Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Don't mind me, I'm just taking a moment to vent

I'm fascinated by the story of Brockton High and it's academic turn-around. From what I've read it seems the school was able to turn around by creating a collaborative environment where teachers got together to work on a plan to improve the school. It does not sound like it was a top-down approach- no one was saying they had to do something one way or another. No one was fired, no one received merit pay. No text book company came in selling the perfect new way to achieve results. Outside consultants did not come in and offer insights.

The teachers got together as a staff, created a plan, carried it out, tested their theories, watched their students, made alterations as needed, and continued to work together to help each other carry out their plan.

It's amazing what happens when teachers are empowered to create change and then work together to do so.

Brockton High's new approach doesn't sound that different from the Think-Tank, my amazing school. We improve because we put our heads together, we watch our students, we take data, we set goals together, and we collaborate. There is no one perfect teacher leading the charge. No one is pointing fingers at someone who isn't on board. We work together, help each other, identify problems and work to rectify them before they negatively impact student's learning.

It's not sexy. There is not a hero because everyone works together. There is not someone coming in and immediately changing things because to be successful you have to sit, watch, learn, hypothesis, collaborate, test your theories, and watch some more. It would not make an exciting movie- a bunch of teachers working together- not being told what to do, but determining it for themselves. But we're not in the business of making movies. We're in the business of teaching kids.

Sometimes I think politicians running on education reform, as well as education policy wonks forget that we're not in the business of standing up and taking credit for what works. We're not instituting one magic bullet. We don't live in the world of Dangerous Minds where it takes one teacher. It takes a school, with adults who act like professionals, and are given the power and respect to be professionals.

Along the same lines I was equally fascinated by this blog post from ed sector, which writes about the 9th Circuit Court that just ruled that being highly qualified does not include being an intern and a first year teacher. To me this makes perfect sense. The first year teachers who enter our building after extensive year-long internship are amazing first year teachers. Imagine if every first year teacher was able to perform with that standard. Think of the kids who would benefit.

 As this blog points out, this is a huge blow to TFA, who gets around the "highly qualified" status only by calling their first year teachers "interns" as well as teachers. The blog post argues that "TFA produces some of the best and the brightest in education", which I take an issue with, but this is beside the point. Why can't TFA become a 3 year program and their teachers do internships their first year? Why are we so opposed to these "best and the brightest" spending a year learning like everyone else? Think of how it would benefit urban schools to be brimming with interns they get to spend a year training before they set them up in their own classrooms? Think of what amazing things TFA teachers could do after a year-long internship when they are gaining an understanding of school culture, classroom management, student developmental needs, and how to collaborate with other more experienced teachers?

Nothing creates positive reform than watching something go wrong, silently making notes on what works and what does not, and then, after a period of observing jumping in to fix it.

There is enough TFA press out there to start a campaign to get stipends for TFA interns out there so they don't have to have a completely poor year. Who knows, I'm sure TFA can create grants and all kinds of programs to support their interns.

I truly hope the Circuit Court ruling sticks- it would mean amazing things for our students.

***  And on another note, the same blog said, "Of course in the reauthorization of ESEA, this whole issue may go away, as the focus switches from highly qualified teachers (focusing on subject matter knowledge and training) to highly effective teachers (focusing on how well teachers actually teach). But, reauthorization may not be coming for some time especially following the likely realignment in the Nov election."

Please, please someone tell me that isn't a possibility. That we wont actually be getting rid of the requirement to have highly qualified teachers, but instead will put people in place for a year or two and wait for them to fail. That makes my stomach hurt. 

the relief of a good day

It wasn't until today ended and I was walking out of the building with a smile on my face that I realized what I've been lacking so far this school year: good days. It's sad to say but even though I've been loving my new kiddos and having fun in kindergarten, so far this year has been ridiculously stressful. Brainstorming how to help PJ, how to manage my schedule, how to balance meeting the needs of everyone on my case load, and just keeping up with paperwork has been overly taxing. The behavior specialist we've been working with keeps warning us about how draining one of our kiddos will be, but I don't think we've realized how true it is. Until today when for the first time I wasn't drained.
I left school excited to come back the next day.
PJ had a great day. No children left the building without permission. Jenny brought in Knuffle Bunny Free and I read all three Knuffle Bunny tales straight through to a small group of kiddos- it was pure magic. Pixie didn't quite understand the whole story, but I've never seen her so still for a read aloud- and this was three. Mo Willems is a genius.
PJ asked a child if he could share legos with her.
Pixie remembered two letters in her name.
I found time to get into one of my other classrooms today.
I was able to sprint out the door at the end of the day and buy another pair of comfy-sturdy-yet-cute shoes. I'm in love with this brand. Mom- I'm thinking Christmas- this in black, or this. I now own two pairs of the same shoe from this brand- one in black, one in brown.
I wore my brand new black shoes to class, where we met with our cohort to discuss our over all program. Then we got out early.
I practically skipped home.
Tomorrow may be another disaster, but at least I'll have the memory of today- I'll remember what it feels like to end the day on a positive note. And that will get us through.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

if I ever die and wake up in a small, confined bathroom used only by 5 year olds...

I'll know I did something very, very wrong in this life.

At exactly 3 o'clock this afternoon My-Partner-In-Crime and I were nose to nose in the kids' bathroom in our room. She clutched her computer and we both tried to limit our breathing to what is absolutely necessary- normally we (and the custodians) don't go near the two foot by four foot pee closet, especially in the beginning of the year when kindergarten boys are still learning to use the bathroom standing up.
We eyed the yellow liquid on the toilet seat and on the floor, tried to block out the noises of the two giant crickets hanging out under the toilet, and read the hieroglyphic drawings written on the door by someone who'd obviously snuck a crayon into the bathroom when he knew he was going to be in there for awhile. A book would have been too hard to sneak in.

