Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Parent Involvement- Getting parents in the door

Parents who come from all over the world bring a different sort of expectation and understanding of how schools work. For some, culturally they are not accustomed to being invited into school and feel that discussions with the teacher would come across as accusatory or insulting- as though they were questioning the teacher's ability to perform the job. Others truly don't have a cultural background for understanding that it is a team effort- in their countries the teacher is responsible for all learning- so they do not understand that we want them to read and do homework with their child. They are not against this concept, we just need to communicate our expectations. Some parents see school are scary places they are completely unfamiliar with since they never went to school themselves in this country. For others we are fighting years and years of schools being seen as untrustworthy and 'the enemy'. Somehow we have to form a team with each and every one of these parents.

I've found that one of the best ways to start forming this team (other than home visits) is to get parents into the classroom to see their children in action. When I was a classroom teacher I held our largest writing celebration of the year right at the end of the first month of school. We published our books, baked cupcakes, made invitations, put out table cloths and fresh flowers and fancied everything up. Not only did it set the tone for writing workshop for the rest of the year (writing is IMPORTANT and we are WRITERS) but it brought parents into the classroom to see us hard at work early on. When parents come into school to see their children perform, whether reading, writing, or in a play, they usually are more comfortable than when they are coming into school for conferences. Their reason behind coming into the school is different- they are less likely to feel stressed because they do not speak English. Everyone gets an opportunity to gaze at the children and their hard work without having to worry about difficult conversations.

The Think-Tank has a dance night every year. The PE and Music teachers put on an amazing show. We all meet over at the high school's gym on a Friday night to watch all the grade levels perform the dances they've been working on in PE and Music for the past month. It's amazing and one of my favorite nights ever, but what I've noticed after years of attending is that parents who never, ever come to school for anything else will come to dance night. Parents who never show up to conferences, who do not return written notes or phone calls, who put their child on the bus and never enter the door of our school- they come to dance night. It's the best possible night to make contact with parents.

Another thing I've noticed over the years is that parents from other countries are more likely to come to events if they can bring food. I think it's from feeling as though they otherwise have nothing to offer. They can't even communicate in English with their child's teacher and so coming in the door to the school is like a reminder of what they can't do (in their minds, not in ours). But when they are asked to bring food from their country they often flock through the doors in droves. Food from their country is something they can finally offer us. It is something they are good at, something they specialize in, and something we are not experts in.

Another aspect of parent behavior I've noticed is that they are more likely to come to whole-school events. Many of the parents I've worked with do not have transportation, but if it is a whole school event and they can catch a ride with their neighbor they will come to see their child in action. It feels safer to go anywhere with a friend, particularly if you do not speak the language or are in a new situation. The Think-Tank had a school-wide writing celebration every year. Because it was school-wide the parents came in droves- they could walk over together, carpool, and chat to each other in their native languages about what was going on, where to go, and how it went. It felt safer.

Once we get parents in the doors- through putting their children on stage, in writing celebrations, dances, or class picnics, we can start to form those relationships that will open the door for further collaboration.

Parent Involvement- Showing your love

As a child I remember my mother coming home from my brothers' parent conferences. (Since my brothers are five years younger than I am her experiences at their conferences stuck with me for longer than whatever happened at my conferences. I don't think anyone ever told me the difference between 'sister' and 'mother' and I really felt like I was responsible for them as well) She was usually glowing and always shared with us how much my brothers' teachers loved them. She would almost always have some small story to share that the teacher had told her- something one of them had done or said or read that my mom didn't know before.

My mother and brothers' pride and happiness from these conversations has stuck with me. My mom left the meetings knowing the teachers loved my brothers and when she shared these stories and comments with my brothers they were reminded that their teachers loved them. I try to send the same message when working with parents. I want to share stories with them about their children that convey how much I love and know their children, and also give the parents a window into their child's day when they are away from home.

One of the best ways I've found to do this is to share a picture with parents of their child happily engaged in a school activity. I find this extremely valuable for numerous reasons. It is just great to be able to give the parent a picture of the child, particularily when the child is happy in school. Now that I'm a parent I appreciate this even more- I love when my daycare providers share snapshots with me. I get to see my child happy and comfortable when I'm away. 

Photographs also serve as a reminder to the entire team that we are talking about a child. When IEPs get tense it's important for everyone- the parents and the school team- to remember that the reason we are having the conversation is because everyone at the table wants what is best for the child. It helps keep it from getting personal. Nobody in the room is there to get their way just to prove themselves right- everyone is (or should be) there for the child. 

If you're really on top of it you can have a picture of the child and the parent together at one of your activities- the happy family on a field trip, sharing cupcakes over a writing celebration, reading books together. Many of the parents I work with don't have many pictures of their children. While camera phones are becoming more and more popular, many parents don't have the resources to print out hard copies.

