Thursday, December 27, 2012

To Be a Teacher

On Christmas Eve my 98 year old grandmother unwrapped her gift from my parents, a framed picture of one of the kindergarten classes she taught many, many years ago. At some point recently she'd shown my mother a small snapshot of her and the many, many students in her morning and afternoon kindergarten classes and told my mother that she wanted it blown up and put in a place where she can see it everyday because it makes her happy.

She didn't ask for a picture of her great granddaughter, who happens to be named after her. She didn't ask for a picture of our family all together, pictures of her own children, or even of her dogs (they had a lot of dogs over the years). She wanted a picture of her class.

I leaned over her shoulder and listened as she pointed to each child, telling stories about the kids who were naughty, the ones who were silly, the sweet ones, the smart ones. Although she couldn't remember all of their names she certainly remembered their personalities.

This is what it means to be a teacher. For 10 months out of a year we become fully committed to a small group of little people. We think about these people day and night. How will we get them to read? To sit quietly? To understand fractions? To be good friends? Lately we even lie awake at night wondering how we will protect our students from terror. Our classes stay with us forever, becoming as much a part of the story of our lives as our own family. So much so that 70 years after they've come and gone we will still remember them.

My own fridge is just starting to have more pictures of my own daughter than my former students. Every morning as I get my coffee I still smile at students I taught 7 years ago. At this point they may have forgotten about me, but I can't forget about them.

I often forget I come from a long line of teachers. My grandmothers have always been my grandmothers- growing up their stories were about my parents and their siblings. I thought of them as good cooks, great book-readers, and fun play partners. I forget that they too dedicated a part of their lives to the classroom. I'm looking forward to going back to my grandmother's to hear mor stories about her kindergarten classes.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The spirit of giving

For the first time in ten years all of the students in my class are from homes that celebrate Christmas. It was odd, really, being able to openly discuss the holiday as a class. I'm use to being much more cautious and quiet about it. We didn't do anything overtly Christmas themed, but we just all seemed more relaxed about the holiday.

Today was absolutely one of those days that makes me love my job. We walked like reindeer in the hallway (reindeer are silent because they can't wake up the kids sleeping). We had a dance party at the end if the day and danced to all of our favorite songs. We made snow flakes by sticking pretzels into marshmallows. We laughed and played. The kids hugged each other all day.

In a Christmas miracle turn of events our order from donors choose came today. Much like Santa delivering a sack of toys, our secretary came down to us with a huge box. Opening the presents to the classroom and finding a toy barn, a doll house, dolls, and art supplies my class just gasped in excitement. As we unpacked the barn a few exclaimed, "Where's Mrs. Wishy Washy?" They know me so well.

The absolute best part of the day, however, was when we played Santa and gave out small boxes of chocolates to people around the school. We wrote them cards and then filled the boxes with chocolate- not eating any for ourselves. We talked a lot about gift giving and doing things for other people. As we handed out our gifts they all exclaimed, "She's happy!" "Look, we made her happy!" Each and every time they squealed with joy at the happiness they were giving to others. It was one of the sweetest, most heart warming experiences I've had as a teacher.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Who needs feet for soccer footwork- wheels are so much more efficient

At recess the other day I looked out and for a moment assumed that a soccer ball had gotten stuck in my friend's wheelchair. I started to say something to him, but as I watched I realized that he put it there on purpose. He was using his chair to move the soccer ball across the black top. He would get the soccer ball to roll away from him, would chase it down, trap it, and then would drive it around the blacktop. Rock Star, being the rock star she is, was running along beside him, keeping other kids from stealing it, and just generally encouraging him.

The smile on his face was just about equivalent to a major league soccer player running across the field after scoring a winning goal.

I love my job.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More Singing!

My morning started with the deep sense of dread- a quick check of my email let me know that BOTH of my aides would be out. The mere thought gave me such an intense headache that I considered staying home myself. Maybe the school would call my families and tell them to just stay home. 

Prepared for the worst I sulked into school, wondering how on earth I was going to make it with two subs in the room. My kids don't do well with changes in our routine- what would this do to us?

My only solution- the solution I come up with whenever I'm at a loss of what to do in the classroom- is MORE SINGING.

So, it's all we did. All day. Sing. And dance. And sing some more.

We sang rock ABC songs. We sang calming ABC songs. We sang about the days of the week- maybe three or four times. We sang about money. We sang to count by tens. We even sang about the gingerbread man.

It turned out to be my favorite day all year. My kids ROCK. 

Play in School- What's Appropriate?

 One of the silly things I miss about my old school was my amazing room and my house keeping corner. I had one of those nice wooden kitchen sets complete with an oven, sink and refrigerator. I had it in a corner where I had a fake window. Over the sink I'd stuck a clock and a calendar. I LO
VED my house keeping center. I found it to be such a great teaching tool- we had so many opportunities to practice spontaneous language over there, as well as chances to teach children how to play appropriately and interact with one another. I had a stack of envelopes and cards there as well so that the students could write notes and letters to one another, or take orders if they were playing restaurant. I had a cash register so we could practice counting money while we were playing. Lots of opportunities for language.

Every kindergarten class at my old school had a kitchen center, so I didn't think anything of it. Last year I mainly had kindergarten students, along with two first graders.

I'd frequently thought about all the great things we could do this year if we had a toy kitchen, but hadn't done anything to actively get one. I was surprised to walk into the kindergarten classrooms at my new school and not see toy kitchen centers. It seemed like such an integral part of our kindergarten rooms at the think tank.

Last week an instructional aide for another classroom popped into my room to ask me if I wanted a toy kitchen. The after school care had found an old one they didn't want and immediately thought of me.

"YES!" I exclaimed, without thinking. I was ridiculously excited by this development. Finally, we'd get down to our important play-business in our room.

One of my colleagues, who has been teaching students with intellectual disabilities for years, happened by my room later that day. I have the utmost respect for this teacher, and truly listen to everything she says. She expressed great concern for me taking the play kitchen. "This isn't preschool, this is kindergarten. Our kids need to be exposed to age appropriate toys and games. If the general education kids aren't playing with it in school then our kids shouldn't be playing with it in school."

Interactive writing we did during free choice a few years ago
I was stunned, but I could understand what she was saying. What does it look like to have my second grade students walk into a classroom where there is a toy kitchen? What message does that send to the rest of the school?

The thing is, I firmly believe that general education classes should have more time for creative play. I would have LOVED to have a toy kitchen in my gen ed first grade classroom. There are so many ways to use it for academics. Just because it's play doesn't mean we can't use it for learning.

I thought long and hard about whether I was going to keep the kitchen. I don't want to make my children any more different than they already are, but I also want to give them opportunities for growth. The kitchen allows for organic language opportunities. It teaches them to have interactive play, something they aren't going to learn without adult assistance. We can put math and literacy into the center. It will never just be "playing". If asked I can always explain what the kids are doing and how it supports their goals.

The first day I let three of my students go to the kitchen center I sat back to take notes on the language they were using. Without an adult prompting them they were having back and forth conversations- they were playing- using the toy food and pretending to eat. These little things are HUGE for my kids. I honestly had never heard this group of children communicate with one another like that.

I just can't put aside my beliefs on the importance of play. I'm sure there are higher-ups in the county who may come down on me when they realize what we're doing. But until then I'm going to keep using the kitchen center to enrich our free-choice time. We're going to keep using it to practice talking to one another, using appropriate social skills, stretching out the sounds in our words while we take one another's orders, counting food we're putting onto plates, and following photo recipes we've previously cooked.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Talking, talking, talking

Every morning I meet two of my students at the bus and bring them back to my classroom. Waiting in the gym is too noisy and overwhelming for them, so we go straight to our room and get started on our day. As we walk down the hall (it's a long walk) I find myself chatting with them, although it tends to be a one-way conversation.

"Good morning! I missed you this weekend! Did you have fun?" Pause for an answer. One of them may repeat the question, but both will keep walking.

"Did you do anything exciting this weekend?" Again, one may repeat the question, but I don't really expect an answer. When we're in the classroom and I've got visuals and it's quiet I'll ask the same question in a more appropriate way for my kids to answer. This is just...  chatter. Because that's what kids and teachers do- they talk to each other in the hallway.

