Wednesday, May 30, 2012

CD covers as a text type?

I've always known that Rock Star loves music. Even when she was in her general education classroom full time she was always the loudest and the most comfortable when her class was singing. She typically sings loudly with us and usually knows the words to most of our songs. I've used songs in the classroom like most kindergarten and first grade teachers use songs in the room but nothing more than that.

After hours of listening to the Pandora Indie Kid's station with my daughter I caved in and bought the Barenaked Ladies children's CD.  Have you heard it? Their ABC song never fails to utterly crack me up (perhaps because I need a break from Dr. Jean). I brought it to school today as an excuse to play it since, let's be honest, my daughter is only 9 months old and can't really differentiate between what she is listening to. And she certainly doesn't get the jokes. I figured if I was really going to enjoy the CD I needed to play it for kids who might appreciate it (although really the humor is over most first graders' heads).

Rock Star found the CD sitting by our CD player and was immediately fascinated by it. She wanted to know all about it, wanted to hear it immediately, and wanted to look through the CD cover at the words to the songs. "What's it say?" she asked over and over again. I tried to stop the song and tell her the words at times and chose songs that she could get into. She bopped her head to the beat and tried to get her friend to stand by the CD player with her just to listen to the new music.

Watching her comb through the CD cover while standing by the CD player made me realize that to her CD booklets with their song lyrics are another text type that can expose her to print. Although far above her reading level it is something she can look at to continue to discover that print has meaning. She can look for letters she knows, words she knows, and can connect the pictures to the language she is hearing in the songs. I know there must be more I can do with them- with two weeks of school left it seems like a good time to be creative and let her explore another media. Now...  where do I find CD covers now that all we have are mp3s?

looking for love

Today was one of those days that is reserved for torturing special education teachers. The type of day where I didn't get to work with kids but spent a lot of time in tedious meetings working on paperwork. Many times I can reconcile the paperwork and the meetings with the fact that in the long run it truly supports what is best for kids, but...  not today.

Despite the utter grossness of today there were moments that made me remember why I teach. And as I sit here sipping my beer I desperately need to remember what each and every moment was.

1. My whole class rocking it to the 'We've Got a Whole Pizza!' song, flashing their pizza halves as they sang about their pizza, the fraction. (Thanks Splatypus!)

2. One of my little friends very clearly explaining to his table-mate why two halves were equal even though I wasn't sure he'd paid attention to the lesson.

3. My friends lighting up when I came into the room after my meeting and asking how it had gone.

4. A friend using a calm voice to ask a friend to leave her alone (progress!!)

5. Magical's smile

6. Magical and his friend holding hands in the hallway because, "They are best friends" as they emphatically explained to me.

7. Rock Star rocking out to the new CD I bought the classroom and using long phrases to tell her friends that we have a new CD.

8. One little girl helping her "baby" (a stuffed Curious George) cut squares and circles in half. Her caring language showed so much empathy and understanding of others.

9. Watching one of my friends who usually chooses to play alone decide to go to a center that he'd rather not go to because he'd rather play with his friends than by himself.  (Amazing progress!!)

10.  When Magical explained that the special ingredient in his play food sandwich he brought me was water and then proceeded to explain the merits of water bread.

I do love my job. I absolutely adore these kids. Now if I could just find time to work with them!

Research Based Self Regulation Strategies

I was just given an awesome list of strategies to help children attain and maintain attention from the program "How Does Your Engine Run?" It is a great list and I'm excited to put them into practice. However, I was recently in a discussion with a coworker who questioned the validity of these practices and wanted to know if they are research based. A quick look on Google Scholar did not find anything.

Does anyone know anything about them?  I have seen research that discredits brain gym, but not these strategies.

Some of the strategies listed:

  • Asking student to erase or wash the board
  • Chair push ups
  • Manipulating playdough
  • sharpening pencils in a non-electric pencil sharpener
  • Carrying heavy objects- returning library books
  • Rearranging desks
  • Emptying the trash cans, carrying the trash cans so others can put their trash in it
  • Thumb wrestling
  • Chewing gum
  • Eating crunchy food
  • Pulling/chewing on a straw
  • Eating chewy food like licorice
  • Sucking on hard candies
  • Drinking cold water in a sport water bottle with a long straw
  • Using a narrow coffee stirrer as a straw for drinking
  • Allow child to sit in a rocking chair
  • Do neck rolls/head rolls
  • Take a stretch break
  • Run in place to a popular song
From "How Does Your Engine Run, The Alert Program for Self Regulation" developed by Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger

What other strategies do you use with your kiddos to help get out energy so they can focus?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Falling in love with voice thread

I've recently gotten back into making voice threads with my students. It was something I was completely intimidated by until I experimented with it last year and found that it is fabulously easy to use. Then I went on maternity leave and forgot all about it.