I don't avoid hard topics with parents and I don't shy away from addressing a child's significant needs. That wouldn't be fair to the child. But regardless of what serious issues we need to talk about I try to stress how much I truly enjoy the child. If the parents and I can look at the situation from a shared perspective of "this kid is great, now let's look at how to best serve the child's needs" we usually have more productive discussions.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Parent Involvement- Meeting parents where they are

From my experience the best way I've found to reach out to resistant parents is to meet them where they are. Appreciating the fear and anxiety that coming to school can cause for parents I've seen that home visits, coming to their children's birthday parties, running into them at kiss-and-ride and talking to them about things other than their children's progress can begin to build a relationship you can build on.

When I was a first grade classroom teacher I had a child whose mother hated me. She hated all teachers and I'd heard stories about how she abused the kindergarten teacher. When her child was in my room she refused to call me by my name, but instead by the kinder teacher's name (who she'd refused to call by the correct name when she was in the class). Then one day I ran into her in the grocery store. It wasn't anywhere near my school- it was near my house where I never saw parents. I was buying beer. Not just a little bit, but a big case of beer. As I got into line with my arms filled with the massive case I saw her and wanted to run. 'She can't see me like this!' I immediately thought. But before I could hide she saw me and immediately got the biggest smile on her face. She rushed over to me and greeted me with kisses on both cheeks. She didn't speak English so we couldn't have a conversation, but the next day she wrote me a note in Spanish that was addressed to me- with my real name. Seeing that I was human changed her perception of me. After that we had a great relationship, and the following year she didn't abuse the second grade teacher. 

Clearly no book or any seasoned teacher would recommend buying beer with a parent, and it wasn't a situation that could be planned. But it was a great reminder that some parents need to be reminded that we are human. 

Many times it is little things that make a difference. I usually like to look professional for my meetings with parents, particularly for IEP meetings. I have suit jackets and nice skirts. I want to send the message that I take their child's education very seriously. But I've learned that with some parents it's too much. It can send the message that I'm on a high platform and can't relate to their needs. With one parent my relationship totally changed once I started wearing jeans to our meetings. 

Home visits allow you to literally meet parents where they are, and can make all the difference. Of course there are families that would rather not have you visit, and it's important to respect and understand that as well. Home visits are time consuming but pay out for the rest of the year. Many times you get a much greater sense of the family dynamics and where the entire family is coming from. It opens the door to relating with parents at a whole new level.

One of my favorite ways to connect with parents is through birthday parties. Not many of the children I teach have birthday parties where they invite their friends, but I make it a rule to always go to them if I am available and am invited. I had one parent who avoided me like the plague, and would suddenly have bad phone reception whenever she happened to pick up and I was on the other end. I went to her child's birthday and as we talked about the craft projects she had around the house she slowly melted. When I left she followed me out onto the sidewalk and yelled across the parking lot that she wanted to come in and meet with me.

Some parents are intimidated by schools, particularly if they are not originally from America. Parents who cannot read in their native language are going to be even more hesitant to come in and meet with us, even when we offer a translator. Some parents might not have been able to go to school themselves in their native countries for various reasons. I know many of the parents I've worked with who are from El Salvador were kept from school because of their civil war. Unsure of how to act in a school and having no background experience to pull from, these parents avoid school. It's our job to help them feel comfortable and open the path for encouraging school participation. 

We have to break down the nervousness and intimidation the parents feel toward school and the system. We need to send the message that we want them to be a part of their children's school experience, and that we are not judging them. And sometimes we have to be creative in order to do that. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Parent Involvement- Resources

On my post about the increase in poverty in children, Molly asked for resources on working with parents. She said,

"my goal this year is to improve my relationships with parents. do you have any good resources to recommend? I notice several parents that avoid coming to school and seem so uncomfortable when they do. Or I also have a parent who, when I can finally get her to sit down with me, talks a "big talk," but nothing ever happens. And then there are the parents who would like to know more details about what we're doing in the classroom"

I'm going to try to do a series of posts on working with parents (a series because with Baby Lipstick I find myself writing half-posts and then getting side-tracked and never finishing...) Please chime in and share your own experiences and recommendations.

As far as resources here's a list of ones I've used in the past:

Ruby Payne's Working With Parents -  Payne can be controversial but I've always appreciated her insights. She makes me think, which I appreciate.

Working with Challenging Parents - This one is specific for special education, but the recommendations hold true for interacting with parents in general. It was one of my text books in a special education class.

Parents and Teachers Working Together -  This is a book from Responsive Classroom and has great ideas for getting parents involved. 

What other resources do you use? What do you recommend? Please share!

To eat or not to eat?

One of the many aspects that I'm loving about being a parent is that I get to pretty much design my own life curriculum for baby L. It's a huge responsibility- even at this young age- deciding what we'll teach our daughter. What we expose her to, what we tell her is important, what books we read to her, what we show her, what activities we do. 

