Friday, February 25, 2011

I heart my job

In the midst of the excitement of walking around the bright red fire truck that came to visit for fire safety week one of my little ones exclaimed, "When I grow up, I want to be a FIRE TRUCK!"

**  **  **

Magical is too sick to return to school this year but partner-in-crime and I agreed to deliver his home-bound services. We take turns going to his house every night to read books, work on patterning skills, counting, writing his letters, and all the other fun kindergarten activities he's missing out on.

Yesterday we got to the end of a Piggy and Gerald book and Magical was in a great mood. He'd giggled over all Piggy & Gerald's silly antics, predicted what would happen next, and gasped when his predictions came true. I turned the last page to reveal the end pages, where, if you are familiar with Mo Willem's books, there is always one picture of the Pigeon hidden amongst the other illustrations. Most kids LOVE finding the Pigeon in Mo's non-pigeon books and act as though they just broke a cryptic code for the CIA when they spot the Pigeon where he doesn't belong.

Not Magical.

Magical waved his finger at the pigeon and shouted, "That LIAR bird!  THAT SNEAKY LIAR BIRD!  I HATE THAT BIRD.  I HATE HIM.  He doesn't go there. He's always where he doesn't belong. He needs to stay in HIS OWN BOOKS!  SNEAKY LIAR BIRD"

Magical's mother, who had no idea who the pigeon was or why Magical was so upset looked horrified. I quickly closed the book to remove the offending bird from sight and asked Magical if he'd like me to bring a Pigeon book next time so he could see the Pigeon where he belonged.

"Yes. He needs to go back to where he belongs." he agreed solemnly, and we quickly moved on to our next activity that did not involve any sneaky-liar pigeons.

~~  ~~  ~~

In the midst of a very exciting game of Around the World Pixie could not stay in her seat. She bounced up and down so much that I ended sitting behind her to give her gentle reminders to stay seated. She responded to my prompts immediately but would quickly forget and would try to scurry across the carpet to see the flash cards on the other side.
The little girl sitting beside us whispered to me, "Mrs. Lipstick, it's like you're training a puppy."

I was initially horrified by this observation. What am I doing to poor Pixie that makes another child think of training a puppy??  But the more I thought about it she's kind of right. Pixie is just SO EXCITED by everything that she gets ahead of herself. She wants to do the right thing, but she forgets. It probably is like being with an excitable puppy who wants to please but is so overcome with excitement that she needs reminders.

Regardless, I'm going to carefully watch how I interact with Pixie to be sure it's not dog-training-like. I'm not using any method with her that I wouldn't use with another child, it's just a lot more frequent. We're not doing ABA or rewarding her with treats or anything that makes me think of puppy-training. Still, I absolutely do not want to be giving the other students the impression that Pixie is a pet, pet-like, or needs to be trained like one.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

um, ouch

"So, you're a lawyer" the lab technician assigned to take my blood asked brusquely as he prepared his equipment.
"No," I laughed, "I'm just dressed this way because I had an important meeting.  I teach special education" I added proudly.
"Special education?" the already scowling man seemed to furrow his brow even more. "There is nothing wrong with those children," he began as he shoved the needle into my arm. "You people want to make them out to be different than everyone else, give them special labels and medicine and there is nothing wrong with them."

I sat, mute, while he continued to draw my blood. I considered defending myself, my kids, and my profession, but I realized the precarious situation I was in. The man was holding a needle in my arm and was not being overly gentle about it.

"With my daughter, it was all her mother's fault," he went on, "I told the school if they said she was special ed I would sue them"
He yanked the needle from my arm and I pulled my arm back to safety. Again, I considered a defense, but realized he was now holding a vile of my blood.  He could magically lose it and force me to come back to re-live this experience. I meekly (and shamefully) nodded in agreement, gathered my things and left.

From the hallway I continued to hear, "This country! So quick to medicate every child, drug them up, throw them away...."  I walked faster.

