighting/heating/electricity? School support staff like our clinic aid? Does school security get included in instruction? School-sponsored sports teams? What about the people writing curriculum in the central office- do they get to be included in the instructional umbrella because they are writing the instruction?

Although I find the smaller school districts' graphs more informative, at first glance their graphs just look messy and give the reader the sense those districts don't know how to manage money. In a side-by-side comparison to the larger districts it almost looks as though those smaller districts just aren't bothering with instruction at all. (Which of course, isn't true). Do they just need a better PR person to tell them what to lump together into the "instructional" category?

Until seeing the graphs I'd never questioned when I hear school districts boast about how almost all of their funding goes into instruction. Politicians run on platforms that include the importance putting more money into instruction. It always sounds great- yes, more money for the kids! I've never thought anything of it. Now I'm curious.

I'm sure there is an answer out there, and perhaps it is already common knowledge and I just haven't been paying attention. If you know the answer, please let me know- what gets to count as "instructional spending"?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Revisiting Sammy from a non-RC background

Awhile ago I blogged about Responsive Classroom's new book, Sammy and His Behavior Problems. After reading it I quickly handed it over to my mom to read. She teaches second grade and although she is a fabulous teacher, she's never had RC training. I was curious to see what someone with no background in RC thought about the book.

My hypothesis had been that the book was a great intro for a teacher new to RC because while telling the story of one classroom, one teacher, and one student, it shows all the elements of RC at work.

I was right. My mother commented on the importance of the teacher's frequent praise, the 3 R's (remind, reinforce, redirect), teacher language, student/teacher behavior conferences, being a child watcher, as well as the academic activities the teacher put into place.

My mother noted that the book showed exactly how make frequent praise work in a busy classroom. As a teacher you know frequent praise is a good thing, but it can be difficult to remember to do with everything going on, and you don't want to end up giving empty praise. The book, my mother noted, shows exactly how to make it work in the classroom, particularly with a difficult student.

She found the journal entries throughout the book insightful. On page 85 the teacher asks, "What behaviors should I let go of? What behaviors should I stop?" She goes on to describe her thought process in identifying behaviors to ignore and behaviors to address. My mother found this not only a helpful description for teachers as a way to think about behaviors in the classroom, but also thought it would be beneficial when talking about behaviors with parents. It addresses the child as an individual, identifies the strengths, and looks at how to maximize the student's potential.

What my mother commented on the most was how Responsive Classroom clearly trains you to be a child-watcher, noticing children's individual strengths and taking note of exactly what piece of a task a child struggles with. She found the description of helping Sammie tackle writing, his weakest subject, very true to her experiences with bright children with attention problems. She noted how well the teacher used Sammy's strongest subject- math- to teach him strategies he could then apply in writing.

My mother and I talked on and on about the book, brainstorming ideas for putting RC into the classroom with morning meeting, academic choice, behavior conferences, and using teacher language. I could write forever about all of my mother's insights on the book. She plans to recommend it to teachers she works with.

Someone recently asked me which book they should start with to understand the RC philosophy. I was stuck- so many of them are great books, but so many of them are specific to one aspect of RC. Now that I've watched my mother's reaction to Sammy I think it might be the perfect place to start. it lets you see RC in action and then decide what aspects you want to learn more about.

Friday, August 6, 2010


a view inside

We've returned from AAU Junior Olympics, with ribbons, personal bests, success stories, and survival stories. It's been an adventure.

It was delightful as well as eye opening to spend a few days traveling with kids from school. In many ways it was a peak into their worlds- how they live day to day outside of school, what impacts their decision making, how they plan, and all the little pieces that become a part of their day.

If any part of me was slightly resentful of the money and amount of fast food I've consumed during this event, it was all erased by watching one fifth grade girl. As we began to enter the hotel she started biting her finger nails and she whispered, "I've never been to a hotel before." Clearly nervous about it as we would our way through the lobby and into the elevator, her face changed as we showed the girls their room.
"This is just like the movies!" she exclaimed with joy. "Look how clean the beds are!"
"Wow, look at this bathroom! It's beautiful! This is amazing!"

Later, when she again brought up how clean the beds were I asked her if she'd been worried they wouldn't be clean.

"With all those people sleeping in them every night, all those travelers, I thought they'd be disgusting".

Of course. If you've never stayed in a hotel before, that sounds like a rational assumption.

As the first night went on it became clear that no one helped two of our little ones pack their suitcases for the trip. At first the head coach and I were horrified/frustrated. Really? You left for a two-day overnight without pajamas, a change of clothes, shoes, hair brush, etc, etc? But as I started to think about it I wasn't surprised.