I think about random little things that even today I find special- like a certain kind of shell you can find on the beach- and I realize that I have a clear memory of my mother telling me that these shells were special and hunting for them with me. We spent a whole beach vacation investigating when high and low tide where, when the best time to go shelling was, and when we'd be able to find these special tiny shells. I may have found these shells interesting on my own, but it was my mother labeling them special that truly made these shells stick with me for life. Whenever I see them I have to stop, pick them up and pocket them. 

That's what we get to do as parents. Put labels of what is important on the things around us and let that stay with our children for life.

With that being said, I am going to come out and say it, my family is not going to stop eating at Chick-fil-a. I know. It's a horror. It's especially a horror because I just saw a picture of Sarah Palin proudly eating at a Chick-fil-a. I do not want to be a part of some political madness that involves Sarah Palin. Good grief, please stop politicizing my favorite fast food chain. The more the left comes out against it the  more the right embraces it. 

My husband's family has a special tradition of Chick-fila. It's more than simply fast food for them. My mother-in-law grew up eating at the Dwarf House, the original Chick-fil-a restaurant. My brother-in-law proposed to his wife with a chicken biscuit. Instead of throwing a garter at their wedding they threw a Chick-fil-a cow. Chicken biscuits in the morning are a special family treat. To them, and in turn to me and my new family, Chick-fil-a is a special family experience- not a place where we go to eat when we're hungry and are in a rush.

And yes, we dressed up Baby Lipstick for Cow Appreciation day. And it was her Halloween costume last year. 

This does not mean that we support the Cathy's statement on same-sex marriage. But refusing to eat Chick-fil-a wouldn't teach my daughter to be more understanding and tolerant. It wouldn't teach her that some families have two daddies and some have two mommies and that those families are special and wonderful and love each other just like we do. It wouldn't do anything to the life curriculum I have laid out before us.

Instead I plan to continue to read her the book "Daddy, Papa, and Me". Maybe even read it when we go to Chick-fil-a just to counteract any "anti-same-sex marriage thoughts she may pick up while there" as though it's a disease that's catching. I plan on teaching her that when we don't agree with people we still listen to their opinions and talk to them. (After all, her father and I have a "mixed marriage" with our political beliefs). I plan on teaching her empathy and compassion and an understanding that even people that are different than us still deserve the same rights and freedoms we are blessed with.

Two years ago in one of my kindergarten classes a little boy had two mommies. Nobody thought anything of it. Five year olds are blissful happy with what is presented to them. Of course he had two mommies. Some kids only had one daddy, some only had one mommy. Some only had a grandmother. Five year olds appreciated the meaning of family in a way we older, more cynical adults forget to. 

Raising a daughter who understands the importance of same-sex marriage means more to me than not giving the Cathys my money. Because frankly, at this point I'm willing to bet that the left's denial of the fast food chain hasn't hurt them much. Tell me that the more your Facebook feed is filled with comments about Chick-fil-a the more you are having trouble not craving one of their milk shakes or their waffle fries. And seriously, now it's become a rallying point for the right. Why do that? 

I will keep the Lipstick family tradition of Chick-fil-a because it's a family tradition, and that's important. I will keep exposing my daughter to the world around us, and will work harder on planning a life curriculum that encompasses empathy and an understanding of fairness that she'll take with her the rest of her life.

Friday, July 27, 2012

By the numbers

Every year the Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes it's Kids Count data book, showing the trends in child-well being across the US. If you work with children in poverty, or make decisions that will effect children who live in poverty, it's worth looking at the data to get a sense of where we are as a nation.

This year the data compares 2010 to 2005, and it's not pretty. Not surprisingly it shows that more children live in poverty in the US than in 2005 (22%), more children live in households where parents do not have secure employment, and more children live in households with a high housing cost burden.

What does that mean for us as teachers? Although we wish we could, we can't give every parent a job, we can't single handedly pull our children out of poverty, and we can't guarantee that their families won't worry about their housing situations.

What we can do is be aware of what our families are going through. When a family is worried about losing their house, providing food for their children, or just getting by on a day to day basis their concerns are not going to meet up with our concerns. When we wonder why they won't come in for a conference, we wonder why homework doesn't get completed, papers aren't returned, or and phone calls aren't answered it's easy to let our frustration get the best of us.

Don't they know how hard we're working to teach their children? Don't they know everything else we could be doing with our lives that doesn't exist making no money in a job where nobody appreciates us, our friends tell us our job is cute, and the national media portrays us as lazy, incompetent, and only in it for the summer vacations? Why won't anyone just call us back? We're concerned about your child!

With that 100th unanswered phone call or conference where we've been stood up we've all thought that. It's frustrating. We've got to remember that our parents are embarrassed and scared. Embarrassed to tell their employers that they need to take off work yet again for a conference. Scared they will be fired and everything that will mean. Embarrassed to tell us that they can't take off work to meet with us. Embarrassed because of all the other things they have going on in their lives hearing that their child is having a rough time reading or behaving isn't a huge priority right now. They want their child to succeed and they want their child to behave, but when you're worried about feeding and clothing your children, keeping them safe, keeping a roof over their heads, keeping your job, making sure everyone is healthy and clean, some things start to lose their significance in the long line of other truly important priorities. How does coming in for a conference about Johnny calling out all the time stack up to getting food for dinner?