We looked at each other in astonishment. Outside the door, inside our lovely scent-free classroom a friend was having a difficult time and our administration felt it was best we were no longer in his eye sight. Of course he was blocking the door so we were not able to leave the room. We could have gone out the window, but that could have created a scene. So instead, we were sentenced to the bathroom.

Our admin was right- we needed to be out of eye sight. It was the right decision, but wow. I can take being peed on, puked on, run from, yelled at, punched, and spit on, but please, please never again close me in a small box covered with numerous children's pee and the heavy scent of years of kindergarten boys still learning to aim.

It's amazing any of our children actually use the bathroom at school. It's so disgusting I'd think we'd have more children determined to hold it until they go home.

Later this evening in my Stats class my fellow doctoral students shared their daily activities which included attending seminars for professors, analyzing data, and summarizing reports on early childhood intervention. I changed the subject when they asked me- somehow, "I was stuck in a kindergarten bathroom" just doesn't make good small talk.

Monday, September 27, 2010

to count to 100

Last week while I was off at Mandt training my fellow kindergarten co-teachers were in a math in service learning about the changes to our K math curriculum. Turns out they decided to add a bit to our already heavy standards- which may or may not have been fine in itself, but I'm not sure anyone took into consideration that we are teaching kindergartners. They are five years old. Sometimes they pick their nose. They are scared of the dark. Some of them don't like to flush the toilet by themselves. Trust me, I'm all for high standards, but I also firmly believe in setting a strong foundation so that our children will be able to reach high standards later in their school careers.

When I was getting my masters I remember reading a study on the downfall of US math textbooks- compared with other countries US math text books try to cover too much in one year. Other countries focus on smaller topics but truly dive into those topics so their children have a firm understanding of the concept. In the US we try to cram to much into one year of school, leaving students unprepared to use the math they've spent a year struggling to learn. (If I have time I'll dig up the article to site it.)

Still, my district decided to up our standards, which includes teaching kindergarten students 1/2 and 1/4. This use to be a requirement in first grade and I remember how hard it was to teach it to six and seven year olds. A year earlier? And why? Just because we'll feel better about ourselves if we can point to our kindergartners and say they are learning fractions?

Another one of the new standards is that the children are all expected to count to 100. This doesn't seem too bad, especially if you are a parent of a child who is already able to do this backwards and forwards. The three and four year olds I worked with this summer had no problem counting to 100. But if you've just entered school and have never been taught how to count? There's a lot to learn.

What does it take for someone to be able to count to 100?

1.First you need to be able to count to 10. The names for all of those numbers must be in your long-term memory.

2. You need to understand that when you count to 10 each numeral has a corresponding name attached to it. These numbers are different than letters. Ten and 10 are the same thing.

3. More importantly, though, the word ten and 10 must correspond to a set of 10 objects. The word Ten and the numeral 10 mean something- they exist when there is a group of 10.

4. How do you determine that there is a group of 10? You have to be able to count to 10, and you have to know that each object is counted once. One object is equal to one number. For some of our children this is such a difficult concept- they can count to 10, but they don't understand that they are saying numbers- they are just sprouting off words they've heard adults say. This also means they have to be able to control their fingers and eyes to point to each object once and give it a value.

5. So, now we can point to a set of objects and give each one a value, including ten. Next we have to learn our teen numbers. 11, 12, 13. There is something about the number 13. Perhaps five year olds sense it is unlucky and don't want to say it. Regardless, they always seem to skip 13.

Because the teen numbers have funny names that don't fit a pattern this is really just memory- over and over again, counting sets of objects. Correctly. 15 comes after 16. Really, it does. 11-20 have to go into long-term memory.

6. When they can get to 19 (hallelujah) it's time to apply the patterns. While learning about the numbers' names, the corresponding numeral and how to count sets of objects accurately, kindergartners are also learning patterns. Things repeat. Colors can repeat, shapes can repeat, and numbers can repeat. You can make your own pattern- you can read someone else's pattern- you can finish someone else's pattern. You can have AB patterns, or ABC patterns. You can clap patterns. You can sing patterns. Patterns are everywhere.

7. Math is all about patterns, and kids are not ready to count to 100 until they understand patterns. Our number system is really a abcdefghij pattern- over and over again.

8. They understand that numbers repeat- after every 0 in the ones place there is a 1, then a 2, then a 3. Next they need to learn the tens places. They need to learn to count by 10s so they know the names of the ten sets- 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, etc. And they have to remember those names in order, while understanding that even though I said a "5" was called five, once it is in front of another number it is called "fifty". Unless it is behind another number, then it is a something-five. Once they know that they can apply the repeating numeral pattern until they get to 100.

9. And finally, after slow and steady development they can count to 100.

And that is only how to count to 100 orally. I left out learning how to form letters correctly and how to write 23 so that the 2 comes first and the 3 is second, and that the 3 is facing the right direction with two small circles stacked on top of each other. That's a whole other step. And then there is knowing that we can put groups of objects together to make a bigger number, and then we can take that big group and put it into two smaller groups to get two smaller numbers- the beginning of addition and subtraction. I'd rather kids spend a lot of time firming up their beginning understanding of adding and subtracting instead of memorizing how to count to 100 before they are ready. They can add small numbers before they can count to 100- and that is ok. It's where they should be. Once they can do it with small numbers they can do it with larger numbers.

Most of our kindergartners come in with no number sense. Some know their numbers to five, and if they were lucky enough to be in our head start program they can count to 20. But most? They know we use numbers to count, but they don't understand that counting means giving one object a value, or pointing to each object when you count. Some have no problem counting a set of 10 objects as "1, 2, h, 5, 18, a, n,"

Before we really focused on counting to 20. If they can count to 20 without a problem they'll have no difficulty moving on to 100 later. But we gave them a firm number sense base with 20. With a firm base they'll have no problem quickly learning the pattern of counting to 100 in first grade.

