Sunday, December 22, 2013

Spoiled Books?

A few weeks ago I excitedly took Little Lipstick to the library and slid the Elephant and Piggie books off the shelf. I couldn't wait to dive into them with her. How many times have I read them to a giggling kindergarten class? How many children have I read them to who ended up clutching them to their bodies as though they were cuddling their favorite teddy bear? I couldn't wait to share that same love of a book with my own little one.

We checked the books out, brought them home and cuddled together on the floor to read. I broke out my very best piggy and elephant voices. I did the theatrics. I was animated and over the top just like I usually am when I read aloud in the classroom.

Apparently that is too much for a two year old, or at least for my two year old.

Perhaps I was too animated. Too over the top. Maybe I was a bit too dramatic as I sighed a dramatic elephant sigh to show his worry over Piggie. Maybe it was too unsettling to see her normally calm mommy being so dramatic. Maybe I am a horrible actress. Whatever it was, I ruined Elephant and Piggie for my own daughter.

I want you to read that again but with the mental image of Gerald, the Elephant sighing and then exploding with worry.


She won't let me read the books anymore. "No Mama" she says, pushing the book away every time I try.

How can I call myself a teacher? A lover of children's literature?

What if the same thing happens when it is time to read Harry Potter?  What if *gasp* she doesn't share the same love of certain books with me? 

*fall into dramatic heap*

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"He said WHAT?" Third grade reactions to The Paper Bag Princess

Today I had the privilege of reading Robert Munch's The Paper Bag Princess to a small group of third graders. I've ready it for years to first graders and kindergartners, and for the past year have been reading it to my daughter. I've never read it to older students before, especially not ones who were hearing it for the first time. Since I have the book memorized (not an exageration, I have recited it on car trips to a very fussy toddler) I wasn't really even thinking much about it. I'd chosen it so we could talk about how the main character is strong and stands up for herself. (This is a social skills lunch group). I wasn't prepared for the deeper level thinking that third graders would bring to the text, or their response to a fairy tale like story that didn't fit in with their schema.

If you've never read it before* it is about a princess who is set to marry a prince. However, a dragon interferes with these plans when he burns down her castle and carries off the prince.

Right here the third graders gasped. This is NOT what was suppose to happen they pointed out. The dragon was suppose to take the princess. In fact, when we spent time predicting what would happen before we even started reading that was exactly what they predicted- the dragon would take the princess, the prince would rescue her by physically fighting the dragon, and then the prince and princess would get married. Just like every other fairy tale.

Maybe, one boy pointed out, the dragon was so tired of kidnapping princesses and then having the prince come along and fight him that he figured if he stole a prince the princess wouldn't be able to fight back. In all the years I've taught this book I've never once thought about the dragon's motivation. Maybe I am starting to warm up to third grade.

We got past that first shock and read on, finding that Elizabeth (the princess) had to outwit the dragon instead of fighting him. Their eyes shown as they listened to what she did and they made their own plans on how they would trick the dragon. One boy made a long list of all the ways a dragon could hurt him and then all the ways he could neutralize those threats (my words, not his).

Then of course, we came to the climax. Elizabeth tricks the dragon, rescues Prince Ronald and then, *spoiler alert* Prince Ronald takes one look at her, lists all the things that are wrong with her (she is dirty, she smells, she is wearing a paper bag) and tells her to come back when she looks like a real princess.


"I don't understand" one girl said. "That's not what is supposed to happen. She RESCUED him." The girls sat and stared at me like I'd read the words on the page incorrectly. "Why doesn't he get it?"

They were all horrified by his lack of respect for the princess who just rescued him, but they were all surprised when we turned the page and Elizabeth and Ronald don't get married after all.

"Other stories end with a happy ending" one girl said, looking perplexed. That of course opened the door to discussing what a happy ending really is (well, it was happy for Elizabeth, but not Ronald one third grader pointed out).