I'm sure that no one helped this third grader and the fifth grader pack. If you've never been away from home before, and you've never packed a suit case before, how would you know what to pack? It seems like a no-brainer, but that's to us, who have been taught to make a mental checklist of everything we'll need, maybe walking through the steps of a day in order, thinking through what we'll be using at each step. (And to be honest, how many of us, who are 100% use to packing suitcases, have forgotten a toothbrush once and awhile?)

If you've had no experience with long-term planning then of course you wouldn't think about what you'll need in the future. You're brain just isn't use to thinking that way. For a third-grader packing herself- it is no surprise she forgot pajamas. Frustrating, yes, but no surprise.

Needless to say we had to make a Walmart run. (While there I picked up cheap tooth brushes and tooth paste because although no one had said it yet, I was pretty sure they'd all forgotten their tooth-care products. I left them in their room with a "just in case, you know, I always forget about my toothbrush as well!" and sure enough, the next day they were used.)

Another insight into our children's world came when it was time to go out to eat. When the topic came up of where to go, one boy announced he wanted salmon, only salmon. The others stared at him with confusion, asked what that was, and then quickly stated they wanted Taco Bell.
We managed to veto Taco Bell when we could, but eventually we ended up there, because, as the girls pointed out, it was the absolute cheapest. They would save lots of money if we ate there.

It's true- eating at Taco Bell helped their budget. What saddened me the most was how frequently the girls eat there at home. Quick, easy, cheap, and walking distance from their apartment, it became clear that they eat Taco Bell multiple times a week. In some ways Taco Bell is cheaper than cooking for a whole family, so of course, when their large family is busy and stressed and when money is not coming in, they head out to where they are guaranteed a cheap, hot meal. We can yell and scream and educate as much as possible about health and food and eating well, but how do you argue with cheap, filling food for a family with so little time and money?

What I loved about traveling with these girls was their absolute amazement in everything we did. They loved every moment of it- and were constantly telling me this was the furthest they'd been from home, the only hotel they'd ever stayed in, the first indoor pool they'd ever swam in, the first time they'd called for a wake-up call. One of them wanted to know the name for everything. She wanted the vocabulary for the experience and was constantly popping up at my shoulder, asking what something was called, and then repeating it, asking me to correct her pronunciation. Later she'd say it again, confirming that she was saying her new word correctly.

I loved the way this trip allowed me to see the students outside of our school in new ways- view inside their lives, all the while giving them a brand new experience they wouldn't have outside our team. Despite the amount of Justin Beiber I was forced to listen to, it was an amazing experience.

ps. The little boy did get his salmon with an Olive Garden trip with is parents one night. And yes, he ordered salmon and broccoli and ate every bite. I was ridiculously amazed. One of his achievements this trip was having Taco Bell for the first time. He was surprised by how good it was- his parents did not look impressed.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

and we're off!

Wish us luck!

I'm off to accompany my jumpers to Junior Olympics. This is the first year I've gotten to go with them since usually I'm in the throws of the first week of school when they leave. Sadly, due to kids moving this summer this is the smallest group that's ever gone, and we don't have anyone in double dutch, but I'm still excited to see just what happens at a Junior Olympics Jump rope event.

Monday, August 2, 2010

peers, preschool, and language

This summer I'm volunteering at a daycare center trying to gain a better understanding of two-four year olds.

I've gained a whole new respect for anyone who is able to spend 8 hours a day with a room full of 2 year olds.

I can't help but be saddened though when I listen to the two year olds chatter amongst each other, or when I watch them sort colors, count, listen to stories, or ask questions using full sentences. At two, they are so much further along than many of the children who enter kindergarten at my school.

Their language is fuller- their sentences are more complete- they make better eye contact with adults- they seem aware of their world instead of fearful of it.

Many of them come from the same background as the children I teach- the same socio-economic background, as well as the same international background. So how, at two, is their language stronger than the 4-5 year olds entering my school?

Most of the 4-5 year olds who enter my school do not have any sort of preschool experience. For many, kindergarten is their first school experience- and- due to their parents' misconceived notions that they should not teach their child their native language- it is their first immersion into language in general. What happens when a brain develops for 5 years without truly interacting with language?

Another observation I've made is that the two year olds speak in longer sentences to one another than they do to us- and they mimic each other more than they mimic adults. If one of their peers asks, in a full sentence, to use a toy, they will immediately repeat that sentence, and sometimes apply it to another toy. A friend notices three flags flying- they will notice three flags, and then three flowers- and perfectly mimic the friend's intonation as they announce their own findings.

One of their teachers can say something and they will repeat it, but usually will repeat only the last few words in the sentence. With their friends they repeat the whole sentence.