Perhaps if I hadn't corrected his assumption that I was a lawyer the whole experience would have been far more pleasant.  Then again, maybe he was hoping to ask my advice on suing his school...

Monday, February 21, 2011


My new focus with my little morning group is what participation looks like. I've noticed that more than a few of my kids tend to zone out on the rug during lessons, call out about things that are unrelated to the topic, or look around the room and try to get their friends' attention. I was chatting with my partner-in-crime about one, very sweet, little boy in particular who just absolutely refuses to participate. At times he even closes his eyes on the rug and almost curls up into a ball. As our discussion went on we realized that maybe he didn't understand that part of his job in school was to participate on the rug. If this was true, then we needed to first teach him that he was expected to participate before we began taking more extreme measures.

Sure enough, when I asked my small group what their job on the rug was they all told me the list of kindergarten rules. "Hands to yourself", "Sit criss-cross applesauce" "Listen to the teacher". No one said anything about participating.

We labeled what participating looks like- listening, raising your hand, thinking hard. Then we've been taking pictures of them participating and talking about each part of participation. Pixie loves this. With her crazy strong verbal skills she immediately picked up on the long word participation. She admitted that she has a hard time wiggling around on the rug (and oh friends, she does), but she also latched on to the fact that she is suppose to raise her hand to ask questions on the rug. (She never had a problem with this before, but knowing it is her job seems to have made her very happy).

My little quiet friend has no problem participating in our small group and seemed to understand the point. Back in his classroom I sat beside him, encouraging him to raise his hand and participating to questions I knew he knew the answer to. (Or even the "what is your favorite color" questions every child in the class was frantically waving their hand to answer.)  He kept glaring at him, clearly disgruntled with my presence and my expectation. On the second day of this he leaned over and in a rather harsh whisper said, "I am NOT raising my hand."

I was immediately taken back to when I was a child and I also absolutely refused to participate. Part of this may have come from my fourth grade teacher who decided I spoke too softly and would call on me and then walk out of the classroom and stand in the hallway. She'd wait for me to speak loud enough for her to hear me before she would come back in, while the whole class giggled and teased me for my quiet voice. It may have been after that when I gave up participating altogether. Even in college I usually refused to participate. On numerous occasions I told my professors that I understood the participation grade could lower me from an A to a B, but regardless, I wasn't going to participate. I learn better, I explained, when I am taking the information in and not worrying about what to say. I'd opt to write papers instead of participating in discussions. I had no problems with presentations or even my thesis defense, but when it came to spontaneous participation, I drew a line in the sand. Absolutely not. (This all changed in my education classes and now people usually can't get me to shut up).

So when this little boy growled that he was not raising his hand I felt his pain. Here I was demanding him to do something he clearly wasn't comfortable with, most likely culturally as well as his own personality. How much do I push?  Anyone whose never had a problem participating believes that we need to break the habit of being quiet on the rug. And I'd certainly like this little one to participate- life will be easier if he is comfortable chiming in during class, but how much can I force him? I know from personal experience that one can still be attending even if one isn't raising their hand. If I force this little one to participate like my fourth grade teacher did to me, am I only making it worse?

I've decided to focus on what he needs to do to show us that he's thinking hard. He may not need to raise his hand, but he needs to be showing us he's listening- no more curling up into a ball. We try to add in lots of whole-class chances for participation (if you think the answer is a but your hand on top of your head, if you think the answer is b, but wiggle your ear, or show me the math answer on your fingers) and I told him his job is to always participate in those polls so we know he is listening. And after I mentioned those to him, he participated in every single one that day- almost a 100 percent improvement over the day before. So maybe my first step is to make whole-group participation safe and then we'll slowly work our way into raising our hand. I'm not going to give up on hoping he'll become comfortable raising his hand, but I'm going to ease into it- baby steps.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

double ack

We've been working on understanding and using the hundreds chart in kindergarten. Even when I taught first grade I found that students frequently confused the teen numbers with 40, 50, 60, etc. I always made a big deal of being silly when saying these numbers- an old voice for a number ending with 0 and a higher pitched teenage voice for a teen number. When kids say a number I ask, "Is that a teenager number or an old number" and have them repeat it so it is clear.

