Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hooray for the bathroom!

When I graduated from college I didn't expect that my degree would lead me to be sitting in the floor of a classroom bathroom coaxing a five year to use the toilet. I certainly didn't expect to be excited about it. But today after a few silly rounds of peek-a-boo with one of my friends I decided to suggest that we just go into the bathroom. You know, just to chill. Learn that it's not a scary place. Hang out. (because isn't that what we all want to do- hang out in a bathroom used by five year olds).
My friend was in such a good mood that he did it although he'd previously refused to go anywhere near the place.
Not only did he go into the bathroom but he came very, very close to actually using the bathroom. And he did this three times.
There was lots of clapping and hugging. And maybe some candy.
I never thought that I'd connect the bathroom with a Christmas miracle.


There are days I think I am earning an advanced degree in unsticking glue bottles. Today is one of those days.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Elf on a shelf

Is anyone else a little bit horrified by Elf on a shelf? I'll admit- part of my horror is probably pure jealousy. My husband's aunt gave Little Lipstick a signed copy because the creator was a teacher at her school.
A teacher. I mean, it's exactly the type of thing one of us would create. Like my first year teaching when I convinced my first graders that the best April fool's day joke would be to whisper all day and if anyone asked why we'd say, "shhhh- don't wake the lion!" it made no sense but it gave me a very quiet, headache free day.

Elf on a shelf is brilliant from a marketing stand point. Once you've decided to try it as a parent you are stuck moving that elf every day in December until your little ones don't believe in Santa anymore. And if you're one of those creative parents whose elf gets involved in elaborate play scenes every night? You are stuck coming up with new elf shenanigans for years. But you can't not be an elf on a shelf family! What will your kids think? Santa loves the other kids more?
(we're going to tell baby lipstick that our family elf is a crotchety old elf who doesn't like to move a lot because of his hip replacement and just skypes with Santa instead of actually flying up there. The cold at the North Pole isn't good for his arthritis. I mean, in these modern times what elf actually needs to travel to the north pole?)

Baby L and I nestled in to read the book this morning as she grabbed at the red elf (which means our elf is already ruined. The book, in a very teacher like manner tells the kids that if they touch the elf he loses his magic. Brilliant.) and I was kind of horrified by the book. It's like the children's version of 1984. This large demanding boss makes his little worker drones fly around the world and spy on his subjects. He'll reward behavior he likes and punish those not acting appropriately. And that sneaky spy is hiding in your house. He's got friends in high places too, so don't mess up on the playground when you think the elf isn't around. Oh no. Big brother elf is all knowing. He's out there. Santa isn't limited by the constitution after all, and even if he was, the right to privacy is a sketchy one.
But don't think your elf is going to talk to you- Santa's laws don't allow for free speech. No, he's just going to talk about you behind your back like a middle school girl. Paranoid yet?

Of course, Mr Lipstick and I will do Elf on a Shelf and we'll probably even make the mistake of being those creative elf hiders the first year, sentencing ourselves to years of stressful December evenings. Because despite all the communist propaganda, as a kid I would have loved an elf and I bet little lipstick will too.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Three ring circus

My classroom is very much a three ring circus in many ways. On good days it is a very smoothly run operation that would bore any circus goer to tears. In one corner children are quietly reading, in another a child might be transitioning from his wheel chair to his stander, on the rug a child might be quietly working on an assigned activity.
Today was not one of those days. Today I could have sold popcorn.
One girl was so wound up she kept running from the room, giggling manically and throwing books. Another child was in the hallway refusing to go anywhere. I caught another trying to feed the frog when no one was looking (and then he tried to tell me that Mrs Lipstick told him he could, looking shocked when I pointed out that I was Mrs Lipstick and knew very well that I'd told him no such thing)
And that was just in one five minute block. The rest of the day was like that. God bless the children who did their work as though flying books are normal. And Magical, who narrated the whole thing in case we didn't know what we were doing. (D just ran out of the room? Oh man. V won't come in? Oh boy. Mrs Lipstick is mad? Oh no!)


Magical is working on being independent with his self help skills. Every time he leaves the bathroom he asks for someone to button him back up without attempting to do it first. Today I told him that I would only help him if he tried it himself first.
"Myself?" he asked, as though I was teaching him a new word.
"Yes, yourself."
He began waving his hands around his button while still staring wide-eyed at me.
"Magical, look down," I coached, modeling looking down for him.
He immediately dropped his eyes and his mouth fell open in disbelief as he watched his fingers almost close the button. Every time he came close to snapping it he'd look up at me in excitement, causing his hands to fall away from the button.
"I'm doing it myself!" he cheered every time right before he lost it. He was giddy with the power of closing his own snaps, yet too giddy to actually close the deal. Baby steps. Today was the idea of looking at what we do. Maybe tomorrow we'll tackle looking the whole time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reason #327 I love my class

I was chatting with our librarian the other day and she mentioned that one of the reasons she loves my class is because it gives them a peer group. It's so true. Although we want them to be with their typical peers, no one can deny the power of being around people that truly 'get' you.
Yesterday while they were suppose to be decorating paper gingerbread men so we could count and graph the circles, triangles, and squares they each used, Magical and another friend were busy giggling with one another. From an outsider's perspective (outsider being anyone but the two of them) they were not making any sense at all. But they were having an intense back and forth conversation- something they are both working on. Without any adult prompts they were listening and responding to each other without changing the silly topic, and were having a ball doing it. Not all children "get" Magical. They may be nice, share and talk to him, but what I witnessed yesterday was true friendship. The kind of friendship where you get in trouble with the teacher because you both are so invested in the conversation that you forget to do your work.
At the end of the day I was walking one of my almost non-verbal students out to kiss and ride when we ran into another of my almost non-verbal students. Their eyes lit up when they spotted each other. There were hugs, cheers, hellos and more hugs even though they'd just seen each other forty minutes before.
I love my class.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Brown Bear

One of the things I am loving about my new position is how much I get to learn. I am working with children with some significant needs and hopefully by the end of this year I will have a whole new skill set.
One of my students, Brown Bear (named after his favorite book) is a little boy with an intellectual disability. He is the younger brother of the Story Teller (if we had favorites the Story Teller would be one of mine, but of course we don't have favorites). Although I have worked with students with intellectual disabilities before I have never worked with anyone quite like him. His behavior is nothing like PJ's violent tantrums last year, but with PJ I felt like I knew what to do. I could see patterns in PJ's behavior and also knew how bright PJ was. His intelligence made his behavior somewhat predictable because we could anticipate what how he perceived the world. My new friend is different than that. We are not sure exactly what he understands and what he is confused about. When he breaks down in tears it is hard to figure out why. Is he over stimulated? Frustrated by a change in routine? Tired? Angry that he can't express his needs?
Sometimes we can put a finger on what motivates him and sometimes we are at a loss. It can be totally different motivators each time. What worked five minutes ago no longer works.

When he is happy his smile melts your heart. He has an uncanny ability to remember names and truly cares about the people in his environment. He loves physical touch and will cuddle up with you when given the chance. He can tell you all of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, exclaiming with glee on each page when a new animal appears.
I wish I knew more now to make a difference with him but I'm looking forward to learning more about how to reach him.
If anyone knows of any good books to read to learn about working with students with intellectual disabilities please let me know the titles!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

No baby love

During writing workshop Magical mentioned that he had a new couch and told me I would see it when (note not if, but when) I come to his house. I responded by telling him that I'd promised his mom that I would bring the baby over.
"Or maybe you don't bring her" he replied. "Don't bring the baby to my house. It will touch my things. You can come visit but you just leave the baby outside. By the door. But you can come in. Just show the baby to my mom and then leave it outside."
Nothing we said could change his mind- no baby is coming into his house.

Monday, December 5, 2011

It's the little things

In the midst of trying to figure out what time which students were suppose to go where (it is going to take me awhile to get my head on straight) one of my little ones loudly announced,
"I am going to do it all by myself!"

I looked up, confused to what he was talking about, before I understood he meant the bathroom. He was going to go to the bathroom all by himself. This, I learned from my sub, was something they'd been working on.
We cheered to encourage him and watched as he strutted into the bathroom and shut the door- a sure sign that he fully intended to do this all by himself.
Moments later we heard the toilet flush and he proudly strutted out of the bathroom and announced to the class, "I did it!"

We cheered.

I love my job.

Friday, December 2, 2011


I survived my first day back from maternity leave, lack of sleep and all. It helps that my class is awesome and that they've made huge strides since I was last with them in August. Magical in particular is absolutely blossoming. There is a lot I've missed and a lot for me to catch up on, but I'm trying not to let it overwhelm me. A little bit each day...
It was odd, though, being in my classroom trying to figure out someone else's routines. What normally happens after snack? How do they transition to recess- sit on the carpet or just line up? It sounds like such small things but for children who are extremely sensitive to change these little routines are very important. I'll slowly start changing them to make them go the way I want them to, but I worry that too much too early on will cause a lot of unneeded distress and acting out.

The best part is having my own classroom again. I missed it so much the last 4 years- its so nice to be forming the community and routines again.