Now? We'll teach them to count to 100. It might not be pretty and we might stress out a lot of kids, forcing them to skip steps they're not developmentally ready for. Brushing over steps might hurt their number sense when they're ready to add or subtract. It might not give them that firm understanding of numbers they'll need to be successful in first grade. But we'll do it because our teachers are awesome and we rise to the occasion.

 But really, why are we doing it?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Success and beyond

Back in March I wrote about a little one I worked with one on one every single day on her letters. From August to March she struggled to learn the letters in her name- 9 letters- 7 months. Day in and day out. My Partner-in-Crime and I assumed we had to retain her- if it was taking her 7 months to learn 9 letters there was no way she'd be ready for first grade.

In the beginning of those 7 months I felt like we kept stepping backwards. I'd try something I knew worked with other kids only to realize there was no way she was ready for it. We'd step back and try something smaller. When that didn't work we took another step back. We ended up just working on the difference between the letters e and c- so similar but for that line in the middle of the e. Then we branched out to n, r, and h. And we kept branching. Yet it was weeks before we could move on to n, r, and h. I can't tell you how many days I said, "This is an e. Point to the e" and she'd point to the c.

But we got there. And then, the first week of March, she expertly identified all the letters in her name correctly, 3 days in a row.
The end of the year rolled around with it's end of year assessments. She blew past our expectations. We'd been planning on retaining her but we realized we couldn't- somehow from March to May she'd started to catch up. She wasn't on grade level yet, but she wasn't far enough behind to do another year in kindergarten.
So we passed her to first grade, scared about what would happen over our long summer break.

On Friday her first grade teacher emailed. She'd just finished giving her a beginning of the year assessment and our friend had gone up 2 reading levels from the spring. She went up TWO levels. Over a summer when she wasn't in school, wasn't hearing English, and most likely doing nothing but watching television all day.

I wanted to cry.

She is such a rock star.

We could have pushed her along with the others, teaching her the curriculum- not taking those steps backward- the steps she needed to build a foundation. I feel like we are so tempted to do that with so many kids- we push, without looking at the foundation we might be skipping as we breeze through our curriculum. We might get them to teeter on the brink of passing the end of year assessments, but that's when we see regression.
With this friend we didn't worry about her end of year assessment- assuming she'd fail it anyway we just focused on giving her the tiny building blocks we knew she needed.
And yet, she did better than kids who we'd pushed on, assuming that with pushing they'd get there- meet our high expectations.
Not every child can have the one-on-one I gave my friend, but we can teach every child where they are, making sure they've mastered one step before moving on to the next one.

Friday, September 24, 2010

It is almost comical that I thought yesterday was a bad day. Because today, today makes then top ten list. Today was epic.

I don't have the capability to get into it all now- but I'll give you a small window into this morning from my co-teacher's point of view.

A friend and I are in the "break room", (the special ed office across the hall from our classroom). My friend is really letting me and everything in his path have it- screaming, crying and throwing- a tantrum to end all tantrums. I mean, it's a good one.

My partner-in-crime is in the hallway having a very serious conversation with a parent. She's trying very hard to pay attention to this parent, who is telling her very important details about her child, but all my partner-in-crime can do is try not to laugh as crayons come shooting out from under the door of the break room. One after another, brightly colored broken crayon pieces appear from no where and fly across the hallway. While my partner-in-crime tries very hard to carry on a normal conversation. If it was me I don't think I would have been able to keep a straight face.

Inside the room?  Inside the room my friend was breaking the crayons into tiny pieces and throwing them at me, one at a time.

I have a headache. But it is Friday.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

how many candy bars is too many?

There are bad days, and then there are BAD days. Of my top ten worst teaching days the Great Poop Storm of '07 is the absolute worst. So bad I didn't even blog about it- and when I called Mr. Lipstick on the way home to moan about it he asked me to stop talking because I was making him sick. I took two showers that evening.

The second worst day was probably when one of my first graders put germ x in my diet coke. And I drank it.

Then there was the day I walked into the room to see a bruised and wounded kindergarten class- the recess queen had literally beaten everyone up at the end of recess- there were ice packs all around.

The kindergarten field trip from hell definitely has a place in the top ten- puke AND run away children.

Speaking of puke, there was the jump rope field trip that ended with a lot of puke in a hot, small car.

Oh, and the day a child broke a raw egg in the classroom hoping to see the baby chicken. During math.

There was my little one with no internal monologue, when he'd curse me out in his head, only it wasn't in his head, I could hear all of it.

I'd go on, but I'm actually getting depressed remembering them all (why do I do this job again?)

But as splatypus, my fabulous co-teacher pointed out- as bad as today was, it did not involve poop on walls, there was no puke, and nobody tried to poison me.

So, it could have been worse.

Still.  I was told to "SHUT UP STUPID LADY" more than once today. Once from someone hiding inside a closet. The other children gasped in horror and one whispered, "Mrs. Lipstick, that is not a nice word!" as though I didn't know.

One moment of clarity snuck in this morning when PJ and I were taking a break in a nearby office. The Story-Teller and one of my friends from last year walked by, saw me and stopped in to say hello.
"Mrs. Lipstick!" the Story-Teller declared, "I've been missing you!"  (I so, SO needed that today).
"What's wrong with him?" my other friend asked, pointing at poor PJ who had just finished telling me how he didn't want to be a bear, or a beaver, or a bird, or a moose. (read PJ Funny Bunny).
"Well, you can ask him" I answered, but when PJ didn't respond to her request I said, "Do you remember when you were in kindergarten and sometimes you and I had to take breaks together?"
She nodded, slowly, remembering. She and I took a lot of breaks. There was screaming, crying and kicking back then. It wasn't fun. She had such little language and she'd just hit a frustration point and burst.