Today, in the midst of a rousing game of Magic Number (everyone stands in a circle and counts off a set amount of numbers- today we were counting from 10 to 20. Any time someone gets the "magic number" (today was 20) that person has to sit down. It's amazing how frequently they can play the game and never get tired of it...)

At first they were saying their 13s and 14s in a way that sounded very similar to thirty and forty. I did my little teenager number vs old number, but this time added in, "you know, a teenager like Justin Bieber".

Shrieks. As though Justin Bieber himself just entered the room.

I momentarily regretted the reference. But then the strangest thing happened. As the game went on every single child very clearly stated their numbers, with no confusion. The girls did it with giggles, as though they were invoking Bieber in the mere mention of a number close to his age. As much as the Bieber-craze pains me I have to admit I appreciate an easy teaching point.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


"Oh, Ms. S" I heard one of my kindergarten students sigh as the instructional assistant helped her wash her hands, "I have Beber-fever."

The little one is learning to speak English, but she certainly has a grasp of pop culture...

writing buddies

A third grader listens as her kinder buddy plans out where to put the words on the page

Every year my school has a writing celebration. We go all out- every child and teacher receives a button that says "I Heart Writing". This year we even gave buttons to the visiting parents. There is a breakfast for the parents, each class does some sort of writing celebration to celebrate their published pieces, a whole-class text, or the students' works in progress. Many of the classes cover their classrooms with decorations, one of my fav teachers makes a red carpet for her kids to walk on. This year parnter-in-crime and I covered our tables with red table cloths and cut-out hearts. Each table held a centerpiece of tissue-paper flowers the children made themselves. I've written about it in past years here and here.

In the afternoon every class buddies up with a class on another grade level to share their writing. This year my partner-in-crime and the third grade teacher she was paired with decided to have the kids write together instead of sharing their published pieces.  It was amazing to watch!  I loved watching the third graders patiently plan their writing with the kindergartners, encouraging them to come up with a story idea to put down on paper. The third graders wrote, but all of them took the time to read what they were writing back to the kindergartners so that the five year olds could read the stories themselves. Then the kinders added the illustrations. One set of sisters- a third grader and the kindergartner worked hard on writing a story about what a snowball fight they had. The two leaned laughed and joked as they worked on adding those funny details about who hit who in the face with the snow. Some pairs of boys wrote books about  cars and the third graders took the time to encourage the kinders to think of sound-words to go along with their pictures.

Luckily the most patient third grade girl was paired with Pixie. When her big eyes looked at me and whispered, "Um, Mrs. Lipstick, could you help me with her?" I wished there was more I could do. The excitement for Pixie was just too much for her to sit still...

Standing back and watching the writing process between students in such different grades made me so proud of my school and the commitment we place on writing. For third graders to be able to conference with kindergartners as though they were teachers truly shows that they have been immersed in the culture of writing themselves for so long that they know exactly what is expected. And for the third graders and the kinders to be able to work together so easily on one writing piece shows that as a school we really are teaching writing in much the same way throughout the grade levels, despite the different expectations for each grade.

I heart my school, and of course, I heart writing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sing It!

I think my all-time favorite center is the singing center. My first year teaching I got the idea from Debbie Miller's book, Reading with Meaning (If you teach K-3 and are not familiar with this book I highly recommend you run to go get yourself a copy. Just the pictures of her classroom make me drool. She has wonderful ideas and great read-aloud lists to support her teaching topics.)

