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.