She was quiet for a moment, remembering this. Then she smiled, "I took walks," she explained to PJ. "I took walks and got water to feel better."
PJ eyed her suspiciously from his chair as though I'd planted her there to teach him about good coping skills.

She grinned, hugged me and went back to second grade with the Story-Teller.

It was amazing to watch her now and think back to how she was two years ago. Since then she's grown and matured, increased her stamina, and gotten more language. She's learned how to communicate with us.

PJ will too. PJ will get there. It may be a long, painful process in the beginning- but slowly we'll learn language, increase our stamina, and mature. We'll learn to follow directions. We'll start staying with the class.

In the mean time I need to remind myself not to use food, alcohol or shopping as a coping mechanism. There's got to some healthy stress relief out there, right?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Food for thought

Instead of spending today playing with Pixie, PJ and my other new friend, I sat in the first day of Mandt training learning the Mandt method of reacting to people's behavior in ways that encourage positive relationships, trust, collaboration, and what to do when things go very, very wrong. (We'll do that part tomorrow, today was all about behavior and how to keep things going right.)

Today's workshop was fascinating and gave me a lot to think about. Throughout the day I found myself being reminded of Responsive Classroom- so much of the Mandt method supports the same theories and ideas taught in RC- understanding your student's basic needs and making sure they are met, pre-teaching your expectations, and being aware of your own teacher language. Not to say if you have RC training you don't need Mandt and vice versa- but the two truly go hand in hand. It's always reassuring to see common themes and philosophies across trainings- it reminds you that you're doing the right thing!

A few quotes from today struck me.

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in my ______ (as teachers we'd fill in classroom). It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make _____ (student's) life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is MY response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a person humanized or dehumanized." ~Dr. Haim Ginott (1956)

"A person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself." Desmond Tutu, 2000).

Monday, September 20, 2010


Last year my partner-and-crime and I decided to try something new to open our classroom library. We wrapped up all our books in large boxes with fancy wrapping paper and let the kids open the "presents to the classroom". It was the most amazing activity I've ever done in school.

This year we repeated it and enjoyed every moment of their book discoveries. Some immediately settled down with books they wanted to read, ignoring all of their friends and teachers and diving straight into whatever world they'd chosen, while others poured through the titles and loudly announcing the types of books they found as though they were sports-casters"Letter books!" "Animal books!"

One little one sat down with Clifford and refused to get up unless it was for another Clifford book.

Eventually we had everyone put their books into baskets that went into our classroom library and we've slowly examined each basket of books more closely- dividing the library into "True Books" and "Story Books" (Oh, and one Clifford basket since we have one friend totally in love with the series).

Since that day anytime someone mentions 'books' or 'reading' the whole class seems to become energized- when we give them time to browse books they devour the basket in front of them like we've given them the ice cream truck. I love the energy and excitement this lesson creates!

new shoes

I just got back from buying new back to school shoes. The first ones I bought, while cute, comfy, and flat, clearly are not going to cut it this year. I realized halfway through the day that I now need to own cute, comfy dress-like shoes that will also act just like running shoes when I need to run at a moment's notice. After checking out a fabulous co-worker's shoes from REI I headed over there to buy the kind of shoes I could hike a mountain in and still look like I'm a professional you'd trust with your child. I'm spending the next two days being trained in the proper way to restrain children safely (if they must be restrained due to safety), and I figured I might as well practice this training in my new sporty shoes.

This realization came about today when my partner-in-crime and I realized we'd been blocked into our room. Our friend had quickly left the room and threw his body against our door so we couldn't get out. It was kind of incredible. He stared into the room at us angrily, watching our every move, occasionally shaking the door knob to remind us he has the power. The amazing thing was- other than the fact we felt like idiots for being "locked in" by a six year old, it was great- because he was staring at us through the window of the door we knew exactly where he was and what he was doing. He was so focused on keeping us inside the room (we weren't pushing the door to get out, we just kept on doing what we were doing) that we knew he was occupied. He wasn't hurting himself or anyone else- he was just using his force to keep us in the room. All in all he could have chosen worse ways to show us his anger.

Still, if everyday is as exciting as this one I may need new comfy-sturdy shoes in every color.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Royal Kinders et. al

Working in 3 different classrooms means I have to learn 3 different sets of names. I finally felt like I had somewhat of a handle on it by Friday when I looked down at one girls' paper. I could have sworn her name was Lucy, but she'd written a very long string of letters on the Name line of her paper. She didn't seem like a kid who couldn't spell her name, so I was surprised that the line did not just say "Lucy".

"What does this say, friend?" I asked and she proudly responded, "My name, Queen Lucy," and went straight back to coloring. And sure enough, at a second glance she had written Quenlucy. Half of these kids can't write their own names correctly and here she is giving herself a title.

dude, I want a title. I'd like to be Royal Princess Lipstick. Yes?

~~ ~~ ~~
I'm quickly falling in love with one little kindergarten boy. Every time we say the word "books" his eyes light up and he claps his hands. Sometimes he even whispers "books!" to his friend near him if he thinks we're going to read. How do you not love that? The only problem is that my book-friend comes to school everyday drenched in cologne. The cheap, drug store, celebrity knock off cologne that can make an entire room smell like the perfume counter at JC Penny's. This in itself wouldn't be so bad if Book-Friend wasn't a cuddler. He uses any chance he gets to crawl into a lap, hug an adult, or lean against you during story time. Which means I go home every evening smelling like some other man. Mr. Lipstick is getting a bit suspicious.