We can look at ways we can meet our families' needs, we can phrase questions so that we are respectful of their situations while still getting our message across, we can find creative ways to meet with busy, stressed parents.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Working Toward Smooth Kindergarten Transitions

On my summer adventures I'm always running into five year olds and I can't help but ask them if they are excited for kindergarten. Some tell me all about their new schools, some look like I'm asking if they are ready for a prison sentence, and some just dance around me pretending like I didn't say a thing. I can't blame them- the concept of time is still vague for five year olds and the idea of going to a new school in a month or so is a bit overwhelming.

I love new kinders. I love their first day of school, their wide-eyes, their happy discoveries, their worried expressions that soon turn into confidence. It's a huge life transition, even if they are accustomed to going to a daycare setting. 

As kindergarten teachers we're prepared for anything. We know this is the children's first year in school and that we're teaching these children the social skills they'll need to be successful for the rest of their academic career. We're trained in teaching children their letters, numbers, how to read, count, color between the lines, share, sit quietly, and to listen to stories. We're not worried about the academic knowledge your child comes in with- it's our job to help get ready for first grade. 

What will help your child have a smooth transition to kindergarten and school as a whole will be to help your child have some independent skills that will allow him/her to take care of his/her own needs, advocate for him/herself, and feel successful in their new environment. Many of these tips are things that will come easily to your child, but as adults we tend to forget to hand over the responsibility. Without even knowing it we tend to still check-in with our kids or talk them through tasks they can do independently. 

Here are some non-academic skills that may help pave the way for a smooth and successful transition:

  • Practice Independent eating?
    • Can your child get through a meal fairly independently without the constant coaching of "two more bites, great, now one bite of broccoli, now one bite of cheese..."?  Have one of your child's friends over for lunch, serve lunch and then stand back. Can your child navigate his/her way through the food without your gentle reminders? Give a five minute reminder that lunch is almost over. When the five minutes is up clean up from lunch and see what your child ate. Was it enough to get him/her through a busy afternoon? In kindergarten it is difficult for us to coach all our children through their lunches. If we notice a child hasn't eaten much we'll give reminders and warnings of how much time is left, but we can't individually remind each child to eat. Start preparing your child to become an independent eater so that he/she will not end up hungry at the end of the first few days.
  • Practice independent food choices 
    • If your child is going to eat in the cafeteria he/she will be presented with all sorts of food choices. The teachers will be there to help remind the children to make a choice, but they will not have any idea what your child likes/doesn't like. If you go to a buffet type restaurant will your child be able to independent make choices that he/she will end up eating?
  • Practice public restroom independence 
    • Many kindergarten classrooms have bathrooms in the classroom, but some use a group bathroom in the hallway. Take your child to a public restroom and just stand back. See if they can follow the process- go in, shut the door, wipe, flush the toilet, wash and dry hands in the sink, independently. Unless your child is in a single-sex classroom it is unlikely that the teacher will be a part of the group bathroom experience.
  • Allowing for self-help independence- 
    • Many kinders come to school being able to take care of 95% of the bathroom process, but many are still accustomed to being wiped when they have a bowel movement. Start coaching your child to do this independently including having them pull up their pants without you checking to see if they did a good job. You don't want your child opening the classroom bathroom door and screaming, "Come check me, please!" with all the other children around.
  • Encourage advocating for own needs-
    • For the most part are you your child's spokes person? Do you know when your child is hungry or needs to go to the bathroom without your child even saying a word? Your child's teacher will not have that skill in the first month of school as she gets to know your child. Prompt your child to use simple sentences to let adults know what's needed.
    • Most importantly- Can your child tell you or other adults when he/she needs to go to the bathroom? It's a hard skill for some children to learn, especially when they are in the middle of an exciting activity. Do you always have to remind your child to go to the bathroom? Have you learned your child's 'I need the bathroom signs' so that you're always the one reminding your child to go? This summer start coaching your child through noticing the bathroom need and going independently. If this is still hard talk to the teacher. Let them know that you are working on it but that they might need to give reminders.
  • Investigate naps 
    • Find out if your kindergarten program has afternoon naps. Many don't anymore. If not, start weening your child from the afternoon nap in August, or alter the schedule so that the nap is in the late afternoon when your child will be home from school.
  • Set up an early bedtime routine
    • Your child is going to be working like crazy in kindergarten. From constantly sharing toys, following directions, staying in line, sitting in a seat, and exercising all that impulse control your child will need every ounce of energy possible. In mid August start preparing the clear night time routine with a good 7:30 or 8:00 bedtime to guarantee that your child will be well rested for school.
  • Set up a calm morning routine
    • This summer start setting up calm morning routines to get everyone out of the house smoothly. When your child has a rough morning at home it can stay with him/her all day. Practicing those morning routines now will make it easier when school actually starts. 
  • Practice a good-bye routine.
    • Saying goodbye to your child on the first day, or even every morning can be difficult. Read "The Kissing Hand" by Audrey Pen and start practicing having your own kissing-hand routine. Having that in place will make the morning goodbyes easier and less traumatic.

