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.

Monday, July 18, 2011

interesting article from NPR

One of my doctorate classes this winter was Atypical Development 0-8, which basically translated to, "Everything that can go wrong to cause a child to have special needs from conception to early elementary school."  We ended up spending 3/4 of the class on prenatal, preterm babies, and newborns. All while I was pregnant, yet before I'd told anyone I was pregnant. I sat through class after class biting my nails, listening to everything that might be going wrong in my uterus at that VERY MOMENT to be causing my child to have special need.

I was doing alright with it all until the guest speaker on Autism noted that her current research was showing that there most likely are environmental factors that cause Autism while the child is in the womb. I'd been able to sit through the class sessions on every other topic, but perhaps because this was news to me I about passed out at the table. One more thing to worry about? I immediately decided that the woman was wrong and blocked out the rest of her discussion.

One thing we focused on quite a lot was the new research on late-term preemies, or those born at 37 weeks. Until recently, 37 weeks wasn't considered premature, and doctors were even scheduling deliveries around 37 weeks if they were going out of town so they could deliver babies before they headed out on vacation. The research was fascinating, and much we heard was from researchers still writing up their results, or in the process of publishing, so their work hasn't been published yet. Some of what we read was published, and if I wasn't feeling lazy (I am 33 weeks pregnant after all) I would get off my couch and look up the articles so that I could cite them for you).

This afternoon I read this article today from NPR on how Drs are encouraging women to not induce labor before the baby is ready. The article fits in with all of the research we heard about and read this past semester. What it does not mention however, that some of the studies we heard about did, was that babies born at 37 weeks all seem to show cognitive delays in the same visual/motor integration areas as they grow older. The similarity in delays in children born at 37 weeks seemed to suggest to researchers that those specific regions of the brain are developing while the child is in the womb at 37 weeks.

This was new research not yet written up, and it may be proven false after the data is looked at again. But at the time the guest speakers met with us this was the pattern they had found in their data. They are continuing to follow these children to see how they fare in elementary school.
I found the implications fascinating, particularly for what it tells us about brain development and how early brain development can impact performance in the early years of development and into elementary school.

I found the NPR article interesting- worth the read- and thought it was nice to know that doctors are beginning to switch their practices.

truth in old wives tales?

Toward the end of the school year I found myself constantly fielding questions from the mothers at my school- specifically the ones who recently came to the US. They saw my growing belly and whether they knew me or not, immediately pointed their finger toward my stomach and announced, "Girl, right?"   Going out to kiss and ride to help kids find their parents was the equivalent to throwing myself into the lion's den. Every mother and grandmother wanted to share their village's secret for predicting gender.

One day my daughter must have been in a particularly boyish position because at least two, if not three mothers predicted that I was having a boy. When I told them this wasn't the case they argued with me and told me to go back to my doctors. "Those machines can't tell" they told me, "Look at how you are carrying."
*At my next appointment I insisted they check again. The technician sighed, checked, confirmed that it is a girl, and then gave me her credentials. "My job is to make sure your baby's heart, kidneys, and amniotic fluid are healthy. If I messed up gender I should be fired."

Got it.
I didn't bother to explain that a woman from Afghanistan had told me that she was wrong.

Now that I'm at 8 months strangers' predictions have shifted from gender to my due date. Again, it has only been people who seemed to recently enter the US. On the metro, or just out in downtown DC, people with thick-accents from around the world pop up in my face with predictions of "two months", "one month and two weeks", paired large grins, waiting for me to confirm that they are correct. I happily confirm or correct their predictions, ask how they know, and listen to their explanations from their home-towns, secretly thanking God that they have kept their hands to themselves and have not rubbed my belly.