My retelling project (more on that later) has evolved into making voice threads of our stories after we take pictures of ourselves acting out the stories with our awesome toys from donors choose (thank you, thank you, thank you!!)

I've discovered that for my kids voice threads can open all kinds of doors in writing workshop. It gives them the opportunity to publish their work even when they are unable to draw a picture that can be recognized by someone else.

What's more- they LOVE it. They love recording their voices and hearing themselves speak, meaning they ate hearing the language over and over and over again.

One of the text types we are suppose to teach in kindergarten is writing 'How To' books. Now I feel very strongly about having my students exposed to the kindergarten curriculum but I also know just how difficult it is for the average five year old to write a 'How To' book. I was DREADING this unit.

Then it occurred to me that for my class writing could be orally recoding our sequencing along with gluing down the pictures of the project in order. Sequencing is an essential executive functioning skill and having them order pictures, talk about the pictures in order, and then listen to their own sequences helps support this growth.

I allowed each child to create their own picture from pattern blocks. I took pictures at each step of the way and then put them into voice thread. Depending on the student's needs I focused on having them use language like 'First, second, third', or merely focused on having them use 3-4 word sentences.

It was awesome to see the pride they've taken in their work, their developing understanding of sequencing, and their ability to use voice thread almost independently.

Check out in our voice threads here!

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Oh my goodness I am TIRED. I don't think I even realized how tired I was until just now. I asked someone from our county to come in and help me work with one of my students. I wanted to make sure that I'm doing all I can for him.
She had amazing suggestions. Awesome, excellent, and realistic.


We have 4 weeks left of school. We are in the midst of testing and assessing, of wrapping up IEPs and paperwork, of getting paperwork ready for transfer students and summer school. Of dotting i's and crossing t's that might not have been seen before. Of trying to keep everyone else together.

That's not an excuse for not starting her ideas. I just honestly do not know how I will have the time to put them in place, let alone the energy to introduce and enforce them.

I hate that I've hit this place where I feel tired, frustrated, and, sadly, burnt out. I need a re-start button where we can just get one fresh, clean, energetic start.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


This year I served on our school's retention committee. We spent almost all day meeting with teachers to discuss whether or not a student should be retained. It was surprisingly exhausting. As a classroom teacher when I had a student who needed to be retained I always felt very strongly about it. It was never a decision I made lightly and I always gave careful consideration to the student't emotional needs, the academic work, the family dynamics, the student's birth date and any other outstanding factors. It always frustrated me to have to come meet with a committee after I'd put all that thought into it and have to defend my decision a group of people who had never even spoken to my student. As a professional I felt that my opinion should be respected.

On the other side of the table I felt for the teachers coming with their students' data and talking points. Having been in their place I hated to ask questions that could be interpreted as second guessing a teacher's opinion because I know none of them made their decision for retention lightly. Sitting on the other side of the table however, began to change my perspective from one student's current, immediate needs and had me look at a student's long-term school career.

It was not easy. Even the most cut and dry cases for retention seemed to probe questions of whether or not retention would be helpful. At times we could all agree that a student would not be successful going on to the next grade, but we also had to consider whether or not retention itself would help the child be successful. Would retention address the issues at hand? Would it allow the student to have another year to mature or would it just keep an impulsive student back with peers who were younger so that the behaviors did not stick out as much? Would it give a student confidence and build them up or would it send the message that her hard work was being rewarded by being held back?

Until yesterday I feel that I would have argued for almost any student to be retained in kindergarten. Another year of language development and literacy practice could not hurt anyone, and I truly believe that reading is the most important skill a person can have. If sending them on to first grade is going to impede their ability to be a lifelong reader then they need to have another year of kindergarten.  But yesterday I began to consider students I knew who had been retained and had not improved with another year of kindergarten. I began to think about these students in high school. I began to question whether or not retention would truly address the child's underlying issues.  Another year isn't always going to solve a child's academic difficulties.

