Tuesday, November 30, 2010

intelligence, self image, and hard work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

just like you

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

magic wand #3, teacher language

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

magic wand #2: home/school connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

ah, Pixie

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010

ok, honesty...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Initial thoughts from Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing just one seems so unfair...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

All in a day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

least restrictive environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

The power of silence

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

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

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

We don't talk. We are silent.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

geeking it up

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

some days simply are amazing

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly this wasn't working.

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

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

My head exploded.

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

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

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

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

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

It didn't.

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

totally inappropriate...

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

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


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

blown away

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

"Mrs. Lipstick was blown away?" 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dear Paper Towel Dispenser,

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

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

Full of Wonder

Happy, our class pet, the inspiration behind all our wonders

 This summer many of us at the Think Tank read A Place for Wonder by Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough. We met a few times throughout the summer to share our ideas, reflections, and thoughts about the book. Jenny even started a wiki for us so we could collaborate there. (I admit I have been terrible about checking it once school started- but this summer I had the best of intentions.)

I finally got around to opening up the Wonder Center during reading workshop.  Right now, since we're not doing reading groups yet in kindergarten (those start next week), the center is teacher led. This has been great because I've been able to sit with them, direct their attention, include interactive writing activities, and set the expectation that we're asking questions, looking at books to learn, and then writing. Next week when I start doing guided reading they'll be more independent (we hope).

Observing the parts as a scientist
 To start out I am picking one topic each week. I started with our class frog since she is the bane of my existence and yet a big part of our classroom community.

I'm dividing the center into 3 different parts. First we start with interactive writing and coming up with a question about what we want to know about frogs (or our topic). I've been surprised that this is actually hard for my five year olds. They are so egocentric that they think they know the right answer, even if they don't. Every "question" is a statement. This is usually how our conversations go:
 "Mrs. Lipstick, I have a question. Frogs eat lizards." 
"Friend, do you want to know if frogs eat lizards?"  
"No, I know frogs eat lizards."
"How do you know that?"
"In my brain"
"I wonder if all frogs eat lizards. Can I write, 'do frogs eat lizards?' ?"
"I'm looking for a QUESTION. What do you want to know about frogs?"
We go on and on.
So I'm trying to start with one group initiated question. We do a quick interactive writing which plants vocabulary and gives them some literacy (F for frog) they use the rest of the center to label their pictures.

I'm out of room in the classroom so our wonder wall is outside in the hallway
Our wonder center materials
 Then I let them go at it. There is a box of books on the subject they can browse through, along with a basket full of index cards, pencils, markers, crayons, and magnifying glasses. They can draw the parts of the frog, they can write or draw their questions, or they can browse through the books and then write/draw what they learned.

To be honest I was pretty unsure of how this would go, but I've been amazed. The kids LOVE looking at the books and then "writing" what they found. Every child seems to be able to access the center at their level.  Last week I was working with a little one who has no English. Because he had the common vocabulary from our intro question, and because we'd done a quick "F" for frog, he was drawing lots of pictures of frogs and labeling "F". This prompted him and his friend to try to write other letters they could hear, and quickly their little index cards were full of strings of letters. It was the most literacy I'd seen out of either of them and to be honest, I was surprised.
Both boys showed little interest in what was happening in the classroom and in academics. Suddenly, though, something about the frog truly delighted them.  They both also seemed to love looking through books and then writing down their findings. They took the task so seriously despite their lack of any sort of literacy knowledge. Walking by you would have assumed they were fourth grade students working on a research project the way their heads were buried in the books.

Today I watched one little boy carefully and quietly go through each book, infer a fact from looking at the pages, and record the fact on an index card. The thing was, I'd never seen this little one do anything carefully or quietly before.  He's all boy, and has yet to really show that he understands school is important. He's certainly not a behavior problem in any way, but I always have the sneaking suspicion he'd rather be at home playing outside. For one of the first times all year he settled into work without any prompts from a teacher. What's more, he wrote all of the words himself- never asking how to spell something. We had no idea he could write so well.  Check out his writing above! He copied 'frogs' and 'eat' but look at his other words~ we were blown away. Somehow writing workshop hadn't inspired any of that yet.  (poor kid, tomorrow writing workshop will be totally different now that we're on to you and your awesome writing ability...)

