Friday, August 31, 2012

Things work out...

For two years I watched one of my students greet his little sister after school. She'd wait for him at the door of our school with her father and as soon as her brother came around the corner she'd grin with excitement. I loved watching how this little kindergarten boy treated his younger sister with such kindness and patience. I was usually so impressed with the little family that I couldn't help myself- I would go out to talk to her and his family. I frequently told him that I couldn't wait for his sister to come to kindergarten so I could teach her. He would shake his head, "She goes to a special school" he'd say every time.

"No, I want to teach her, I want her to come here!"  But she never came to our school and the family moved away. I hadn't even thought about them in a few years.

This morning I looked up to see the boy- now a fifth grader- walking into my classroom after a young girl with a sweet smile. It took 4 years but I finally get to teach the little girl I'd always watched in the afternoons. It felt like a wonderful sign that I am exactly where I am suppose to be. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012


One work day left until the first day of school and I'm trying not to panic. Since this is my first opening of the school year when I am a parent I feel like I'm a first year teacher again learning to balance it all. In the past I lived and breathed school for the first few weeks. I stayed late at work, got to work early, and when I was at home I frantically did paper and prep work.

Those options are out and I have no idea how I'm going to get it all done. I don't understand how it's possible to do this job working limited hours. I'm feeling disorganized and panicked- jobs are half-done, my to-do list grows longer by the minute and I keep thinking of all the things I've forgotten to do.

I met with parents today and listened to them talk about their babies and everything they want for them this school year. Their eyes teared up as they talked about what they were worried about, what they were excited about, and what they wanted for their children this school year. I listened to them and felt a sense of panic- can I give you want your child deserves while giving my own child what she needs? Is there time in the day to allow for that? 

How I feel. 
I honestly have no idea. I'm ridiculously excited about the school year but am equally nervous and frustrated in my need to sleep. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Teaching Impulse Control

For those of us in the primary grades teaching impulse control in the beginning of the year is essential. It can be a fun way to build community and get to know your kids, but it is also a way to survive the year. 

A few years ago I wrote about the games my partner-in-crime and I played with our kinders to teach impulse control and many people commented about other great impulse control games. Here's a list of some great impulse control games- what else do you recommend?

Teaching and Practicing Impulse Control:

  • Red Light, Green Light
  • Laughing Machine-  The teacher drops a tissue from in the air and the class laughs until the tissue hits the floor. This teaches them to control their laughing- something that comes in handy when you're ready to move on from a funny part of a book and they just aren't...
  • Freeze Dance- Play music and when you stop it the class stops dancing.
  • Freeze Game- Freeze when the teacher rings a bell or does what will be the classroom's quiet sign
  • Follow the Leader- The class simply walks behind the teacher while copying whatever motion she does. Which means their eyes have to stay on her. And not their friends, or their shoes, or the frog, or the window, or the bathroom. Every time a little one looks up and realizes the whole classroom is taping their heads while he is still taping his knees it's a reminder to the kiddo that he needs to look at the teacher (and a good sign to us teachers of who may need more help with impulse control!)
  • Doggy, Doggy, Where's Your Bone? One child sits in the center of the circle and is the "doggy" with an eraser or another object under the chair to act as the bone. The teacher silently points to another child to "steal the bone". Once the thief is sitting on top of the "bone" and it is completely out of sight the whole class sings, "Doggy, Doggy, where's your bone? Somebody stole it from your home?" The child in the center opens his eyes and has to guess who took it. The impulse control pieces comes when the whole class has to sit silently and not tell the 'dog' who took the 'bone'. Harder than you think for some of our little ones. (This also gives you an idea of who has a strong concept of mind and who can't keep a secret).
  • Four Corners-  one child is in the middle of the room with their eyes closed. Kids walk quietly to one corner of the room and the kid in the middle has to guess where the most kids are. Then those kids are out until there is only one person left. It's not exactly impulse control in theory but it can be if they are so excited they want to sprint to the corner! (Thanks Kelly with a Red Sox Cap!)
  • Into the river- This is where you have the class in a straight line and they are next to for example, a straight line on a basketball court. The line represents the river. The children can step either side of the line which represents the bank. You all start on one side and begin."Into the river, onto the bank , into the river, into the river." Those jumping off the line and onto the bank are out. Game continues. (Thanks Magpie!)
Alright- I know there are a million other ones out there- what are your go-to impulse control games??

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Parent's Hopes and Dreams

In the beginning of the year many of us ask our students to write their hopes and dreams for the coming school year. A part of the Responsive Classroom philosophy, Hopes and Dreams is a powerful tool for connecting with students and beginning a discussion on what rules a classroom needs in place if they want to accomplish their hopes and dreams.

We can't forget that our students' parents have hopes and dreams for them as well. This is the perfect time of year to ask parents what they want their children to learn by the end of the year, where they want their child to go with what they learn this year, and what they dream about long-term for their child.

A few years ago I worked with our awesome parent-liaison to put on a meeting for kindergarten parents. We gave the parents sticky notes and asked them to tell us what their hopes and dreams were for their child. The results were amazing and provided an excellent reminder that we are all hoping and dreaming for the same results with our children. It was a perfect way to open a conversation about how we need to form a team between the parents and the teachers in order to help our children achieve these dreams.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Two Miles

My old school and my new school are two miles apart. To be specific, 1.99 miles. I'm sure if you were walking and didn't have to deal with the roads you could do it in a mile and a half if not a mile. There is almost nothing separating them but one main road. A road that is essentially "the tracks" with my old school being "on the other side".