No matter how great a day it was.', however, I am utterly exhausted. I'll be lucky if I make it to 8:30 tonight.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hidden treasures

In getting ready to go back to school (two more days... I can't handle this!) I've been going through my wardrobe to figure out what fits and what doesn't. It appears that every time I put on a pair of pants I pull out not a $20 like one hopes but a piece of a game or center from last year. Two sided counters, a candy land person, two zingo tiles, a toy bone (?), and some counting bears. Some pieces have clearly been laundered but managed to stay in the pockets throughout the winter. I'm sure if I got creative I could develop my own math game with all the random pieces.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


My daycare provider asked me to bring Baby L in everyday two weeks before I would officially leave her. The first day I sat and watched the program. The second day she sent me on a walk around the block, leaving Baby L behind. The third day she sent me twice around the block. The fourth day she sent me to Starbucks. She's very slowly getting me prepared to leave her, and slowly getting Baby L use to her daycare.
When we went on Monday I could watch Baby L visibly relax there. She was giggly and happy in everyone's arms. A huge wave of relief flooded over me- I might actually be able to leave her after all. (Still wishing I could just take her to work with me...)

The daycare provider has been so adamant about the importance of a slow transition. By the time I drop Baby L off the first day she wants her extremely comfortable with the other children, the care givers and the environment. She wants to make sure I am comfortable because that will send a message to my baby.
Obviously this is above and beyond what we can do in school for our kinders, but I think some of the principals behind it are the same.
We can make sure the parents feel comfortable with us because that their children will pick up on any anxieties they have.
We can try to introduce the environment to children with their parents beside them to help them feel safe. If their initial experience is safe and warm with their parent they are more likely to associate positive feelings and trust with the new environment. And obviously, when they feel safe and secure they are more likely to be open for learning.
It's hard to fully prepare our kinders for school, especially those who have never been away from their parents for this long. There is obviously a lot out of our hands- the parents have to bring them to open house and orientation for us to get a chance to try to make them comfortable. But we have control of how we set up those experienced, the patience we have with parents, and how we interact to send a message of security in the new environment.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Two more weeks...

Two weeks from today I will be back at work. I can't believe my leave is almost up.
I've been going in once a week to get to know the kids and watch their routines. It's odd to be a stranger in my own classroom, observing as an outsider. Although the kids are all excited when we talk about me coming back I don't think they really understand what a significant change it will be. I don't think they realize that the teacher they have gotten to know over the last 12 weeks will be gone and I will take her place. For children with special needs who thrive on routines and structure this is going to be especially hard.
I won't respond to their behaviors the way their substitute did, simply because we are different people. I have a feeling we are going to have a period of testing and restlessness as we all get to know each other.
There is so much I've missed in these first 12 weeks. Developments in their behaviors, their diagnosis, the relationships with their parents and the school, their use of equipment, what works and what doesn't. I feel like I am going to have a steep learning curve of where each child is, right when I am not on my a game myself from lack of sleep and the emotional adjustment of leaving my little one.
This whole 12 week maternity leave thing is for the birds! No wonder women make less than men in the work place! When we come back from leave we are not the with-it workers we once were with our sleepless nights. I use to be able to throw myself into my job, now I'm going to have to make some serious readjustments in my expectations of myself.
I'm excited to go back and work with the kids. I miss them like crazy. But the whole getting up early, being productive, trying to problem solve, write IEPs, and be on top of the game... Not sure I'm ready for all of that.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hopes and Dreams

Last week I was at school for parent conferences and was catching up with our fabulous speech-language pathologist when I noticed the bulletin board in her office. She'd taken the idea of Responsive Classroom's hopes and dreams that most classrooms at our school use. Not letting the fact that she wasn't in a classroom stop her, she had given each child a paper t-shirt where they each wrote their individual goal for speech. They ranged from broad categories like "social skills" to specific goals like "r sounds".
Above the bulletin board was a sign that read Hopes and Dreams, with each child's signature.

I love that she adapted the idea of hopes and dreams to the speech room. One of the greatest things you can teach children with special needs is how to set goals and work toward reaching them. They also benefit from having a good understanding of their disabilities and how they can work toward progress. It empowers them by letting them know they have control of their environment and themselves. And of course, a sense of community is essential to them as well.
I love that she tweaked the idea to work for our kids.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shameful uses of a baby

I've continued to go to school to visit my class to get to know them better. I've been loving stopping in to read to them, watch them work at their centers, and chat with them. Of course, every time I've been there it has been with the baby.

There are so many ways you can use a baby in a classroom-
"Everyone sit quietly, don't wake the baby!"
"Why aren't you working? The baby wants to hear you read!"
"Show the baby the first letter in your name?"
"Oh! Go sit down, the baby needs to see everyone sitting down!"

Really, it's been kind of shameful. And I am absolutely screwed when I come back to work without the baby. Those kids will have no incentive to do anything I say once it is just me,

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Education horror story

This horrified me. Maybe because I've heard too many stories like this. This story is why merit pay makes me nervous, why I tend not to trust new administrators until they have proven themselves, and why I feel like you never can put too much stock in teacher evaluations.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teacher pay tied to parent involvement?

I just settled down to catch up on my google reader and I read this paragraph from The Quick and the Ed's Quick Hits for today:

Teacher pay dependent on parents. Rural districts in Idaho have decided to tie teacher merit pay to parental involvement, specifically their attendance at parent-teacher conferences. State officials required districts to decide the factors from which to base performance bonuses. Up to 70 percent of that pay in these rural districts will rest on the parents. (Associated Press)

Not wanting to jump to hasty conclusions I went ahead and followed the link. It had to be a joke, right? Rewarding teachers lucky enough to already teach the kids who have involved parents? Those teachers already benefit from having a home/school connection, and from teaching children who are growing up in a house that values education.
I really, really hoped the quick paragraph was only a tiny piece of the story.

But it seems to sum it up pretty well-.
High school teachers can earn bonuses if at least 40% of parents come to conferences.
I'm sure looking at this from one side makes it sound like a great idea. Build in an incentive to make teachers get creative and reach out to parents. And it might actually get impressive results from some teachers.
On the other hand, it rewards teachers who teach classes full of students who come from involved house holds and punishes the teachers who work with students whose parents are busy with multiple jobs, or who just don't make education a priority. In many of these cases I am willing to bet that the teachers dealing with the least motivated students and the greatest discipline problems are the same as the teachers who have more no shows at conferences.
I always think you can predict how a teacher's year will go based on the turn out at open house. The class where very few parents show up is likely to be the class with students behind academically, students who act out, and students who just don't care about school. It is not a one to one correlation- not every no-show parent signals a long year, but there is a trend.

The past two years my partner in crime and I did home visits for our students. Too busy to come to conference days? We will come to your house at a time that works for you. No problem.

Do you know what it is like to be stood up at someone's house? Especially when you are pretty sure they are inside- just hiding from you. Knocking on a door, listening to footsteps inside that never answer the door?
There are parents who just do not want to be involved.
I've gone to great lengths to talk to parents who seem to have gone to equal great lengths to not talk to me. I've picked up their baby when they come to pick their child up from kiss and ride- they can't avoid me when I'm holding their 6 month old baby. I've shown up uninvited to birthday parties. I shamelessly snap pictures of their children and give them to them so they see me as someone who loves their kid and is safe to talk to. I've gotten my oil changed at the gas station where they work so we can have our conference while I wait.
And even with all that I can still be unsuccessful. There are parents who just are not interested, or who are just too busy to come to school.
Tying merit pay to whether or not these parents show up is like telling the dog he'll get a treat when he herds the cat.

I like that the school district wants to address parent involvement and I like that they want to encourage teachers to reach out to parents, I just don't think merit pay is the way to do it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Yesterday I hauled little L into school to meet my kiddos. I needed to get out of the house and be around five year olds again. I've found myself chatting up five year olds in the grocery store aisles much to the dismay of their parents. I'm asking kids in the drs office waiting room to read to me and then I correct their one to one finger pointing. I need to teach again.
I'm also feeling anxious about going back even though it is still six weeks away. I know I'll still be sleep deprived and not in my best state. I'm worried that my emotional stress that week will interfere with my ability to be a good teacher. I want to start building a relationship with the kids now so that I'll be prepared that week. My plan now is to go in once a week to do a read aloud. Just brief visits but long enough so that I get to know the feel of the classroom and they get to know me.
It was wonderful being back. I know I love my job when it was hard for me to leave the classroom to go home. I just wanted to jump into reading groups and settle in.
In a totally shameful moment I decided I couldn't be I'm the building and not see Pixie. So despite the fact her first grade classroom was humming awayat reading workshop I peeped in so that I could get my dose of Pixie.
"I didn't know you had a baby!" she squealed. Which isn't true. "and you dyed your hair." also not true.
And with that she scampered back to her table as one of her classmates asked me where the baby came from. With that I slipped back out the door apologizing profusely for totally causing an explosion on the midst of reading workshop.