I love living and teaching in such a diverse area. I just wish I'd been writing all of the different prediction methods down along with the country. I can't remember who said what, or where what prediction came from.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

boundary debates

I was thrilled to stumble upon Jay Mathew's article in the Washington Post about parents protesting the changing boundary lines because they want their children in a more diverse school, not the school with higher test scores.  It's nice to know that there are parents out there looking beyond school ratings based on test scores and thinking about the education their child is actually getting.  I know students who attend both high schools mentioned in the article, and I must say, there is a special place in my heart for the students who attend Annandale High. Maybe it's that their motto is the atoms (who does that?), or that attending their homecoming parade reveals a high school not reflected in any movie I've ever seen-it is a true a snapshot of the amazingly diverse, passionate, and active student body.

I wonder about where my own daughter will go to school (years and years from now)- I hope we will be living in an area that will provide her with a diverse yet academically rich school.  I'm so glad to know there are parents there that appreciate what the non-test-perfect schools have to offer.

One of the speakers we heard at ISTE discussed the importance of global awareness and how to use technology to expand your students outlook on the world. Jenny and I appreciated the passion the speaker used to discuss global awareness, but we couldn't help but feel that his ideas of using technology to connect with another part of the world was somewhat a waste of our time- because of the diverse make up of our students, even in first grade, have a global awareness that goes beyond that of many adults. Understanding other cultures and our roles within the larger global community is an essential skill for our students to have in the work force. It is one thing the think-tank is able to offer all of our students- right within our classroom walls. These are lessons that cannot be taught during a set social studies block.

(I also appreciate that Jay Mathews notes that his own rating scale can cause parents to want their children at the more high-performing, less diverse school.  I have my own problems with that rating scale and I'm glad to see that he acknowledged its role in the boundary debate. As he states in his article, both schools have excellent programs, both are in a county that provides strong teaching and a good education, and both are rated high when compared to the national average. One is just more diverse than the other, and one has a higher poverty rate than the other. A higher poverty rate or lower test scores does not automatically translate into poor teaching or a bad school. One must consider the whole picture)

Monday, July 11, 2011

different perspectives

At the end of the year one of my classrooms put on plays based on familiar stories they had heard all year. They were adorable- the children really got excited about acting out the stories and rarely needed prompts to remember their lines. The students knew the stories so well that during practice the teacher would only need to say "Next we are going to do Caps for Sale. Who wants to be the salesman? Who wants to be a monkey?" She'd chose the parts and then pretty  much let the kids free- they'd act out the story without much adult interaction- it was like we were simply giving an audience to their play schemes.
It was pure play of the best kind- when children are acting out what they've learned, using their oral language, problem solving with one another, and interacting with one another appropriately without adult interaction. It reinforced so much learning that went on during the year- sequencing of stories, language development, distinct character traits, elements of story...  the list could go on. Watching the initial rehearsals when they were trying to figure out what to do was very powerful.

One of my kiddos suddenly became a shining star during these sessions. We've been extremely worried about this little one since she walked into the room on the first day of school.  She is highly dis-regulated, has difficulty staying on task long enough to draw a picture of a person, has difficulty remembering names, faces, and where she is in the building. Having a conversation with her reflects our academic concerns- her difficulty of staying on topic leads her conversations to jump around from subject to subject, frequently giving the impression that she is simply stating sentences out of mid air that do not connect with reality. Needless to say, encouraging her to retell a story from beginning to end is difficult- getting her to sequence even the most basic steps is hard to do. During independent play time she plays alone- rarely interacting with the other children in their play schemes.

Yet the minute her teacher began preparing the plays we met a different child.  On stage this little one became a shinning star. She never needed a prompt to tell her what to do next- she knew the exact sequence of the stories- knew what should happen when, and even understood the differences in the characters' moods so that she would change her voice or add little extra lines in to reinforce what was occurring on stage. She was a rock star. She tried every part possible- and rocked every part. She was a brilliant troll under the bridge, but also a perfect Mamma Bear in Goldilocks, and an angry salesman in caps for sale. It didn't matter what the part was- she was on top of it.

Watching her perform in those last weeks gave us a whole different perspective on this little one who struggled so much throughout the year. Her stage performances showed us that she has skills we didn't know she had- and that she has understanding of academic work we didn't know she had. All our regular assignments somehow failed to pull out her knowledge, until now. She needed a different way to interact with the material, and finally, in June, we gave it to her.