We met many of our kindergarten students at kindergarten orientation earlier this week. They were lively and excited, wide-eyed and smiling. On paper some of the students are the same as my old school. They are learning to speak English and they receive free or reduced lunch. Yet just from the few hours at orientation we could tell the difference. The way they followed directions, respected adult authority, talked to their peers, drew pictures, and wrote their names was vastly different than what I am use to from kindergarten students. In fact, it was what I would except to see from first graders at my old school.

While many of us were excited as we watched how capable these children were I couldn't help but feel devastated.  The difference is enormous and frankly, in the words of a five year old, just not fair.

The apartment building the new school is pulling from is a palace compared to the buildings my old school pulled from. The playground on the apartment's grounds is clean and bright. The balconies look well taken care of and large. A drive through the parking lot of the building looks like it would be a place I'd like to live. In fact, I've known teachers who lived there.

A drive through the parking lots where my students lived last year did not leave me with that same feeling of security. Inside their apartments are usually many families sharing too small a space- one family per room, a living room divided into two to create room for yet another family, with people constantly coming and going. There is even a sign people use on their balconies to let others know they have space on their floor and people can come in and sleep their that night. It is a different place. A different world.

On paper the families in these two apartment buildings look about the same. Yet as I watched the rising kindergartners draw and smile and follow directions the vast difference in their backgrounds was obvious. I wanted to cry for my old students. It is a reminder that the struggles in education isn't about race or what language they speak or where the children come from. It's not about what's on paper or what we see when we take a quick look at a classroom filled with children. To fully understand where children are coming from you must look deeper.

 It's about the resources their families have. If you come from a family who has the resources to live alone in an apartment, to have each adult only work one job so they are home to put you in bed at night, if your family can put you in daycare where you are talked to, loved, read to, and played with- if your family has someone to go to when they are frustrated with your five year old antics- if your family has the energy and time to put routines in place for you between their jobs and responsibilities- if your family can read in their native language, or has more than a fourth grade education in their native country, you are blessed no matter what your race, language, or poverty level.

As a teacher I became accustomed to the backgrounds of my students until they were normal. I stopped questioning or being shocked at what I heard and saw from my students. Watching these new students jolted me awake.  As I adjust to the new culture of these new students I have a feeling I'll be thinking about my former students frequently, wondering how they are doing.

How can two miles make such a difference?

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Many times when I'm chatting with another teacher about my new school their eyes get big. "I am SO jealous!" they exclaim. "It must be heaven."

The assumption in education is that any new building must be nicer than an old one. In many ways that's true. Some public school buildings have been around since the 50s. They are old and falling apart and were built in a time with different priorities. Still, a brand new public school building is still a public school building. It's still built by a school system on a budget. I'm not complaining- the new building is nice- but it doesn't mean that crickets aren't chirping in the corners or that there isn't water dripping through the tiles. Things happen, even in new buildings.

A school is really built by whose inside it- the dedication of the teachers and the smiles of the students. When I student taught I was in a building in the midst of a renovation gone wrong. The classrooms had been stripped of any paint on the walls and the floors were cold concrete, the tiles pulled up long ago. The ceiling tiles were also non-existent and the kids could look up and see all the wiring in the ceiling. Yet because of the dedication and determination of the teachers it was still a school.

There are some downsides of a brand new building. For one, we don't have the furniture collection older schools have. At the think-tank we thought we didn't have enough book shelves. Ha! When everyone's been issued the exact same shelves and those shelves were bought with precise math of how many go into each classroom (no storage room to rummage through for the previous years' discarded shelves) we have what's in front of us to work with. Same with the book collection- classroom libraries, the book room- only contain one year's order of books. Everything is new, but it also means we don't have the surplus of books and supplies older schools have.

I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining because the new building is beautiful. The staff is amazing and the energy is palpable. But a new building isn't going to automatically make it a great school. It's not about the building itself, it's about what happens inside the building. Are teachers energized and dedicated? Are the students motivated? Do they feel safe?

*All that being said I'm going to take a moment to brag about my storage. OMG they are building new schools with CABINETS. I have so many cabinets I don't know what to put in them. Places to put materials away from the kids' little hands- meaning that what's on the shelves in the classroom can purely belong to the kids themselves. Staring at the empty cabinets trying to decide what to put in them makes me giddy, I'll admit.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Assessing for Independence

How will you know if your students use what you taught them when you are not around?

If a student falls in the forest and there isn't a teacher around to see it, did the student perform?

Independence is what we strive for as teachers. We want our children to take the skills and knowledge we teach them and use it independently, away from us. We want them to apply what we teach them in reading when they are curled up in bed reading for fun. We want them to be able to read for fun. We want them to be able to use their math skills at the grocery store without thinking twice. We want them to be able to understand the way the world works scientifically so that they can understand the world around them when they are outside examining an ant away from any adult.

But most of our assessments are teacher directed. We take anecdotal notes on our reading conferences- when we are one on one or in a small group with students. We take running records- when we are one on one with students. We look at how they perform on tests and quizzes or during discrete trials- unnatural settings where we are probing their knowledge in a way the real world will never do. These are great ways to assess where they are with their knowledge in school- but how do we assess what they know when we are not around and how they will use that knowledge independently?