But there are times when it is absolutely appropriate. There are cases of students who have thrived from doing another year of kindergarten. There are times when retention is life changing.

I am thankful I work at a school that allows for a collaborative discussion of the students' needs. There is no black or white answer at our school- no formula that says "if x, retain, if y, move on". There is not a blanket statement that we cannot retain students. And although I hated it as a classroom teacher I do appreciate that there is a committee to help with the decision. Parents can know that their student's academic future was agonized over in a room full of professionals who tried their best to ask all the right questions in order to consider the best outcome for the student's future.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


This is the time of year when things start to fall apart. Or at least, things feel like they are falling apart. Lots of special education paper work, IEPs, meetings, meetings, and oh, more meetings, not to mention the assessments. Pretty much all we are doing is assessing so there isn't much fun teaching going on. Giving the grade level assessments is always a painful experience on my end because pretty much by definition my students are below grade level. If they weren't below grade level they would be in their general education classroom. So even when I have a child that totally rocks an assessment and I feel like running up and down the halls with glee I sit back and look at the score and realize just how far below the child still is. For the student in question it can be an amazing feat of improvement, but there is something disheartening about realizing that despite lots of hard work a student still isn't where you'd love for them to be.

Yet on Thursday I looked over and noticed that Rock Star and another student were sitting in the library center doing exactly what they are suppose to be doing in the library center- reading books. They were sitting side by side and Rock Star was going through a Goldilocks book, narrating the story for her friend. When she got to the end she asked him if he wanted to hear it again. He said no, so she got up, put the book away, and took down another version of Goldilocks. She settled back down in the chair and once again began telling him the Goldilocks story.

This might sound like your typical kindergarten/first grade classroom center experience. Which is why I felt like screaming with joy and hugging each of them. (I didn't. I very, very quietly got my camera and video taped it so that when this week and next week get me down I can watch it and remember the miracle).

There was a time when Rock Star did not know how to hold a book correctly. Her IEP goal was to be able to look at a picture in a book and comment on it- I mean, to hold a book, open to a page, look at a picture of a dog and say "dog". And when she met that goal we were ecstatic.

And now- here she is "reading" to a friend. Starting a book from the beginning, turning the pages one by one and on each page telling the story- a fluid story- not just commenting on one piece of the picture- but even telling the details that are not reflected in the pictures.

She was using long, run on sentences, correct vocabulary, a clear, loud voice, and was so engaged in the task that she read 3 Goldilocks versions to her friend before the center time was over. Confident, happy, and full of a love of literature, she rocked the center in the very style that makes her my Rock Star. I am fighting back tears just writing about it.

If nothing else I have that from this year. I have the memory of a girl who two years ago did not talk, did not hold a book, did not recognize that pictures held meaning turning into a girl who could tell a full story in sequential order across the pages of a book, over and over again. If I question everything else about this year, if I feel like nothing went right and that it was one long, uphill battle, I will have the moment of watching Rock Star shine.

Chronic absense

This article:

Hits on one of my biggest frustrations this year. My students don't come to school. There are various reasons, medical, difficulty with transportation, insecure housing, family dynamics, but there are too many kids in my class who have missed many, many days.

If they are not here I can't teach them. It's as simple as that. Even when I am able to make the most of when they come to school it is difficult to carry on the momentum, pace, and repetition needed for academic mastery.

And there is virtually nothing we can do as a school. There is an attendance officer but he's busy with the high schoolers. We call daily, we talk to the parents, I've even gone to someone's house to pick him up, but it doesn't change the pattern.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Smarty pants

A few things happened today that just made me feel done. Not done with the year- done with teaching. This job is too hard without being up against some of the things we are up against.

And then out of no where one of my friends said, "Hey, Ms Lipstick, I have a secret." He leaned in very seriously to softly whisper in my ear.

"T is a smarty pants" he whispered seriously, referring to my friend in a wheel chair with multiple disabilities.

And that was it. Just thought I needed to know that T was smart. Then he happily went back to work content with having delivered his love message.

I love these kids.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Teacher manuals and passive instruction

Until this year I don't think I'd used a teacher's manual since my first year when I didn't work at the Think Tank. Even then I only used one for math. As long as I've been teaching I've been taught to teach reading through the Literacy Collaborative model. It relies heavily on teachers being able to make informed decisions about their students' progress and what to do next. The idea is that your instruction should be based off your children's needs, your observations, and your teacher knowledge instead of a manual that does not know your children. (That's a very crude explanation. There are much better explanations out there).