It's going to be an AMAZING year! Your child is going to grow in ways you didn't think possible. You're going to hear crazy stories about the inner workings of kindergarten. 50% will be true, 30% will be what your child WANTS to be true, and 20% will be grounded in reality with some extra details added in. You're going to watch your child want to wash his/her hands the way "Miss Miller taught me" even if it is the same exact way you've been trying to get your child to wash his/her hands for five years. You're going to hear new songs, hear about new books, hear the same classmates' names over and over again, and hear the phrase, "Miss Miller says...." until you think you're head will explode. You will get art project after art project long after your fridge is full. If all goes well you'll have a happy, independent, excited five year old whose ready for their next 12+ years of schooling.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

All children can learn...

"Research only supports the mantra 'all children can learn' if we add the phrase, 'but some will need more time and support than others' " (Dufour, 2012, pg 60).

Food for thought.

Are they learning? How do you know?

Our assigned summer reading at my new school is "The School Leader's Guide to Professional Learning Communities at Work" by Richard and Rebecca DuFour. Although the concept of Professional Learning Communities (PLC) isn't new to my district, I've only worked at schools beginning the PLC process through a top-down initiative (top being from the county more than the principals themselves). I've seen it put into place with the reasoning "The county says we have to do this" which results in a lot of "how can we make it LOOK like we're doing this?"* I'm excited to see how a PLC forms in a brand new environment where it is not coming in as a mandate to change to the current norm but instead as a "Let's work together to make this happen so our kids will learn."

In the reading so far what I'm the most struck by is the focus on results. Not on end-of-year test scores but on monitoring student learning as a team and then immediately making adaptations to instruction. It's what we've been doing in special education for awhile now- taking constant data and altering instruction based on what the data tells us.

What I find the most powerful is the constant reminder that it's about them- not us. It's about whether or not they learn the material, not how well our lesson went, what new and inventive teaching techniques we're using, how quiet our children are during the lesson, how cute our centers are, or how well managed our classroom is. Granted- most of those things need to be in place, but that shouldn't be our focus. Our focus is on the kids- what they are learning and what the're not learning and what we can change in our school environment to increase their achievement.

I think the most powerful factor that goes into creating successful teaching teams that are willing to work together to analyze data is trust. Teachers have to be willing to come to team meetings to say, "this didn't work for me", or "Johnny still hasn't learned x". On teams where teachers don't trust each other, or where teachers are constantly vying to be seen as the "best" teacher, there is little motivation for teachers to share their struggles with one another. Teachers have to trust that eyes won't roll or colleagues won't just dismiss their concerns by saying, "Well if your classroom management was better...".

I'm nervously looking forward to watching this year open and see how we work toward building trust with one another and then get down and dirty with our data.

*I actually think my kinder team at the Think-Tank did an awesome job with this concept in math. Granted we all collectively groaned whenever anyone tried to use the lingo from the county, but overall we adapted to the spirit of the law if not the letter. In putting our heads and data together we made awesome progress with our kinders' math abilities.

The power of choice?

As a classroom teacher I always saw an almost magical aspect to offering 6 year olds a choice. Even when asking, "Which area of the room do you want to clean up?" usually yielded more motivated cleaners than when I simply assigned areas. When dealing with children who refuse to comply with directions I often give them a choice, "Carpet or chair?" in order to get them to follow the broader instruction of come sit with the group.

I've been doing a lot of thought on school choice lately. I used to be 100% against it. I believed that we need to fix the schools that exist, not allow the parents with resources to find better schools to flee their neighborhood schools, forcing children whose families can't navigate the system to be left behind. I thought school choice only further created a sense of us vs them- parents who cared enough to make the choice and those who did not.

And of course I still think we need to fix all schools and I hate to think of parents fleeing a school leaving behind only those students whose parents don't have the resources or the knowledge to look for other schools.

But after the last couple years I've started to wonder if maybe school choice wouldn't be the worst thing. It seems that we're dealing with more and more frustrated parents- and not just at the Think-Tank. Teachers I know from all over the country are struggling with parents who, although otherwise rational and caring people, are suddenly making unreasonable demands on their schools.

I love working with parents. I love meeting with parents and I welcome feedback-positive or negative- on how things are going. I am more than happy to listen to concerns about how things are going in my classroom and discuss ways we could make it better.

What I find has been happening lately- and again, not just to teachers at my school but teachers I know all over- is that parents don't want a discussion about what's best for their child. They don't want to express concerns and listen to how we plan to improve the situation. They want to dictate what happens inside the classroom. Despite teachers and principals explaining current research, best practice, and showing data that clearly shows a method is teaching the child to read, a few parents refuse to be open to suggestions from the school. In these parents' minds it seems to have become the school vs the parent and no matter what the school says or does it is not going to change the parent's mind.