A literacy coach asked this question last week at one of our balanced literacy training and I haven't been able to get the question out of my head since. How do we assess that our students are able to use a skill independently? How do we know that when we teach them to make text-to-self connections that they do it even when we are not around at times when they are reading for fun? 

The literacy coach discussed strategies for doing this with upper-grade students during independent reading time when they are reading books for pleasure- not teacher assigned. Ideas like looking at whether or not students are they putting sticky notes in to mark words they don't understand. 

Once I started thinking about how I will know what my students do independently when unprompted by an adult I started to change how I thought about even presenting the material. Instead of wanting to know how they will read on a running record I started thinking about how they will read when I'm not over their shoulder. It completely changes the long-term goal.

Once I realized that it changed my long-term mindset I was almost ashamed of myself. The long-term goal never actually changed. Of course I teach for independence. We all do- it's why we are paid to do what we do- not to teach kids to take a test, but to give kids skills and knowledge to help them be successful in life. But we haven't been assessing for that. 

It takes creativity, patience, and a dedication to being a "kid watcher" to assess for independence. It takes building a classroom environment where you can release responsibility to your kids so that you have time to sit back and notice what they are doing when you are not telling them what to do. It means reshaping how we think about assessments and those independent activities- how can we structure independent activities so that it shows us where the children are and where they need to go next?

I'm excited and challenged by this way of thinking. For kids like mine, for whom independence is essential, it is an excellent question to always be asking myself- "How will I know they can do this when I am not around?"

Friday, August 24, 2012

Breathing, breathing, breathing, panic

On Thursday morning my aid and I smugly discussed how our room was pretty ready to go. We still needed to get things on the walls, but everything was organized, unpacked, and set up. We were in good shape.

Three hours later I was frantically scavenging for boxes to pack all of my things in.

Three hours after that our well-organized room had been hastily packed into boxes and piled into the middle of the now empty, no longer set-up classroom.

Eight hours later I woke up in a cold sweat thinking about all I have to go to get ready for September 4th, the smugness of Thursday morning mocking me. 

When we found out we could move rooms we were ridiculously excited (and still are). It puts our room right in the middle of the kindergarten and first grade rooms- the perfect place for a room with primarily kindergarten and first grade students. Our kids will easily be able to join their same-age peers and then come back to us when it's more appropriate for them to be in a self-contained setting. We'll be able to be a part of morning assemblies and whole class activities. We won't be finagling our way up and down the elevator multiple times a day. 

The new room is a huge relief. I hadn't even been letting myself think of how inconvenient the previous room was- I'm flexible and I'm willing to work with anything (almost). But the new room is 100% better for the kids.

Which is what I keep telling myself in my moments of utter panic when I think of all the things I have to do to re-set up the room. Today we don't have to be at school but daycare is open so I'd given myself a day to breath. I have a massive stack of books I planned on reading by the pool, uninterrupted. I had a craft project or two I hoped to get to. I announced to my husband that it was "Mrs. Lipstick Day" and I would not be using this day to do any chores- it was a celebration of being alone. "Mrs. Lipstick Day" will have to occur some other time... but that's OK. It's absolutely what is best for kids. In two weeks I won't be thinking about losing "Mrs. Lipstick Day", I'll be thinking about how great it is to have my kids right next door to their peers.

One day I'll have an organized room again...
We can do hard things!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pictures to Parents

Almost everyday since I've been back at work my daycare provider I've checked my email to find a picture of my daughter from my daycare provider. She's busy working, laughing, or seriously looking at something- something showing me a quick look into the day. They aren't the best pictures (it's hard to catch a girl on the go) but I can't tell you how much I LOVE them.

Every time I see them I make a mental note to do that for the parents I work with as well. They don't have to be perfect pictures, but I need to take the time to show parents what's going on in our room and what their kids are doing. I love these snapshots into my child's day.

Friday, August 17, 2012

More Change

SO, I've now switched from being a "non-categorical" teacher to having my own classroom for students with Intellectual Disabilities. I'm ridiculous excited (I'll even have one of my kiddos from last year) and am extremely nervous. I had four students in my classroom last year who had an Intellectual Disability. They were all very different and a lot of fun.

I'm blessed that the aid in the room has a wealth of experience with children with Intellectual Disabilities, particularly when it comes to behaviors. I'm already feeling guilty that she's getting an IA salary with her vast amount of knowledge and my own learning curve.

This year just got harder and more exciting. I'm already plotting our cooking, our voice-threads, our read alouds and praying that I somehow make it through the year.

Stay with me as I navigate all of this...

Are there any of you out there who are Intellectual Disabilities teachers? What resources do you recommend?

Our classroom has NO BOOKS. What sort of classroom library do you recommend? Any suggestions on where I can get good sets of children's books? I left most of my personal library at my old school because I was under the impression that I'd have a brand new classroom library, but they didn't order any for our rooms. Hopefully we'll get this remedied, but in the mean time- suggestions on good texts and cheap places to get them?

Teacher Language- When not to talk

"Never say anything a child could say"

As the presenter at our math staff development said these words I let the simple brilliance of it sink in.

Never say anything a child could say.

How many times do we give them their words, rush to fill in instruction, or shorten our wait time becomes it fits our needs? 

Or becomes the silence and the awkwardness of allowing a child to say it makes us uncomfortable? 