Our next topic will be trees. I went back and forth between doing trees and dinosaurs and settled on trees because it's in our science curriculum.  However, if it doesn't fill us with wonder the same way our frog did I'm going to disregard the science curriculum for this center and just develop it around what I notice they are interested in. After all, we have another opportunity for science. My real objective here is to get them asking questions, using books to get information, become inquisitive readers, and really (the main objective in kindergarten) practice their literacy skills.

more thoughts on superman- charters & the think tank

I knew going into seeing Waiting for Superman that I'd have issues with how it promotes the charter schools. I was pleasantly surprised during the movie that it wasn't nearly as pro-charter as I expected. It admitted there are charter schools out there that are not successful, in fact I think the statistic it used was 1 in 5 charter schools have students who earn competitive scores standardized assessments. That's not very good.

Still, because the movie follows families who are applying to charter schools, one could come away from the movie thinking that charter schools are the only answer to "saving education". There are a lot of problems with that, but the one that bothers me the most is that it overlooks the amazing public schools out there. And not just because those of us in successful public schools are looking to be patted on the back- but because it sends a message that public schools cannot be successful. Which isn't true- and that idea is harming education. Every student, regardless of whether or not their parent has the resources to apply to a charter school, deserves a wonderful education. 

Every time I tell someone about the think-tank they ask if I teach at a charter school. I find this amusing and horrifying at the same time. The idea that outsiders would hear about my amazing co-workers, the inventive programs and the success we've had and automatically assume we can't be a public school upsets me. There's no reason other public schools can't be like us, but when the media only promotes 'good' charter schools and 'bad' public schools we all end up thinking that public schools are a waste of time and a drain of resources.. I know you're probably tired of me bragging about the think tank, but I think we're doing it right.

I think some of the ways we're successful include:

-We're focused on bringing parents in- our parent center and parent programs work to teach parents about how to navigate the American education system, our school, and how to help their children at home.

-We're a collaborative school. Officially we're a "literacy collaborative" school, a program based out of the University of Ohio, but it's more than that. Teachers solve problems together. Every teacher has a literacy partner, which means no one teacher is responsible for teaching a group of children to read. Collaboration means that two sets of eyes are watching, discussing, and helping a struggling reader. Waiting for Superman focused a lot on "lemon teachers" or teachers who just weren't successful. In our school, not that there are any "lemons", but if there were, that teacher would be working with another teacher. This means the children wouldn't be left to fail, the teacher is held accountable, and, maybe more importantly, the struggling teacher learns from his or her partner. The teacher's not left to struggle alone, and hopefully in the end he or she transitions from being a struggling teacher to a successful teacher by what's been put in place.

-Our administration doesn't say no. I've talked about this before, but when we come up with an idea that will help our kids and our families we are usually given the green light. So, early morning math groups are started, the library is open before school, teachers can conduct home visits, and try new instructional techniques. Because of this we have an innovative culture which pushes us to be scientists and researchers instead of simply teachers. We're not teaching to a script- we're looking for ways to better ourselves and our student outcomes.

Sometimes I wonder what would be different if we were a charter school. We'd still have a modified calendar, that's for sure, since our parents and our teachers were committed to it, but the district cut it because of the funding.  Other than that?  I wonder how our collaborative environment would hold up under a merit-pay system. Would we have the resources and funding to do what we do?  I don't know enough about charter schools and where they get their funding to know if we'd be successful.  I think the biggest difference would be our students- most of our students come from two sets of subsidized housing. Our parents love their children and want the best for them, but I don't think they'd understand a charter system. Most of them would attend a public school. We'd lose out on the families who need us the most.

I know there are "bad" public schools out there, and I frequently hear horror stories about the regulations being put in place inside "good" public schools. But I don't think it has to be that way. Successful public schools don't come from more regulation on teachers, but instead from promoting a collaborative environment.

Once again I don't think I fully captured my thoughts on Waiting for Superman- there's so much there that this is only a piece of it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

the magical stroller

I have a very special friend this year who has a magical stroller.

 Yes, you read that correctly.

A stroller.

That is magically.

Does this not sound like the beginning of an amazing children's book?  But no, it is not a work of fiction. We have a friend with a magical stroller. Like Calvin and Hobbs, but instead of a tiger Hobbs has wheels, a seat, and handle bars.