Every morning we walk past the same kindergarten students. One little boy smiles at me every morning as I'm walking with my friends. Today, after weeks and weeks of watching me ask questions and get no response he blurts out,

"I had a GREAT weekend! It was SO exciting!" he gives me a winning smile that seems to say, "It's OK teacher, I don't know who you are, but I'm listening to you even if your own students aren't."

I can't help but feel that he was feeling sorry for me- surely wondering why my own students don't talk to me. I must admit, I appreciated the kindergarten sympathy, even if I didn't need it. It's nice to know someone is listening.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Pinterest fail

When I stumbled upon the magnet sensory-center on Pinterest last week I thought it was brilliant! Put shredded paper in a box/sensory table, put paper clips inside the box as well. Give the student a magnet and let them use the magnet in the paper to find the paper clips.

Great, right?

Do you have any idea how hard it is to clean up shredded paper from the classroom floor?

Hard. Very hard.

Surprisingly harder to clean up than the tiny grains of rice that had previously been in the center and were driving me crazy because they seemed impossible for us to pick up with our pincher grasps. 

And now you know.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

there are no words

I was coming out of an IEP meeting at another school on Friday afternoon when I heard the news. Not quite processing what was happening, not quite understanding what was being said on the radio, I sat in my car instead of driving away. I knew all the words individually, but when they were put together I couldn't make sense of them. It couldn't be right.

I was immediately hit with a need to drive back to my own class, who I knew was preparing for dismissal  to hug them and reassure myself that they were safe, along with the same urgent need to drive to my daughter's daycare and hug her tightly.

I still can't quite process the news. I don't think any of us can. We are all desperately grasping for something to hang on to- something to blame, something that explains what happens, something that will identify an easy fix. Gun control, school safety, an increase in mental health services, a desire to put God back into the schools- these are all things I've heard and read about in the past 48 hours.

If only it was that simple. For us to be able to say, "All we need to do is fix x and y will never happen again." We need that. I need that.

From my own perspective on the world I find myself blaming mental health services. If this boy had gotten more help, if we'd been better prepared as a society to help one another when someone doesn't fit into the box, if we'd offer more opportunities for counseling and therapy. But that's just what I find myself hanging on to for answers, something to comfort myself when I wonder how it even happened.

I don't think we'll ever have answers we desperately want. Somehow, we- teachers across the country- have to enter their classrooms tomorrow and tell ourselves everything is OK. We will hug and smile and talk to our children. Sing our routine songs, laugh at jokes, and practice whatever drills the schools will ask us to practice. If the children bring it up we'll talk about it, we'll talk with counselors, we'll read books, we'll listen to our children's fears. Nothing tangible has changed within our own buildings, yet everything has changed.

I think every teacher looks into the eyes of the photograph of the teachers who were killed and says a silent prayer, knowing that it could have been us. We are all praying for those beautiful teachers who spent their last moments protecting their students. I can only imagine what they went through- that last desperate desire to protect their students with everything they had.

If you haven't taught, haven't had a classroom of students to yourself, haven't fallen in love with a bunch of little people who have truly no relationship to you outside of your professional life, it's a love that may be hard to understand.

When you teach your students become your own children. Your classroom becomes your family, your daily reality, the little people you spend the majority of your waking hours with. To think of anyone wanting to harm those little people- those people we spend hours agonizing worrying over- is heartbreaking and terrifying. We have the power to do so much for our students- yet we don't have the power to prevent their exposure to such truly horrible events. Those little ones who can drive us crazy and consume all of our time- what we feel for them as teachers is a true love.

In writing this I am simply trying to process it all myself. I have no message, no understanding, no clear form of how I am going to begin or end this blog post. They are just words, put together, whose meaning is still a bit unclear.

Tomorrow I will go to school. We will sing our good morning song, work on making eye contact, using full sentences, and smiling when we see people. We will do our reading centers and sing our math songs. We'll have a dance party while we practice counting by tens. Because of the nature of my class I don't expect anyone to ask about Friday's events. On the outside it will look like everything is the same, but inside we will know that it will never be the same again.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Where's the sheep? My new favorite classroom game

I've found that the most inspired teaching ideas come from those true moments of desperation. A few weeks ago we were in the middle of our map skills unit and we were working on building a map of our classroom. It was painful. My kids, with their difficulties in abstract thinking, were really struggling with the idea that the big piece of construction paper was equivelent to our classroom, and that the brown squares of paper we were taping onto the "classroom" were really the tables. I wrapped it up quickly, leaving off at least a fourth of the room where the teachers' desks are. We were done.

With ten minutes until recess.

Ten minutes isn't enough time to start a new activity, it's a bit too long for a random story book, and way too short to just recap the failed activity in some meaningful way.

It is at moments like these that true teaching happens.

For whatever reason- a visit from the teaching fairy- the Saint of Desperate Teachers- I grabbed a toy sheep in our classroom and a board maker icon of a sheep. It just so happens that I had the icon already made from a previous lesson, and it was sitting on my desk. The only reason the "sheep game" came about was because I hadn't bothered to clean up.

I decided we'd play a "hide the sheep" game. Very similar to a game I'd played in my gen ed room where I'd hide an object and then the kids would have to silently look for it, following the directions "hot or cold". This time, however, I put the icon of the sheep onto the classroom map.

The kids needed to first look at the map, determine where the sheep was, and then go find the sheep. It just so happens that using a map is one of our testing standards- and one that we absolutely were at a loss on how to teach. (The year before I taught this by giving them maps when we went to the zoo on a field trip, simple and easy, but not easily replicated).

The first few times we played the game it was ridiculously painful. Because they hadn't gotten the concept that the map of our classroom WAS our classroom they could tell me where the sheep was on the map, but they'd still wander all over the classroom. They'd go to the last place I'd hidden the sheep, wondering why it wasn't there.

But slowly, after playing it every day for awhile (turns out it is a great time filler) they can now use the map to find the sheep. They are actually starting to use map skills! And, it's a quick assessment of who understands maps- the kid who goes straight to the correct area of the classroom based on the map vs the kid who still looks around frantically- shows me who understands the concept.

Most importantly, I'm really glad I didn't just give up when they couldn't play the game at first. It was ridiculously painful to watch them play, and it would have been easy to shake my head and say, "This is WAY too hard." Watching their map skills grow over the last few weeks because of this "way too hard" game has served as a great reminder of the importance of high expectations coupled with repetition,determination, repetition, and repetition.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Parenting and Children with Special Needs

I've been asked to give a talk at my church about children with special needs. Since I compose my thoughts best through writing I thought I'd plan for it by writing here.

This topic is incredibly broad. It's almost impossible to decide what to broach first. It's like asking, "talk about parenting" or "talk about all the different children and their parenting needs."

Children are children
The label "special needs" implies that some children are normal and some are not. There is a mental line we tend to draw between the two that easily sorts children for us. But let's be honest- no child is "normal". Every child has his or her own quirks, strengths, special skills, and areas of concern. My husband is constantly amazed/frustrated that child development isn't a clear science- how are children so different? How come ours didn't walk until 14 months and his niece walked at 12? And that kid we saw on the playground- he was walking at 11 months!

What's important to keep in mind is that our children, the children in our schools, our communities, our children first. When you think of the characteristics of your child you think of what makes them laugh, their smile, what makes them cry, when they need a hug, what their favorite toys are, or what they need to fall asleep at night. Whether or not they are a child with a disability doesn't change those characteristics. Children are still children, with or without a label. Sometimes we make the mistake of seeing the disability and not the child.

Whenever I read the Holland story I find myself tearing up because I've watched so many parents go through this journey. I can't begin to comprehend it myself, and I get the benefit of knowing the child first in the immediate moment. I get to know the amazing child where they are at this particular moment in time. Not being their parent I don't experience a loss of a dream, I just get to focus on the child's current strengths and needs.