Or because silence and waiting makes us feel like we aren't in control? 

In my own practice in special ed I'm going to extend it to "Never say or DO anything a child could say or do."

Even with my almost a year old daughter (how on earth did that happen?) we are trying to let her do her own things. She likes to turn on and off the lights. It takes longer to leave a room, but it makes her feel like she is more in control. She likes to help buckle her car seat, which takes a lot longer when we're doing it together, but it lets her be a part of the getting-in-the-car routine. So much of her life is being carted around from here to there, it's important to give her an opportunity to be involved in her environment.

The same goes for our kids. If we do and say things for them they'll be more passive in their environments and what's worse, they will believe that we WANT them to be passive in their environments. They'll be less likely to feel as though they belong and are control in their environments.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Change is good?

After a month at home cuddling with mommy my little one is not pleased to be back at daycare. Parting every morning is like something out of a disaster movie where the mother and child are being wrenched apart by an earth quake. Her fingers dig into my arm as though if she lets go she'll never see me again, her arms tighten around mine in order to fight the jaws of life that are coming to seperate us and she screams and cries as though she is working on winning an Emmy. I kiss her and leave, acting like this is all OK and that I'm perfectly fine but inside I am DYING. I get in my car and pull away, waving to her from the Hello, Goodbye Window my daycare provider has in place (which I love). By the time I'm in my car she's usually fine but that's when I start to cry.

This working-mom thing is rough.

In retrospect, July was a story-book month. Little Lipstick and I waking up on our own time, reading books before breakfast, taking walks, cuddling, chasing (or terrorizing) the cat, and playing with balls. In reality though, I was not a good stay at home mom. I love my daughter to pieces, but God bless all you stay at home mommies.  It is HARD work. You never feel accomplished because you are at home all day everyday and at home there is always something more you could do. Then, God forbid, you check Pinterest and see what all the other fabulous mommies/homemakers are doing to make their houses amazingly organized and you just want to jump off a bridge.

On one particular day I met Mr. Lipstick at the door, handed him the baby and just left. I went to Target with no purpose, bought a lot of things I absolutely did not need, just trying to soak in the air of baby-freedom around me.

So I know, I know, I am not meant to be a stay at home mom. That doesn't make the drop off any easier. In fact, maybe it makes it worse because I am CHOOSING to say goodbye to my child this way everyday. I am doing this to her- I am the cause of the screams. I feel like a terrible human being.

It's particularily rough right now because I'm starting a new school. Kids won't come for two and ahalf more weeks, I still don't know exactly what my role is and I'm working with amazing people I just don't know very well. They are great, but I worked with my friends at the think-tank longer than I was with my college friends. It's hard to transition from family.

It looks like I won't have my own classroom this year. I'll be doing inclusion, which I've done before and love. It's good for the kids and it's good for the special ed team. It's just
disapointing to discover I won't be doing what I thought I'd be doing. Last year was absolute magic. Leaving Baby Lipstick everyday was OK when I was going to teach Rock Star, Magical, Brown Bear and the rest of our awesome team.

I'm sitting in an empty room that hasn't yet been chrisened with kids. I don't know what grades I'll be working with, what kids I'll be in love with, and what teachers I'll be collaborating with. Instead I can only think of the finger nails digging into my arm and the tears running down my little one's cheeks.

It will be OK. Students will get here, I'll get to know my colleagues, I'll find my place, and the drop offs will get easier. My day care provider has been amazing at emailing me happy pictures of my daughter everyday so I know it doesn't take long in the morning for her to get happy.

Deep breath. Change is good. Hard but good.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Myth of the Super Teacher

This is excellent, totally worth watching.

ht: Angela Watson

Mind in the Making- Perspective Taking

Most of us are about to get very busy trying to develop classroom communities that can solve conflicts peacefully. We're all about to spend time coaching children through problem solving skills in hopes that doing this can minimize any physical and verbal aggression in the classroom that is oh-so-fun to deal with when you have a million other things to do.

Mind in the Making shares research by Larry Aber of NYU that shows a focus on problem solving isn't actually the solution to the childhood frustrations that get aggressive (Galinsky, 87). Before a child is ready to use problem solving skills he or she must first be able to take the other person's perspective and identify the person's intent. 

When some children get into conflicts with peers they immediately assume a hostile attribution bias, where no matter what they are convinced the other child is out to get them. As educators we can help these children stop and go through what Aber calls an appraisal process. We can help train our students to to step back and interpret the actions of others before making basic assumptions.

As teachers we can help children go through attributional retraining (Aber's term), where we help children look for clues in order to interpret another person's intentions and take that person's perspective. We need to help them realize that they do not immediately have enough information to appropriate assess the situation and must consider more information before they can determine "whether it was an an accident or a hostile act" (87). 

As an early educator this is huge- before we can begin to help children identify problem solving steps we first must help them take perspectives and appropriately assess the situations around them. It fits in with what Responsive Classroom teaches, as well as the Patterns of Thinking theory. Taking perspective is essential for children to be able to understand and interact with the world around them (and here in DC it would be nice if some adults tried it as well...)

One of my awesome former (*sniff*) colleagues read this chapter and immediately got to work on figuring out how to include perspective taking in her beginning of the year curriculum. She found this list of books that are recommended to use with teaching these skills. I'm excited to dive into this list and see how I can interweave them into my existing curriculum. 