The preschool where I'm working includes children from different socio-economic backgrounds. At first I was surprised by this, and then didn't think anything of it- children are children, right? I started noticing the way the children interact with one another- how that one child whose surrounded by language at home is happily playing with her friends using the language she's learned at home. And quickly her friends copy her language during play. The drama center goes from banging on the table with forks to having a party and pouring out juice simply by that one child adding a full sentence to play. It is something one of the teachers or I couldn't inspire.

This is certainly only anecdotal and true research may prove me wrong, but it seems to indicate some importance between who children's peers are and their language development.

So, for me, who will spend the first few months of kindergarten desperately trying to make up for the lost years of some of our children- how do we use this to our advantage? And when we're discussing the positive impact of preschool programs should we be looking at preschool programs that create an inclusive community to promote language development?

teacher nightmares

This morning I woke up in a panic after a long, restless night. Trying to figure out what exactly was wrong I desperately went back over what I could remember of my dream-

and very clearly it came back

the closet they'd moved my partner-in-crime and I into because "we wouldn't mind, would we?" and desperately trying to set up the classroom on the first day of school with the kids there, because they hadn't given us any time during teacher workdays to set up our classroom.

the closet full of old crayons they told us we couldn't get rid of, we'd just have to work around.

the fact they took away our IA because her desk wouldn't fit in our new closet-room.

and when I visited my old kids in their new classes- chaos. Out of control.

I reached for the closest pure-fiction-pool-literature-non-school-related-book and spent my morning trying to lower my heart rate. Maybe I'm not ready to go back after all....

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Economists, Education & Early Intervention (Can I get an Amen?)

If there is one topic I wish I could yell from the roof tops it's the importance of early childhood programs, preschool programs, early intervention, and strong kindergarten classes. Sometimes politicians give early childhood lip service, but it frequently gets swept under the mat when we start talking about the nuts and bolts of what keeps education moving forward: test scores, teacher accountability, AYP, student progress, core curriculum, and all those other buzz words we've wrapped ourselves up in. Four year olds quickly become simply 'cute' in these discussions as we try to apply band aids to our older students so we can pass tests, meet ayp, and make the politicians stop pointing to us as a failing.

Lately, though, I keep reading about The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teacher all over the blogasphere. The article published in the New York Times Economy section on July 27th, discusses the findings of a recent study (though not yet peer-reviewed) that found quality kindergarten programs do, in fact, have a long-term positive impact on students (and in turn, society as a whole).

Previous studies of such programs all have said that quality kindergarten programs may benefit kids in the short term, but in the long-term the benefits seem to fade. By 5th grade students who participated in quality kindergarten programs tend do perform the same on standardized assessments as children who did not participate in these programs.

The new study from Harvard, however, finds that the problem with that argument is that it is only looking at the students' performances on tests, not their overall performance in life. (Shocking, you mean, test scores do not automatically correlate to how a student succeeds in life? I thought test scores were all that mattered anymore... but I digress)

The article states:
There has always been one major caveat, however, to the research on the fade-out effect. It was based mainly on test scores, not on a broader set of measures, like a child’s health or eventual earnings. As Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, says: “We don’t really care about test scores. We care about adult outcomes.”

"We don't really care about test scores. We care about adult outcomes" Who are these people, thinking about what actually matters? Looking at how students actually succeed in life?

The Times article continues:

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

All else equal, they were making about an extra $100 a year at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up the test-score distribution over the course of kindergarten. A student who went from average to the 60th percentile — a typical jump for a 5-year-old with a good teacher — could expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than a student who remained at the average. Over time, the effect seems to grow, too.

Read the entire article (linked above) to gain a full understanding of the study.

Another study by economists that's popped up recently on quality early intervention can be found here, also written on July 27th.

The article by Jonah Leher in Wired ends with the economists' recommendation:

Furthermore, the gains from preschool appear to be so significant and consistent that, according to Cunha and Heckman, investing in early childhood education is just about the most cost-effective way to spend public money. The economists calculate that, for every dollar invested in preschool for at-risk children, society at large reaps somewhere between eight and nine dollars in return. That’s how I want my tax-dollars spent.

Can I get an Amen?

All of this leads me with a lot of questions, that can problem be divided into a lot of different blog posts... but for now, I can't help but wonder, why are economists able to complete these studies while in education we're still arguing over standardized test scores and accountability?

Sure, these studies are new, but they are all based off studies completed years ago. We've had data like this for years- why haven't we acted on this yet? What is it going to take to promote strong preschool and kindergarten programs throughout the country?

I can't help but hope that if the educators and politicians haven't been been able to draw attention to the importance of early childhood education, maybe economists, whose focus is beyond the school walls, will drive a change that will truly close the achievement gap.