This puts a lot of faith in the teacher. It requires us to be on our A game, constantly being aware of what the students are doing, what their needs are, what their strengths are, where we want them to go and how we think we should get them there. It means we must be engaged and constantly watching our student and ourselves. It means we must be truly knowledgeable in how children learn to read and adapt our instruction accordingly. It means our administration needs to hire awesome teachers who are prepared for this, and that we have reading coaches that work with us and train us to be able to make informed and thoughtful decisions about instruction. We have to frequently reflect- video taping ourselves, asking others to observe us, reading professional books, taking classes- all making sure we are doing our best for our students.

I love it.

This year however, I've used 2 different reading series and am getting ready to use a 3rd. All 3 have manuals.  As the year draws to an end I realize how different using a manual has made my reading instruction. 

Using a manual does not necessarily make me lazy, but it certainly un-engages me to a certain extent. Since I don't have to plan a brand new lesson the next day based off of my observations from today I'm a little more relaxed. I hate to admit it, but I'm not watching the kids as much as I am flipping through the manual trying to see what we'll do tomorrow. Before the kids were my manual so my attention had to be on them. What words were they having trouble with?  Should we do a word study lesson on 'ing' words or continue with sorting 'at' and 'it' words? 

Now my attention is on what the book tells me to teach next. Since I no longer have to make tough decisions I find myself being a passive deliverer of instruction. The buck doesn't really stop with me- I'm simply doing what I'm told to do by the book. If it doesn't work I can shrug and say, "Well, I was using X series so I don't know what went wrong."  Before if a child didn't get something it was because I hadn't taught that skill. I needed to make the decision to go back and re-teach it. I had that power because, frankly, I had all the power.

If you are a long time reader you know (I hope) that I am not a passive teacher. I do not sit down and think "while these kids read I'm going to make my plans for tomorrow." But I found it happening and shocked myself. 

It takes a lot for a school system or administrators to trust their teachers to make informed decisions about instruction. They have to have faith that they hired qualified, intelligent, perceptive individuals who are able to consider long-term objectives and individual students needs all at once. But that trust makes us better, more invested teachers. 

It's the difference in a doctor flipping through a medical manual and saying, "Oh, well statistically speaking this is what is wrong with you." and a doctor taking a thorough examination before concluding, "Well, I'd like to run x test because I'm detecting something abnormal that might not be showing up right here."  (Ok, I don't know enough about medicine to make a fabulous analogy- everything I know is from House.)  

The current trend in education is sending us back to our teacher manuals. In order for everyone to cover their rear-ends when accountability time comes the push is for giving us manuals that statistically should get our children to read. "Research based" programs with fuzzy research that asks us to passively deliver instruction to our students so that everyone can say "well, we did X." 

I miss delivering thoughtful instruction based on my knowledge as a well-informed professional. It's what I thought I was hired to do. 

**  **  **
This being said I love one of the current programs I am using. Early Literacy Skills Builder has done amazing things for my emergent readers with intellectual disabilities.  If you tried to take it away from me I may beat you with Moe, the stuffed frog that comes with it.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Happy Friday!

For the last two days I've run into The Story Teller at kiss and ride while he waited to go home. Yesterday I happened to have Baby Lipstick with me. The Story Teller followed me to ask a very important question.

"Why does your baby have boy hair?"

If he was an only child this could be chalked up to curiosity, but he is the oldest of 4.

Today he caught up with me again and again told me that he had a very important question.

"You know, you were so chubby when you had your baby. How did you get so fit so fast?"

I miss running into that kid daily.

Miracle Workers

One of my students has the biggest smile you have ever seen on a five year old. If you were to walk into my room his smile would be the first thing you notice. He also has significant physical disabilities and is confined to a wheelchair. This does not usually stop him from much, and as long as he is in his power wheelchair he will zip around our room with no problem.

This winter he had surgery and had to use a special wheel chair that kept him at an angle to help his body heal. When we went over to visit him at his apartment his cousin told us that he loved his new hospital chair because it was like a bike and he had always wanted a bike. He proudly drove the chair around by pushing the wheels and grinned at us while he showed off his driving skills.