Most parents are not like this, of course, and again, as educators we usually love interacting with parents. Even when we're being challenged we can come out of the situation creating a better education for the child. Every parent should advocate for their child.

But a few parents walk into the building already assuming that everything we do or say is wrong without listening or being open to a discussion.

It's for those parents that I wonder if school choice would create a better situation. Not that it would mean that the parents could just leave, but I think the mere concept of choice would improve the situation. Listening to those parents I think that what they are really saying is that they feel powerless. This is their child, their baby. The Mama Bear instinct we all have kicks into high gear and they want to guarantee that they are doing everything in their power for their child who currently spends a significant amount of time away from them. So they stand up and speak out for their child. As they should- as long as it is a discussion where both parties are open to feedback.

I can't help but wonder if these parents had a choice in where to send their children- if they had actively chosen where to send their little ones- would they be more willing to listen to teachers? Would there be more respect for teachers and administrators if these were the teachers/administrators that came with their choice. Would more reasonable conversations and discussions occur since the parents were feeling as though they'd already had a say in the conversation when they originally made the choice?

I have no idea, as I have never worked at a school where parents were able to choose. I can't help but wonder though, if the mere power of choice would create a more friendly teacher/parent relationship.

And since we can't magically create school choice what can we do with parents who feel they are "stuck" in our schools? How can we give them the right amount of choice and voice in our classrooms so that we are able to have conversations around what is best for their child?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Worth Reading

Yes, it's The Onion, but that doesn't make the sentiment any less true.

(Read the dissenting opinion)

Term Limits

Last night I had dinner with a few of my favorite educators. As we lamented the state of our field and the poor decision making from those in the central office that keeps us from doing our jobs one teacher said, "Working at central office should be like congress- three years in and that you have to go back into the schools for a few years."


Those making decisions for us, planning curriculum, managing how we should spend our time and money should never be more than three years away from school experience.

There is the part where we want them to remember exactly how hard the jobs is- they should never forget what it is like to go 8 hours without going to the bathroom, balancing frustrated parents, active kids, testing and curriculum. But really it's more than just that.

How much time is wasted every year as individual schools and individual teachers try to take what has been handed to them by the central office and mold it into a working reality? If those in the central office in a district were in closer touch with what happened inside schools could we save on all of that time? If we were to remove the frustration between the central office and teachers- what more could be done if we were working together as a team?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Breaking up is hard to do

Saying goodbye to a class at the end of the year is similar to a break up. Some years it is a release. You end the year with wonderful memories, knowing that it is time for everyone to move on. Everyone's grown and progressed and it's time for new adventures. You knew it was coming, you were prepared, you said your goodbyes and made amends with the inevitable. You'll still remain friends and you know the break is best for everyone involved.

Then there are the years that leave you with a sense of absolute sorrow and loss. You knew it was coming but you didn't really process what had to happen. It was such a good relationship- so much was right. You just thought it could last forever. Months after the break happens you still find yourself wistfully wondering what they are up to, waking up from a dream about them and then suddenly realizing it was just a dream, nothing more, you won't be going in to see them today. Wondering if they are thinking about you too, and if they would think you were absolutely crazy if you called them. No, don't call- put down the phone- everyone needs to move on.

This year was one of those years. I must think about those little ones everyday. Every time I hear "I've got a feeling" (which is a lot because the CD is stuck in my CD player) I am immediately transferred back to my classroom where I am laughing at their fabulous dancing skills. Rain makes me think of the day we had such a dramatic and scary thunderstorm that we all sat around the window talking about what the rain looked like and then we made rain tear-art pictures so we can use our nervous energy to tear paper into tiny pieces. Books I read to Little Lipstick make me wonder what Magical and Rock Star would say about the story. I plan lessons for them before I realize that I won't be teaching them again. I stumble across an empty container and think "this will be perfect for Brown Bear to store his puzzle pieces in!"

I'm a summer-time mess.

Seeing Magical once a week helps some. Seeing him happy, adjusting to his summer school class, moving on. It's time for me to do the same.

It's a good place to be, saying goodbye to an amazing class. But like all break ups, I am going to need to come to terms with my loss so that I am able to welcome another class with open arms. I need to make sure that the next batch of children isn't just a re-bound class, but an absolutely true class. Hmmmm, maybe I need to go round up some kids on the playground and have a mini-class one morning just so I can have my re-bound class and be ready to move on.

As the weeks go on I can feel my sadness beginning to transfer into nervous energy. I'm terrified of starting the new school, but excited. Give me a few more weeks and I'll be chomping at the bit to get back into the game. Bring me your new students, bring me the challenges, let's get this party started.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Concept of mind

Magical lied to me this week. 

On our weekly reading date he told me that his dad said I couldn't bring my baby to see him anymore (this week Baby L was safety playing with her grandmother and not terrorizing Magical). His mom shook her head over his and said, "he's making that up", obviously embarrassed that her son would tell such a story. Personally, I was thrilled.