It was definitely the most thought provoking discussions I've ever had about the book, but also the most enlightening lesson (for me). I've always read it to children who are young enough to naturally accept the story. Reading it to third graders who have a strong schema of what a story should look like changed the dynamics of the lesson completely. It no longer was about Elizabeth, but instead about what we expect from stories and why they are all the same. Why do all the stories end with happy endings, with the princess getting married and the prince rescuing her? It was fascinating to watch the group of students struggle with understanding an amusing and entertaining simple text simply because it challenged their own schema of how stories work.

*You should immediately run to the library and check it out. Or buy it on Kindle. It's available there too

I swear, I'm still here!

Whew, it's been awhile. This year more than any other year in my teaching career I've been struggling with keeping a healthy work/life balance. I'm finding it hard to do anything that isn't work or taking care of my toddler (don't ask the last time I got my hair cut) which means I've also been having trouble finding time to blog. But I'm a happier, more reflective teacher when I blog so I need to start making it more of a priority again.

Since we left off we've returned from school after Thanksgiving break only to have two long, glorious snow days (in which I ended up being FAR more tired than I would have been if I'd worked. Keeping up with a toddler is rough, especially pregnant!)  We have one week left (3 days now) until Winter Break and I think we are all counting the hours. The kids have been off, everyone's stress level is up, and we're all about to implode. Every year it always seems that break comes right when we think we can't take it anymore.

I have lots to say about it all and hopefully I'll find the time to say it!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Black Friday

In my second year working at my new school I am continuously struck by the differences between the families we serve. We are only two miles from my former school but the apartment complex we draw from and the neighborhoods around it are very, very different for being only two short miles apart.

One aspect that struck me on Wednesday as we were leaving for Thanksgiving break was that nobody wished me a "Happy Black Friday". At my former school this is what all the focus and excitement was about. Now? Nobody even mentioned it. Don't get me wrong, it saddened me  every time a student genuinely wished me a happy Black Friday, but I suppose after awhile I just came to expect it.

Maybe it is the difference between the amount of recent immigrants at each school. More children at my current school come from families who celebrate Thanksgiving itself as a traditional family holiday-not an adopted holiday from their new country. Or maybe it is the difference in socio-economic status- families who rely on Black Friday for their Christmas presents or just general household upgrades compared to families who see Black Friday as an adventure in bargain hunting but without the necessary need for the deals. I don't know, but it is a striking difference. 

Another difference I've noticed is in how kids talk about their weekend plans. In both schools I've worked in kindergarten classrooms that sing the same fun song on Friday mornings before the weekend:
"Hey there friends, the weekend is near, whatcha gonna do when it does get here?" 

At my former school the answers were all the same- play at the park at their apartment buildings, watch cartoons, or do nothing. Even getting them to come up with "watch tv" could be a stretch. Mostly they said, "nothing." Their parents worked weekends, they didn't have cars or bus fare so weekends looked a lot like every other day. Year after year it was the same weekend answers as we tried to make their tv watching Saturdays sound exciting.

Now I listen to kids excitedly discuss trips to the mall, the American Girl store, the library, or different small adventures. They aren't remarkable weekends, but I rarely hear anyone just say they are going to watch tv. Families are home with cars to get places. 

Other small differences stick out as well- the amount of kids with winter coats surprises me daily, the large amount of kids who bring lunch because their families have the time to pack it (or simply are not eligible for free and reduced lunch), the existence of the PTO, the large amount of parent volunteers, and the Vera Wang bags kids transport their birthday treats in to share with their class. (You know, I often use old Macy's bags...)

Both schools are Title One but the small differences like this remind me of the differences in poverty. There is being in the lower class, there is being poor, and there is a deep cultural difference of living in deep poverty. We can't talk about poverty like it is one universal term and that one solution for "poor families" will help all families. We can not assume all Title One schools are created equal or that all schools in the same general area serve similar students.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What's the deal with Americans and the turkey?

Today the third grade teachers walked their class through a Thanksgiving literacy activity. They'd broken the book, The Night Before Thanksgiving into a reader's theater and they read it with their class. Then each child went to go illustrate their part- working on visualizing what they read and making mental images. It was an awesome lesson that was chalk-full of good literacy moments.