I am surprised at how good it was to be back and see all the children. It makes my December deadline seem more like something to look forward to and less like a curse.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Teacher prep

Although I haven't found much time to blog lately I have been keeping up on my google reader. I was thrilled last week to read from The Quick and the Ed's blog that Arne Duncan is putting a priority on teacher prep. Too many of us are sent into classrooms unprepared. And although your first year teaching is going to have a high learning curve no matter what, there are ways we can make it less steep.
One of the unintended consequences from Teach for America was that it somehow made people believe that teachers didn't need training- anyone could do it. I know it wasn't TFA's intention, but I think the assumption that anyone could go in and teach with virtually no background became a huge catalyst for the anti-teacher movement. Who would respect someone whose job is so easy anyone could walk in and do it?
Of course one of the problems is that although teacher training should be rigorous and should fully prepare students to enter classrooms, many programs are ridiculous. Mine certainly was. It pains me how unprepared I was, and it should not have been a surprise to me- my Ed classes were absurdly easy. This was a huge waste of my time- what I would have given to be challenged in those classes.
Because the classes were notoriously easy the teacher prep program was seen almost as a joke by outsiders. Potentially excellent teachers turned their noses up at the profession because they felt they were smarter than those classes. And they were- but that doesn't mean they were too smart for the profession.
Improving teacher prep can do what TFA wanted to do- bring intelligent people into the profession. But it can also do more- it can change the  perspective people have for the education field by making it a more respectable major. Who in college wants to major in something that is a running joke throughout the school?  Let me tell you- it takes a firm backbone to be able to stay in a major that makes people assume you couldn't cut it in anything else in the school. People start to talk slower around you, and explain their jokes as though you don't get them. Who would suffer through that?

However, I don't think we can improve the outcomes of teacher prep coursework simply by modifying the coursework alone. It has to go hand in hand with giving teachers ample time in the classroom as interns, or student teachers, working alongside expert teachers who know how to think out loud and explain best practices throughout the intern's time in the classroom.

My school works closely with one university in the area. We have at least 4, if not more, interns every year who stay with us throughout the entire year. Because they spend so much time in the classroom learning alongside the teacher before they take on the responsibility of running a classroom alone they usually end the year extremely prepared. We love when our interns are hired as teachers the following year because we know they are fully prepared and well trained.

I'm excited that the ed conversation has turned toward teacher prep and I hope it will be a positive turn. There has been criticism of teacher prep for awhile with the answer seeming to be that it should be eliminated. Instead let's make it more rigorous and fully prepare teachers for the huge amount of responsibility they will have in their first year teacher.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thank you Steve Jobs

I have to admit I thought I would hate maternity leave. I'm an introvert by nature but the idea of spending 12 weeks by myself day in and day out filled me with dread. I love teaching and knew I would miss the energy I get from being around kids in the classroom. Reading click, clack, moo to little L just isn't the same- she doesn't do the voices along with me and it's like she doesn't even understand why cows with heated blankets are funny! (she is only a month old)
Before little L was born Mr Lipstick had us get iPhones. He somehow felt they were essential to the new baby process. I thought this was silly but I went along anyway. He was right- they are essential.
Without the iPhone I think I would be going crazy. Instead I have everything I need in one hand. My book, movies, email, my google reader to keep me connected to the education world, baby apps to track what I can't remember in my sleep deprived state, and the list goes on and on. Suddenly I'm not trapped by myself but I am still a part of the world. The iPhone is like God's gift to women with newborns. Or anyone that suddenly needs to do everything one handed.
In my sleep deprived state I can't help but feel eternally grateful to the innovation and creativity of Steve Jobs and the iPhone team. Thank you for helping me remember I am a human being with the ability to think and connect with others. Thank you for helping my poor memory, for making life easier, for entertaining me during late night feedings. Thank you for knowing what I would need before I ever did.
with others.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

looking beyond behaviors

When I was doing preschool transition IEPs last spring the preschool teachers warned me that one little girl I'd be getting had a bit of a stubborn streak in her behavior. They said that she seemed cute and sweet but that she would use that to not be independent, avoid adult requests, and just generally ignore adults. They warned us that her developmental difficulties were from this behavior, and once her behavior was in check her academics would follow.

The speech language pathologist and I thought this seemed odd after meeting the girl because what we saw in her behavior did not line up with what the preschool teachers told us. Still, we'd only met her a few times and they were with her everyday- so what did we know? We promised ourselves that we'd keep an open mind when the year started.

She didn't come to our summer program so I was not able to get to know her at all before I left on maternity leave. My co-workers have kept me informed of what's been happening in my classroom and it turns out that her developmental difficulties were not from behavior at all, but in fact from a medical reason. The amazing team that is working in my classroom right now quickly figured out that something was very wrong- this was not a stubborn little girl just refusing to do her work. They asked the right questions, got the right people involved, brought her parents in, and soon had it sorted out. This was a little girl who could not hear- it had nothing to do with her ignoring her teachers just to avoid work. She literally could not hear what they were saying- she wasn't pretending to try to get out of work.

Every time someone tells me another piece of this story to update me on what is happening with her case I am so thankful for the team at school.  This little one was so lucky to have a strong team who looked past what seemed to be non-compliant behavior and instead asked what was wrong. Without their questions and concern she could have had yet another year of teachers becoming frustrated because they misinterpreted her behaviors as intentional. 

How often do we see the behaviors in the classroom as though the child has a vendetta against us personally? How often do we as teachers get lost in the frustrating surface behavior and forget to look beyond to the true cause? 

Friday, September 23, 2011

first years

Oh my goodness.  I don't even know where to start- my sleepless brain keeps knitting together blog posts that I never have time to write, which is good because if put down on paper I'd probably learn that they don't make any sense.  The last blog post I manged to hit publish on had a broken link, which I never did get around to fixing. Life has changed a bit.

I'm loving life as a new mommy, but at times I start to have the feeling that I've been here before. Finally I realized that this whole experience reminds me a lot of my first year teaching. I hadn't thought about those first year emotions in a long time- I've just relished in loving my job. Until now I'd forgotten exactly how hard it was starting out.

Before my daughter was born, and before I started my first year I certainly felt like I had all the answers. I'd read the books, knew the theories, and felt ready for the new experience. Then it hit and I realized that nothing could begin to prepare me for the actual experience. Theory is one thing- but actual practice is totally another.

The thing that's hard in both situations is that just weeks before I'd been confident and set in my life. Then suddenly everything is turned upside down and that confidence is turned upside down. I think that's the scariest part- not knowing for sure when you'll get the confidence back. There are no books that can tell you when you'll start to feel like yourself again.

The learning curve is huge. As a first year teacher and a new mommy I'd look at my charges and feel overwhelmed with emotion- I love them so much and think they are such great kids. Why do they have to suffer through my learning curve?  They deserve a better first grade/new beginning to life than suffering through me learning what to do.

And the judgement- so many different theories out there. No matter what you do you'll never make everyone happy and someone will be there with a raised eyebrow and a "really? That's the choice you're going to make?" It can drive a person to drink. (Which was an option first year teaching- not so much now.)

Luckily people have been far more supportive of new mommy-ness than my first year teaching (I didn't work at the think-tank yet). Right now I'm feeling good and starting to feel like I'm getting the hang of this- sleeplessness and all.  It certainly took much, much longer for me to feel that way about my first year teaching.

There was so little support then- and what came being called "support" really was judgmental teammates who had little patience for a new learning curve. There was a lot of "I can't BELIEVE you're not doing guided reading correctly!" when no one had ever told me how to do guided reading. The closest I got to thinking that life would be better was buying an LSAT book and starting to study. But slowly it got better- I found my groove, managed to close my ears to negative attitudes and realized that I could do it.

I'm thankful that my new mommy learning curve has not been nearly as painful as that first year, but it has made me think a lot about those first year teachers. We've got to do more to support them, if not for the teachers themselves for their students and the future students they'll teach in  years to come. Not all new teachers have painful first years, but many do. The learning curve is ridiculously steep and those of us who have been around a long time tend to forget how difficult it is to keep all the balls in the air those first few months. The sink or swim belief that teachers are born and not made leaves a lot of students behind, along with a lot of would-be-great teachers.

Now if you'll excuse me- someone is crying and I have yet to figure out why. One of these days I'll learn how to write, proofread, and be a mommy, but for now the proofreading is what is going out the window- forgive me!

Monday, September 12, 2011


I rant enough about how no one asks for teachers opinions when they are looking at education policy.  Last week (yes, it's taken me this long to blog about it because I've had difficulty speaking and/or writing in complete sentences) Education Sector let me know that they launched a Teacher Sector project on Facebook.

Here's what they say:

"Today, lots of people are talking about teachers. But many fewer are actually talking to them. We at Education Sector (an independent policy think tank –  know that the teacher’s voice is invaluable—that their experiences can enrich and enhance any policy discussions. That's why we created Teacher Sector— a Facebook community page designed to find out what teachers think about education and share their good ideas. 

We want to know what teachers are thinking and facing every time they step in front of a class. How are budget cuts affecting class size? Is discipline big issue in their classrooms? What's the best way to evaluate their performance as a teacher? And what do they think about teachers and students being Facebook friends? You'll see these questions and more on Teacher Sector, and we'll be paying close attention and using the ideas to inform our work and get messages to policymakers.
We’re offering one teacher a year of school supplies ($450, which statistics tell us is the average that teachers spend). All we need to do is get 500 teachers to “like” our page and then answer a question."