~~ ~~ ~~
Another one of my darling friends looked at me in excitement yesterday and announced, "This weekend I'm going to watch a movie with my whole family!"
"What movie?" I asked, expecting something kinder-friendly.
"New Moon!" he replied. It took me a minute- why do I know that title- is that a new Disney movie? Oh wait, no, of course not, I saw that movie along with every teenage girl in the country. But um, I'm talking to a kindergarten boy.
"Really?" I asked, a bit skeptical.
He nodded. "I'm team Jacob."
~~ ~~ ~~

At a parent conference earlier this week we sat down with a parent who'd recently moved to the area. As we were chatting about how her move had been she mentioned how excited she was to be at this school. "Everyone says this is the best school in the area! My child's daycare says this is the best school in the state!" she laughed at the hyperbole.
I couldn't help but grin. Yeah, we rock, I wanted to say. I certainly think we're the best school in the state- it's nice to know what's being said about us on the playground/daycare circuit.

Kind of funny how you can not make AYP for 2 years but the people who matter- the ones with kids in the school, who are pleased with how much their kids are learning- still say great things about you. Kind of makes you wonder...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

paper eater

I've had kids eat paper before. My second year teaching I caught a very sweet little boy just sampling a piece of construction paper. He was embarrassed to be caught, but he explained he was hungry and suddenly wondered what purple paper would taste like.

My last year in the classroom My Smart Cookie announced she was hungry. When I explained it was 9 o'clock and we wouldn't go to lunch for another hour and 45 minutes she carefully ate the entire border of her writing paper. Not the entire paper- she'd worked way too hard to eat those three sentences- just the border. When I caught her I sent her to spit it out but alas, she'd already swallowed.

So I was somewhat ready for today. But only somewhat.

I have a new friend this year. He's a darling little boy whose working hard at learning the ins and outs of kindergarten. We'll call him PJ after PJ Funny Bunny, who didn't want to be a bunny, or a bear, or a beaver, or a skunk or a bird, or a moose. PJ didn't know what he wanted, but he knew what he didn't want. Kind of like my friend.

So this morning around 11:00 PJ pretty much decides the day is over. It's been two long weeks and there are a lot of demands place on kindergartners. It's a lot for PJ. A long hour and a half goes by while we wait for lunch. At one point PJ takes some of his favorite blocks from the Free Choice shelves and walks them over to a table to begin playing with them. I matter of factly remove the blocks, explaining that they were free-choice blocks and we will play with them during free choice.
PJ screams. And after one long scream he begins ripping a paper in front of him. Ah great, I think, ripping paper is a great way to relieve stress. This could be a good outlet, then we'll be ready to re-join the group. I need to stop thinking this positive thoughts until all events are over.

Then PJ takes the ripped paper and begins frantically stuffing it into his mouth as though he is a spy and I'm the foreign government about to take him in for questioning.
Rip, stuff, rip stuff, rip stuff. His cheeks are full of paper- squirrel-like. And then he swallows. The paper is gone.

He ate his paper.

He ate his paper.

And then, as though nothing had happened, he slowly stood up and went back to his seat, where he'd originally gotten the paper. He looked at us with wide eyes, waiting for another piece.

I had to leave the room so I could laugh without being inappropriate. I've never seen such frantic, in your face paper eating, followed by a plea for more paper. Even my-smart-cookie did it with a sense of grace. It was incredible.

*We checked with the clinic- apparently eating paper doesn't hurt you*

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

that did not just happen...

At the end of the day I was delivering a little one to his dismissal line when I ran into a parent whose son I'd taught a few years back. When she saw me she gave me a hug and then grabbed both my hands.

"You have babies yet?" she asked, oblivious to the fact that
1) she saw me at the end of last year so if I'd managed to have babies over the summer it would be a feat of science
2) it was the end of the day and we were surrounded by parents, teachers and children. Surrounded.

"No?" she answers herself. "You don't want babies?" I glance around, trying to find a way to get out of this conversation without launching into the "well, I'm going to grad school to get my doctorate but when that's over in 5 years" explanation when she claps her hands together. Apparently my pause was all she needed as answer.

"You are TRYING!" she exclaims. "I'll pray for you, Mrs. Lipstick!" and she runs off, as every parent and student in the parking lot turns to look at me and my red face. The parents waiting for their children stare at me, and I find myself hoping, praying, that they do not speak English, or if they do know English they don't understand what "trying" really means. Especially since a few hours later I needed to welcome them into the classroom for Back to School Night and pretend they hadn't just overheard a conversation about my very-personal life.

The power of the thumbs up

The last week and a half I've felt like I've walked straight out of a 70s movie poster. Or maybe cheesier than that. A Japanese infomercial perhaps? I can't go 5 minutes without giving someone a thumbs up. A kid catches my eye while they happen to be sitting criss cross apple sauce? Thumbs up. I walk past a line of well-ordered kindergartners? Thumbs up. Pixie remembers to raise her hand? Two thumbs up. My thumbs are getting tired and I'm 100% aware of just how goofy I look all day, everyday.

But it doesn't matter. The thumbs up is magic because it silently lets the kids know that I'm watching them, that I know they're doing a good job, and that I appreciate it. It's almost like that child and I have a special secret when they see my thumbs up directed at them. They always smile and then almost exaggerate the behavior they were doing well- stand up straighter, pinch their lips together to prove how silent they can sit, or visibly place their hands in their lap. All that and I don't even have to say anything.

It's especially powerful this year. My partner-in-crime and I have a special friend who is learning to follow the rules a little slower than everyone else. While he blatantly disregards what the class is doing the kids tend to look at us with confusion- why does he get to play with blocks right now and we don't? All those confused eyes need is one thumbs up and they smile and return to the lesson- Yes, I know he's not doing his job, but I know you're doing yours, and it's awesome, my thumb seems to say.