As I was rotating around the quiet room investigating what the students saw as their mental images I noticed one girl's drawing. She hasn't been in the country very long so her background knowledge of Thanksgiving isn't what your average American third grader's would be. She had drawn a beautiful, very detailed picture to illustrate a line about the turkey finally going in and the cousins arriving at the door.

Her picture was of a very friendly looking turkey walking straight in the front door with a line of happy cousins behind it. This image makes perfect sense if you don't have any background knowledge about Thanksgiving rituals. The line didn't say where the turkey went in. I wonder if she thinks all Americans invite a live turkey over to their house for Thanksgiving day. After all, Thanksgiving is full of pictures of happy cartoon turkeys, from the kindergarten hand print turkeys to store ads. There isn't much to imply that we don't all invite turkeys over for dinner.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Today a third grader asked me if I swallowed a baby.

This of course prompted another third grader to ask how the baby got in my stomach anyway.

I'm so glad it is Friday.


By the way- I just realized that I missed some comments from previous posts. I'm sorry! It wasn't personal- not sure how I didn't get the emails.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Giving Ourselves Permission to Make Mistakes- and learn from them

On a post I wrote recently for Reality101 on the Council for Exceptional Children's blog I talked about the pressures of getting everything done for our kids, managing the curriculum and still trying to manage behaviors. One tiny piece of the post was about giving ourselves permission to try new things and being OK when they don't work out. It was a line toward the bottom of the piece and when someone commented on it I realized how it really should be a focus for an entire post itself. As teachers we rarely give ourselves the time and space to try new things, be OK with failure, and have time to reflect on what didn't work.

When we're talking about behavior and determining the best way to teach a child how to behave throughout the school day it is essential that we give ourselves permission to try ideas and concepts that might not work. There is no silver bullet for fixing behavior. There is no equation, formula, or perfect answer that tells us how to solve a behavior problem. There is frankly, nothing but trial and error.

So many times when we're thinking of behavior plans we forget this. We want to put something in place that will work immediately and solve everything. And it's not just us. Often we may be told by a co-teacher or administrator that a behavior plan needs to be put into place to "fix" a situation. When we're asked to "fix" a situation there suddenly becomes this pressure on us to come up with the perfect behavior plan that will erase all problem behaviors and turn a child into a model student. And yet, behavior plans that fix everything don't exist.

Behavior plans don't work like that because kids don't work like that. Human beings don't work like that. Behavior plans can make things better. They can help a child monitor their own behavior, teach a child how to navigate the school day, serve as structure for the child or provide the child with breaks and incentives. But they don't fix anything. Everyone has a good day and a bad day. Behavior plans will work most days, but not others. Some behavior plans are going to make behavior worse before it gets better. Some behavior plans are going to be a disastrous failure but what we learn from that will tell us so much more about the child and the child's needs than if we had done nothing for the child at all.

This is Humpty Dumpty coming back up the wall (drawn by a first grade student with autism years ago). Talk about coming back from failure...  
We have to give ourselves permission to try things with students that may not work right away (or at all) because no matter what we'll learn from what doesn't work. We have to be willing to have the conversation about what's not working so we can try something new that will build on what was implemented originally. Most importantly, we have to build a relationship with our co-teachers and co-workers where we are comfortable having conversations about what worked and what didn't. When we're scared to fail because of what others may think of our ability to handle students we've lost our ability to make kid-focused decisions in the classroom. Somehow failure, reflection, and trying again has to become a part of school culture- or at least the culture between co-teachers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Great Santa Conundrum

Being new to third grade means I'm also new to being around 8 and 9 years at Christmas time. These kids take the Santa debate to a whole new level. Sure we had some debate over the existence of Santa in first grade, but the non-believers were fewer and still wished they believed. They hadn't figured out the truth from being clever, they just had parents who told them (often because they got presents from churches or donations and their parents had to bring their kids to pick up the presents and don't have anywhere to hide them.)