We were first introduced to the stroller at our open house. We were a bit concerned that a five year old was still using a stroller, but when he explained he needed to bring it to open house with him because it talked to him and told him things we stopped asking questions. Sometimes it doesn't help to question.

When his mother comes pick him up on afternoons when the weather is exceptionally nice, she sometimes brings the stroller with her. Our friend doesn't get into the stroller, but he pushes it home, talking to it as he goes. Who knows what special tidbits he's sharing with the stroller from his day, or, what adventures the stroller is sharing with him.

At our home visit a few weeks ago we asked what sorts of toys he likes to play with and his mother laughed, "Oh, his favorite" she explained, "is his stroller".
He immediately ran and got it for us. And then, right there, his stroller became a vacuum cleaner. He starting vacuuming the rug, but suddenly his vacuum broke. So he had to unplug it from the wall, turn it over, investigate the inner workings, get a screw driver, fiddle with some things, turn it back up right, plug it back into the wall, turn it on to test it, and then fix it again, all the while narrating his vacuum adventures with expression and concern that it may never be fixed. Finally he plugged it back into the wall and it worked! He cheered, we cheered, and we watched as he vacuumed the rest of his apartment.

The entire experience was incredible. Throughout his whole stroller/vacuum interactions we continued with the conference, fully aware that a full-out drama was being performed in front of us, yet also fully aware that it was certainly not for our benefit. He barely looked at us as he went about cleaning the floors, clearly this was a typically afternoon play scheme for him.

I've got to admit, as far as magical toys go, a stroller is pretty great. Not quite as comfy to cuddle with as a stuffed bear, or as easy to transport like a small blankey,  but it really does open the imagination to so many more possibilities.  I'm kind of jealous I didn't have a magical stroller when I was a kid...

Friday, November 5, 2010


I spent yesterday visiting three different schools in our district with a parent. Each school teaches children who are hard of hearing with one specific method. One school teaches children sign language, one teaches using cued speech, and another is a full oral/auditory program. Each school was amazing. As we walked through each one I just couldn't help thinking how lucky we are to live in a district that provides such resources. Each school provides a support group for parents, classes on learning/supporting their method of communicating, and an audiologist in the building. None of these schools would be a bad choice.

I don't envy the parent's decision. He's not just choosing a school for his daughter's next few years, he's deciding on how she will communicate with others, how she will learn to listen to others, and the community she will identify herself with. He's choosing her peer group, the resources she'll have available to her as she grows, and in some ways, the resources she'll have for her the rest of her life, especially if he chooses the school with sign language.

It's a lot for me to think about as her teacher, and I'm not her parent.

This little girl is amazing. Despite her profound hearing loss she's an energetic, intelligent, capable child who is experiencing life with hearing aids for the first time in her life. Watching her adjust to being able to hear sounds and use them to navigate her world has been a remarkable experiences for all of us. So now her parents have the responsibility of deciding which of these schools will give her the best opportunity to fully grow, learn, become confident and self assured. Which will give her the tools to allow her to be the most successful for the rest of her life?

On our tour we met the kids in each program. We met children in cued speech who have no hearing at all, but are now speaking because they've been in the cued speech program since preschool. We met very confident, bright children using sign language to navigate through their day. The teachers at the cued speech program shared with us that when their older students return to visit they've usually picked up sign language from their middle school or high school programs. These students say they prefer speaking in sign language when they are chatting with friends, but like using cued speech to hear what the teacher is saying.

When we walked into the sign language classroom we were met by one second or third grade boy who asked (through signing) if we were deaf. When we said no he asked if we were hearing impaired. When we said no he confirmed that we were hearing persons. On learning that we were, he screwed up his face in disgust and turned back to his task, having fully lost interest in our presence. Many of the other adults in the room were hearing impaired or deaf, and many were visiting from a nearby deaf college. The community in the room was clearly very strong.

Each school had its own cheering section, advocating for why teaching a child with her amount of hearing loss sign language would be best, or why she should learn cued speech, or why she should be in a full oral/auditory program. And each school has excellent points. There are advantages and disadvantages to each- and now her parents have to attempt to sift through all of that, look ahead into the future, and decide what will be best for her their five year old. It's exciting to have so many options for her, but I can't imagine how they are agonizing over which is the best.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

stomping my feet

If there is one thing I have learned from PJ it is how to throw a massive temper tantrum.  And let me tell you, it is taking everything I have to not copy PJ's behavior. Because right now I think a temper tantrum might just be in order.