It's amazing how those silent, non-verbal cues can be so simple but so powerful.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

S-l-o-w-l-y teaching impulse control

One of my favorite aspects of the first few weeks of school is playing impulse control games. You know, the games we all thought were lots of fun when we were kids but actually taught us to listen, follow directions, and stop our bodies from moving even when we don't want to stop?

I think what I love so much about these games in the beginning of the year is how hard it is for the kids to play them. They want to play them- they want to follow the rules- they think they're going to stop when they are suppose to- they plan to stop when they are suppose to- but they never do. Their little faces fill with frustration when they realize they didn't stop/move/run/tap their head at the right time. It's such a metaphor for the beginning of kindergarten- they want to follow the rules they just haven't trained their bodies to do it yet. They're not being impulsive just to make us mad- they're just in the process of learning how to control it. Our job is to teach it (the faster the better for our sanity...) We don't have to get frustrated and angry at the kids, but we do have to firmly teach expectations and then give them safe time to practice the skills we want them to have. Just like if we were teaching a math game or a reading strategy.

All the classic games are so perfect for this. Red Light/Green Light is a killer. A perfect impulse-control practice game, but so, so tough for those trying to have impulse control. My mother taught me the game "laughing machine" where the teacher drops a tissue from in the air and the class laughs until the tissue hits the floor. This teaches them to control their laughing- something that comes in handy when you're ready to move on from a funny part of a book and they just aren't...

Today we played Follow the Leader and all the kids had to do was walk behind the teacher while doing whatever motion she was doing. Which meant their eyes needed to stay on her. And not their friends, or their shoes, or the frog, or the window, or the bathroom. Every time a little one looked up and realized the whole classroom was taping their heads while he was still taping his knees his face would scrunch up in confusion- and he'd put his eyes on the teacher with more determination than before- until something else caught his eye and he looked elsewhere.

We'll get there. Every game will get a little easier everyday, right?

Any good recommendations on more games that teach impulse control?


Me: Look at Mrs. Partner in Crime when she's talking.

Pixie: Wow, nice glasses.

Me: What were the directions?

Pixie: I love your rings.

Me: Look at my face. Am I happy or sad?

Pixie: Wow, where'd you get that necklace?

Teeth grind, deep breath, it is only the second week of school.

Then, tonight I sat in my Stats class and tried really, really hard to pay attention. I really want to know this stuff, and I really want to do well in stats, and I really tried to focus on what my professor was saying. But she was wearing this adorably cute dress and I wondered where she got it. And then I wondered if I had time to buy a new dress for back to school night tomorrow, which made me wonder what I would wear to Back to School Night, and all of a sudden I had no idea what was going on with the numbers, graphs, and squiggly lines on the board.

Pixie and Me? Not so different after all...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

the past 4 days

How is it possible that 4 days can seem like a lifetime?

Two weeks ago I was following blog posts about the LA teacher evaluations and the Value Added debate with enthusiasm. I was spouting off statistics to friends and debating the principals of teacher evaluations with anyone who would listen.

And then, summer ended, and suddenly none of that matters anymore. I can no longer wrap my mind around caring one way or the other about the LA test scores- I'm worried about transitioning four year olds accustom to running and playing all day into five year olds ready to sit and learn. I'm tying shoes, praising students every two minutes for sitting quietly, developing new behavior plans, noting which students are wearing the same clothes every day, which students bring enough to eat, which students have bruises and which students already know their alphabet.

It's been a long, exhausting, wonderful week.

Every morning during the first week of school I begin by helping kindergarten students from their cars, buses, or from their parents hands and leading them into the gym to find their teacher. As kindergarten students pile out of cars we corral them into a small area and then lead them together down the hallway- each one clinging onto a part of my body- if my hands are taken they grab my elbows or my wrists. As though we are playing kindergarten blog tag we pick up more as we walk down the long hallway, adding timid or excited faces to our pack. Eventually we get to the gym where I ask each child their name, which usually, no one can tell me. I ask them their teacher's name, and nobody knows that either. So we walk down the front of the gym until they spy their teacher- their eyes light up and they run from me straight toward the woman they've slowly been identifying as their mom away from home.

All week I'm amazed at how many children do not know their last names. They might be too nervous to tell me what their first names are, but even the most outgoing kindergarten students cannot tell me their last names.

Finally, once all the buses are in, the cars have pulled away and parents have walked home, we lead our kindergarten students down the hallways to our classrooms, where we then spend the next few hours attempting to model the rules and routines we're going to be following the next 180 days.

Most of these children have no school experience, have never been away from home for more than a few hours at a time, and are not yet experienced in following group social norms and listening to group rules. The first few days are painful as we break them into these expectations. Yes, when we said sit down we meant you too. I know there is a box of beautiful blocks over in the corner but right now we are sitting down. All of us. You too. Now.

Sharing is tough. Waiting is hard. Walking slowly in a line while 1) not talking and 2) not touching the walls- torture. For the kids and for us. I think I've been in bed by 9 every night this week.

I don't think I could manage the opening of kindergarten without Responsive Classroom principals. Guided discoveries for every thing we use- pencils, crayons, markers, paper. Slowly teaching expectations of how to use our supplies.

As a school we're adjusting to our new calendar. We're use to having a full month of school under our belts by September- instead we're realizing just how much our children lost over the summer. The first day our lunch line ran 40 minutes behind because the older children could not remember their lunch numbers. If they could not remember their 3-4 digit lunch numbers they punch into a key pad every single day in order to get food- what else will they not be able to remember? It is not a good sign. I've already had one teacher come to me wanting to know why on earth a child tested at __ level last year because she is far below that now. Yeah. It was a long summer and I'm sure she wasn't reading. I think we're going to have a lot of that as we get to know our new students as learners.