In my new position where I am working with more children from middle class backgrounds I am surprised at how many of the third graders still believe in Santa. But at third grade they are starting to be their own detectives to get to the bottom of this mystery. Mid November the Santa conversations have already started. 

On Friday I noticed two children in an intense whisper debate during independent reading. When I went over I realized with horror what was happening. One savvy girl was explaining in detail her own Santa theory, while a boy listened in horror as his Christmas world was rocked. He kept questioning her with "yeah, but..." comments but she seemed to have all the answers. 

He turned and immediately started to break the news with me, not wanting to be the last one to hear the news.

At this I found myself in an internal struggle. I love Santa, I love believing in Santa, and I fully believe that kids should believe as long as possible and when they find out the truth it should come from their parents. (It should be noted that my family still does not acknowledge that he doesn't exist. My father will reply to this post by telling me he doesn't know what I'm talking about. Of course Santa exists.) 

But I'm also working very, very hard to build up trust with this student. All of my work with him so far revolves around having a trusting relationship.

So how do I handle the Santa question without him losing trust in me, but also not letting on that the girl is right. 

Since I didn't have much time to think the first words out of my mouth were "Well, that's news to me." Then I directed them to do their work and pulled the girl into the hallway for the "keep your opinions of the fat man in red to yourself". 

When I came back in the room the student was telling the classroom teacher about the news he'd just learned. There is no refocusing on school work when you first learn Santa doesn't exist. 

I'm not sure I am cut out for third grade...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Teacher Torture Devices

Remember these?

The Silly Bandz. 

The hot teacher-torture trend a few years ago. 

They were annoying, distracting, and constantly causing in-class squabbles.
Yet they have nothing on the latest trend- The rubber band bracelets.

This new teacher torture device involves kids coming to school with a wrist full of tiny rubber bands knitted together to form a bracelet. This bracelet can easily be pulled apart so that a child suddenly has what feels like hundreds of little bands all over his desk. Of course this only happens at the exact moment you are trying to transition the class and the student suddenly finds himself in a panic because he is worried he will lose one precious tiny rubber band. Or worse, the student becomes worried that a friend will steal the bands, which of course involves lots of yelling and "hey, that's mine! Nobody touch it!" Both scenarios ultimately ends with a total class disruption and involve a very frustrated teacher.

The amount of drama behind these bands could drive a daytime soap opera. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

What did I do for this?

I take a group of kids for lunch bunch twice a week to work on social skills. It's a weekly routine and I try to make it seem like a lot of fun. Other kids have noticed and asked if they could come too.

I managed to clear my schedule a bit so I could hold another lunch bunch that isn't focused on meeting IEP goals and could just be for those third graders who for whatever reason want to eat with a teacher. Most of the kids that ask are boys and their desire to give up a lunch with friends surprised me. Developing positive relationships with kids is important and the more adults they feel comfortable with the more they feel like they belong in school. So why not have a just because lunch bunch?

We have been talking and planning our lunch bunch for weeks. Now that it is finally here one of the boys keeps asking, "For real? What did I do?"
I was confused. The kid has asked me daily for the lunch bunch and when we had a misunderstanding about the day and time he was genuinely upset. So now he wanted to know what he did.

"I mean, did I go up a level or something" he asked. 
"A level, what do you mean" I was still confused.
"Like, in reading. I'm a level 14. Did I go up?"

I explained it was just because. It had nothing to do with hard work, it was just because he'd asked and so I listened. 

I understand how powerful incentives can be for hard work, and I love that incentives can be lunch with a teacher instead of a tangible prize. But part of my heart broke because the boy could not understand that he could have time with a teacher just because. He is a valuable part of the school, with or without moving up levels. In fact, kids might be incentivized to work hard because of our relationships with them that are developed unrelated to their performance. 

We obviously need both types of lunch bunches with kids in school. But we can't just use time with us as an incentive. We also have to be there for those "just because" times so we can develop true relationships with kids that make them feel like they belong as a part of our community.

So just how does that baby get out anyway?