In one of her first chapters she writes about the importance of using songs both as shared reading and also having song books available for independent reading. Familiar songs instantly become familiar texts once the words are put into their hands, and for many of them it becomes something they can "read" beyond small books with two words on each page. For older readers it promotes fluency- because it is a familiar song their eyes and brain communicate quickly as they process the words, giving them practice for reading regular texts quickly. Looking at print while singing is a great solution for the robotic reading we tend to get when we do shared reading. Yes, we want everyone to stay together when we read as a class, but half the time we are sending the message to the kids that we read slowly. Songs help to counter act that.

As a classroom teacher I milked our familiar songs for all they were worth. One new song a week and we used it as a text for word study, identifying new word wall words, and of course, independent reading. Every week the children went to the "singing center" where they were able to get a copy of the new song, illustrate it, and put it into their song book. Once in their book they were free to read that song as well as any previous songs from our thick stack.  I set up the classroom so that the singing center was facing the air conditioning/heater and was away from reading groups. The children knew they needed to face the heater so that it would (somewhat) drown-out their voices during reading workshop. We sang all the time- during transitions, when we needed a wiggle break, or when we were walking outside so the kids knew each song by heart. (I should add I have a terrible singing voice. It's really painful. But after reading Debbie Miller's description of the power of songs in early literacy I decided that wouldn't stop me. The poor intern-teachers stuck in my room had to act like I wasn't killing their ears.)

This year Pixie ROCKS the singing center. She struggles with the texts we read in guided reading- simple texts with two or three words on a page, she struggles with letter names and their sounds, but she ROCKS the singing center. She could sit there for hours singing the songs over and over again, running her fingers over the words as she sings, with an intensity and focus we rarely see from her at other times. When it's her turn at the center we know her entire group will be singing along with her. Sometimes louder than we'd like, but we've all gotten so use to her singing that it doesn't distract the other readers.

Yesterday after our cupcake adventure we sent the kids to the rug with their reading bags for independent reading. The minute the instructions were out of my mouth I shuddered at what I'd just told them to do. Every kindergartner on the rug for independent reading?  The rug is not that big. There was no way it was going to end well, but we needed to get them away from the tables so we could do one last wipe-down to make sure no cake batter or raw egg was clinging a chair anywhere.

And yet- even with all of them on the rug they pulled out their guided reading books and started to read. And when they were finished with their guided reading books Pixie pulled out her singing book and started singing. Quickly everyone else in the class followed suite. Our whole class sat having a sing-along, independently, as we teachers cleaned in the background. They sang for about 20 minutes with no adult interaction. They weren't all singing the same song so the carpet was full of different versions of color songs, the autumn leaves song, the gathering song, but it didn't matter. Everyone was happy and on task even after the excitement of cooking.  It was pure magic.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

egg shells, frosting & cake batter

Today my partner-in-crime and I decided to be brave and try "cooking" with our kinders. Tomorrow is our whole-school writing celebration (one of my fav days of the year) and just to make it even more special we decided we'd have the kids make cupcakes to serve at the celebration.

Now, my all-time secret of cooking with kids in the classroom is to always make 2 batches- one with the kids and one at home. The one with the kids goes straight to the "oven" also known as a trash can kids don't have access to, and the batch made at home appears after an appropriate cooling time. It really takes some of the stress out of the experience. You don't have to worry about their germy fingers getting into the batter, or egg shells mixing in, or some of the cake mix spilling on the floor and not getting into the cupcakes themselves. And of course, they have no idea. Every child gets to ice one cupcake, and partner-in-crime and I will ice the extras we'll share with the parents. They loved it, and (hopefully) all in all it was fairly germ free.

I was so excited to get a picture of the egg cracking that I forgot to tell my friend how to crack the egg. So of course, he opted for the "squeeze" approach. Note the egg yolk on his hand and the shells in the bowl...