 I shared the bike story with one of the teachers on his team. I wasn't even finished describing his smile in his new chair when she said, "You know, there are adaptive bikes out there..." Her voice trailed off as she thought of the possibilities.

The next thing I knew she was sending me emails with links to bikes, asking about how he would use it, and whether or not his mother would accept a gift from an anonymous donor.

Through all this I quickly learned that adaptive bikes are not cheap, nor are they easy to buy. They require a lot of thought, planning and measuring to make sure that they can be used safely by their owner. Still, she investigated, planned, took measurements, and budgeted.

Yesterday the bike came in. It was presented to the family as being from an anonymous donor so they will never know the teacher who made this little one's dream come true. I was sadly at a doctors appointment when my friend got to try out his new bike but I did see a picture and a video. Tears came to my eyes as I looked at the proud and excited boy sitting up so tall on his very own bike- something I am sure he never thought he would own and certainly never thought he would be able to ride independently.

Until yesterday the closest he ever thought he would get to a bike was using an adapted hospital wheelchair. And there he was, proudly peddling down the hall.

I am amazed an in awe at my coworker who made this happen. We have so much else going on- assessments, deadlines, paperwork, and not to mention our teacher salaries that would make it difficult to purchase such a gift for our own children, let alone one of our students. Yesterday her present and determination was literally a miracle for a little boy who had a dream. These are the people that make me proud to work in this profession. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Environmental Print

Like most schools we do a lot of testing these days. Even when it is not official testing season we are always testing something or other. We frequently put signs up letting people know that we are testing and we spend a lot of time telling the kids what the testing signs mean- be quiet, do not enter the door, stay away.
Since my daughter is still under a year I need to have a private place during the school day to get her meals. So I'm locked in the art supply closet three times a day. The sign I put on the door? Not "Keep Out" or "Do Not Enter".  Someone might overlook those. What will everyone pay attention to?
"Testing" The one thing that everyone respects and follows.
The other day it fell off the door and ended up on a nearby water fountain. Apparently children saw the sign and assumed it meant they had to stay away from the water fountain. Whether or not they assumed the water fountain was being tested or that they just assumed that "Testing" means "Keep Away" it doesn't matter. It shows the power of environmental print and what is currently always recognized at our schools.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What's appropriate?

A few of the students in my room have moments where they are physically aggressive. They are little so it rarely actually hurts any of us, but we need to set the tone in the room that it is a safe place, and of course teach them that physical aggression is not OK. Yet how we go about doing that varies from child to child based on their disability.

For one of my students we have learned to just ignore him when he hits. It feels so wrong, but if we do not even acknowledge that he hits us he will not do it again. If we loudly say, "NO HITTING!", or put him in the quiet spot he does it again. He is doing it to get a reaction from us, but if we ignore it he stops. It took awhile to figure that out and we really had to look at the reasoning behind the behavior- what was he getting from it- were our consequences actually giving him what he wanted?  In this case they were- he wanted attention and by hitting us he was getting it.

For another of my students it is a bit tougher to figure out. The physical aggression is very rare, but when it exists it is significant. He has the ability to understand consequences- so what is appropriate?  Of course school guidelines recommend an in or out of school suspension, but we also need to look at if that is giving the student what they want. If the student is being aggressive to escape a task then in-school or out of school suspension is giving him exactly what he wants. In-school suspension also means that he gets to sit in the office and make new friends with the office staff, and get their attention with the same physical behaviors that got him into the suspension in the first place.

So what is an appropriate consequence?  He wrote apology letters to those he hurt, but we write apology letters for small things like hurting someone's feelings- physically hurting someone seems like it should carry a bit more weight.

How do we find something appropriate that will teach the student not to be physical again?

I plan to be proactive as well- redesign the behavior plan to hopefully prevent this behavior in the future. I want to give him more control of the school day and hope that he feels more empowered in our classroom. We have, and will continue to do, lots of work on what to do when we are angry or frustrated. We practice our "how to calm down" strategies all the time.

But we need a plan in place that is reactive just in case we need it. And it needs to be appropriate and one that everyone must be comfortable following through with. We cannot give a consequence in a moment of frustration only to have it not followed through. This little one understands limits. He is fully aware when we do not follow through on our words.
So we need to have a few appropriate consequences that will teach and encourage positive behavior.

I am stuck.  Ideas? Suggestions? Point me towards books to read?

Mrs. Lipstick :)