As I finished up a small group math lesson in third grade one of the boys looked at me with great concern. The other boys in the group are working to find a name for my baby girl (which they are taking surprisingly seriously considering they are third grad boys). This boy however had more important things on his mind.

"Mrs Lipstick," he asked with a face full of worry, "how does the baby come out of your stomach? Does it come out your throat?"

I just looked at him. Even "go talk to your parents" didn't seem appropriate. I had a sudden fear of the baby name conversation quickly turning into a bunch of third grade boys explaining how the baby was going to come out of me. At that moment I couldn't think of anything worse. Who knows what some third graders know and what some don't. I've had first graders ask this question before but there seemed to be less risk of the conversation taking an unfortunate turn.

"Your turn to work on the computer" was all I could think of. Thankfully the computer has a much higher appeal than discussing the finer points of baby delivery. I'm not sure I am cut out for third grade.

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Oh, man!" Empathy and redirection in two small words

A speech pathologist I worked with a few years ago taught kids to say "Oh, Man!" when they lost a game. She didn't say "It's OK to lose. Sometimes losing happens. Get over it" like I'm often tempted to say. She didn't prevent them from playing games so that she wouldn't have to deal with the emotions.

"Oh, man!" she'd say with full out honest. "Better luck next time!"

It was perfect. Those two words- oh man- let the kids acknowledge their disappointment in the game. They don't have to hide their feelings or listen to teachers lecture them on good sportsmanship. But they don't have to cry either. "Oh, man!" lets them communicate to us without a fit.

Basically it's replacing the temper tantrum/losing frustration with one phrase that will do the exact same thing for the child (let us know he is mad) without a great big fuss.

I use this with my daughter daily. I started to do it when she was just learning to walk and would fall down. She was shocked and surprised by the fall and needed a way to tell us. "You are OK" which is my first reaction- wasn't letting her say, "Hey Mommy, I just fell down and it sucked." It worked. She'd stop crying almost immediately and repeat "Oh man".

Now she does it herself without being prompted. She'll take a big spill, stand up, shake off her hands and say, "OH MAN!"

I've started using it when she wants something she can't get- like when I've left her favorite toy at home and we're in the car on the way to school, or when it is breakfast time and she wants crackers instead of cereal.
"OH man!" I'll say, "We left your baby doll at home! Oh, man!" I'm acknowledging how she feels and that the situation isn't ideal. I'm not solving it for her, we're not turning the car around- but I'm also not saying, "well, this is your problem to deal with." For whatever reason it works.

In fact, she's started saying, "It's OK Mommy" when I say "Oh, Man". She's stated her problem, I empathized with her, and now she can say it is OK.

Without thinking I started using this on kids at school too. They'll tell me something that is distracting/off topic/a very small problem and I'll look them straight in the eye and say, "Oh, man!" Like my daughter they often say, "Yeah, but it's OK. I'll do...." and describe how they'll fix the problem. Like suddenly they have to reassure me that it is OK they forgot their coat on the playground (even though it is math time and they know I'm not going to let them do anything about that now.)

Suddenly I'm not saying, "We're not talking about that now." or "How are you going to fix that problem?" or "Next time you should do x, y, z." Two words and I've communicated that
1)I heard their problem
2) I get why they are upset/worried
 3) I'm not going to fix it for them

I don't always remember to do this. Yesterday I sat with a math group and was constantly saying, "We're not talking about that now." "Get back to work" "What will you do next time?"  I showed no empathy and instead we wasted a lot of teacher-talk on redirection.

I know it won't always work, but so far those two little words seem to be working surprisingly well.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's OK to have feelings

One of the awesome teachers I work with is letting me take over her morning meeting for 5 minutes a day to teach about emotions. The goal is to get the kids talking and thinking about their own emotions, identify when they feel a certain way, and then give them the skills they need to independently use calming strategies. It's a a small five minutes a day but so far it is providing good conversation. We'll see if we reach our lofty goal of seeing more self calming strategies in play.