Parenting in public
One of the aspects I think must be the most difficult in parenting a child with special needs is the outside world. Even with a typically developing child I experience the judgement of other parents. Why do we do that to each other? Little Lipstick melted down in the grocery store a few months ago and not one but two people, complete strangers, told me she was spoiled. They didn't know she'd skipped her afternoon nap, had been sick, and was at the end of a very long day. I felt awful. I never wanted to go into public again. I was torn between wanting to stick my daughter in a corner and let her cry to prove to strangers that she wasn't spoiled, or to cuddle her and tell the strangers to go stick it. That was once and it still bothers me.

Children with disabilities have an even more difficult time in public. Grocery stores are overwhelming places. There is noise, signs designed to get your attention, strangers, people not observing personal space, food you aren't allowed to eat, and distracted parents. Even for children with learning disabilities grocery stores are demanding. Trying to navigate the strange place, read faces, compensate for difficulties in remembering what your mother just told you- it can be too much. Meltdowns too easily lead to judgement and I've worked with many parents who feel trapped in their own homes, scared to go out because of what others may say.

The public is a harsh world. I've heard of people making business cards so that when people judge their child's tantrums they can hand them a card that says "This is Johnny. He has autism". We as people must be nicer to one another. Withhold our judgement of the parents in the grocery store- we never know the true story behind each parent's struggle.

We also must be careful to never blame the parent for the disability. A child doesn't have an intellectual disability because the parents didn't teach her the letters. A child isn't autistic because the mother didn't provide the right structure and love in the house.

Accepting the disability:
When I worked in kindergarten special ed I was a part of a team who would tell parents for the first time that there were concerns about their child's development. It is awful to sit down and broach these concerns with a family, particularly when the family has no idea- it is the oldest child, they are not around other children very often, and they do not see their child's characteristics as different.

Accepting the disability can be difficult. I've watched many parents struggle with it. They worry that the label will mean that the school will write off the child, that people will have low expectations, that giving the child the label will give them the disability. They worry that the school or doctors doesn't know the child like they do- that the school is seeing something that isn't really there.

These are legitimate concerns. They can't be overlooked. I have seen children wrongly identified by a school who was too quick to push the paperwork through. But I've also seen children struggle without help because the parents were not ready to accept the label. It's always heart breaking to see a child who could be so much farther along than they are because they didn't get the help they needed early on.

It's important to remember that the label doesn't change who the child is. The same child who goes to bed the night after you sign the paperwork is the same child who woke up that morning. The child himself doesn't change. The services that are offered to the child change, but nothing should change the relationship the parent has with the child, who the child is, and what the parent's goals are for that child.

In many school systems the label can give your child what your child needs to be successful. It gives your child additional attention, additional resources, access to physical therapists, occupational therapists, additional technology, additional legal rights, additional data collection and monitoring than the typical child.  These are not bad things.

The important thing to remember with the school system is that you don't have to sign anything the day of the meeting. You can think about, take a copy of the paperwork home. You can bring your own support systems to the meeting so that it doesn't feel like you against the school. (And it shouldn't ever feel that way). You are a part of the IEP team, the most important part in  many ways, and you have a voice at the table. There is a page on the IEP where your concerns can be voiced. Anything you want can be added there.

It's a topic I could talk forever about, but the broadness of the topic almost has me at a loss for words- where to begin, and when to finish. There is so much to say. Yet the most important thing to remember is that children are children. The children in our community are our children. We must treat them like we do all children, including them as we would other children, considering their preferences and needs while still maintaining the expectation that they are a part of our community, and withholding judgement from parents.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Asperger's Debate Over

I'd heard it was being debated but they finally got it approved.

On Saturday they officially dropped the term Asperger's syndrome from the new addition of the DSM that will be out in May. It will be interesting to see if or how this impacts students who are currently eligible for special services under this category and if there are any practical changes that we see in the schools. These children may still qualify under the category of Autism, or may not depending on the nature of their disability.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Snowy Day

The Snowy Day is another book that is just begging to be a touch-and-feel book. Here are some pages I've done- I can't wait to start this book with my class next week, and all the art projects that will go along with it!

You can't tell but there are cotton balls over the snow.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Touch the Book!

Last year I started a teacher research project with my librarian and speech pathologist on using physical objects to teach children with disabilities how to retell stories. It was awesome and we were so excited by what we were seeing emerge from our students. Then I switched schools and ruined everything. I thought I'd be able to keep up the research part of it, but this year has proved to be a busy one and I haven't had a chance to document, write, research, and take data like I wanted to. I have managed to continue to use the theory behind the project and although I haven't been able to take data on it, I've been very pleased with how it's going. Because I also switched from teaching a non-categorical population to a specific classroom for children with intellectual disabilities I've also had to enhance the project even more, but it continues to work out.

Our Current Routine and Book Adaptations:
About every two weeks we start a new book. It's a book that I've adapted- cut up, laminated the pages, and glued things onto so it will be interactive. In Max Cleans Up I made parts of the book that were suppose to be sticky actually sticky using two-sided tape. When Max dumped sand all over the floor I used glitter glue so they could touch the rough sand. The Easter egg he was hiding in his underwear drawer was also touchable to draw their eyes, fingers, and therefore their attention to the important object on the page. It helped them attend to the important parts of the story and therefore follow the narrative of the story. It's part of teaching them how to listen to a story as a narrative and not just something passive that is in front of them.

I've also added words using Board Maker software to each page. One phrase goes on each page in the book, "Clean up, Max!" , or, "Sneaky Gorilla!" for Goodnight, Gorilla. I'm also using Boardmaker to make icons that represent the beginning of the book, the end of the book, and 'next' so that I am drawing their attention to 'FIRST', 'NEXT', and 'The End' of the story- vocabulary they need to know to retell a story.

Retelling Center:
After the first week the book goes into the retelling center along with objects that can be used to act out the story. For the Knight and the Dragon we had a castle, dragon, a knight and a princess. I bought Max and Ruby dolls so they could act out the narrative while putting all of Max's objects into a big pocket.

On Thursday I could hear them "playing" from across the room "Clean up, Max!" Rock Star said in her bossiest voice as she bounced Ruby up and down on the floor. Through watching them play I can see that they do have an understanding of what's happening in the story. They can build the narrative themselves, from beginning to end, in the correct order, even if they couldn't use words to tell me about it.

I'm loving teaching this way. I'm enjoying adapting the texts and finding ways to make the books meaningful to children who may have difficulty attending to a traditional story. I love bringing the books to them and making them come alive, and in turn handing the story over to them with characters from the story so that they can retell the story themselves.

Play and Working Memory:
I really find the retelling center, or honestly, the play piece, to be one of the most powerful. The fact that they get to play with the objects- allows them to use their working memory in a preferred  comfortable way that they may not use it when they were in class. They are using what they've just learned and freely applying it to a play situation, mentally massaging facts, remembering them in their head so that they can use them to say what happens next. It forces them to hold information in their working memory and use it, taking it in and out in the way most kids do easily. It also teaches symbolic representation- something that is essential to learn in order to read, write, or just navigate through the world following signs and maps.

In Practice: 
The day before Thanksgiving I dumped a series of little men, women, and animals onto the floor for the retelling center. It was actually a set of James Town settlers and Powhatan Indians but I figured they would also work as the pilgrims and Indians we'd been studying, especially since my main focus was for them to understand the difference between past and present.

As I listened to them "play" I could hear them acting out the story- and interacting with it in a new way. They were embellishing details and adding different subplots, but none of those subplots involved going to the store, watching tv, or driving in a car- everything the characters did would have been something the pilgrims and Indians did- it was all in the past.

As I'd dumped out the "toys" one of my friends asked, "Can we play?" It was the day before Thanksgiving. I was tired. "Yes" I said, not bothering to say something like, "Retell the pilgrim story".

Right as she asked, "Can we play?" my principal walked in.

He wandered over to them and bent down, "What are you playing?" he asked.

I looked up from my reading group, cringing and expecting to hear "toys", or "house". Instead my friend looked up at him and said, "We are playing the pilgrim story when they came to America."

Sigh of relief. It's working.

