Monday, December 27, 2010

Magical's (1st?) Christmas

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

sick pet?

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

white elephant

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coming up- ways we're teaching rhyming

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

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

the heaven of 2 hour delays

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

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

Friday morning's hot chocolate and book party

Saturday, December 18, 2010

wrap around services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 17, 2010


Magical is sick. Really sick. Hospital sick. 

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

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

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

Wow, I love that kid.

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

i heart my job

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

big mistake

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

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

Or ran smoothly for most.

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

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

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

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

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

I was too late.

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

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


Thursday, December 9, 2010


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

Magical:  Hmmmmmmm

Long pause


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

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

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

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

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

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

Me:   Why don't I help you?

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

Me: There, now find it.

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Are you golden?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

see or no?

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

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


Monday, December 6, 2010

stress & something to think about...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Magic wand #4, collaboration for creativity & achievement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 4, 2010

run, girls, run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For over an hour.

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

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

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

*it's friday*

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

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

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

Somehow, to us it became normal.

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

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