The other day we were reading Llama, Llama Misses Mama and we were identifying all of Llama's BIG emotions. At one point, after we'd identified that Llama, Llama was sad I asked the kids if that was OK. All but one said no, it wasn't OK to be sad.
"What about angry?" I asked. Nope, not OK to be angry they told us.

When kids don't let themselves accept certain feelings- when they feel ashamed or guilty about having certain emotions- they never learn how to regulate their emotions. You have to know when you are angry and why you get angry to be able to say "Hey, I'm angry. This would be a good time to take a deep breath and calm myself down." Or, "Wow, I'm really frustrated. Maybe I shouldn't make this really big decision right now."

If we never let ourselves be angry then we don't give ourselves permission to make realistic decisions. Instead we end up making big decisions out of anger we don't let ourselves acknowledge we feel, we say things we don't mean to people we love, and we deny that we are hurt by someone else's statements, which only leads to building resentment. We all do it. It's not easy to tell ourselves "It's OK to be sad."

My daughter's daycare provider is excellent at this. When my daughter cries she doesn't try to distract her or instantly make her happy. She labels what she's feeling. She says, "You are sad. It's OK to be sad. This is what sad feels like." Then she walks my daughter through calming down. My daughter just turned two and she'll take calming breathes without being told to when she is upset. (I swear I work so my daughter can stay in daycare.)

I need to take a step back on my emotions lessons. Before we can get into what we do when we are angry we need to let the kids know that it is OK to be angry. Or sad. Or excited. Having them be able to verbally tell us what to do when angry/sad/excited isn't going to do them much good if they are angry and they can't even recognize it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Celebrate the Little Things

On Friday I sent what felt like the silliest email in the world to the school team invested in working with a particular student. My hand hesitated over the send button, wondering if it was really worth telling everyone about the small success the student had that day. It was small. Well, in the grand scheme of things it was small. For other children it was minuscule. For this child? It was monumental.

Out of context it seemed like a silly thing to celebrate. It was something we expect all children to do in school anyway. Even in context I worried about people on the team telling me that by celebrating things I wasn't having high enough expectations.

But we spend so much time getting bogged down in all the problems of the school day we often forget to celebrate the baby steps involved in moving forward. Sure, my email didn't say "the child is having a perfect day." But what I described is one baby step closer to our ideal goals for the child. And that is worth celebrating.

Identify problems in order to build strong solutions. Celebrate the baby steps along the way and keep focused on those long term goals. Use the excitement from the baby steps to give you the energy to keep going. Those long term goals will come.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Lost at School- initial thoughts

When I got home from school today I found an Amazon box waiting for me- with my brand new copy of Ross Green's book, Lost at School. His first book, The Explosive Child, is one I refer to all the time. The idea that he wrote a new book specifically addressing how to work with kids who have explosive behaviors in school was just too exciting. (And yes, the book is already out in paper back so I'm a little late to the party, but at least I'm here now!)

I immediately jumped into it (while my poor two year old was distracted by potty training her baby dolls).

I haven't read much, but I was already struck by a few ideas.

1. We have to shift our thinking from "Kids will do well if they want to" to "Kids will do well if they can." "Kids will do well if they want to" implies that they are intentionally misbehaving and that it is our job to cajole, manipulate and encourage them to behave, where "kids will do well if they can" gets us to think about the skills the student needs in order to behave. It stops us from thinking about how we need to motivate or punish the child and instead gets us to think about how we can teach the child the missing skills so that they are able to do well. (pg 10-11)

2. Are consequences (logical, natural, positive or negative) actually effective? Green writes, "...consequences only remind kids of what we don't want them to do, and give them the incentive to do something more adaptive instead. But they (the kids) already know what we don't want them to do, and they're already motivated to do something more adaptive instead. They need something else from us." 
Consequences will have no impact if we haven't helped the students get the skills they need to follow the rules. Kids know what the rules are, and they know we want them to behave, but if they do not have the skills to do so then how can they follow through? Consequences will only serve to frustrate them more.