*In order to adapt texts and create a better retelling center I have a donors choose project up. I only have $75 to go and then I'll be sent a barn for retelling all of those great farm stories, a house for retelling stories that take place in a house, a set of community workers, a doll family, and art supplies to help with our text adapting.*

Friday, November 30, 2012

Well played, PBS

While I was home with sick Little L I introduced her to Daniel Tiger, PBS' newest show. A few of my students love Daniel Tiger (although they are probably too old for it they still really enjoy it) and so I thought I'd check it out. Plus, we needed a break from reading Good Night, Moon.

I couldn't help but feel a little tricked. PBS is so sneaky. Taking the familiar characters, songs, and phrases from Mr. Rogers and putting them into a new show is pretty clever. Today's current parents are the same ones who watched Mr. Roger's themselves. Even if we don't acknowledge it we're going to be drawn into Daniel Tiger by the pure familiarity of it. There was something comforting in watching the characters and hearing the same songs from my childhood. Little L and I cuddled and talked through the show and I found myself wondering if I should DVR it (until yesterday we'd never sat down to watch a show with Little L. Sick babies get special treatment sometimes).

Well played, sneaky PBS. I respect your ability to connect with both the parents and the kids. Well played.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Helicoptering the helicoptered

Over Thanksgiving break Mr. Lipstick shared some management articles and blog posts he's read recently about the problem with the Millennials in the job market. I'm paraphrasing and I didn't read the post myself, but our conversation mainly centered around the difficulty bosses are having across the country as the millennials- the first results of the helicopter parents- enter the workforce. Managers are having trouble motivating their youngest hires and instilling in the work ethic they are accustomed to seeing in the work place. 

I've read and heard articles myself about companies who are reaching out to helicopter parents in order to work with their newest workforce. I believe it is Enterprise who has bring-your-parent to work days. Other companies are becoming accustomed to parents attending interviews or chatting with HR about salary. (I wish I could find that article- this is all coming from my memory)

So what happens now that the Millennials- the products of the helicopter parents- are becoming teachers? How will they react to the helicopter parents who have high expectations of their child's teacher? How will they handle the mismatch in the teaching pay vs the workload? Or will the true products of helicopter parents not become teachers? It doesn't seem like a job that would lend itself to someone who is used to having their parent defend them in tough situations.

Will Millennials force a change in teacher work-ethic expectations, or will they create an even further gap between parents and teachers? Or will they understand where the helicopter parents are coming from and find ways to work with them as opposed to locking them out? 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Don't look down

I can't say that I feel that I am being successful as a working mother, but lately I've been feeling like I've created a delicate balance that seems to be working. Or maybe it just felt like it was working on Monday. Doing crazy type-A chores like putting together all my clothes for the week on Sunday night and making all my lunches on Sunday night seem to help. I know the exact amount of time I need to get my lesson plans together so that the minute Little Lipstick's head hits the crib mattress for her nap I am frantically working, praying that she will sleep for a full hour and a half so that I can get it done. The poor souls who try to interrupt me at this point are usually met with total frustration or are ignored. It's not pretty, but it works.
At school I mentally schedule every minute- I have two minutes to send everything to print, two minutes to make copies, three to get together the materials. Forget making friends or having pleasant conversations- get the work done and get out- seems to be what it's about.

Delicate balance, but some days it seems to work. I just can't look down and think about exactly how high up on the tight rope I am. If I wobble or second guess my balance at all it all comes crashing down.

Little L woke up with a fever yesterday- which of course means frantic sub plans, emails to everyone involved at school, trying to make it all work out. As the day went on she got sicker and sicker. By the time we got to the doctor's office at 5 she had a ridiculously high fever. We were there for hours as they ran tests.

The careful balance I'd figured out for this week came crashing down. All those details I'd spent so long working on needed to be written into sub plans, emailed out, canceled, changed, rearranged. All I want to do is think about poor Little L and all I can do is frantically type plans and emails.

How do people do this? I wasn't giving my baby what she needed because I was focused on school. And I wasn't giving school what I needed because I was focused on my baby. Disappointing everyone I work with, my family, and myself.

I've always been overly committed to teaching. Even when I just volunteered in classrooms when I was in high school and college I always went above and beyond for the kids. It's a huge strength, and a huge flaw. I have trouble identifying when to draw the line and step back from the work.

Now that I have my own little one I desperately need to find a way to keep school in it's school box so that Little L will always come first. With the demands of the classroom, the needs of the students, and the desire to give my students the absolute best- my difficulty in letting things go- all creates a horrible storm where school is always in my mind even when I'm with Little L.
Last night I was holding her burning hot body at the doctors' office, talking and singing to her, all the while mentally making sub plans. and I hate myself for it. Moms, how do you all do this?

I love my job. When the tight rope dance works works, I appreciate that I can be a working mom. But when it doesn't? Is it OK to fail as both a teacher and a parent?

At 11 o'clock last night I was staring at my computer trying to decide if I needed to cancel my extremely important meeting for this morning. Every bone in my body told me to go to work and hold the meeting- it feels so wrong to cancel on work. But thank goodness I put Little L first- it was a rough night and she needs me here today.

How do I find the balance? How do I make it OK with myself to put school aside and focus on my family?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Around the world?

I keep getting edu-spam on my work email. Lots of happy go-lucky emails from generic names like "Sarah Jones" that sound like they could be your coworkers, asking if I've seen such and such amazing website where I can get great materials. These emails are filled with exclamation marks, smiley faces, and phrases that make you cringe- if this is how they think teachers write to one another we're in trouble.

The latest edu-spam I got offered me a trip with my class around the world.

They even had the name of my school in there so they knew I worked at an elementary school. Even if I didn't have a class with students with intellectual disabilities I would like to see a general education elementary school teacher take her entire class on a trip around the world. I think this program may need to re-think it's edu-spam strategy. High school teachers, Spanish teachers- maybe they'd jump at the chance. Kindergarten-second grade students with intellectual disabilities? Ummmmm....

I love my class, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure we're ready for world travel yet.

The mere idea has been making me giggle all weekend.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

what parents want?

This article is worth the read. Beyond anything else, it is a great reminder that when we say "good school" we aren't talking about a specific, set criteria that everyone agrees on. When people are thinking about the culture where their child will spend significant hours of his or her life, test scores may not matter as much as how teachers speak to children, and how parents are treated.

The article is a fascinating look at school choice and the ins and outs of cultural norms in education.

Full of Thanks

I am thankful that no day in my job is ever boring, predictable, or easy.

I am thankful for an amazing group of children I am blessed to teach.
I am thankful for my great teammates. I love their sense of humor, their ability to see the bright side in all situations, and their flexibility.

I am thankful I've got Rock Star back. Love those dance moves and those songs.

I am thankful I've got a group of kids who loves to sing and will do so loudly, without apology.

I am thankful for Mr. Lipstick's patience with me as I spend more time working after school than I ever have before.

I am thankful for the opportunity to be teaching in a classroom for students with intellectual disabilities- I love this population and feel like it is was meant to be.

I am thankful for learning new things, stretching myself beyond my teaching comfort zone, and for the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.

I am thankful for 4 consecutive days off when I can be with my family, relax, and plot my next adventures in our little classroom.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Adapting Texts

In only a few months of teaching in an Intellectual Disabilities program I've learned a lot. One thing I've learned is that traditional books aren't always enough to capture our students' attention, although our students are completely capable of enjoying stories once the stories are brought to their level. 

About a month ago I was visiting a book fair that had amazing prices on books- paper backs for 2-3 dollars each. With a generous donation from a friend I was able to buy multiple copies of books so that I'd be able to play around with ways to adapt them. Our class could have one regular copy of a book and one adapted version so that we can meet the needs of all our learners.

Max Cleans Up was already begging to be physically adapted- the pictures called out to be a touch and feel book. Using felt, foam, glitter glue, pom-poms, feathers, and other small objects I turned it into an interactive book. Since we had two copies I was able to cut one copy out and use it to match the characters. Now one of my friends can take Max off the page and another can take Ruby off the page so that they will be able to physically hold the characters. 