Have you ever seen more icing on a cupcake?  It's nothing but a chocolate/vanilla mountain. It's owner is quite proud of her creation, but my stomach hurts just looking at it.
I love the teamwork cooking creates. Every table worked so hard to stir their batter and get their batter into their cupcake tins.  We ended with batter everywhere, but it was totally worth it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The beginning of life

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend who is training to be a midwife. (She's currently a nicu nurse and her stories always fascinate me!) Since one of my classes this term is focused on atypical development from 0 to age 8 I have found that she is a wealth of information about the articles and studies I'm reading for class about prenatal care and early development. Yesterday, however, I asked her a question about development in the second trimester and she admitted that she wasn't as familiar with that time frame. The clinic where she is doing her midwife internship happens to serve a population living in low socioeconomic status (Avery similar population to the one at my school). She explained that medicaid doesn't start coverung prenatal visits until the 20th week.

Medicaid does not cover prenatal visits until the 20th week.

I can't get that out of my head. I woke up thinking about it this morning.

So all the kids I teach were not eligible for prenatal care until week 20 because their families did not have private insurance. They were too poor to be allowed to have early prenatal care.

I am sure there are studies out there that support why it is alright to wait for the 20 week line but that doesn't change the fact that we have created a huge gap in society between parents who are rich enough for early prenatal care and those who are not. Our children are starting out their earliest days of life already at a disadvantage. And the thing is their parents probably need prenatal care the most. If nothing else they need to hear from a doctor what they can and cannot eat or do. My friends who have been pregnant spent hours on the Internet looking for answers the minute they saw that positive sign. By the time they got to the doctors office they knew many of the recommendations already. They tracked their pregnancy using online programs to be sure of exactly how far along they were. Many of the families at my school do not have Internet access. They are relying only on neighbors and old wives tales to get information before that 20 week visit. They have to hope they correctly count their weeks and don't lose track so that they get to the doctors on time.

My friend also shared with me that in her community there is a distinction between the poorest families and those still on medicaid but still considered to have resources. The public health center will only accept the poorest families, leaving the rest to find a doctor that accepts Medicaid. She also mentioned that the doctors offices only get reimbursed about $25 per visit for these families although the costs are much greater. Sadly, that loss of revenue drives many doctors to not accept Medicaid, leaving an entire set of the population fighting for appointment times for their new babies. Once again, we have created a situation where our children are starting life at an immediate disadvantage from their peers.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Questions, questions, questions

I recently sat in on an IEP where a parent brought a long list of questions. While I know some special education teachers deal with this regularly, at my school it is sadly rare. We are use to the parents nodding along as we go, occasionally asking simple questions, and then signing at the end of the meeting. We've had difficult meetings before, but I've never experienced anything quite like this. The parents had put a lot of thought into their questions. They wanted to understand and truly wanted the best for their daughter. They didn't just want to be told "this is how we do it", they wanted to know why. Why did we word a sentence in one way, why is that considered routine, and what does that routine mean for their child?

As daunting as it was (and it was a relief there were so many of us in the meeting to answer the questions!) it was also refreshing. There was something reassuring about knowing a parent was so invested in their child's progress. It's not like we didn't know the answers to the questions. Sometimes it was hard to find the words to explain something that comes second nature to us, but it was an excellent experience. Why do we word something one way and not another? And could we explain it without using the ed-speak we're so accustom to?

I was recently at a routine doctor visit and was asking questions. My grad school research had me questioning some assumptions I'd previously made and I wanted to know why medical practice leaned one way when the research I was reading leaned another way. The doctor was trying very hard to refrain from rolling her eyes as she curtly told me that's just how it was. (I wont be going back to see her anytime soon).  I wasn't questioning her out of malice, or because I didn't trust her, I just truly wanted to know- She was the expert and I wanted to get her opinion. I realize it makes her job harder to have me ask questions like that, especially when they are not routine questions patients come up with. But I wanted to know. It's my health, after all.

I felt the same way with the parents at the IEP meeting. It certainly didn't feel like they were attacking us, although we easily could have let ourselves feel that way since it seemed they were questioning what seemed to us like small details. But they wanted to know. They wanted to understand why on earth we were going over so many papers and exactly what all those papers and ed-speak words would mean for their child.