I'm tired. I'm grouchy. I spent a good part of my day cold and wet. I want to curl up under a table and start yelling "no" anytime someone comes near me. I kind of want to throw all the books near me at the wall.

I thought I had more to say, but I don't. *sigh* How is it still this week?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

it's not just about superman

Last week I was chatting with my advisor when the movie Waiting for Superman came up. She asked if I'd seen it yet, which prompted me to go into my very long list of all the reasons I wasn't sure I wanted to see it. The main reason being that it could make me so angry that I spend valuable time yelling about the state of the education debate while poor Mr. Lipstick tries to study for his own midterms. I just didn't know if I could emotionally handle it at this point in my somewhat hectic life.

When my rather long monologue/rant ended she gave me the look I give my kindergarten students when they tell me they can't read today because their feet hurt. "Go see it." she said.
So I did.
it wasn't that bad. In fact, at times it made me want to stand up in the theater and shout "I am a public school teacher at a Title 1 school!" with pride. There were times I nodded along in agreement at how difficult it is to get anything done in school bureaucracy. Of course there were times I wanted to yell at the screen for being bias, or for clearly not presenting the whole story, or for leaving out small yet important details.

It gave me a lot to think about and I know I have more posts about it coming. But my first impression leaving the theater was frustration with the entire education debate. I have read many, many blog posts and articles on Waiting for Superman. I've heard people refer to it as having all of the answers to fixing education and ending original sin, while others discuss it as though it will single handily undermine education while killing puppies. I've heard it highly criticized and I've heard it highly praised. But to be honest, as I walked out of the theater, I couldn't think of anything I read about it that accurately reflected the arguments in the movie. Everyone seems to have taken what they wanted to take from it- blogs quote statistics or scenes from the movie to support what they already believe, completely disregarding the other scenes or statistics in the movie that contradict them. I left more frustrated with the education policy community's discussion of the movie than the movie itself.

I will say though that the movie simplified many large issues or debates in education, or only showed small pieces of larger topics. The only parents highlighted in the movie are parents who are highly invested in their children's education. I found it ironic and frustrating to watch these parents fight for a spot in a charter school when my coworker just blogged about all the parents who just refuse to come in to parent conferences or play a role in their children's education at all. Many of us in public schools are fighting not just to teach these kids to read but to encourage their parents to be involved in their education.

Another area where I think it simplified its facts was with the Harlem Children's Zone. I idolize Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone and want to be him when I grow up. I could watch an entire movie on his schools and still want to know more about his programs. He is profiled throughout the entire movie, and much of what he discusses is also in the book Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.  Yet the movie makes Canada's journey seem easy, while in Whatever It Takes he discusses some of the true difficulties he ran up against that should truly be considered whenever discussing the role of charter schools and public education in education our neediest children. If we want to make true progress we need to look at past road blocks and learn from them, not just brush them under the rug.

The movie did a nice job of highlighting the importance of good teachers (although it left out how a principal or school would define and measure good teachers), and stressed how essential good teachers are to children's education. It also talked about how no one is a great teacher their first or second year- it takes practice and is a continuous learning process. (I went into the movie worried it would be a TFA love fest, but TFA is not mentioned throughout the entire movie).

But it did not have all the answers, nor did it highlight all of the problems. It was a start, like putting your toe into the ocean. So- if you  liked Waiting for Superman you need to read:

-Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough about Geoffrey Canada's journey to develop Harlem Children's Zone
-The Working Poor by David Shiplar  for an understanding of what our families are going through
-Beautiful Child by Torey Hayden  for a picture of what dedication and obstacles can exist for children and teachers
-Anything by Jonathon Kozol for vivid images of our public schools
-Welfare Brat by Mary Childress  for a picture of a child growing up in poverty and overcoming the odds
-Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by Rafe Esquith  for intense teaching strategies and motivation

Don't read any of these books as though they are the Bible, but instead read them to add to the broader picture of public school education.

What else do you recommend? What's shaped your understanding and beliefs about education?

More on Superman coming in later posts.