I made objects that represent each step in Max's mess so that as we read we'll be able to put the objects into Max's pocket. 

I even ordered Max and Ruby dolls so that after my friends are familiar with the story they'll be able to act it out with physical prompts. 

The difference in how my students access books is amazing. They love books- love to read, love to participate in telling stories, but how they are able to participate in them varies. It's amazing to see them reenact a story with objects when they cannot begin to orally tell me what happens first in a story.

(Shameless plug- if you want to help out our classroom I have a donors choose site that will help me build up our adapted books and retelling station!) 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Poor substitutes...

This afternoon I was walking my class back into the school after recess and I noticed the substitute aid was trying to go through different doors to get inside. I shook my head, wondering why on earth she'd ignore what we were doing as a class- why would she decide she didn't want to use the same door as us? I didn't question it and just kept going- trying to get all my kiddos inside is a challenge in itself- transitions aren't really our strength (to put it mildly).

Once we were inside she took me aside and explained. One of my kiddos- my sweet, sweet little friend in a wheelchair- had told her that he couldn't go through certain doors in our school. He apparently had her running in and out of different doors all day. He'd also told her that he'd left his coat at home (he hadn't) and that I always let him go outside without a coat (I don't.)

I had to put  my hand over my mouth so that I wouldn't giggle in front of him. I should be mad. I should be very, very angry that he would trick an adult like that.

I honestly didn't know he had it in him. To tell her that he needed to go out particular doors and not other doors? The higher level thinking- the understanding that he can tell a lie and that she won't know the truth- well, that's a pretty smart place to be.

It's not OK. I mean, we can't make up stories and trick people, but, I'd rather have a child be capable of telling stories than a child who is always honest just because he doesn't understand that adults can't read his mind. The tricking- it's a good sign.

And kind of funny. OK, really funny.

curb cuts revisisted

Last week I blogged about the bouncy curb cubs and how horrid they are for one of my friends. Turns out, he's not the only one with the problem. Someone recently visited my classroom to look at ways it could be even more physically adapted to meet the needs of the kids (It is compliant with the law, but we could still go further). 
I mentioned the curb cuts and he just shook his head. "I know, I know, but there isn't anything we can do." 

He told me that people all over, especially people just like my friend have the exact same complaints about the bumpy curb cuts. 

I know there is a reason behind why they are like that, but it would be nice if we could find a way to make curb cuts safe and comfortable for everyone. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Can I get an Amen?

Somehow John Chubb's article on the Best Teachers in the World manages to insult me and vindicate me all in one swoop. If you don't have time to read the whole thing Joanne Jacobs does an excellent job of summarizing it.

Chubb begins by discussing Peabody College, the education college at Vanderbilt University and the intellectual demands it places on its teaching candidates (which happens to be where one of my amazing former co-workers went). Peabody is exactly what we need all over the country to prepare teachers- an academically challenging and competitive college that attracts candidates who could also compete in other top rank schools in other fields. There teaching is not seen as the easy path, or the "I can't be a doctor or a lawyer so I guess I'll be a teacher" major. 

Chubb goes on to write, "Teaching is not an art, to which some are born and others are not. It is an intellectually demanding endeavor that can and should be guided by research-based practice. Teachers should be trained, both before they take charge of a classroom and thereafter. They should not be trained, however, in the schools of education that predominate today." 

Jacob sites- "The US needs to recruit high achievers to teaching and give them 'work that is less menial and more expert, less prescribed and more responsible,' Chubb writes."

It makes me want to cry.

Yes, yes, yes.

Raise the standards of my profession. Raise the expected SATs to get into teacher prep programs. Make it difficult to graduate from a teaching college. Raise our expectations of what we do in the classroom- NOT through giving us prescribed curriculum designed to be "idiot proof" but by using the intellect of the teachers in the room to design instruction to meet the needs of their students. Make teaching an intellectual profession. Please.

Chubb's argument is one I've been making for years. Seeing it in print validates my beliefs but also makes me want to cry- because right there in black and white it paints a brush of our profession as being fairly, well, dumb. 

The answer to much of this, I feel, sadly is money. 

 Not because I want more money, but because something has got to change in our profession. We are spending time, resources, money and messing around with our children's education and future all to try to micro-manage a profession that could be fixed in one way-

Pay teachers more.

Paying teachers more will validate the career path.
Paying teachers more will encourage the best and the brightest students to become teachers.
Paying teachers more will allow quality teachers to stay in the profession.
Paying teachers more will make it a more competitive field where it will become easier to weed out poorly performing teachers, or not hire them at all.
Paying teachers more will initiate a national change in mind-set where as a culture we begin to respect the profession, which in turn will attract smarter candidates.

Sadly it's a chicken or the egg question. No one will agree to pay teachers more while we don't respect the work teachers do. When teaching is still seen as the "well, you can't do anything else but at least you can teach" option no one wants to pay teachers more. And until they pay teachers more they are not going to attract higher achieving candidates. And until we attract higher achieving candidates we're not going to change the nation's mindset of the teaching profession. And until we change the nation's mindset of the teaching profession we're not going to pay teachers more.

Now I'm depressed. Why didn't I go to law school when it was still possible to get a job when you got out of law school?

*I have other thoughts on what the article says about Teach for America but I'll share those for another time. That would make this post much, much longer...

We've Got Rock Star!

This week I feel like just bouncing around singing the song from the Annie music- "We've Got Annie". Remember how happy and overjoyed they were that they had Annie back?

That's how I feel.

Last year when I was trying to decide whether or not to leave the Think Tank and venture off into a brand new school I kept going back to Rock Star. How could I leave her? It had been a wonderful year and she'd made so much progress. I felt like I was abandoning her. I knew I couldn't stay for her so sadly I said goodbye to her. As I watched her car drive out of the parking lot on that last day I cried harder than I've ever cried on a last day.

And now...

She's back!  She's joined me in my class. She's the perfect fit, and she's been smiling and laughing with everyone else. It's like my world is complete again- seeing her smiling face and watching her raise her hand to answer a question I ask, or seeing her dance while we sing.

Love that girl!

Now if we can only get Brown Bear, Magical, and the other friends...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Can you help me please?"

I spend most of my day prompting my students to ask for help. So many times they come up to me (when I'm working with other students or busy with something else) and just push whatever they need help with in my face. Or worse yet, they sit silently and wait for someone to come along and help them. Self advocacy is something we spend a lot of time working on, and the phrase "help, please" is one I work to get all of my students to say.

Today was one of those days that makes you question why on earth you ever thought that teaching was a good idea. The kind of days when your headache starts early in the morning and only gets increasingly worse- the kind of day where you know the kids are only acting out because you're not on your A game, making you irritated at the kids but really frustrated at yourself.

One of THOSE days.

And then, as I was trying to encourage one of my friends to pack up (and he really, really didn't want to) I overheard a conversation happening by the coat rack.

"Help me with this, please," I heard one of my little guys ask. He's in a wheelchair so it's not possible for him to reach out and get his back pack from the hook where it hangs. He needed someone to get his backpack and hold it for him while he put his folder in it. Since I was obviously not going to be available anytime soon he'd chosen a peer, a sweet little girl with her own struggles. 

I watched her struggle confidentially trying to wrangle his folder into his book bag.When was the last time anyone asked her to genuinely help with anything? So many of our kids need help from other people and have so few opportunities to offer help themselves. And it is equally rare that anyone asks them for help- usually they are the ones who need to rely on their general education peers to make it through the day.

She eventually got the folder in to the best of her ability and then turned to get her coat. As she then tried to put it on the first little boy said, "Now let me help you."

And with patience and persistence he tried his hardest to line up her zipper to zip up her coat.

There were no adults anywhere around them. No one to prompt them to use their words to ask for help, no one to tell them how to interact appropriately. For a totally spontaneous and pure moment they helped one another out in their end of day tasks in the most natural manner possible.

I. love. my. job.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Whose Looking At Me?

Does anyone else read Brown Bear, Brown Bear and just imaging a massive staring match between all these animals?

"Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?
I see a purple cat looking at me.
Purple cat, purple cat, what do you see?
I see a yellow duck looking at me." *

A version of Purple Cat
I'm seeing a bunch of animals holding a stand-off in a circle, all eyes darting from one animal to the other, in a frantic, paranoid determination to know exactly who is looking at them. Actually I've taught kids like this- the ones who suddenly shout in the middle of a lesson- "He's LOOKING at me!" as though they are about to be knifed in the back by their very sweet and oblivious peer.

I don't think I actually want to live in the Brown Bear world where everyone has to worry about who is looking at who.

And why is the cat purple? Bruises from past fights? Or is he just having a really rough fashion day?

Then suddenly a teacher comes along? Out of nowhere? With her class? They happen to be walking in the woods and stumble upon all these paranoid animals staring at each other? You know the part that didn't get written was what happened next- which either is violent or boring depending on how you want to read it.

*I can't remember the exact order, it's not one of Little Lipstick's favorites and I'm avoiding reading it to my class this year because I am still in recovery from last year's marathon Brown Bear experience.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

*Face Palm* Value Added Common Sense

This was a study? Really? Isn't this common sense? I guess I should be happy that someone went out to prove an argument that we've been trying to point out since value added measures first began to be discussed...

The abstract of the study says:
 We find that failing to account for tracks leads to large biases in teacher value-added estimates.  A teacher of all lower track courses whose measured value-added is at the 50th percentile could increase her measured value-added to the 99th percentile simply by switching to all upper-track courses.  We estimate that 75-95 percent of the bias is due to student sorting and the remainder due to test misalignment. We also decompose the remaining bias into two parts, metric and multidimensionality misalignment, which work in opposite directions.  Even after accounting for explicit tracking, the standard method for estimating teacher value-added may yield biased estimates.


Panel Paper: Bias of Public Sector Worker Performance Monitoring: Theory and Empirical Evidence From Middle School Teachers

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A bit of job love

My last post was a bit negative.

OK, more than a bit. Writing it made me feel like maybe I should walk in and quit my job today because the situation is hopeless.

The thing is- although I am working harder this year than I have in ten years of teaching- although I feel like the system is actively against my program- although I feel like a bad mother AND a bad teacher- I do love my job.

I adore teaching these kids. I love reading books with them. I love their smiles when they come in every morning. I love when one got off the bus and said, "Good Morning Mrs. Lipstick!" for the first time ever. I love when I hear them speak spontaneously after going for so long being prompted to speak.

I love the small successes. When one shakes another child's hand spontaneously for the first time. When one recognizes the word 'we' in a book. When one of my kids writes her name all over her desk because 9 weeks ago she couldn't even write the first letter in her name.

I love the challenges. I love wondering how on earth I'm going to get them to learn to write their names. I love being frustrated with their behavior and looking for ways to make it better. I love looking at what's not working and trying to figure out other ways to teach it.

I'm not sure it's a good job for me as a mother. It involves so much of me that I don't have time to give. But I do know that I love it. I love the kids, I love the challenge, and I love how much I've learned in only 9 weeks.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Holding us accountable

On Friday afternoon one of my teammates and I sat down to attempt to plan our Thanksgiving unit. We were looking at all of the teaching objectives we need to hit- the students' IEP goals, the state testing standards, the county report card standards, the county grade level curriculum, and the boxed programs we are suppose to teach (which do not correspond with state standards or the county curriculum) for each of our grade levels (between us we have to cover grades K-5).  Not wanting to be a pessimist I was determined that we could pull this off. I mean, if someone tells me it's possible then I'm going to make it happen.

I'm new to this position. I'm still learning that the people who tell us what's possible have no idea. They are hoping naive teachers like me will make it possible. 

I don't have anyone in a testing grade, but she does. Our kiddos are not going to take the standardized state test but instead, because as teachers we still need to be held accountable, we must create binders for each child showing that we taught the specific testing requirements and that the children completed the tasks and know the information. We poured over past binders looking at exactly all the work that would need to be done in order to show what had been taught. Still wanting to be positive I took a deep breath and explained a plan to achieve what needed to be taught in a meaningful way. If we are deliberate about it up front then we can still have good teaching- right?

She looked at me sadly, the way you look at a child who asks to go trick or treating the day after Halloween. Oh honey, that's cute, and so, so, not going to happen.

This has to be done by the end of January, she pointed out. And went on to explain the timeline that needed to happen in order for this massive binder to be produced and submitted for grading by the end of the year.

And it was at that moment I lost any positive outlook I had left about this job. 

This. is. crap.

I was OK with teaching standards that didn't really matter to kids who truly need to know life skills. I was OK with putting kids through tasks and worksheets as long as I could at least attempt to make them meaningful. I actually enjoy looking at all the standards and goals and creating units that will meet all of them. I love finding ways to teach all of these objectives organically and in meaningful ways. I love linking it all together. 

But to tell me that it all has to be done by January- that I'm not actually suppose to make these things meaningful to the kids- I'm not suppose to be a good teacher. I'm suppose to give a child a meaningless worksheet, briefly teach the subject and then re-teach it over and over again until the child can perform it for that worksheet only. Then I put the worksheet into a plastic sleeved binder along with all the other worksheets that have been a complete waste of time and I submit it for a grade. A meaningless grade because the child isn't actually expected to know the information because I wasn't expected to actually teach the information. It is a binder just for show.

I know, I know. Many of you are shaking your heads. How could I be naive after ten years of teaching? 

I really lived in my happy, naive place where I believed that if I deliberately planned out instruction and made it meaningful then I could teach the standards AND life skills and that the combination would be better for my kids. High expectations along with realistic, important expectations.

The thing is, I'd like to meet a parent of a child with an intellectual disability who WANTS their child to go through this mess. I can't imagine one of my parents saying, "Oh yes, I want to know that my child can identify the Powhatan Indians on a worksheet. Please spend valuable time making sure that my child can identify the Powhatan Indians vs other American Indian tribes on a worksheet. That's more important than knowing how to safely cross the street, identifying the letters, telling me that they love me, or counting to 10. And make sure it is on a worksheet. Not a fun hands-on activity that can help my child distinguish between American Indians and settlers, but a worksheet. Yes, as a parent, please give me that data. I need to know that my child's teacher is being held accountable just like all the other teachers."

I've heard numerous parents complain about this process. So why are we doing it? Why are we taking away from quality instruction? To tell politicians and the public that special education teachers are also being held accountable? 

It's an amazing waste of time and resources. No one is benefiting from this. Not the kids, not the parents, not the schools or the teachers. We're jumping through a hoop because someone told us to, and no one can tell us why other than saying, "Because you must be held accountable."

I'm not sure how long I can participate in this.

Monday, November 5, 2012


The first day back after our hurricane break I was losing my mind. The careful rhythm I'd found myself in the weeks before had somehow disappeared along with the 70 degree weather and I could barely remember what came next. Finally at the end of the day I lost it. Deciding that we'd play a game for math instead of trying to work on our individual math tasks I pulled out Hi Ho Cheerios. (For my kiddos this game is brilliant- as far as math goes they have to count a set amount of fruit on the spinner, then they have to select the same amount of fruit. We're hitting counting, recognizing numerals, AND selecting the same amount- all of which are tough skills to do. Not to mention that we're reinforcing turn taking.)

One of our friends had earned his break time and was happily playing with his play dough. Typically he doesn't really pay attention to what the other children in the class are doing and doesn't usually tolerate waiting his turn. Plus, he already can count, select, and recognize numbers so the game wasn't going to hit any of his math skills. I planned on getting the game started then going back to work on math with him when his break-time was over.

As I set the kids up and began explaining how we would play my friend came up to us. He looked at my aid and said "play".

There was silence. The aid and I looked at each other in shock. He used spontaneous language to ask to play with other kids? Spontaneous language? Asking to participate in a game with other students? Even the other kids were slightly stunned.

Of course! We said, and got him situated. Taking turns wasn't easy for him, but he certainly enjoyed the game and he let us coach him through the turn taking process. He followed the rules, selected the right amount of fruit and put it on his tree.