I wish more parents would come to use with such thoughtful questions. As a society we need to stop seeing questions as a sign of 'lack of trust' and instead as a way participants show their involvement and their desire to understand. I hope the parents left feeling confident in what the school could do for their child, and more confident in the IEP process as a whole.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Visions, Innovation & Change

I'm ashamed it's been so long since I've blogged last (over a week!) but I've been swimming in my thoughts from EduCon trying to synthesize all the ideas I heard. I've felt absolutely too overwhelmed to post. And then, this evening, when I arrived home from grad class and pulled up my notes on my ipad...  they were gone. Stupid inotepad note taker thing didn't save all of my notes. All of those ideas I thought I was remembering correctly but wrote down just to be sure... gone. The quote about innovation for students from poverty...  gone.

So bare with me as I try to synthesize from memory alone...

First of all, I really had no idea what to expect going into EduCon. One of my fabulous co-workers had been the previous two years and always came back raving about it. She finally convinced me to go and I'm really glad I did. I enjoyed the small conference feel and the structure- instead of presentations each session is really designed to be a conversation where you are able to dive into deeper debates of what is needed at the heart of education by pushing one another to ask hard questions and share ideas/visions/goals.

The session I got the absolute most out of was on change. The presenters began by recognizing that one of the problems in education is that all of our long-term visions for education tend to be different, which makes it hard to initiate policy change on a global scale. We're all talking about different overall visions and goals for education. She asked us to share our broader visions, which led to a fascinating discussion on student self-advocacy, the skills students need to take part in their learning, and the tools we need to get us there. It was interesting to hear from all the different view points- the academic doctoral student working on his dissertation, the instructional coach, the technology specialist, an education consultant working with school districts, a guidance counselor, and a high school teacher. Everyone came from different backgrounds- some of us worked with children from poverty while some worked with children in higher socio-economic situations. Some worked in private schools bound by small resources while others of us worked in large public school districts bound by the greater structure of a large bureaucracy. For the most part, surprisingly, (perhaps because we are all people who chose to come to this unique conference) we all realized our visions for our students and education as a whole was to give students the tools they needed to be successful, teach them to advocate for themselves, teach them it was acceptable to fail as long as they continue to try (take risks), and to ensure that all adults are collaborating together to meet their needs.
So we have a vision, but how do we get there?  We hemmed and hawed over policies, top-down regulations and initiatives, statements and roles of principals and school boards. Yet in the end, what we all found ourselves settling on was that we can't wait for the top to change. If we want change we need to each fight for it individually within our own classrooms. We need to follow our own visions, ask for forgiveness instead of permission, get creative and do what needs to be done in order to work with our kids. In some ways it's an overwhelming and depressing order- the system's never going to change so it's up to you- but in other ways it is freeing. You're never going to get exactly what you want from the system so go ahead and give yourself permission to do what you know how to do best.
If we want to bring innovation to our students (the theme of the conference) we can't wait for the reauthorization of NCLB to suddenly give us permission to do so. We need to bring the innovation to our students ourselves, in anyway we can within the structure we're working in.
As one of the opening panel speakers explained (and I don't know who or have the exact quote because my notes are gone...) nobody talks about innovation with students at high risk or from poverty. Innovation becomes something only the middle and upperclass are privilege enough to be encouraged to experiment with in school. Our children in under-performing schools don't have that privlege.
At this point no one is going to tell us we have to encourage student innovation in our under-performing schools, or with our at-risk children. Yet we can't deny them the chance to learn through the drive to innovate, explore and create. So it's up to us to find ways to bring innovation into our own classrooms in order to fill that gap.

Exhausted from a long weekend with other thoughts floating in my head I have been inspired and overwhelmed by this idea all at once. But it's true. I can't wait on anyone else to make my vision for my students come true.

*my fabulous co-presenter/co-teacher did a great write-up on our google-doc presentation. Check it out!*