Any other books out there that are perfect for teaching perspective taking?

Monday, August 13, 2012

The start of a Professional Learning Community

I feel I have an apology to make to my former coworkers. I certainly never helped us go towards a Professional Learning Community* model. I was a part of the gossip resistance, the groaning, the moaning, the occasional (or not so occasional) eye rolling. I'm not proud of it. My previous notions of a PLC were that it would take away our creativity in the classroom, force us to have unnatural and unfocused conversations, and would treat us like technicians instead of professionals. I did not keep these opinions to myself.

To be fair to myself I'd heard friends at other schools share horrifying experiences of such events, and I'd experienced a bad PLC community at the first school I worked in. So I wasn't completely pulling things out of my rear end. But I could have given it more of a chance than I did when it came to the Think-Tank.

So, yeah, I'm really sorry.

Today at the new school we sat together from 9 until after 3 discussing the ins and outs of a Professional Learning Community. That's a long time to sit in one room with a group of people you've just met. Yet it went by relatively quickly and I don't necessarily know how you'd build a PLC without putting that time in up front. Now that I understand the thought behind the process, the why behind the how, I realize how wrong I was with every one of my assumptions.

The idea behind a PLC isn't to create a top down structure that makes sure every teacher is teaching the same thing in every classroom in the exact same manner every day. The idea is to create a team of people who are capable of coming together as professionals, identifying goals, analyzing data, looking for creative solutions, trying new techniques, sharing their thoughts, ideas, successes and failures together under the overarching umbrella goal of ensuring that all children learn.

It is doing daily action research in the classroom. It is a constant dialogue of how we can improve. It is collaborating openly and honestly outside of classroom walls. It is being willing to share great ideas, successes, and struggles with colleagues.

I'm not exactly sure what we'd been running from because that's exactly how every educator I know wants to teach.

I'm going to try to chronicle my own PLC journey as I continue to understand it and watch it go from a theory into practice. It will be my thoughts and my interpretation of what's been presented, so please don't read this as the true PLC method.

*If you're not familiar with PLCs you can learn more here or just substitute the phrase "really collaborative team" whenever I use PLC.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Starting the year off with their full attention

This is the first picture my mother sent me from her new camera phone. To anyone else it is merely a creepy toad hiding in our backyard. To our family it is a sign that summer is ending and it's time to go back to school.

My mother is a second grade teacher. Every year, if possible, she scours our backyard in hopes of catching both a toad and a frog for her second graders. She doesn't keep them all year, but keeps them for the first bit of school to fully grab their attention. From there her beginning of the year builds itself. She can embed all her beginning of the year lessons among Frog and Toad read-alouds, discussions of comparing and contrasting the frog and toad, writing about frogs and toads, and discussions about how to take care of each other in the classroom (it can be easier for children to discuss how to take care of animals than how to take care of each other, then you help them generalize).

But let's be honest- the real edge the living, breathing frog and toad have in her room is that she teachers seven year olds. For a moment pretend you are seven. You just spent your first fantastic summer as an independent, curious, and capable child. You rode bikes, swam, played outside, got dirty, built forts, and had play dates where adults were not breathing down your back. It's over, and you're headed back to school to wait in lines, sit quietly, raise your hand, and read books when you'd really rather be using your new found seven year old independence.


You walk into your classroom to discover that your teacher has a frog. 

And a toad.

A real-live, disgusting toad. 

A cute, sleek frog.

The types of outdoor treasures your mother still didn't let you bring into the house even with your savvy seven year old ways.

And just like that, her students are hooked.

Although I am my mother's daughter I have never found myself following in her amphibian footsteps, even when she's offered to catch them for me. It involves making sure you have the food to feed them while you keep them in captivity, and, well, that's quite alright. But I love that she does it. 

It's the perfect reminder of how to start off the year on a good foot. We don't necessarily need to have pets in our classroom to start the year off this way. Reaching our students where they are- helping them feel comfortable in our classrooms and excited to be in school will go a long way in allowing us to create the classroom communities that will set the tone for the rest of the school year. We're competing with their summer breaks, with video games, swimming pools, the ice cream truck, new school clothes, and seeing their friends again. The beginning of the year is essential in building community with our students- even if it's merely having a welcoming and warm classroom, sending postcards to the children before they enter the school, or starting the year with stellar read-alouds, those first few teacher actions set the stage for all the amazing things that will happen in the coming months. 

*She got the phone in order to finally receive cute pictures of Baby Lipstick like the rest of the family. I sent her a few this morning in order to welcome her to the picture-texting family. This is what I got in return.

Dr. Jean blogs?? Why didn't you tell me?

Um....  why I am just now stumbling upon this blog? Where have I been?

Although I have a love-hate relationship with Dr. Jean I certainly want to follow every move she makes.

(love in that I couldn't teach without her awesomeness, hate because I spend every waking moment trying to get her songs out of my head...)

Organized on Facebook!

After an amazing 24 hours of complete immersion in the world Ed-Blogging at Bellwether's conference I decided to bite the bullet and create a Facebook page for OC. Hopefully this will become the type of place that allows for more interaction between us as educators so that we can discuss ideas and challenges in a more natural manner.

Like us here:

I am always in awe at the great educators from across the world that I've been in touch with through this blog and I hope this will connect everyone so that you are making connections with each other as readers as well.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Trying not to totally geek out...