Telling stories, or lying isn't something many of the kids in last year's class did. Well, some of them did, but for others the concept was beyond them. The concept that you are able to know something and someone else doesn't know it is a level of thinking that some of my children hadn't developed yet, although their typically developing peers had. For the most part it made getting to the bottom of classroom squabbles easy- I just turned and asked someone who wouldn't even think of lying because they didn't know that they could lie. Rock Star was always a go-to in a case like this. She'd help me get to the bottom of it as long as she felt like talking that day. Magical was another, although he always began with the truth and then veered off into discussing his robot. (That pesky robot still did not follow the rules that robots are not allowed in school...)

I'd often forget that Rock Star did not have a concept of mind yet until we would read Goldilocks, one of her favorite stories. When the bears come home and question why their house is a disaster Rock Star loses it. "Goldilocks!" she would squeal, with obvious frustration at the bears. She knows it was that sneaky Goldilocks, why don't they? She got particularly frustrated when we read a version of the book where the bears decide it must be aliens or monsters before they find out the truth. She absolutely could not stand that they would think something that wasn't true. 

We did puppet shows with the story but unless Rock Star was Goldilocks she could not make it through the final scene when the bears come home. If she was playing the part of a bear she'd immediately skip to the bedroom scene and yell "Goldilocks!" not giving anyone the chance to say "Whose been eating my porridge?", or even "Whose been sleeping in my bed!"  Sometimes even when she was Goldilocks she'd yell "Goldilocks!" and have her puppet pop out of bed and run away the minute the bears came home. She knew the answer was there, so why go on pretending? 

Magical has always been able to make up stories, but the actual concept of deceit was not something I'd ever seen him practice. It's not that I want to be lied to, or that I want to encourage the practice. But I couldn't help inwardly celebrate that Magical had found this new skill. It is a sign of growth and development. Now we just have to make sure he uses it for good...  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Pupil size & saliva help diagnosis autism?

This is fascinating.

My poor daughter. Now I'm going to studying her pupils for signs of autism. There should be a support group for children of special educators. I'm pretty sure she's going to need it when she's older.

Student Surveys and Teacher Evaluations?

I've read a lot of posts and articles lately about teachers being evaluated by their students and having it count as a part of their formal evaluations. There is something appealing about having students take surveys on their teachers and I wish I could say I supported the idea, but frankly, when applied to teacher evaluations it makes me a bit queasy.

When I was a classroom teacher one of our guidance counselors conducted surveys with our students about how safe and happy our children felt in school. I loved the results she got from these surveys and even after she stopped the project I would ask her to come in and poll my class. The results told me so much about my own teaching and the environment I created for my class. Every summer I'd mull over the results and think about what I'd put into place that helped my class environment be strong and what I could do better the following year. Hearing what the kids thought led to some very powerful reflections.

My mother gave me the idea of asking students to write me a letter telling me one thing I could have done better and one thing I did well. It was hard to get them to reflect on what they would have changed to make our classroom better and I had to give them specific examples and the hard rule that they could NOT tell me that our room was perfect. For the most part I got a lot of "more recess" or "more games" but there were usually a few good comments mixed in with the "longer lunches". One student once told me she wanted more poems that didn't rhyme, another asked for more silly songs. One asked me to use a quieter voice when I was angry (how powerful is that?). I loved this exercise because it too taught me a lot about how my first graders saw my teaching.

But these surveys and letters were not a part of my evaluation. In some ways it would have been nice if they had been- for the most part they were positive and showed a happy, safe class environment. But let's be honest- they were from six and seven year olds. Most first graders LOVE their teachers. Even if they do not like school it is rare for them to not like the teacher as well. Of course, there are moments when they hate their teacher- especially immediately after they have been put into the "take a break" chair, or after they've been given an assignment that is "hard" and the teacher said, "I know you can do it, we can do hard things."

As a teacher it is not our job to be besties with our kids. We are the adults and we have to keep it that way for their safety and their education. If the surveys were a part of an official evaluation packet it would be easy to take the kids out to recess, give them Popsicles, play a few games and then hand out the survey. In those minutes everyone would think their teacher was the best. Alternatively, after giving a spelling assessment that kids deemed boring but was going to help inform critical instruction, kids would seem to be likely to rank their teachers lower.

I love the idea of giving children the surveys- I think it encourages them to become stake holders in their classroom environment and it is powerful feedback for teachers. But I do not think they should be considered as a part of teacher evaluations. Students' interest and academic intentions are not always the same thing and I think using student surveys as a method of reviewing teachers would open the door to unproductive teaching practices.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pictures into their worlds

On Friday one of my good friends from elementary school came over to show me pictures from her most recent trip to Africa. She'd been in Kenya in the Peace Corps a few years ago and she went back this year to see more of the continent and visit her old village.

My slight education obessession came through when the pictures I had the most questions about where not the amazing close-up shots she had of elephants, zebras, lions, and gorillas, but of the two schools she visited.