So much of what we do in schools can be reactive. Even our proactive strategies aren't always focused on teaching missing skills. I'm really excited to dive into the book to read Green's suggestions on identifying and teaching the skills. Stay tuned for more...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Super Powers

Since it was pajama day at school I was wearing my "I teach, what's your super power?" t-shirt. 

This went over quite well with the third grade boys who were struck by the idea of teaching being a super power. 

One fairly active boy looked at me seriously, paused, and then said, "Teaching is your superpower and listening is mine!"

Dude, lets make that come true. I love that he decided listening could be a superpower, and that it was his.

And yeah, I kind of like the fact that the third grade boys decided I was a super hero. Even if it was only for one math lesson. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Pros and Cons

I'm about a month into my new position and starting to feel like I'm finding my groove. Maybe. If I'm honest with myself (which I'm not always because it is easier to not think about things I can't change) I miss my old classroom a lot. I miss the kids like crazy. I miss lesson planning for them. I miss doing read alouds and asking "wh" questions and teaching them the difference between a who question and a where question.
I miss my own classroom, where I had all my school items at my finger tips. I miss singing songs and leading games on the smartboard. I miss the small victories that came during the day and I miss being able to share those victories with parents. I miss teaching my kids to read. I really do. I miss taking kids who have trouble holding a book and teaching them about text. I miss being frustrated with my inability to get through to a child and then the feeling of a breakthrough when something finally clicks. 

There is a lot I like about my current position. I have a lot more energy at the end of the day, which is a plus since I come home to a two year old. I get to work with amazing teachers. I get to co-teach, which I missed a lot last year when I felt like I was working in isolation. I get to have fun conversations with third graders, read and analyze books, and teach math beyond counting to 20. I'm learning a lot about third grade and I'm enjoying working with the kids. 

Both positions have their pros and cons. It's hard to walk by my classroom and not go in, but I'm starting to feel at home in my new rooms. 

I honestly don't think I expected to miss my class as much as I do. I knew I would miss them, but I was excited about the new challenges (and not having a choice means I didn't let myself take time to be sad about the change.) I'm meeting new kids and their finding their way into my heart, but I don't think they'll ever replace the amazing kids with intellectual disabilities that I had to leave. 

If Gangnam Style Hurts Girls Feelings Do Kinder Boys Care?

On Friday a group of kindergarten boys started into a rowdy rendition of Gangnam style. I went over and explained that although I too enjoy the song, it's not school appropriate.

"Why?" one asked.
"I KNOW" another said with big eyes. "Sexy lady"
Upset that I even was part of a conversation prompting this vocabulary I said, "We don't say that at school," and started to walk away, hoping that would be the end of that (like that's how it works with kinders...)

"What's that?" the first boy asked.
"Well," the second boy explained, "If you say that girls think you don't like them and that you aren't nice to girls. So you can't say it because it hurts their feelings."

WOW. Someone's mother did an excellent job of explaining that one.

The first boy shrugged. He didn't seemed to be bothered by hurting girls' feelings.

For the next 10 minutes the boys debated words they could put in place INSTEAD of sexy lady. It was an interesting debate of phonemic awareness and musical understanding. Luckily they soon found another topic.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Hazards of Being Pregnant and Teaching

The larger my stomach gets the more my badge and keys bounce as I walk. As I walk down the hallway I'm my own personal marching band. I think I must disrupt every single classroom in the hallway now, and the problem is only going to get worse as I keep growing...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Character Traits of Princesses

At the end of one of my third grade reading groups the other day a group of girls started talking about how they hate princess stories. I joined in, sharing that I didn't want to read them to my two year old and that I didn't like that everything is princesses themed for little girls.
We bonded over our princess-disdain, which none of us really bothered to justify.
As I started to leave the group one little girl who had been quiet until that point tugged on my sleeve.

"I love princess stories " she quietly said. "Because the princesses are always brave and true to themselves."

It took me a second to respond. Here I was trashing princesses for no real valid reason other than "ugh, pink, really?" and this quiet third grader was able to not only respectfully stand up to my narrow minded opinion but provide a valid reason for her thinking.