I am currently sitting in the ballroom of a swanky hotel in downtown DC with a sampling of teacher bloggers from around the country. We're gathered for a day of writing workshops to improve our blogging to improve how we get our stories out and increase our voice in the education debates. When I came across the application for this event I was shocked that any organization would hold such an event- but I wasn't about to question it. Just from the conversations I had at the reception last night I am trying to hold myself back from completely geeking out over the other educators and bloggers in the room. Hopefully I'll hold myself together enough to sound semi-intelligent...

Friday, August 10, 2012

What can we do to rebuild a broken relationship?

I've been laminating about the broken relationship between parents and the school system last week, asking for opinions on how we can reach out to parents who absolutely do not trust us. Yet I forgot to ask the very people who are the key piece to that relationship- the parents. A few days ago anonymous kindly took the time to type her frustrations with the public schools. Her concerns are valid and are an excellent reminder of what we need to be mindful of as we go back to school. She (I'm assuming it's a she but I could be wrong) stated that schools should be transparent and make information readily available to parents, be mindful of parents' time, minimize the hoops parents have to jump through to get information on what is going on in school, and to not use children as a way to fundraise for the school. Take time to read her comments, my summary isn't doing them justice.

As a teacher without a school age child of my own I really appreciate this perspective. We need to know where the problems are before we can fix them. Little things like working on consistent communication may make a big difference.

 There are places where the relationship between the school and the parents is completely broken. If we are going to improve education for our students it is essential that we repair this relationship. We must operate as a team with parents and we have to figure out a way to do that.

So I'm asking you to take the same time that anonymous did and let me know-

What did a school do that caused you to lose trust that the school was looking out for your child's best interest?

What do schools do that let you know your child is in good hands?

What do you want to see out of your schools?

What can schools do to rebuild your trust?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Starting from scratch

I'm transferring from the Think Tank to a brand new school. The newness is palpable- wide, empty hallways, furniture trickling in, an empty library begging to be filled with books, classrooms that have never been inhabited by children. Right now it's a big, empty, building that reflects the promise of a school but isn't there yet- how can you have a school without children?

In a meeting today one of our administrators stopped us to remind us that we are starting from scratch. We don't have to do anything because "that's the way we've always done it". Instead we get to refocus, step back and look at where we're all coming from, reflect on our previous experiences, identify what works and what doesn't work for kids, and then create systems and practices that are truly meaningful.

It's an amazing opportunity- to be able to stop and question every practice we've ever used or been taught and to ask ourselves- what is the meaning behind this? Why am I doing this? How is this best for kids? What's holding it back from being more effective?

It's a blank building with blank walls, empty classrooms, and a fresh start. A chance for us, as educators, to step into practices that truly mean something.

It's not going to be easy, but I have a feeling we're all going to grow as educators in ways we aren't even sure exist yet.

I can't wait.

School Cultural and the Irreplaceables

I've read a few blog posts on the idea of the Irreplaceables- schools who lose teachers who are irreplaceable because there isn't anything in place to keep good teachers around. One post is from a New York City teacher who writes honestly about why she left teaching, citing a lack of a clear career path, feeling stuck and a lack of recognition of success.

Today someone showed me a Gallup poll from 2002- one I actually came across my first year teaching (it is what made me realize I needed to leave the school where I started teaching). The poll lists 10 indicators of a positive work environment. These include:

1. Know what is expected
2. Have materials and equipment to do job correctly
3. Receive recognition each week for good work
4. Have supervisor who cares and pays attention
5. Receive encouragement to contribute and improve
6. Can identify person at work who is "best friend"
7. Feel mission of organization makes them feel like their jobs are important
8. See people around them committed to doing good job
9. Feel like they are learning new things (getting better)
10. Have opportunity to do their job well

- Buckingham & Coffman, 2002, Gallup. Taken directly from power point on positive behavior supports. 

The chart was shared with us to talk about what kids need to be ready to work hard in schools, but it got me thinking about the Irreplacable teachers and the problem of retention.

The general make up of the profession means that it can be difficult for these ten items to become true. Many times teachers do not have the materials or equipment to do their jobs correctly. More importantly, schools are set up with a few main administrators in charge of overseeing many, many teachers under them. It can be one principal and two assistant principals for over a hundred teachers. With that sort of management system of course teachers are not being recognized weekly for good work, and they cannot all feel they have a supervisor who pays attention. It's possible that it can happen, but administrators have a lot on their plates. Would structuring schools differently so that the administrators are not the only ones supervising staff make a difference? Should someone besides from the administrators be in charge of giving recognition for good work and giving encouragement to contribute and improve?

Then there is the whole perception of the lazy and incompetent public school teachers- with a general public view of teachers as cogs in the system it can be hard to feel that the job is important (of course I'd argue that it is the most important job out there, but that's just me...).

I think #7 and #8 might be the most important though, at least to me. I'm willing to overlook a lot if I feel that what I am doing is important and that I work with others who are equally committed. I was blessed to work with a staff like that at the think tank and I can already tell that I'm going to be blessed that way once again.

Perhaps what is most important to keeping those "irreplaceable" teachers is for schools and their communities to have cultural shifts. I don't think we need to start labeling "good teachers" and "bad teachers" anymore than law firms and pediatrician practices label "good doctors" and "bad lawyers" but we do all need to work in an environment where we are respected, encouraged, and coached and we all need to work with others that take our jobs seriously.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tangible rewards- keeping us honest?