For a day when I was losing my mind, fighting back frustration at everything I was doing wrong as a teacher- desperately trying to remember what was coming next- my little friend's actions immediately made it all better.

All the stress I was putting on myself vanished as I watched my friend ask to play. I can feel like the earth is falling apart, yet there are successes. Small successes. Baby steps. I can't forget to watch the kids and celebrate their progress. It's not about perfect lessons- it's about the progress the kiddos are making.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Curb Cuts

Until this year I've never seen curb cuts as anything but a good, adapted measure to make our communities accessible for all people.  A design that allows people in wheelchairs to safely and easily access the sidewalk. I've never seen them as anything more or less than that.

Until now.

Now I see them as a brief yet necessary torture device for one of my friends.

One of my little friends is in a wheelchair and in order to access his bus everyday he must drive his wheelchair across the sidewalk, down a bumpy curb cut and to the bus. That's what the curb cut was designed to do, right- make it possible for him to be able to access his bus?

One day earlier in the year we were walking to the bus, chatting away and my friend drove his wheelchair around the curb cut. Instead of safety and gradually rolling down the sidewalk he fell right over the edge. I panicked, of course, imagining my friend catapulting out of his chair, or even worse, having his chair fall on top of him (it didn't, of course, but the possibility was there). Stupid me, I thought- my friend needs to be taught to use the curb cut. If I don't teach him this skill he has no idea to look for the gradual incline.

So the next few afternoons I made it my business to teach him how to look for the ramp. He continued to tried to avoid it, and I just chalked that up to him not being able to see. The motor planning it takes to project your chair in the right direction is actually pretty tough. When he's in the chair his visibility is limited and he can't see what's right under neath him. So he has to look ahead and plan where he'll aim his chair for when he gets there. Think of how this was difficult to learn to drive when we were 15- remember our parents yelling at us about appreciating the size of the car and planning ahead so that we wouldn't roll over the sidewalk? Yeah- he's 6 and he has an intellectual disability. Aiming his chair down a ramp is actually hard work and involves a lot of executive functioning.

But after watching my friend for a few weeks I realized his aiming his wheelchair around the ramp has nothing to do with his executive functioning. He hates the curb cut. He drives his chair up to it, stops, takes a breath, says "Here we go" and then, holding his breath drives down it.

The curb cut is bumpy, as all new curb cuts are, which I am sure is an ADA regulation  But for my tiny friend in his big wheelchair these bumps are killer. He bounces around like a rock in the back of a pick up truck. When he gets to the bottom he stops his chair, wipes his brow, takes another deep breath, and moves on.

It's a few seconds every afternoon, but my heart goes out to him (and he still needs to be watched closely because otherwise he'll choose to drive his chair straight down the sidewalk- one big bump is preferable to him than the many little ones).

There really isn't anything we can do. It's how he gets to the bus. It's so sad to me that what we've put in place to make our environment safer for him is actually working against him. Until watching his little face go down the bumps I never would have looked at the curb cut and thought anything but, "Oh good, I'm glad that's there." Now all I see is what he must see- a momentary torture device he must conquer every afternoon before he can finally go home.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sad Friday Night

Husband:  Are you doing work? It's Friday night!

Me: Ummm....  (nodding head, not taking time to look away from computer to answer).

Husband: You work a lot. I'm beginning to suspect you work more than me. You must be in a really high powered job and get paid a lot of money for the amount of work you do.

*books thrown across room in anger*

Now I'm stressed by the amount of work I have to do AND disgruntled at the reminder that I am working far more than I'm getting paid.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Drawing the line between home and school

We are settling in to sit out the coming storm. I'm enjoying having two extra days to cuddle with my little one, and I am trying desperately to not spend the whole time making mental lesson plans when I should just be enjoying Little Lipstick.

Sadly, though, apparently school, my students and their goals are all I think about. 

I bounce back and forth from applying what I'm teaching in school to Little Lipstick and then just out-right planning what I can do with my students using her books.

We've got two uncut large pumpkins, one small pumpkin and a board book about pumpkins. While Little L likes to roll the pumpkins around our floor and bang on them I find myself teaching a big/little lesson, drawing connections between the pumpkin in the book and the real live pumpkins. Who knows maybe later we'll get orange paint and paint our own pumpkins and talk about same and different. Won't this be great when we get back to school? The amount of IEP goals and objectives I can get out of this would be huge.

I am a monster and I must be stopped! Poor Little L is blessed with two days with her mommy and daddy and all her mommy can do is use her as practice for lessons to teach when we're back at school.

And then there is her fabulous collection of board books. So many of her books are very appropriate for some of my kiddos this year. I find myself thinking, "Perfect! I've been struggling with this but this book is the perfect example of teaching x. It is even interactive and lets the reader touch the soft sheep wool."
Yes, I keep fighting with myself over whether I'm going to take Little L's favorite board books in and let my students get their big-kid hands all over them.

I need to be stopped.

It's hard to reconcile sometimes because in many ways my students need the books more than Little L. She has lots of books. But I don't want her growing up thinking she is coming in second to my job. I don't want her thinking that she isn't as important as the children I teach or my work. I don't want her feeling like she needs to act out or have a disability in order to get my attention. I know this is a long way off, but I want to build a solid foundation with her of being present with her when we have those brief few hours together. Being a working mom is tough and when we only get to be together a little bit everyday I want her to know that she is important.

When she's older we'll talk about how she can donate her toys to my classroom for kids in need. But right now, even though she doesn't understand ownership I want to respect the fact that her books belong to her. They really aren't mine to take to school. 

Maybe because if I don't make a conscious effort to draw a line between home and school I know that school will take over home. I know myself and my work ethic enough to know that unless I purposely stop myself from working I never will, which will benefit the students in my class, but not my own family.

It's a fine line. Trust me, I've already ruined Little L's copy of Good Night Gorilla because I've taken it to school (OK, BOTH of her copies have been donated to school). All of her Llama, Llama books have been taken to school and are now well-loved. I'm fighting like crazy to not take in her pigeon stuffed animal because I know when she's older she'll want that pigeon to herself. (But my retelling center needs that pigeon).

So I'm going to pray that we survive the storm, work on shutting my school-brain off and just enjoy having two extra days of cuddling and playing with my own daughter.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

One more day of matching donations!

One more day of matching donations from the Donors Choose team- and only $125 to go until our project is funded and my kids can get their hands on materials to act out stories, demonstrate that they can retell a story and answer who, what, and where questions, and become more engaged in our story by adapting text.

Type in INSPIRE during check out to have your donation matched!

Thank you-
Mrs. Lipstick's Rock Stars

Friday, October 26, 2012

youtube love.

I feel like I'm a bit late to the you tube party- but seriously- there is amazing stuff out there.

I'm currently loving Greg and Steve's Good Morning Song, as well as their Days of the Week. Here's Dr. Jean's Who Let the Letters Out- one of my favorite songs. 

Then there are the color songs- I have the CD but the fact that it's all there with visuals makes it even better. 

I love that I can just embed the link into my smartboard lesson and we are there in seconds- no fumbling with CDs. I'm sure that the actual artists frown on such things, but right now it's making me pretty happy. 

So for all of you taking the time to put stuff out there- thank you!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Please sir, just a playground

We've been in school 35 days and our school still does not have a playground. There have been a number of set backs preventing us from getting a playground, the most recent being that a very, very large pile of dirt has to be moved before a playground can be built. I don't know the specifics, but we were told that there was some confusion over who was suppose to move the dirt. Our administration suggested that we have kids write them letters asking for the dirt to be moved.

Always up for grabbing an opportunity to teach self-advocacy my co-workers and I decided to have our children write letters using Boardmaker and then record their feelings about the playground on a voice thread. We did this over the course of a week, squeezing every learning opportunity possible out of the problem. (I mean, how rare is it that you can identify a real-life, extremely tangible, story-book-type problem? There is dirt where our playground should be and we can't get a playground until it is moved!)

On Friday we delivered the voice thread and our letters to our administration. Dirt removal was already scheduled to begin on Monday, but of course our students didn't know that.