Next year she will be in my non-cat class and I cannot wait to put my new knowledge of her to good use. Obviously our long-term goal is for her to be able to retell a story without acting it out, and to answer questions on topic without being involved in a play. But now we have a glimmer of one of the building blocks needed to get her there. She's not as far back as she seemed before, we just need to tailor our assignments and then scaffold them in a way to get her from where she is to grade-level expectations.

I love the moments where we get to see our children in a new light- we realize that what we've seen so far all year isn't always the whole picture, and it's a reminder that as much as we love routines, it's good to change up instruction and activities inside of those routines so that we give our students otherwise of showing who they are and what they know.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Slippery Slope

Joanne Jacobs notes two recent articles that question whether or not all children need the same things from schools.  The articles suggest that students from suburban backgrounds do not need the same things from public schools that children from at-risk backgrounds need. They note that suburban parents are not pushing for school reform because they are happy with the state of their schools. Therefore, the articles suggest, education reform policies need to focus on schools serving at-risk populations and should tactfully ignore schools serving middle and upper class students. Then they may earn the support of the suburban parents who are currently hesitant to push for reform because they are happy with their current schools.

There is a sad truth here because, yes, children from suburban backgrounds have different needs than children from at-risk backgrounds. My kindergartners enter the classroom without knowing the alphabet, some, not even able to recognize their own name in print. I have a feeling many suburban children enter kindergarten all about to write their own name, and read some words. It's true- instruction itself needs to vary from child to child based on the children's individual needs.

But this can be done in the classroom through differentiation or good teaching. It doesn't mean we need different policies for different schools.  In the field of special education we've done a lot to make sure all children are given the same experiences and are held to the same expectations. Federal laws dictate that children with special needs receive a Free & Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Every classroom in American should be meeting the needs of all the children within its walls- creating shared experiences and shared expectations regardless while differentiating to meet the students' individual needs.

It seems to me that policies that would differentiate between whole schools based on the income of the neighborhood would be just as discriminating and segregating as our special ed environment before FAPE and LRE were put into place. We would be creating a cultural expectation that children from poor neighborhoods deserve to be given one set of schools while children from more privileged neighborhoods deserve another.  This may help close the achievement gap that is measured by standardized tests, but I suspect we would find that the achievement gap between those ready for the college and the workplace and those not prepared would expand.

Our children going to schools untouched by policy would likely be pushed toward using creativity and critical thinking skills in their daily lives. Those children would enter college and the work place prepared to examine difficult questions from all sides, think outside the box, and would have a better understanding of how to work toward a larger goal. Children from at-risk neighborhoods whose teachers were pushed to teach only to the test will have factual knowledge and will be able to write a clear 5 paragraph essay, but will not have the skills to apply that knowledge to their world. Freshman college classes will be filled with two different schools of thought- and one of those sets will quickly become very, very frustrated as their peers adapt to the new environment due to their academic preparation.

Every child, regardless of their neighborhood, deserves to be exposed to critical thinking skills and creativity. Every child deserves to have the same experiences that truly prepare them for the real world and not just to take a test that measures their teacher's ability. Good teaching will meet the needs of all students in the classroom, finding ways to teach the facts needed for the test through larger projects that also teach creativity and critical thinking.

The system is far from perfect now. We need better teaching that will focus on giving all children both sets of skills. We need administrators and policy makers that understand child development, how children learn, and the importance of teaching students how to take factual knowledge and apply it to a greater problem. We do not need different policies for different schools. We do not need to discriminate against or track our students based on their neighborhoods.

Friday, July 8, 2011

planning ahead...