~~  ~~  ~~  
LOVE this.

It's ridiculously refreshing to know they are taking time to reach out to teachers and find time to ask about our opinion. I'd say it made my week, but, well, in my sleepless state every time my daughter opens her eyes it makes my week.

Go check it out and answer a question to get that $450 for school supplies!!  

Friday, September 9, 2011

First day

For the first time in nine years the first day of school came and went without me. I usually love the first day of school, despite the tears, difficulties figuring out schedules, and adjusting to new routines. My goal had been for the first day to be my last before maternity leave but of course my plans were nothing compared to the plans of my newborn daughter who decided to make her appearance on Saturday. My Tuesday was still filled with tears, difficulty with scheduling, getting to know a new face, and adjusting to new routines- just a little different than I'd expected.
So my maternity leave has started. I know I'll have lots of ideas to blog about when I'm home, I just might not find the time to get it written down.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

brotherly love

Not that we ever have favorites, but since I taught The Story Teller for 3 years in a row, he has a special place in my heart. Just reading over all my posts on him puts me in a better mood- his sincere honesty mixed with his vivid imagination and his good intentions can't help you do anything but adore him. This year I have one of his little brothers in my non-cat class.  The Story Teller is the oldest of 4 children, and all four of them showed up this afternoon to check out the youngest brother's classrooms during our open house.

The boys seemed excited to see me and my Partner-in-Crime. They quickly told us that they'd moved and in their new home they'd had both an earthquake and a hurricane. "Good thing that earthquake wasn't too big" the Story Teller told me, "All of Japan would have been gone."  When I mentioned we'd had an earthquake as well (he didn't really move that far away) he looked shocked. "You had one too?  Wow, what a big earthquake!" 

He then picked his two year old sister up and introduced us to her as "The princess of the family".

Although his mother told me that he talked about me non-stop for years, he didn't seem convinced that his little brother was going to be in good hands. As he pushed his brother toward me to introduce us he said, "Mrs. Lipstick, you're going to know, he doesn't talk. He needs a lot of help." He seemed skeptical that I already understood this and was prepared.

He took his brother into my room and found his name around the classroom, making sure his brother understood how comfortable he would be in the room. He was especially excited that his brother had two classrooms- one with me and one with my Partner-in-Crime. "No way! So lucky!" he repeated.

Later in the visit he told me, "I'm going to ask my teacher to let me come take care of my brother during recess. I'll make sure he's doing his job and I'll play with him the whole time." 

"You know what, Story Teller," I said, "I am going to take good care of your brother. You work hard in third grade and I'll work hard at taking care of your brother."

He gave me a skeptical look that only said, "Listen, woman, this is my brother we're talking about." Clearly no one is good enough for his little brother.

I already loved My Story Teller, but now I love him even more. I love that he is so kind, thoughtful, and concerned for his little brother who needs extra help. I love that he wanted to give up his recess time to come help him out. I love the honesty that showed in his face with his concerns for his little brother. He showed far more concern for his brother starting kindergarten than many of the kindergarten parents I met today. Perhaps because I was also a child was mistakenly thought I was my younger brothers' parent, I hold a special place in my heart for siblings who truly take on a care-giver role (in a non-bossy manner).  My new student is lucky to have such caring siblings. We'll just have to make sure they begin to understand how to help him become independent...
I'm excited for another year with the story telling family.

Friday, August 26, 2011

measuring success

Over dinner one night this summer my husband, with his practical MBA thinking, asked me how I'd know whether or not my non-categorical class was successful. Perhaps if I had been sipping a glass of wine at the time I would have been able to laugh it off, but since I've been sans wine due to the upcoming baby, I was momentarily frustrated with his question. What is his MBA thinking doing questioning my class? 
 Not picking up on my frustration he went on to ask if I had clear ways to measure whether or not the class was successful. How would I be able to go to the administration and say "look how well this worked, we should do it again."  I knew he meant well by his question, but for a moment I was taken aback.

I immediately went on a spiel about how in special ed every child has their own set of goals written into their Individual Education Program (IEP) so that how I measure success is easily laid out for me. Did my students meet their goals?  I of course made this sound much longer and more drawn out than that to keep him from getting a word in edgewise and questioning me again. He nodded and sipped his wine (the nerve).

But I kept thinking about his question. How will I measure the success of my class?  Part of it will be in my students' progress in their IEP goals, but that is how I measure success every year. Are they able to meet the goals we set out for them? To be honest, in my head I always tend to aim higher than those goals. The goals I write are the realistic goals I want the child to accomplish. They are goals I have a clear plan of accomplishing. But in my head, no matter who the child is, I always overshoot them. My goals for my students always go above and beyond what is written on that paper. We don't always meet the goals in my head. Sometimes we don't meet the goals on the IEP. It's not for lack of trying. I feel that we get as far as we do because I am always working on my unspoken "shoot for the moon" goals.

The IEP goals themselves do not seem to be enough to measure whether or not my class structure was successful. How will we know whether or not they would have met those goals in the general education classroom? 

So how can I measure success?

After mulling over the question I realized that for most of the students my goal- my measurement of success, will be that the child will be able to transition into the general education classroom smoothly the following year.

For a few it will mean they will have a better handle on their language skills and will be able to communicate with peers and teachers in a way that does not require the support they currently require. They will be able to advocate for their own needs, no longer needing prompts to go to the bathroom, get a tissue, or to ask a friend to share a block.

For others that will mean they will be able to follow the routines in a general education classroom in a way that will allow them to access the material. Their general education teachers will not have to spend time agonizing over their behaviors, but instead will spend time working on their academics.

For a few others whose disabilities make it unlikely that they will transition to a general education classroom, my goal will be that they can stay at our school. We will give them the skills they need to be able to continue attending their neighborhood school, and will not need to be bused to a center that specializes in students with their disabilities.

For all of them success will be measured with their academic progress, of course. Whether or not it is that they learn their colors, their alphabet, or the word wall words, I will want to measure success by what they have learned from their baseline data, regardless if that academic goal is in their IEP or not.

So there is my overall goal for the year. To transition quite a few of them to general education classes. If the class is successful then maybe we wont need the class next year. I kind of feel like I'm setting myself up to put myself out of a job.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Feel that? Earthquake randomness....

So where do teachers go when they have one week of vacation left?  Apparently we head to Target to stock up on supplies.

I happened to be in Target when the earthquake hit yesterday. After we'd been asked to leave the store (actually only Target team members were asked to evacuate the store, the rest of us just figured that we should follow) I ended up standing in the parking lot with a random group of people. As time went on and we continued to try to confirm what had just happened (Earthquake? Not possible, we don't have those in Virginia!) and we got to talking we realized that all of us were teachers. I suppose it makes sense- we have supplies to buy for our classrooms and not much time left to do it. We also all had stories about the last time an earthquake hit in the area and we'd all refused to stop teaching to acknowledge the event (it was a much, much smaller quake).

My mother's school started on Monday, which meant she was well into her second day with her second graders when the earthquake hit. I cannot imagine being with a brand new class on the second day of school and trying to keep them calm during and after earthquake. They say that experiencing trauma can bring a community of people together, but there are other ways to build community in the classroom.  Can you imagine those new kindergartners, not yet speaking English, scared to death because their school is shaking, with no way for their teachers to communicate what had just happened? I imagine not many would want to come back for day 3...

Monday, August 22, 2011

My morning meeting conundrum

As I'm getting to start the school year with my non-categorical special education class I'm finding myself completely stuck about what to do about morning meeting.
I LOVE morning meeting. I love morning meeting so much that when Michelle Rhee was quoted in Time as saying that teachers needed to stop wasting time with cute things like morning meeting I immediately lost all respect for her. To me, she clearly was far removed from education if she didn't understand the significance of the "cute" morning meeting.

 If you are unfamiliar with this teaching method I'd recommend checking out Responsive Classroom's Morning Meeting book. The idea behind morning meeting is to start each day by building a community in your classroom. It gives the beginning of your day structure, allows you time to teach social skills, helps children feel safe in your classroom and gets your students ready to start the day. There is always a clear daily structure.  My partner-in-crime holds some of the best morning meetings I have ever seen. Her class is practically perfectly behaved during the entire meeting because her structure is so clear. Her games are creative and fun, and her calming voice during morning meeting seems to completely set the tone for the entire day.

We start each morning meeting by sitting in a circle and greeting one another- on most days each child takes a turn to greet the child on each side of him/her (there are tons of fun greetings you can switch in once the children are comfortable with traditional greeting).

For my children with special needs this beginning of morning meeting is essential. They need to know how to shake hands, look someone in the eyes, and speak the 3 word phrase "good morning ______".  It helps them remember each other's names and sets the expectation that we talk with one another during the day.

After the greeting portion of morning meeting we read the morning message together. Again, for my children with special needs this is critical. I keep the same structure to the message everyday so they can all "read" along- they all know exactly what it is going to say minus some routine changes like the day of the week and who is line leader. It gives them a common text they feel they can read, as well as helps reinforce known words.

Inside morning meeting most of us at the Think-Tank embed our calendar routine, which is again the same simple routine everyday, giving the children repetitive math practice outside of math time. Then there is time for share and an activity- usually a silly song and dance that gets everyone up and moving and on their toes so they are ready to start the day.