Today I participated in a discussion on how to develop a school-wide positive behavior system. When we got into the discussion of tangible rewards (giving children something- a sticker, a prize, a ticket- for doing something right) I started to cringe. My Responsive Classroom background makes me shudder thinking of tangible rewards for school-wide programs although I know they can be useful. I use them on an individual level, but feel wary of whole-school programs.

Then the discussion facilitator said something I hadn't thought of before.

The tickets aren't for the kids, she explained. The tickets are for the adults. They serve as a tangible reminder to us that we need to praise good behavior. They keep us honest and hold us to the 4:1 ratio where we should be commenting on 4 or 5 positive behaviors for every negative behavior we comment on.

I'd never looked at it that way before, but it's true. When I am working with a behavior plan that involves giving a child something- stickers or "caught-you-being-good" slips, I have a tangible reminder that I need to give something out. When working with some kids I like to cover my hand in small reward stickers. My personal goal for the morning is to give out all the reward stickers so that I can go to lunch un-stickered. If I don't distribute all the stickers then I know I was doing something wrong.

When she put it that way using tangible objects to reward behavior suddenly made sense and gave me a whole new perspective.

Of course, when using such reward systems one has to understand the how and why behind it and to be sure to implement it so that it does not become bribery. Whatever the object is must still be about facilitating a positive interaction between the student and teacher where the student understands the reason behind the reward. While such programs still make me a bit nervous, I have a much better understanding of their purpose now.

I love when my thinking gets shifted.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Number Sense (Mind in the Making)

Chapter Four in Mind in the Making covers the essential skill of making connections. Much of the first part of the book that discussed early language development and early literacy is supported in other research I've read or in literacy training I've had. I felt like I was just reading another version of the same story.

Yet as she begun to discuss the importance of making connections in terms of mathematical development and supporting number sense I realized how little training and exposure I've had to early math development. 

If you asked me right now to write an entire paper on how children develop reading skills- starting from birth on- I could without looking at any references. But until today I could not come close to doing that for math. It shocked me a bit to realize how little I've read about early development of number sense.

Yet Galinsky discusses research that shows babies as young as five month show an understanding of basic mathematical principals and have a sense of magnitude. 

Why is this the first time I'm hearing about this?

As the chapter goes on she discusses all the activities that can be done to support this developing early number sense and help children make the connections between their understanding of counting to identifying amounts with numerals.

Here's the thing- Over the years we've noticed that the children at the think-tank have trouble with number sense. This year in our end of year survey the staff asked for more help with teaching number sense. It's something that we've identified school-wide as an area of concern. When I worked with third graders who needed remediation in math a few years ago I was surprised at how their number sense hadn't seemed to improve from first grade (where I was used to working with children). They didn't seem to have any better understanding of number sense than they had two years earlier, they just knew how to do more things with numbers. Not having a strong number sense background certainly slowed them down in everything from fractions to multiplication. 

Reading Galinsky's chapter makes me think that we need to re-examine how we teach number sense in the early grades. The importance of sorting, playing board games, and building on executive functioning skills like working memory, self-control and cognitive flexibly (180) can't be overlooked. In letting our end of quarter assessments drive our instruction we've been focused on the end and not the means. What we've been doing is great for getting kids to pass kindergarten assessments, but we're not getting them ready to go beyond that. If our kids are still counting on their fingers in order to add and subtract double, digit addition is about to  make their lives really, really uncomfortable. We've skipped an essential step.

Galinsky lists activities that can be done with two year olds and older to help bolster their mathematical thinking and connection making. Many of these tasks are probably done in most middle and upper class households as daily games, simple sorting and playing activities. From my experience with the families I've worked with, few of these games and activities are being done in houses with families in poverty. 

As teachers who are getting five year olds whose understanding of mathematics has been hindered by their limited exposure to these basic number-sense tasks we have a lot to make up for. 

One of the tasks Galinsky writes about is a Reversed Categorization Task (179) where children are asked to sort one way (mommy's toys go here, baby's toys go here) and then switch it, asking the mommy toys to go where the baby toys went earlier. She states that this task requires three different types of executive function- working memory to remember the rules, self control to follow the rules, and cognitive flexibility to do the opposite of what's been done before. Those aren't simple tasks and all become better with practice. 

I've seen five year olds who have trouble with tasks like this one. They are able to sort, but reversing the sort, or adding a twist to the sort creates complete confusion. One of the tasks we ask our kinders to do is to sort by color then using the same objects sort by shape, and then to sort by size. Even if our children can sort by color, shape, and size with separate objects, using the exact same objects to perform this task trips up most of our kids. It isn't that our children cannot sort, it is that they are struggling with their executive functioning skills. 

We can't just teach sorting- we have to use it to support teaching these executive functioning skills that will carry with the students throughout their careers. 

Activities Galinsky recommends to work on executive functions and number sense:

-Board games that involve counting each space and using a spinner or dice with numerals
-Sorting tasks that involve changing the rules of the sort
-Allowing children to make mistakes and recover for them
-Participating in guided play where the adult is not the boss of the activity but the participant
-Talk about numbers, quantities, and math frequently (calendar time, identifying shapes, putting math observations into daily conversations)
-Encourage children to make numerical predictions and then count to check themselves
-"Build on children's sense of approximate numbers" (195)

I'm not doing the chapter justice, so I highly recommend reading it yourself, particularly if you have a young child or teach younger children. I'm now fascinated by the research on how infants can appreciate number sense. As soon as Baby L wakes up from her nap she's about participate in all kinds of experiments. Poor girl...