I thought I would be following up on my last post all week but I've found myself lost in the world of making my long-term sub plans instead.  So far I've spent 3-4 hours a day trying to capture everything that my sub may need to know when she takes over for me in the fall, and I'm not even halfway done.  Next year I'm moving from pushing into all my classrooms (a full inclusion model) to having a non-categorical classroom.  I'll have 10 children throughout the day, 5 will be with me most of the day and then 5 will come and go depending on their IEP hours. They will all be in kindergarten or first grade and have a wide range of abilities. A few are non-verbal, some have experienced trauma in their early childhood which seems to have impacted their development, some may have autism (it is rare to get an official autism label this early), some have physical disabilities along with intellectual disabilities. Some are still being toilet trained and some need to be monitored while eating. All of them are awesome kids and I can't wait to work with them.
I am SO excited.
I got to meet all of the children in one way or another this year through doing preschool transitions. I've met their parents, consulted with their preschool teachers, and hung out with them during the school day for a bit.  Three of them I worked with at the think-tank this past year (yes, Magical is one of them!). I absolutely cannot wait to start this class and get to know them even better.

It's ironic, of course, that the year I get a non-cat class is the same year I will be out for a few months on maternity leave. I can't help but feel guilty- these are kids who need consistency and I'm throwing them for a loop. I have an awesome long-term sub and I want to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible for her.
So I've started my maternity leave plans, wanting them to be as absolutely as helpful as possible. It's the beginning of the year, which is my favorite time of year, but also the time of year I think that is most important. I'm trying to be as detailed as possible with how to open the classroom, how to do guided discoveries, when to do them, how to create a community, how to step up rules, routines, etc. It helps that Responsive Classroom has so many great resources and that I can include The First Six Weeks of School as a reference, but it's still a lot to create.  (If you aren't familiar with The First Six Weeks of School check it out- it is a life savor not only in the beginning of the year but also in how it helps you set up a community that will remain all year).

Then there is the curriculum itself, the sequence of what to teach when, how to set up centers, what types of centers to use, when to start guided reading, etc. That of course is similar to the gen ed curriculum. Then I have to go through and adapt it to meet the needs of my kiddos- how to support each one of them with their particular needs in particular subjects.

And of course, there is the data collection. Each child has a long IEP with data that needs to be collected on how they are meeting their goals. I'm trying to make charts, anecdotal note sheets, and anything else that will make it easy for my sub & aid to track their progress. Not to mention leaving special notes on each of the 10 children- who needs to go to the bathroom when, who cannot eat anything in the classroom, who needs assistance on the bus, etc.

So far the task has been all-consuming and after I finish 4 hours of trying to predict what is best for the sub to know and all contingency plans.

The worst part is, the more time I spend with their IEPs and getting everything ready for their beginning of the year the more I just cannot wait to dive into the school year and get to know them all.  So far it seems like it is going to be an amazing classroom and I can't wait to work in it!  Of course, the time that Baby Lipstick appears I'm sure I'll be busy enough with other amazing tasks that will keep my mind off wanting to be in school.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

when will we realize we're all on the same team?

A good friend mentioned a piece in the NY Daily News about the polarization of the education debate. The article presents education reform as the new abortion- two sides completely at odds with one another- with little respect for one another's opinions, theories, and beliefs. That's certainly what it feels like as a teacher- that the entire world has turned against us- and I was curious to read the article.

I think the article has a lot of truths to it, but I also think it in itself is very telling of the debate as a whole. It seems to state that the two sides are Reform vs Teachers- those who want to improve the education of our children and close the achievement gap, and those who want to live with the status quo.

For an article attempting to point out the differences between the two platforms I could easily tell you what side the author of the article falls on- and it's not pro-teacher.

When I first moved to DC out of college and told people I was a teacher I got the "oh, cute" responses when I was out and about. I found myself trying to prove my intellect to these strangers and somehow show that I had made a better choice than my peers when I decided to go into teaching and not law school.  I could live with the condescension- I knew what I was doing day to day was extremely important. But now when I tell people I'm a teacher I almost watch then recoil in horror. "Not one of them...  those creatures trying to hold our kids down?" I feel they want to ask. "Why don't you do real work that will make a difference, like work at a non-profit? You didn't do Teach for America? You must have only gotten into teaching for the summers, not to improve the lives of children in underprivileged areas"

This new condescension is worse- before I was ok with my intellect being questioned, but now it is my intellect AND my motives. My passions. Why I get out of bed in the morning.
When I talk about the amazing things my school does people immediately ask, "Oh, you work at a charter school?"
NO! I want to scream. A public school!  And surprise, we are not the devil! We work our a**s off for our kids- we want the BEST for them. Yes, at a public school!
But now I'm letting my emotions get in the way of my argument and I no longer sound reasonable. I'm only proving their point- that I am a hot-headed teacher.