Did I mention I LOVE morning meeting. It's when you get to see who is having a rough day and who is overly excited about something special happening at home. It's where the classroom community is built. It's where I see my children with special needs find their comfort in the classroom.

So, back to my problem. My children will all have home-room classes they'll start and end their days with. Some will only come to me for 3 hours a day, while others will be with me for almost the entire day minus music, art, and PE. I am torn on where I want my children to attend morning meeting. I see three huge benefits from morning meeting- the community building, the social skills training and the academic repetition.

 I want my children to be comfortable in their home-room classes. I want them to have friends there so when they go into the classroom for specials, lunch, and recess that they wont be looked at as "those weird kids who aren't with us all day". Being a part of their classroom's morning meeting will be essential in making them a part of their classroom community. They will feel more comfortable in their home-rooms and their peers will see them as a part of the class.

Of course, on the other hand, the amount of social skills and academics I can get done during my own morning meeting with my children is huge. In just the two weeks of jump start I saw a huge improvement in their social skills, confidence, and even in their counting. We counted the calendar numbers everyday, and by the end they were all counting loudly and (almost) correctly. In my own room I can slow down the academics to meet their needs, give longer wait-time for them to answer the question, and ask questions they will know the answers to in order to build their confidence (without the other children wildly waving their hands with the answer to the most simple question). The small environment allows them to come out of their shells when practicing social skills, and gives us more time to encourage participation. When you have 20 other children starting at one child who refuses to use eye contact it's much easier to move on than to simply wait and repeat the eye-contact expectation.

So I am completely and utterly torn. I want them to be a part of their home-room classes, but I also do not want to miss out on opportunities to build language, academic, and social skills. Morning meeting is essential in so many ways- any choice I make is taking away one benefit of morning meeting.  Perhaps it will need to be done on a child-by-child basis, but even so, when I think of the individual children there are some I am stuck on. I have another two weeks to figure it out, so any advice you have I welcome with open arms.

Friday, August 19, 2011

life experiences

Magical joined us about an hour late yesterday, just in time for snack. We quickly made a place for him at our snack table where he could join the conversation. (We've been having snack all together and asking everyone to sit at the table until everyone is finished with snack so that we can "chat". We're working on our oral language skills at every moment of the day.)  

As soon as Magical pulled up his chair one of my friends mentioned that we'd missed him the day before when he was at the hospital receiving his treatment. He nodded, "You missed me," because, when you're 5 and 6, you have no reason to be humble. 

"But I was at the clinic. I got an IV. See, right here?" and he went on and on, mentioning the nurses, the procedures, how he's fallen when he got up, and how he still felt sick.  

A boy sitting at the table began pounding on his own chest and nodding. "Have you been to the hospital?" I asked, and he nodded very furiously. This little one is confined to a wheelchair and although he has probably not spent as much time in the hospital as Magical, I am sure he's spent more time there than I have. 

"You've been to the hospital?" Magical asked with delight. "Me too!"

The other friends shared stories of going to the doctor's, but my boys suddenly seemed to grow a special connection between their hospital visits. Both boys must feel so different and alone in large groups of children where they are the only one with their experiences. There was something special about being able to watch them connect. If they were adults I'm sure the conversation would have been greater than, "you too?" with the response of "Me", but their little exchange seemed to be enough for them. Somehow they knew the other girls at the table were not talking about the same type of doctors they were. At five their life experiences have been so different than the typical childhood, and yet, I wonder how often they actually get to talk about it with a peer.

Of course, ever wanting to get in on the action at a lull in the conversation I shared that I would be going to the hospital soon when the baby was ready to come out.
Magical eyed me and my stomach.  
"Oh, your baby is STUCK in you," he diagnosed. "The hospital will have to get it out." 

Yes, stuck. Let's hope not.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Maybe the public doesn't hate us...

The 2011 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll came out this week and it turns out that while the media has portrayed us public school teachers as public enemy number 1, the actual public doesn't see it that way.

You can read the highlights here

Or more details here

Most people still believe that teaching is an important career.  In fact, 76% of people felt that high achieving high school students should go into teaching. 71% trust us as teachers.

73% believe teachers should have flexibility when planning their curriculum as opposed to using a prescribed curriculum.

Surprise, surprise, most people have seem more negative portrayals of schools in the media than positive portrayals. I'm starting to think that the media is our children's biggest enemy. I guess portraying teachers as lazy and dumb sells, but I'm glad the public hasn't totally bought it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Easiest retelling center ever

3 guesses on what that is- Maybe the spots help a bit- it's a cow. We drew it together as a class after reading the book, Mrs. Wishy Washy. (I LOVE crazy old Mrs. Wishy Washy and her poor animals who just want to stay in the mud).  

Last year when I was co-teaching with Splatypus and our literacy coach we began doing interactive drawing. Normally we do interactive writing where the teacher and students share the pen to write one message. Kids come up to take turns writing the letters they hear in words, or writing words they know. But after observing that some of our kids just could not draw, or when they drew they drew stick people with minimal details, Splattypus decided to take a step back and draw something as a class. 

The point of writing is to communicate a message on paper, which of course, starts with the act of drawing. Some children need to be taught that their drawings can communicate a message or a story before they are ready to start putting words on paper. After all, if you do not understand that your drawings can tell a story how are you ready to tell a story in those squiggly things we call letters?

Last week my kiddos and I read and re-read one of the Mrs. Wishy Washy big books. Then we began drawing "with teamwork" as one of the girls says, the characters. You have to give up a lot to be able to share the pen while drawing. Nothing is going to turn out remotely perfectly. But that's ok. The kids LOVE the finish product. We made all the characters and cut them out so we could use them to act out the story.

They can't get enough of it. If I leave the characters out I'll find them acting out the story by themselves. They want their cow, pig, and duck to go everywhere. I need to get off my lazy pregnant rear end and laminate them so I can let them play with them during free choice.

The best part about this was that it was an absolutely no-teacher prep lesson that lasted over the course of two weeks, and as covered multiple lessons- we've done 1) Communicating through drawing with our interactive drawing  2) Identifying characters in a book 3) Reading with expression and 4) Retelling a story in sequence.  And the only thing I had to do was get the book and have the construction paper ready.

It's been so much more powerful than if I'd made the animals myself, or if I'd photo copied the pictures from the book (which I was going to do before it occurred to me we could draw them together first). 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Looking at poverty in education: an excuse or a way to find solutions?

My class size was pretty small last week for Jump Start. We’ve been calling home to talk to parents, reminding them to get their children to the bus stops, and listening to everything that is going on in their lives that is keeping them from getting their children to school.  We’ve had some pretty heartbreaking conversations. It is never that our parents do not want to bring their children to school, but incidents happen in their lives that are currently keeping them from getting them to our summer program. Things like sudden homelessness, the lack of a car to get to the bus stop, the threat of a lost job if they take off to meet the bus at noon, or simply no way to get their child to school after an important doctor’s appointment. Most of what is keeping the children from school is due to their parents’ financial limitations. And I can’t start doing my job until the children are inside the door.
Right now the poverty debate is being portrayed in the media as though it is a black or white issue. One side believes that teachers end up using poverty as an excuse to not teach, and that these teachers are actively holding children back by having low expectations. The other side seems to claim that policy makers who do not consider poverty are hurting our children by holding them to unrealistic standards and are overlooking the larger social problems in our society. Both sides are valid, yet at this point the debate isn’t achieving anything except making everyone angry at each other. Caught in the middle are the families- parents with a limitation of resources and children who deserve to learn to read, write, and do math as well as their middle to upper-class counterparts.
I’ve never wrapped my head around how we are supposed to ignore poverty and the home situations of our students. I understand that a child’s background should not make us hold them to lower expectations, but ignoring what they are struggling with seems to do a disservice to them and leaves us frustrated. When teachers constantly meet road blocks due to poverty they get frustrated. Especially when those roadblocks seem to stand between the job we know we can do and the job we are able to do. Telling us to not use poverty as an excuse seems to send the message that poverty should be ignored and that we need to fight head-on with the track we were on, without acknowledging the roadblocks along the way. Have you ever driven your car into a road block? If it is a cement road block, one that has been there for years, your car would be destroyed and the road block wouldn’t really be changed. Maybe a crack here and there, but you still wouldn’t get through.
The only way I can see that we need to deal with the poverty debate is to acknowledge what is happening in the lives of our students and identify realistic solutions.  Our kindergarten Jump Start program is a great example of this. For years we’ve lamented about the number of children we get who have never had any sort of preschool or daycare experience before they enter kindergarten. Those poor children spend the first few weeks of school shell-shocked and behind their peers. They never seem to catch up to their peers because while they are trying to figure out who the crazy adult is in the front of the room, their friends are diving into their academics.  So when the money came in for us to have summer school our brilliant assistant principal, who had listened to the teachers, decided to not just use the money for the students we already knew were at risk, but to also use the money for the students we hadn’t met yet but who fit into a pattern. Any child who registered for kindergarten with no preschool experience was invited to Jump Start. In these two weeks they are working hard at writing their names, learning their alphabet, and getting accustomed to the social ways of school.  If we hadn’t acknowledged the problem of a lack of preschool experience we never would have found a solution.
Another example is our school’s parent center. Parent involvement can be a huge problem at my school, as I am sure it can be at my Title 1 schools around the country. We didn’t just complain about lack of parent involvement, but we didn’t ignore the problem either and try to education the children alone. Instead our school has a parent center where parents can go to get documents translated, take English classes, use the computers, learn how to navigate the American school system, meet other parents, and attend weekly sessions on how to help their child succeed in school. Our parent center is always adding new programs or trying new ideas to incorporate parents. They find these ideas by identifying the problems, look at the causes, and then finding workable solutions. Without acknowledging poverty none of this would have happened. Of course, using poverty as an excuse wouldn’t have gotten us far either.
As teachers we don’t have time to complain about the need for an increase of government agencies. Sure it would be nice if social services wasn’t so booked up, or if our families got their welfare checks on time, but we don’t have control of any of that. We have to look at what we do have control of and make changes there, even if it is just within our own classroom walls.
I tense up anytime I hear or read something complaining that teachers who use poverty as an excuse. I worry that taking poverty out of the equation in school reform means that we’ll never find those solutions that reach out to parents as well as our students. Sometimes we have to acknowledge a child’s background in order to dig into the big picture and find a solution.  We know that trauma impacts working memory. If a child has just been through trauma and isn’t being successful we can’t say “well, trauma is no excuse.” We have to look at the big picture and change our approach. We don’t change our long-term expectations, but maybe we alter instruction, get in touch with a guidance counselor, make time to listen to the student, or find a way to help the child focus on school.
I just wish both sides would stop yelling at each other and start thinking about the kids. Let’s be honest about problems in education and then work to find solutions. Being honest does not mean we lower expectations, it just means we prepare to work harder to get to that final goal. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