Galinksy, E (2010) Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. William Morrow Publishers, New York, NY.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mind in the Making

I'm taking advantage of Baby Lipstick's naps this summer to read Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky. I'd heard that it was being pushed for administrators in our district and I wanted to see why. I started it earlier this week and have so far found that it's a surprisingly quick read considering the amount of research Galinsky uses to support her arguments. Although I started reading it as an educator it didn't take me long to feel like I was getting more out of it as a parent than I was as a teacher, not to say that I didn't appreciate it from an educator standpoint- it's just I have a bit of a different focus these days.

Galinsky lists "seven essential skills every child needs to know" and supports each one of these skills with research while sprinkling in some neuroscience and brain development. The skills include focus and self control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed, engaged learning.

In the beginning I couldn't help but feel that I'd read the book before. Everything she writes about focus, self-control, perspective taking and communicating rings true with other research I've read. It fits in well with the Responsive Classroom philosophy and is also supported by the Patterns of Thinking method. Much of it was good to review as an educator and serves as an excellent reminder of those early skills that are so essential for building a secure foundation for learning.

So much of what she writes focuses on the early years and the skills that are developed at home. In some ways it is frustrating as an educator to read about what could be going on at home to lay the foundation for those basic kindergarten skills. So many of the homes that feed into the think-tank are not participating in those activities. Reading once again about the importance of children being read to at an early age, the importance of self-control and how it can be taught, the importance of being talked to throughout the day can be teeth grinding. Yeah, we know those things are important for our youngest ones, but if it doesn't happen then what do we do?

Once the frustration of having to read about how much good can be done in the younger years washed over me, the book served as an excellent reminder of the importance of these skills and why we need to embed them into our kindergarten curriculum. We can't just "drill and kill" the alphabet and the numbers as we desperately try to get our kids to pass the end of year kindergarten assessments- we also need to be filling in the cognitive gaps that are essential for our children in order for them to be successful later in life.

My biggest frustration with the book is that when she discusses research she'll use the term "child" or 'infant" without explicitly stating the ages. It can be difficult to keep up with whether or not she's talking about a three month infant or a nine month infant, a five year old or a twelve year old.

Other than that I highly recommend the book. I've found it to be one of the easier-to-read research-based books I've read and I've come away with a lot to think about as well as explicit activities that will support these essential skills both as a mother and a teacher.

More specific posts are coming... lots of thoughts floating around...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Parent Involvement- What's your advice?

So now that I've written about all the practices I know to do in order to reach out to parents, I've got a long list of questions I'm utterly stuck on when it comes to parent relations.

A few years ago we worked with a parent who wanted worksheets. Nothing we could do or say would convince this parent that worksheets were not the way to go. Despite the data we'd collected and being able to show that everything we were doing was considered best practice and research based- this parent wanted worksheets.

It got ugly.

We weren't going to change our instruction to meet this parent's request, not when the child was benefiting from our instruction, as was the rest of the class. (If the child had not been making progress it would have been a different story- we gladly would have tried something new if we felt it would be in the best interest of the child). We tried to explain to the parent why we did what we did, we brought in resources, experts from our building, and spent hours going over exactly what our reasoning was. Nothing worked. Worksheets were all the parent wanted, for what appeared to be no justifiable reason. When asked why worksheets were requested we were given the "it worked for me" answer.

As we declined to put worksheets in place of centers the relationship deteriorated. Suddenly everything we did was awful. Every action we made was met with a phone call and a complaint. None of our normal parent relationship-building practices worked. At  some point we'd stepped over the line of no return and we seemed to be destined to continue the year in a permanent state of conflict. Complaints were registered above us. We documented every step we took, every moment in the classroom being backed up and defended in case the parent came after us. Although everything we were doing was supported by best practice and research, we still needed to be able to prove what we were doing was right when asked by those above us.

It wasn't fun.

In fact, it was the opposite of fun. We got through it, but instead of spending time and energy to improve our practice we spent a lot of time on paperwork and in meetings. While we could have been teaching there were substitutes in the room so we could sit in meetings. Ironically, sometimes we'd leave worksheets with the substitute. And as expected when you give kinders worksheets, it didn't go well.

What should we have done differently? Should we have given some worksheets just to make the parent happy? Or would that have become a slippery slope of giving in to whatever the parent wanted, despite what we know is best for kids?

How do we de-escalate parents so we can have meaningful and productive conversations about children?

A parent once shared with me that she felt it was her duty as a parent to be "on" the school at all times. It's what her mother did for her. She didn't feel that she was being a good parent if she just trusted what the school said- arguing with us at every step of the way was part of her parental duties.

I wonder how many parents feel that way. Especially parents who come from a cultural background that inherently do not trust public schools (for what are probably justifiable reasons).

How do we rebuild that trust? How do we work with parents who want to advocate for their children and "on" the school at all times, while managing to maintain a productive parent-teacher relationship that best meets the needs of the child?

What do your schools do to work with parents? How do you help parents understand that what you are doing is best for their child? How do you create a team mindset between parents and the school instead of a contentious one? I would love to hear what other schools and teachers do to create and maintain productive relationships.