In a lot of ways it's been a wonderful week. Pixie starts everyday by giving each teacher in her classroom a hug. She can't settle down until she's hugged each of us. The little one who cheered with delight when we went on a bear hunt. (Pixie however did not want to go on a bear hunt. "That's not safe!" she whispered to me, frantically, when my partner in crime announced our bear-hunt intentions). The ones who are already producing a long list of wonders about our class pet, Happy the Frog. ("Does she need a bed? How does she sleep?") The little ones who have already found friends and walk with their arms around each other whenever they can.

It will be a great year. It will be an exciting, eventful year and I can already tell I will add to my special education skills and knowledge. Last year I was bored, this year I will not be bored one bit. But it will be good~ I'll learn, they'll learn, and hopefully, if nothing else, we'll laugh a lot.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I want to spell my name with a CAT too!

A lot of things went wrong today. Not just a little wrong, but kid running out of the school in the middle of the day wrong.

But a lot of things went right too. Or if not right, at least humorous.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

"Friend, how do you spell your name?" My partner-in-crime asked one special friend, we'll call Pixie*. With utmost confidence she replied, "F, R, N, Cat".

Whoever said CAT wasn't a letter? That alphabet sounds a lot more exciting than the one on our wall...

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

*A few years ago I had a little one I called Pixie on this blog. She left for Africa, but I've met a new little one to be her namesake. Just like Pixie she's tiny, spunky, fun, and tells it like it is. *


I don't wanna go to kindergarten this morning...

The kids don't share and they don't listen and when I ask questions nobody says anything.

Nobody wants to play my games, or when they play, they don't know the rules yet.

We have to wait a really long time to eat lunch, and I like eating early.

We are just looking at all the cool things in the room but we can't play with anything yet because we don't know how.

My brand new super cute first day of school shoes hurt my feet and now I have blisters.

I want to go back to bed.

Mr. Lipstick says I have to get out of bed because it will get better, the kids will learn to share, they will learn our rules and we'll have fun soon. This morning, I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


A little one arrived at our school today with a backpack stuffed with kindergarten school supplies, no parent, and no idea of where to go. Eventually someone lead him to our gym, where we were housing all of our kindergartners, and he was passed from teacher to teacher, everyone looking to see who he belonged to.

He couldn't really give anyone his name, but after unpacking his book bag a first name was found on one of his supplies. He didn't know his last name, so his first name was compared to each class list (we have 8 kindergartens) in search of his teacher. No luck.

Finally one of the instructional aides handed him to me to see what I could find out. We made the trek back to the office where we once again unpacked his bag in hopes of finding a last name, and had someone run searches of everyone with his first name at our school. Again, no luck.

"What's your dad's name?" someone asked.
"Carlos" he said, not giving us any information.
"What do people call him, Senior..."
"Carlos" the boy said again (which to his credit, is more information than he gave when asked his name.

We looked at our friend with his first name, no last name, no parent, no way to contact his parent, no way to identify his classroom, how to get him home, or what is ok to feed him, and wondered what on earth we would do.

Finally, we glanced once again at his supplies and noticed another name written below his first name on his snack. When we read this name his eyes lit up.

"Yeah, that's me!" he nodded happily. A search of that name led us to his class room. As I walked him down I asked him about the two names-

"My mom calls X" he explained, (X being what we'd been calling him all morning), "But Y is what my doctor called me."

Poor kid. The only other time when someone called him by his official first name was at a visit to the doctor's office, probably when he went for his pre-kindergarten visit. At least he could recognize it as a name that belonged to him.

He made an easy transition into his kindergarten class and had a great day, despite his early morning adventures.

Monday, September 6, 2010

please don't finish my sentences

For my introduction to neuroscience class in my Sped Doc program we're reading the book, My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. It's absolutely fascinating- Taylor, a brain scientist, writes about her experience of having a stroke- describing which areas of her brain went down based on the functions she lost the morning of her stroke- and then what needed to be done to re-build or re-map those areas of her brain to gain her skills back. It's an easy read and is a great intro to the regions of the brain because instead of just reading a dry text book which lists the regions of the brain and what they do, Taylor describes the regions and then describes in detail, and with emotional attachment, what happens when you lose that region.

Taylor dedicates one of her chapters to what she needed most for a successful recovery, which she also includes in a list form in the appendix. Her list begins with excellent recommendations when considering how to meet the needs of anyone in intensive care, or in a long-term hospital stay, but as it continues Taylor shifts from her needs as a patient to her learning needs. As someone who understood the brain she knew exactly what was needed to rebuild her brain- the kind of environment, support, and structure that were essential in bringing her back to her life as a professor. In many ways she describes what our learners, particularly our learners with special needs, need in order to be successful.

"For a successful recovery, it was important that we focus on my ability, not my disability" she writes.
"I needed people to celebrate the triumphs I made every day because my successes, no matter how small, inspired me."- Amen. Sometimes it is so hard to see the tiny little steps toward success our children are making when we are so focused on the end goal (that seems SO far away) but encouraging them and celebrating each step will give them to motivation to keep working toward that end goal.

"My successful recovery was completely dependent on my ability to break every task down into smaller and simpler steps of action" Baby steps. Everything can be simplified for our kids- from writing the letter g (start with the curve of the c first before finishing the o) to how to manipulate scissors. Piece by piece put it together. It's just a different way of looking at tasks.

"Look for what obstacles prevent me from succeeding on a task."

"Clarify for me what the next level or step is so I know what I am working toward."

"Remember that I have to be proficient at one level of function before I can move on to the next level."

"I needed my caregivers to teach me with patience."

The one that struck me the most though was, "Please don't finish my sentences for me or fill in words I can't find. I need to work my brain."