I LOVE my job

It's Friday afternoon after our first week of jump start. Grant it, it was only 3 hours a day with the kids, and not all of my class came, but I had an amazing week. The kids are bonding with each other, giggling and becoming friends. A community is starting to form and I'm loving how it is turning out. They are already looking out for each other. I'm also loving having my own classroom after 4 years of working in other rooms. I love singing silly songs, doing read alouds, and planning the day. I'm especially loving being able to slow the pace down to meet the needs of my kiddos. Most importantly, I am already in love with the kids.

I've been nervous all summer about taking these children away from their general education classes and limiting their social interactions. I've been struggling with wondering whether or not my classroom is the best idea for them. I don't want to limit them in any way.

After two days, I knew that it is going to be a great thing. After a week I'm really excited about the potential progress we can make this year.

One of the little girls is Rock Star, who I have worked with for the past two years. She has an intellectual disability and I've enjoyed watching her grow and develop since she first came to us. I don't think I've ever heard her utter so many spontaneous words in those two years combined as she's said this past week. Her confidence level seems to have sky rocketed. She's constantly commenting on read alouds, telling her friends what a great job their doing, and is seriously working on her academic skills because our classsroom focus is able to be at exactly her level.

In fact, yesterday she pulled the letter M out of a box and yelled "M" to show Magical. I've never heard her spontaneously identify any letters, and M is not even in her name. I've also never heard her raise her voice above a horse whisper. And there she was yelling across the room, trying to show Magical that she'd found his first letter. I didn't know if I was going to cry from happiness or pass out from shock.

Another friend is able to get the repetition and structure she needs when she needs it (which is immediately and frequently). We're quickly pulling her back into her academic work when she gets off task. I worked with her last year as well and I've already seen that the frequent reinforcement we can give her in the smaller class size is paying off with her behavior.

Magical is back with his huge smile, and I have other new students who are also adjusting well to our environment. It's not going to be an easy year by any means, but I think it's going to be a great year in a lot of ways. I am sure my behavior management will improve out of necessity, and I am sure I will have some little ones that will give me a run for my money. Managing the high levels of individual  needs has already been tricky, and it will constantly keep me on my toes. But I think it will be good. Really good.

It's been four days, a total of 12 hours, and like I said, not all of my kids have been able to come. So I am sure my high will quickly change, but at the moment I'm excited by what this week may mean for my kiddos. The possibilities of what we may be able to do academically are racing through my head constantly. I'm ridiculously excited for this school year, even if I only get one more week of them until I come back to them in December.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


During our jump start program I have a middle school volunteer helping out in the classroom.  She’s been a great help and seems to enjoy working with the children so I asked her if she wanted to be a teacher. She looked up at me, bit her lip, and very politely said, “Well, you know, my parents don’t want that. Like everybody else’s parents they want me to be a doctor.”

And there we were. Me, the teacher, and her the middle schooler with the bright medical future. For a moment I felt like a second class citizen. The one who’d made it through college and had come out as a teacher. I suddenly felt the desire to explain to her that I didn’t have to be a teacher- it wasn’t a career I settled into- it was something I chose because I thought it was important. I didn’t, but I’ve played the imaginary conversation in my head the rest of the day, imagining me saying brilliant and inspiring things about choosing to be a teacher, and how important it is to choose what you love to do and to do it well. And part of me wanted to drop in my SAT scores, my college grades, the fact that I strongly considered law school, or the fact that I started working on my doctorate. But I let it go. She is in middle school after all.

She went on to talk about how her parents are pushing her to study for the test coming up in December that could gain her admittance into one of the better high schools in our district. She talked about all her extracurricular activities and how hard she works in school.  As I listened to her talk I realized I was that kid- in middle school. I was already thinking about college, doing volunteer work, making grades important.  So she has time to find her grove and go after what she loves. I just hope that by the time she’s in college choosing to be a teacher will be a highly respectable and admirable job that will make her parents proud. Can we change that in ten years?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

first day, take 1

The alarm went off this morning and I practically sprinted out of bed in excitement and nervous energy.  This morning is my first day with my class (kind of) and I absolutely cannot wait to meet them and to start getting routines in place.

This summer my school is running a "Jump Start" program. Students in grades 1st-5th were invited to come to school for 3 weeks this summer to get extra help in reading, writing, and math. Since the county no longer has summer school it's our way of meeting the needs for kids who would otherwise qualify for summer school (which is actually even more fabulous because typically you send kids off to summer school and don't know what happens to them. Now our teachers are working with these kids in summer school and are able to provide exactly what we know they need and track their progress from the summer to the school year).

Our lucky kinders are only invited to attend for 2 weeks instead of 3. We've invited as many children as we could who registered for kindergarten with  no preschool experience. These two weeks will give them a chance to learn to walk in the hallways, how to sit quietly on the rug and listen to a story, how to use playground equipment safetly with other children, and all those other school social norms that are difficult for children who have never had to participate in large group activities without their parents before.

One of the classes coming in, however, is my class. All ten of my future lovelies were invited, and today I think I could have as many as 8. This gives my students a chance to get to know routines and adjust to school before school actually starts. The days are only 3 hours long, which is probably the right amount of time for all of us (including me) to begin to warm up to each other. My long-term sub is co-teaching with me this week so that she gets to know the kids too. Once I'm gone she'll be a familiar face, and when I come back hopefully they'll still remember who I am.

So this morning is the first day of school, but only kind of. Only for 3 hours. I can make it. My entire lesson plans surround Responsive Classroom's the First Six Weeks of School, which normally goes well in a general education classroom. I hope I'm able to adapt quickly enough on the go to make it work for all the different needs in my classroom. I have no idea how these little ones will be able to sit on the rug and listen to me talk, or even how many of them will be able to use the materials I'll be introducing to them. If we do a guided discovery with crayons, but some of them cannot use crayons, hows that going to go.

Adapt, adapt, adapt, is going to be the name of the game.

Fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly and that we do not have any screamers, runners, throwers, or hitters. Hopefully I'll have the energy to blog tonight to let you know how it goes...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reason #1,274 why I love my job

Today while I was working in my classroom the literacy coach came and found me. She had just finished working with the big sister of a girl we had in our class last year.
The sister had shared with her that the three girls in the family (all in elementary school) hold book clubs at their house on Mondays and Fridays. When our literacy coach asked them what they did during these book clubs the child explained that since it is very important for everyone to read just-right books that they meet to discuss the different books they are reading.
I've been smiling about this all day. I love that these sisters have formed their own book club without any adult support. I love that even the rising first grader is included in their club. She will never doubt the importance of reading.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

moment of panic

Yesterday I plopped my preggo self down on a bench in a shoe store while Mr. Lipstick shopped for shoes. While I sat I there trying to imagine myself in the coldness of a snowstorm in hopes of cooling off, I watched many different children beg their parents for the perfect back to school shoes.

One girl, probably about 4 or 5, ran up to her mother with a box of barbie princess shoes. Throwing the box open the girl threw herself on the floor and wailed, "I HAVE TO HAVE THESE SHOES!!" Her mother looked at them skeptically. I smiled with sympathy until I realized that when the girl picked up the shoes they started playing music. Not just a little music- a full music-box sympathy for the little girl to dance to in her new shoes.