When did we become public enemy number one?

I think my biggest problem with the debate is the assumption that teachers are against reform. We absolutely want the best for our kids. Do we want more testing? No, but not because we are lazy, we are scared for our jobs, or because we have low expectations for our kids. We don't believe testing, as it has been implemented, improves the students' education. In fact, in many ways, when working in the trenches, we watch how it is a determinate to actual student learning. We watch how children lose out on essential instructional time because of the amount of classroom time dedicated to test prep. We struggle knowing what best practices are and knowing they are out of our reach as we drill and kill for the test.

We want reform, but we'd like to have a straightforward conversation about how that is best done. Yet anytime one of us opens our mouth we're immediately told that we have low expectations for our students- after that our arguments are cut off at the knees. We mention what we know are best practices- research-based practices that will give success but no one wants to hear it. We're told that where we learned those best practices and theories- in graduate school- was a waste of time. The general public tells us that we only went back to school to get a raise in pay, that our masters degrees are worthless, and that we are simply working the system.

I'd love to have a real conversation on reform with someone from the other side- when just once 'high expectations' and 'what's best for kids' are not phrases used as shields to protect themselves from having to acknowledge what they do not know about teaching, but instead as phrases that will truly let us find the right answer.
The author of the article writes:
"From the perspective of most teachers, poverty explains education problems. A valid point. Reformers insist that school quality, especially effective teaching, can make a sizable dent in the learning inequities we see across the lines of race and income. Also a valid point."

I don't think we, as teachers, are standing around saying, "Our kids can't learn because they are poor, therefore we wont try." We'd like to find exactly how to make a change in teaching to reach ALL children. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that children come from different backgrounds in order to make sure they will be successful. My kindergartners do not come in knowing the alphabet. Therefore I cannot start teaching them to read as though they all went to preschool.  I need to back up and make sure they know the alphabet. This doesn't mean I have low expectations- I still expect them to learn to read by the end of the year- but I first have to acknowledge that the road to get there will be different than at another school.  We're not using poverty as an excuse, but we do need to acknlowedge it in order to match the curriculum with our children.

YES- we want to have great schools and effective teaching- we WANT to make a sizable dent in learning inequities. We just want to do it the right way. Yet frequently what is brought to us as reform is just additional testing- it's not how to improve instruction. (But remember, if we go back to grad school to learn to improve instruction we're clearly wasting our time). Too many reformers do not have a background in education, do not understand how children learn, and do not have a grasp on recent break throughs in best practices.  When someone comes to us with a true, improved teaching idea we celebrate. We sit through afternoon workshops we don't get paid for in order to learn how to improve our teaching. We are always seeking how to improve our teaching. Yet what is brought to us by "reformers" is not helping our teaching.  We'd love it if it was different. 

Amanda Ripley, who writes for Time was quoted in the article saying:

"You're either with us or against us. What bothered me was that some of these people, who have significant influence on the lives of our kids, seem to have lost all curiosity about this complex subject. That's ironic, given they work in a field that should value curiosity."

Teachers are some of the most curious people I know. We want to learn- in fact, we'd like to have some genuine discussions about this with those in ed reform. When was the last time we were asked? When was the last time someone in ed reform brought us along in a discussion instead of merely criticizing us? 

I'm going to stop there because, well, I'm not sure anyone is still reading. I'm usually a calm person, but anytime my motives, passion, and intellect are challenged I get a bit hot. In the next few days I'll try to write calmer, more intelligent pieces on education that actually flow. I promise. Don't delete me from your reader yet.