We know to give children wait-time. During instruction time we know to sit and let children find the answers even when it becomes uncomfortable- yet I find we don't do that when we are merely chatting with children. As adults we are too quick to fill the silence when our children are searching for words to answer our questions.
"Did you have a good summer?" we ask, and then immediately jump into, "Did you go to the pool? Did you go to the beach? Did you read any good books?" without giving answer time.
"I bet you went to the pool! Was the water cold? Did your pool having a diving board?"

We can go on and on with these questions, and before you know it, we've had a conversation with ourselves. When we do this we are immersing our children in vocabulary, but we're not giving them the chance to use that vocabulary. They need to be able to search and find those words themselves.

We're also quick to give our children the words when they seem to be searching for the correct English word. "Um, you know, the long thing over the water?" and as though we're answering a trivia question we jump in, "The diving board!" "Yeah, that" the child answers, usually not even bothering to repeat the lost word to us.

Once I read Taylor's request for being able to finish her sentences I became hyper-aware of what I was doing in my conversations not just with my children but with their parents, and my co-workers. I realized that when someone jumped in to finish my sentence I did shut down- I handed the task of finishing the thought to them, as though my brain was turning off. Usually it was for nothing important- directions on how to get lunch at a nearby deli, or where to find the copy room in our school- but if my brain shut down when giving information it knows cold, it must be more than happy to do that when someone completes an answer for me that I don't know as well.

My goal this year is to allow children wait time, not just in academic settings but even in our daily conversation. Let them have the practice of finding the vocabulary words they want to use, practice searching their brains for the English word that corresponds with what they are thinking. Hopefully tomorrow, in the midst of the screaming, home sick kindergartners, I'll be able to somewhat remember this...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

where they've been

Friday morning I curled up in our school's vault- the small room where we keep all our confidential files. The air conditioning there is broken and I sweated my way through my new students' files- reading important information, making sure they were organized, noting techniques that work, and writing down medical terms I'd need to google later that described treatments or syndromes they'd been treated for in their short five years.

When a child is qualifying for special education his or her parents sit down with a social worker who creates a social history of the child's life. These social histories only reflect what the parent wants to reveal- the social worker asks the questions and records the parents answer with no way to check if the answers are completely truthfully or not.

These social histories give me such insight into the child's life before they enter my classroom doors. Many of the children with special needs in kindergarten were found eligible at the age of two. Their social histories describe high-risk pregnancies and difficult births that already indicate the stress a family was under from early on. Then the histories go into the search for answers- the different doctor opinions, different diagnosis, theories ruled out, difficulty feeding, walking, different schools, developmental milestones postponed. Paragraphs of heartbreak and stress, stated matter of factly within the pages of the eligibility packet.

I'm not a parent, but reading the long paragraphs made me ache for these parents. The answers they've been looking for, the run around they've gotten from doctors, the difficulty of protecting their child's goodness and individuality from the parenting books of typical development. Amongst the blessing of their child the family has been fighting a battle with society, the medical profession, and their own expectations. These files indicate it's been a long five years.

Reading these files allows me to see where the family has been. It prepares me for how to adapt the classroom, how to be ready to differentiate lessons and make the child successful, but more importantly, it gives another level of depth to the child and the family- helps me understand why the family might not care about some of our little kindergarten woes- or why they care so much about others. It reminds me of how much we can't see when we only know the child within our school walls. I can't judge- I have not been on the five year journey- I have not walked in these parents' shoes.

I'm excited for Tuesday when I get to work on giving these little ones a great kindergarten year.
Almost 30 minutes before we were going to open our school doors for Open House, families started lining up outside our school building, sitting on benches, leaning against walls, crouching on the curb side, waiting to be let inside to find out what the new school year holds for them.
As we scurried around inside putting last minute finishing touches on our hallway displays, or stuffing not-yet-organized paperwork into drawers so it will not be in the line of sight, the children and parents danced nervously outside.
Within moments of opening the door our cafeteria was flooded with families- each attempting to navigate the maze of open house- trying to figure out which of their last names we'd listed them under. One mother misunderstood and thought we wanted the last letter of her last name. Some families relied on children as translators, others were pulling their children along behind them, back-to-school nerves keeping normally rambunctious children quiet. Some families dressed their girls in identical dresses- stair step children in bright yellow huddled around their father while he filled out forms- girls in red plaid flannel shirts despite the heat because these were their best matching outfits.
As I handed each family the packet with their teacher's name I heard many gasp- some clutching the paper close to their chest as though if they lost the paper their assigned teacher would change. As long as I whispered, "You lucky duck, you have _____" the family seemed to light up- "Is she/he good?" they'd ask, and I'd smile and say, "Yes! You're going to have a great year!" and the family would beam with delight. I like helping add to the beginning of the year magic by pumping children up about their new teacher. I imagine Tuesday morning will be even better if the student comes to school thinking they have the perfect teacher.
For an hour and a half we helped sort children and families, reassured worried parents, put the right forms in the right hands, explained the alphabet, and welcomed back our families. Our school went from being the quiet, busy building it was during teacher workweek to a bustling community hub full of life and purpose.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

what I learned today

The most common initial for last name's in my school's area is C.

In order to find out who their teacher is for this year our families had to pick up their forms, which were being handed out at stations organized alphabetically by last names.

Despite the fact I was at the H/I station, with such common names as Han and Hernandez, my line was one of the shortest. C, on the other hand, wrapped around the cafeteria. Our families come from Vietnam, Korea, China, South America, the Middle East, the US, and Africa, and the C line reflected them all- Cortez, Chu, Cho, Connor, Cook, Caspio... and some long ones I can't begin to spell.

Who knew?

It's little, but it's something.

I also learned that after a long summer break I can barely handle a full work day. I'm rocking the after-school naps and the kids aren't even here yet. Next week I'm sure I'll barely be able to function. And if I'm that tired, just think what the kids are going to be like...