Today at recess our kids stared in awe at the heavy equipment slowly moving dirt off of our playground space. They could actually witness their efforts of writing letters making a difference. (Not to mention the absolutely fascination with watching heavy machinery in general- it doesn't get better than when you have a front row show to bull dozer work).

One little girl even called out, "Hey, can you move that dirt, please?" causing an entire conversation between her, the driver, and the other children about what has to happen to build a playground.

It is ridiculously frustrating to not have a playground. Recess has been the saddest, most pathetic time of the day- watching our children chase after a few playground balls on the black top. Yet I have to admit- the lesson of advocating for yourself and being a problem solver is worth it. We'll get a playground one day, and when we do our kids will feel like they built it themselves.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"They love me"

As my class sat down to write invitations to our writing celebration I assigned one child to address her invitation to the principals. A huge grin spread across her face as she wrote our principals' names and she announced with complete confidence, "They love me."

In all the chaos and stress of opening a new school as an administrator - chaos and stress I don't think I can even begin to understand- I have to admit that it is pretty impressive that my kids already feel so much love from our administration. The principal and assistant principal are in our rooms one to two times a day. I know they have a million fires to put out across the building but they drop everything in order to chat with our kids when they run into them in the hallway.

Our kids feel loved- which only makes them even more willing and ready to learn when they come to school. If children feel like they belong in a school- feel secure, safe, and valued- they are far more likely to take academic risks and be open to challenges.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Another Donors Choose Project!

Last year I submitted a project to Donors Choose asking for materials so that my students could act out familiar stories. After receiving your generous contribution and getting the materials I was amazed at what my students could do as they acted out the stories! Children who otherwise were not able to answer what came first, second, or third in a story were able to use physical objects to demonstrate that they truly knew what was happening in the story. They acted the story out in order, showing that they were understanding the book even if they hadn't been able to answer questions about the text.

After watching the success my students had using the materials I knew I needed more objects to adapt more of our stories. I have started another Donors Choose project asking for a play house, a play barn, and people who can be used to act out more stories. These toys are also used for practicing our speaking- using words and following directions that involve in/out, up/down, and labeling objects in a way that supports their speech development.

In this project I am also requesting fabric, Velcro, and other objects we can add to the pages of our books to make them more accessible and engaging for students with intellectual disabilities. I'm learning a lot about how to adapt texts to meet the needs of my students and I'm excited to apply what I'm learning.

Thank you for considering donating to this project!  I can't wait to see what my students do with the materials once the project is funded.

To program or not to program?

Not to be a broken record, but I strongly dislike prepackaged reading programs. I don't like the way they script lessons, or how it takes thought and planning away from the teacher. I don't like how they encourage me to be passive, or how they follow a formula that isn't based off of the kids in the class. I associate them with lazy teaching. I've written about this quite a bit and I know you're probably tired of hearing me whine about them.

There are some programs I don't mind. I am a fan of Early Literacy Skills Builder as well as LLI (OK, for LLI I really just like the books it supplies to use as guided reading books. And it's software. And that it does encourage teacher thought). 

But I still don't fully buy into the concept of using a program. I've had years of quality literacy training. I don't want to give myself too much credit, but I like to think of myself as a good reading teacher. Teaching emergent reading skills- it's something I can do. I understand how kids learn to read and I can design instruction based off what small skills and steps they need to take to get from point a to point b.

Now that I'm teaching in a program for children with Intellectual Disabilities I have to re-look at how I view teaching reading. I am teaching children whose parents and teachers decided traditional methods in a traditional classroom were not going to work, so it would be important for the child's education to be in another setting with different instruction. That's not something I can overlook lightly.

It doesn't mean I can't teach traditional guided reading when it is appropriate, but it does mean that I need to take into account the possibility that it might not be appropriate. 

I'm torn between whether or not to use a program for a few of my students. We can do traditional guided reading- which I love and feel I am good at teaching. Or I can use a boxed program, or some combination of the two. The children in question are learning decoding skills, which is traditionally difficult for students with intellectual disabilities. The more we dive into practicing these skills the more I see just how difficult it is for my students. The special ed solution to this difficulty is to teach whole-language and teach specific words in isolation.

Despite my personal aversion to programs that teach words in isolation I want to do what is best for the children. Am I holding them back by trying to teach them to decode words? Or am I slowly building a strong base of literacy skills they will be able to use and apply to all words? Can I adapt my guided reading plans and a boxed program to give the students both whole-word instruction and decoding skills? 

I realize what a gap I have in my understanding of how children with intellectual disabilities learn to read. I've been introduced to the programs but I've never been taught why these programs are chosen over others. What in the neurological development makes it difficult for children to learn to decode words and makes whole word instruction better? What is the research on these programs that shows the benefits of teaching one way verse another? 

I don't want to limit my children's skills but I also don't want to limit their opportunities for growth. I worry that if I teach them using whole-word instruction that we can't go back and teach decoding principals. I want them to be able to understand sounds, rhymes, and word play. I don't want to give up on those skills just because they are in our program.

I'm trying to find a way to balance both the pre-programmed kit and the student-driven guided reading in order to give my students the best of both worlds.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Learning to play like kids

There are those moments in teaching where you take a step back and observe yourself as an outsider might- and at those moments you are pretty sure that you would be committed to a mental institution for serious help if anyone else came along. Or just fired, no questions asked.

Yesterday I stood at recess in my fancy-I-have-an-important-meeting-so-I-will-for-once-look-professional-shoes (IE high heels). My teammates and I stood back smiling, saying silent prayers to the recess gods for allowing it to stop raining in time for us to go play on the black top and get some of our Friday energy out. The sun even came out so that we could see our shadows (ever since a science experiment where we made shadows with flash lights we've been obsessed with shadows). The kids were running around chasing each other and screaming, which is technically against the rules (no tag games) but it is so rare for our kids to actually play together and interact like typical kids that we overlooked the pesky rule.

Then I saw that one of my kids wasn't playing with everyone else, but was watching them intently. Finally I realized that she just didn't know how to begin playing with them. She could see that they were having fun and she wanted to join in their game, but she didn't know how to begin. Wanting to teach her play skills that she could use both at school and at the playground near her house I walked over to encourage her to join in the game. Quickly I knew this was going to involve me joining in the game was well. After prompting her to ask if she could play we took off. Grabbing her hand we ran across the blacktop, my blue fancy heels clicking as we went, yelling, AHHHHHH, the zombies are getting us! AHHHHHH, run! as my friend in a wheelchair drove after us pretending to be a zombie.

From a PC standpoint it was a pretty awful game. For one, our school doesn't celebrate Halloween so I am pretty sure playing 'zombie' on the playground isn't really appropriate. Then there is the fact that the 'zombies' were one child in a wheelchair and another child with Down syndrome  Not to mention it was a game of tag which of course is a big no-no in schools these days. So there I am, the teacher, running in my heels, encouraging other children to play zombie tag and run from the children with the most obvious disabilities.

It LOOKED terrible. I can see myself defending my actions to the school board now.

However, the kids really were taking turns being the zombies- it just so happened that when I joined the children with the most obvious disabilities were the zombies. Of course the kids in our classrooms didn't blink an eye- they weren't thinking- get away from the kid in the wheelchair- they were thinking- hey, it's his turn to be zombie- run!

It was the most age-appropriate free play I've ever seen out of my kids. Sure it wasn't totally PC, but how many kids on parks outside of school play total PC games? The kids in our program need to have social skills so that they can interact with their typical peers outside of school as well. If we only teach them to play teacher-led and teacher-approved games we'll only separate them further from their peers. Sure teacher-led games will look pretty, but childhood isn't always pretty. If our kids need to be taught how to play zombie tag, well, let's do it.

The smiles on our kids faces said it all- everyone was excited to take a turn to play zombie- to actually interact with each other instead of standing around passing a ball in a teacher-led (and let's be honest, boring) activity. For once recess looked like a typical general education recess, complete with squeals and laughter. I loved it and they loved it.

My feet, however, did not. The blisters were totally worth it though.

**I should explain that we don't actually have a playground right now. We have a mound of dirt and a black top. Starting a new school means being patient with things like getting playground equipment.**