 I love looking at pictures of schools from other countries. I love getting a better understanding of where our students come from when they enter our US schools for the first time. What they consider the norm can be so different than what we expect. It's so important for us as teachers to remember where our students come from.

One school was built from what looked like small trees. The walls were walls in name only- they most likely didn't keep wind, rain, or anything else for that matter out. It looked as though the straw-pig and the stick-pig got together to build a school.The children sat on wooden benches that were clearly made from tree stumps that hadn't been moved when the trees themselves were cut down. The teacher was teaching with a baby hanging off her back in a sling. (OK, I know I complained about going back to work after 3 months but at least I didn't have to do it with the baby. And the baby looked pretty small so there is a good chance it was younger than 3 months.) The children looked happy and I was in awe staring at the picture knowing that some of my students at the think-tank who'd recently immigrated from Africa attended schools like that.

The other school in her old village in Kenya appeared to be in a more secure structure. The children sat in real desks and a number line hung from the ceiling- each number written on the back of a margarine tub top (which, by the way, is a brilliant idea- brightly colored red and yellow number line- if it was in America it would be on Pinterest so fast...). The students there also looked happy and engaged.

One school was self-sustaining and one relied heavily on outside support. The group she was with had brought a white board for the students at the heavily supported, which is great, she pointed out, until the dry erase markers dry up and then the board becomes completely and utterly useless. If you'd asked me to guess which school was self-sustaining I would have thought it was the first school, but no, it was the one with a more secure building, and teachers who obviously were being as creative as they can with what they had.

It was eye opening to see the difference between the schools and to think about how we need to support those we help- helping schools and people become self-sustaining is more meaningful than creating environments where people continue to rely on outside support.

I clearly was not there myself and I do not have all the facts, but it was fascinating to listen to her discuss the differences in the two schools. The schools served very different populations as well, which cannot be overlooked. The past two days I've found myself thinking about the vast differences in the pictures and what they represent.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Magical & the Baby*

On Wednesday Partner-in-Crime, Baby Lipstick and I all headed out to go to Magical's house to see if he would join us for the open library hours at school. Sadly his medicine requires him to stay inside his house so we weren't able to take him to the library but we were able to hang out for a bit, catch up and read some books.

The minute I walked in holding Baby Lipstick he yelled, "I told you not to bring it!"

Poor Magical. He had told me exactly that. Every time I told him I was going to bring my baby to his house, even before she was born, he told me "I don't think so". By the end of the school year he was tired of my teasing and no longer felt the need to be polite. "No!" he'd yell rather loudly whenever I brought up the subject.

So I knew I was bringing BL into a mine-field. Especially since she was late for her afternoon nap and I was pretty sure that if Magical yelled at her she'd start crying, which in turn would make him cry and/or yell louder. (Seriously, what was I thinking??)

 All things considered the visit actually went very well. Magical had moments where he seemed to enjoy her as long as they were not touching. I put her foot against his so we could look at longer/shorter (shameful, I know, still trying to teach curriculum in the summer). "It's touching me!" he yelled, yanking his foot away.

Baby L did surprisingly well. I've never really thought anything of the "expose them to things in the womb so they'll be comfortable with those things when they come out". She'd spent hours at his house when she was in the womb and it was almost as though you could tell it on Wednesday. She relaxed in his mother's arms and seemed completely comfortable despite her previous crankiness.

I have a great picture of them sitting on the couch together, far apart so that she wouldn't touch him. He was happy to show her his toys and his scooter as long as 1) she didn't touch anything he owned and 2) his mother did not kiss her. We knew it was time to go when his mother asked if Baby L could spend the night and Magical just about cried.

It was fairly selfish of me to bring Baby L to his house, but how could I not want to have two of my favorite little people in one place?

*I should start writing a series of children's books about Magical and his adventures- Magical and the baby, Magical and his stroller, Magical and the swings. They'd be amazing!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Freedom Day!

Today my little family and I went to a park near my school for a 4th of July picnic. The park was packed with families from the neighborhood- families from all over the world. Each little pavilion held a different family from a different country- at one pavilion a Pakistani family played cricket while nearby a family from Bolivia grilled hot dogs. Girls from Afghanistan ran across the grass in their saris along side the boys. On the playground the children from all the different pavilions commingled with a cacophony of languages, all reflecting the many different cultures that have come to live in the neighborhood near my school.

It was heart warming to watch all these families and different cultures celebrate the 4th of July as Americans.

Five or six years ago I received an email on the 4th of July from a parent who had been deported. The email wished me a Happy Freedom Day. Suddenly the day wasn't just about the barbecues, flags and fire works, but a reminder of the freedom we are truly lucky to have- a freedom people come from all over the world to experience.

Today's park was a true slice of Happy Freedom Day- not a day to celebrate all we think of as culturally American but a day to be thankful for the freedoms we have. Freedom to have many different groups of people from many different backgrounds all celebrating together peacefully in one small park.
I love America.