For a moment I panicked. Is this what is in store for us in the fall?  Are musical shoes the newest craze? Would we be faced with multiple girls wearing shoes that sang every time they stomped their feet? Does the entire world hate teachers? There would be no way to get anything done. I immediately imagined myself justifying to my principal why my classroom is shoe-less.

Deciding to take a  stand for kindergarten teachers everywhere I leaned over, "Are those shoes making all that noise?" I asked, sweetly, because my next statement was going to be, "Your teacher will hate that!" The girl just smiled and showed me how the box was rigged to sing- not the shoes.

Thank You shoe designers. This Fall we will not be inundated with musical shoes. For the moment we are safe. However, I don't put it past shoe/backpack/clothes designers to come up with something else that will soon drive us batty.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

teacher whine. Ignore me, please.

I have spent the day in laminating hell. 
 If you teach special ed you are probably familiar with Board Maker, which is fabulous in many, many ways. It lets you create all sorts of picture icons for your students- all you  need to do is type in the word you want to say and it gives you a simple picture that corresponds with that word. It is great for creating reminder cards for the rules, making schedules for students, and creating individual behavior plans. It gives you lots of possibilities- however, many of these involve a lot of painful, tedious prep.

Last spring I observed a special ed teacher in a self-contained classroom who had individual schedules for each child. As the children moved through their day they took the laminated board maker icon off their schedule and placed it where they were moving to in the room. So if it was time for morning meeting there was a morning meeting icon on their schedule. When they went to morning meeting they took off the morning meeting picture and placed it on a board in the meeting area. I'd also seen this done in other special education classes and every teacher I knew that used it said it made it huge difference for their children. I decided it was exactly what I needed to do next year.

I just wasn't thinking about all the prep. Creating the icons in board maker was no big deal, then printing and cutting them out still wasn't so bad (I used a paper cutter, they are not perfectly cut, but since we're talking about 20+ pictures per child, for 10 children, I'm not worrying about perfection). Then I had to stand over the hot laminator feeding those small stupid squares into it. No matter how efficient you are at laminating, trying to feed 200 1 1/2 inch square pieces of paper is not something you can do overly quickly. Then, once everything has finally been laminated, you have to actually cut out each tiny little square. 

And the worst part? After everything is cut out I need to go through and cut out 200 pieces of velco and then smack those onto the back of each little square. Have you ever worked with sticky-backed velcro?  Peeling the adhesive off the velco isn't fun after 3 or 4 pieces- 200 is going to take me forever.

If you teach you know what I'm talking about. You're rolling your eyes and thinking, "Don't even complain, it's part of the job." 

 I actually have moved into the camp of "nothing needs to be laminated". Most things aren't worth the time. But for pieces of paper that will be handled everyday by kindergartners? There is no choice. Or there was, but the choice was to not create these schedules. Trust me, even at halfway through I'm weighing the options of just tossing in the towel on this project. But is it best for the kids? I think about my students' needs and how I've seen this work in other classrooms...  and it's back to cutting. 

The picture at the top does not do it justice- my basement is covered in a large roll of laminating sheet along with lots of tiny little pictures. After 2 hours of cutting I'm not even halfway through. And I can't think of a faster way to do it. At least it is a good excuse to watch trashy tv during the day. I'm not wasting away watching junk- I'm WORKING. 

A masters degree and one year into my doctorate, and I'm spending my time cutting small squares and peeling paper off sticky-back velcro. I swear I love my job. I really do. There is just something slightly demeaning about having my husband come home dressed professionally from his respectable office job to find me on the floor in the basement, surrounded to laminate and pictures of toilets, going cross-eyed from cutting out small pictures.

"Aren't you suppose to be on summer break?" he asked.  

No response. This is summer break. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Early Childhood & Education Policies

Although I was disappointed last Thursday at the New America Foundation's discussion on Race to the Top's Early Learning Challenge, I found  myself thinking that the answers to the broader education debates may be found within good early childhood policy.

The areas that need to be addressed to create policy that will positively impact early childhood are policies that are true for the rest of education as well, but have been ignored for easier solutions in the broader debate. The mere nature of early childhood makes it impossible to give standardized tests in order to hold teachers and schools accountable.

1) The development of quality rating standards-
States are currently encouraged to develop quality rating and improvement standards in order to determine what is considered high quality childcare. I am not very familiar with these standards, but my understanding is that they take into consideration caregiver interactions with the children, the developmental needs of the children, and kindergarten readiness. They do not judge a childcare facility based on the outcome of test results, but instead look at the needs of the whole child. They do not sound as though they have been easy to create, nor to assess, but they are being put into place. Thought is going into developing these standards and people are being trained in how to evaluate the interactions of childcare providers and the children. From what I understand it seems to be working. It is certainly not as easy as getting a spreadsheet of test scores at the end of the year, but these are our children- it does not need to be easy, it needs to be done correctly.
In developing these standards states are looking at how to support the professionals delivering the care, how their support can help improve the quality of care, and how to reach out to parents to educate them on what to look for in a quality care facility.

I can't help but think how nice it would be to apply this same type of assessment to school evaluations. Test taking would of course be a part of the equation, but the broader assessment of our schools should be done while considering the developmental nature of children, looking at the quality of interactions with students, and thinking about how to support teachers in order to improve teaching, all the while working toward reaching out to parents to help them understand what to look for in their child's classroom. These standards cannot just be made by a group of politicians or policy makers in a room one month before they roll out their newest education initiative. They need to be developed as a team in combination with educators, child psychologists, cognitive psychologists, along side policy makers. They need to be beta-tested and then piloted, tweaked, revised, and retested.

2. An understanding that we are focused on a long-term investment.
 Putting down the time and energy to develop quality early childhood experiences is not something that will immediately provide amazing results. We are looking at supporting and developing children's long-term growth. It is not about what they learn at the end of the year, but at the end of the road. We're looking at their social and emotional development and how supporting that will lead to an increased ability to learn down the road. We need to have patience to develop needed policies and criteria, as well as patience to determine what is working. There is no short-term fix. To do this we must first understand what we want to see results in. What will success look like for a child in a year? Two years? Three years? What do we need to put in place to get there?

3. Understanding that to meet the needs of the children we need to look at the needs of the family.
Early childhood programs realize they are a two generational program. They cannot solely look at the needs of the little ones walking into their doors, they must consider the nature of where those children are coming from, how they are getting to their childcare facility, and whether or not the children's ability to access the childcare facility will be impacted by the parents' loss of a job, health insurance, or loss of housing. As a part of that, educating the parents as a part of the equation is essential as well. Only so much can be done in schools, but promoting quality interactions between parents and children will go far to benefit the needs of the students.

By its very nature early childhood presents us with a complex situation that cannot be easily remedied. Yet people are actively working on creating these quality scales, promoting parent participation, and focusing on long-term goals. I have hope that if early childhood proves it can be done it may be able to be carried over to education as a whole, meeting the needs of the whole student.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Saying goodbye to a bookstore

I wandered into Borders today, sadly walking past the once comfy and inviting furniture piled into the corner with for sale signs on each shelf and chair, and through the shelves of books no longer housing neat and orderly paperbacks, but instead revealing the bookstore equivalent of a disaster relief-center where now homeless books from different categories have come to be dumped on top of each other while they wait for new homes.

I have to admit I'm a bit sad about Borders closing. I know I contributed to the closure- I've been reading books on the Kindle App since the day it was released for the itouch. I rarely buy books from Borders anymore, and to make it worse, I have been guilty of going into Borders just to peruse the new titles and to surround myself with the smell and feel of real books, only to write down titles to download from Kindle later. And frankly, even now, the sales at Borders are not good enough to actually purchase the books- you will still find cheaper deals either through getting an ebook or by ordering from Amazon.

Still, I find the closure a bit ominous, as though it is foreshadowing a paperless future. When I read on my iphone my daughter will never know whether I am reading or checking facebook. She'll never have the opportunity to sneak one of my books into her own room to see what was so good about a book I couldn't put down (I read books on subjects I really shouldn't have when I was young because I was quite the book-thief when it came to my parents' bookshelves). She'll never see the stack of books I am finished with, or the stack I am waiting to read. Sure our children's books will still be on paper, but will she think reading is something only children do? I will have to make an effort to read real books to be a good model.

I don't know why I'm so saddened by the closing. Maybe because when a Borders was built 30 minutes outside of the small town where I grew up my high school friends and I spent many Friday nights there, suddenly amazed that we had so many book options at our finger tips. (Listen, there was little to do in the town where I grew up, and the Borders was right beside a movie theater- so our Friday nights included a movie with a bookstore trip either before or after the show). Maybe because I've always lived closer to a Borders than a Barnes & Noble. Maybe because when I first moved to the DC area after college was I was trying to adjust to no longer living in the beautiful, mountainous town I'd just spent the last four years, the only good thing I could say about my new neighborhood was that I was 5 minutes from a Borders. (That first year of teaching Borders was my therapy- bad days in the classroom could be washed away by wandering through the stacks, flipping through new titles, and finally purchasing a new reality to escape into).

Yes, yes, I know Borders was the big box store that killed the local bookstores. I've seen You've Got Mail, I know.  And while I am very loyal to my favorite independent bookstores, Borders brought us books those stores did not.

So, I'm sad. But not sad enough to take advantage of the sales.

I bee-lined to the children's section, hoping to find good deals on books for either my daughter or my classroom. I found myself flipping through my favorite children's lit, quietly taking in the happy book-loving atmosphere in the children's section. In one corner a preschooler nestled into her mother's lap and was helping her read a large stack of books they had in front of them. As the mother read the daughter chimed in with the most significant words to her favorite story, her voice changing into the melody one uses when reading a familiar children's book, mimicking her teachers and her mother. With each book the daughter seemed to sigh deeper with happiness and cuddle even more into her mother's lap. They sat like that for at least 30 minutes, and were still plowing through books when I wandered away. I love watching parents read to their children. Perhaps because it is something I want so much for my students- that exact experience- a moment when nothing exists beyond a mother, a child, and a good book. It's magic we can never recreate in the classroom.

In another corner a little boy found a pretend wand. As his parents debated what to buy he very seriously flicked his wand at the stuffed animals in front of him. "Asceio!" he announced, in a stage whisper, as though he was pretty sure he merely a Muggle, but just in case he should check to see if he had power. "Asceio!" he said again, spinning around this time to attempt to beckon a stuffed animal from another shelf.

A father called to his daughter that it was time to go and she moaned, "I'm not finished yet! I'm reading!" I heard the father catch his voice- about to tell her to put the book down but he stopped himself for a moment. "Alright, 10 more minutes" he agreed, and his daughter didn't even look up from her book.

These moments can happen anywhere, I know they will continue to happen in public libraries, independent bookstores, and at Barnes & Noble. Wherever they happen I can't help but smile- I love knowing the book-love that exists out there as kids are growing up to be readers.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Early Learning Challenge

Yesterday I took advantage of my summer break and decided to pretend I work in DC in education policy. I headed downtown to attend a forum held by the New America Foundation on Race to the Top's new early childhood focus grant. I wanted to hear what those in the policy world were thinking about this, and what it may mean in the long run for our kids.

Originally I was thrilled when I heard that Race to the Top was adding an early childhood piece. Not that I've had really any hope that RttT is working (grant it, I do not work in a state that has benefited from it), but the mere fact that it was going to specifically address early childhood issues seemed promising. At last- has someone been listening to us?

Although I found the discussion fascinating, overall I came away disenchanted with RttT's Early Learning Challenge (RttT ELC). As one of the other audience members asked in her question, is this just the Administration's way of giving a nod toward early childhood, without making any true and meaningful inroads?

Providing quality early childhood services is a multi-step process. One step needs to ensure that the childcare currently available is quality childcare, and is providing children with the appropriate developmental support they need to be ready for kindergarten. The next step is increasing access to more affordable early childhood education to more families. This is where the largest challenge is found- making sure quality early childhood programs are available in low-income neighborhoods while also making sure the quality programs do not interfere with the parents' work schedule (if they do the parents are more likely to choose another option that provides better hours for their schedule). As someone who teachers kindergarten in a low-income neighborhood, my largest concern is increasing the childcare opportunities available in our community. However, both of these pieces must be addressed to increase the opportunities for early childhood in our country. And sadly, it seems that RttT ELC will primarily provide for working toward improving the quality of the care and not additional access to care. While improving the quality is wonderful, it is difficult to know so many children who come to kindergarten with no daycare or preschool experience. They've never been in a large group of children away from their parents, and many have never listened to read alouds, been exposed to print in their environment, exposed to early number concepts, or even played with blocks, puzzles, or worked on sorting.

Unfortunately, RttT ELC will most likely only provide funding for 5-8 states for 4 years. While it is hopeful that these states may become leaders in the field of early childhood education other states can follow, it is not a promise that early childhood programs will be improved for all of our children.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The great inclusion debate (part 1)

 This past winter something interesting happened. Normally in January we receive a list of the 12 or so upcoming preschoolers who will be attending the Think-Tank for the next school year. I get to work observing them, meeting with their teachers and families, and making sure that everything at the Think-Tank will be ready for them the following September. It is a process I love. This year, however, we began hearing rumors in November that one preschool would be sending us a total of 14 children. 14 from one preschool. That doesn't include any of the many other preschools we usually receive children from...

In January, when I got the total list of upcoming kinders I stared at a multi-page booklet containing information on 22 children who would need special education services from the Think-Tank in kindergarten. 22...  As the winter and spring went on that number continued to grow. And grow. I believe we transitioned a total of 27 students, some will not be coming to The Think-Tank, but most will.

I really enjoy the transition process (although this year took much, much longer than years' past), and I love getting to know the children in their preschool classes. As the winter went on and I met the children, their teachers and parents, it became clear we would need to be meeting the very different needs of all of these children next year. We needed to begin thinking about how we were going to meet all of their needs, what we may need to change or adapt in our own program to make sure we give the best education to each of these little ones. We had a lot of reflection to do.

For years The Think-Tank has been a full inclusion school. Our children with special needs have always been included in general education classes at almost all times. It is very, very rate to pull out a child or a group for any reason. In fact, in some ways any sort of pull out was discouraged. In many ways this is a good thing, but at times it can have its downfall. There are some children who have the complete ability to perform on grade level if they are given differentiated instruction in another environment. At times (certainly not at all times or for all students) it has been frustrating to work with a child, knowing they have the potential to perform on grade level, but are not yet achieving at that level because of the restraints within the gen ed classroom. Again, most children with special needs do wonderfully in the gen ed classroom, but there are times a child may benefit from instruction delivered outside the traditional classroom.

As we got to know the upcoming kindergartners and talk to their preschool teachers we realized that some of their needs would be best met in a smaller environment. Not all 20 something children, but some. Just a few. Their preschool teachers expressed concern that they would be placed in a full inclusion setting it made us step back and look at the incoming students and our program. What would meet the needs of the children in what is truly the least restrictive environment? Some of the preschool teachers would prefer for the students to be sent to another school, yet it didn't seem fair to send so many children to another school simply because we have a policy that we are a full inclusion school. In special education the school must make the program meet the needs of the student, not expect the student to meet the needs of the program. In other words, sending so many children to another school simply because their needs did not fit into our model would not really be fitting within IDEA. Like so many policies in education, it's important to look at the child in question and not just the overarching policy.

So we began looking closely at each of these children. What are their needs? Could we meet their needs at our school if we had a classroom just for them?  Would that let them stay at their neighborhood school and be in an environment that meets their needs? What would we need to put in place to change our full inclusion model into one that includes what is known as a non-categorical room (or non-cat)?

It wasn't an easy decision. There is a lot to be said about inclusion, and starting a new room for children with special needs could be a slippery slope to shifting backwards toward having more children in pull out programs than in full inclusion. Whenever I talked to my principal about it I could hear her hesitation, and her very valid reasons behind it. Our school is very collaborative- every teacher has a co-teacher, which helps ensure that children are receiving the absolute best, research-based, reflective instruction. There would not be a co-teacher in the special ed room. Would there be a risk of lowering expectations for these children? Would teaching practices slide? Would these children be seen by others as "those kids" instead of a part of our general community?

But the more we looked at the children's needs the more we realized that what these children needed was a smaller environment. And we could provide that for them.

For a few of them this class will give them an opportunity to be in our neighborhood school longer than they would otherwise. Some of their disabilities are so severe and demand such significant adaptations in curriculum that they will one day, most likely, attend one of our county's centers for children with severe disabilities or intellectual disabilities. But right now, before the gap in their performance is too far away from their peers, they can have the opportunity to be at their neighborhood school, and spend time in a general education classroom. These children will spend about 3 hours a day in their special education room, and the remainder of the day will be in with their general education peers, giving them those important opportunities for social interactions.

Other children I have high hopes for transitioning them back to a full time general education placement in a year or two.  Right now a small classroom for kindergarten will be best where they can complete their potty training, get a firm, direct language foundation, build up early literacy skills using teaching methods that may not be easily accomplished in the gen ed classroom, in a small, safe environment. If all goes well and we can build those strong foundation skills early on, I hope we will be including them in their general education classrooms more and more by the end of the year. This will give us time to slowly scaffold them into the larger setting.

For each child it has not been an easy decision. At times I have listened to the parents and the preschool teachers discuss the child's strengths and needs at the IEP and truly wondered what placement would be best. Would this child benefit from the language models in the general education room, or is the smaller placement more beneficial? It became a weighty responsibility- deciding what would be best for each child. I also had to carefully examine my own motives. Do I want this child in a non-cat class because I want to work with them? I was pushing for Pixie to be included for a week or so before I realized that there was no reason for Pixie to be in the class- it would only be for my needs and not for hers.

In the end the class will have 10 children. 7 rising kinders who I transitioned over the past year, 2 rising first graders I worked with last year and will equally benefit from the small environment, and then Magical, who will be repeating kindergarten because of all he missed due to his illness.

I cannot wait.  Of course, I am disappointed that this class overlaps with another huge change in my life. If only it was a year earlier or a year later. I hate that I will be out on maternity leave at the very beginning of this new adventure. But sometimes we can't control timing and I have an amazing long-term sub. I will also be starting with my class in August, and will have them 2 weeks, 3 hours a day, to get us use to our routines and to one another before I abandon them for Baby Lipstick.