I was immediately in love with this girl as a reader. 

"You know," I said, tipping my head to the side, "I hadn't thought of that before. What you said makes me like them more. I may need to re-read princess stories now to see if my opinion changed." She just smiled shyly and walked back to her desk.

We need more deep thinking, respectfully disagreeing third graders. Or deep thinking, respectfully disagreeing grown ups for that matter. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Talk, Talk, Talk

Last week Joanne Jacobs wrote about a Slate article that discussed how low income parents speak to their children.

It fits with all the other research that has been done on the subject, but it adds something more that has been haunting me for days.

It discusses one mother sharing her experience of talking more to her child and how her friends respond.
Newell said many of her friends and relatives think she’s crazy for talking to her daughter as if she’s an adult. “I can quote this: ‘Neisha, no one wants to sit and talk to the kids like they understand’ That’s basically the response I get.” - See more at:

We have to do more to educate low income families on how to talk to their children. Think of the impact we can make on kindergarten readiness if we just increase the amount of positive language children hear in their first few years of life. For years research has shown us the discrepancy between how low income and higher income parents talk to their kids. We need to do more about it.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reality 101!

I am excited to announce that I am one of four bloggers for the Council for Exceptional Children's Reality 101 blog this school year. Check out the blog and follow our four very different adventures in special education here!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

What is Really Behind Go Dog Go anyway?

On what I swear is probably my 100th reading of Go Dog Go this week alone I realized that I am totally not comfortable with the whole hat story line.

So this girl dog has a rather reasonable hat in the beginning but she goes fishing for compliments and the dog she is obviously flirting with tells her honestly "I don't like your hat." This is the equivalent of saying "I'm not buying you a drink. Go hit on somebody else."

But the chick doesn't take a hint.

She goes and gets a new hat, which of course the boy dog doesn't like. She chases him through the book, trying to change herself a little each time so the next encounter will have a different outcome.

And what happens? They meet up again at a party. A dog party. Have you seen what is going on up there in top of that tree? No good, I will tell you that. So the boy dog, who obviously sees an easy conquest ends up giving in after who knows what he's indulged in at the party. And what happens? They go home together, as though this is a good thing. Riding into the sunset? Lets not even touch on the fact that he isn't taking a cab after that party.

 The unwritten ending? Nothing but heart break. 

This book is telling young girls to keep chasing after rude boys until one day they decide to take you home for a night.

PD Eastman, what are you doing to our daughters? I think the only right answer to this is that I take the book out of my house so I am never forced to read it, I mean, never have to expose my daughter to it again.

I just made you say...

It's been awhile since I've been around your typically developing kid. I forgot how clever (and sometimes not so clever) they can be.

In kindergarten I rushed over to solve a small table squabble during reading stations. As I listened to a girl and boy explain the ins and outs of their woes in a very dramatic fashion another boy started singing quietly under his breath. "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen..." 

It was all I could do to stifle a giggle.

Later that day I was in third grade. Suddenly a bunch of boys went up to the substitute and said, "why were you under there?"
"Under where?" The innocent sub asked while the boys dissolved into giggles.
"Wow," one said to me as though I was his partner in crime. "We made a teacher say underwear." 
I guess Bare Naked Ladies would have been proud.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Getting Comfortable with a Steep Learning Curve

I sat down with a reading group yesterday and realized I had no idea what I was doing. I've never read with on-grade level third grade readers before. Even though I'd met with the reading teacher, filled out my lesson plans, and thought through each step I still felt naked in front of the group.

Guided reading to me is something I can do in my sleep. I love guided reading and for the most part I think I'm pretty good at teaching children to read (nobody is perfect, but I think it is one of my strengths as a teacher). Note that I said "teaching children to read". I can take a non-reader and immediately know what to do next. I can assess what strategies to need to be taught, what high frequency words need to be addressed, what book handling skills need to be put in place. At this point I have most of those low level books memorized so I barely have to think about my book introductions.

I sat at a table yesterday looking at 5 skeptical third graders, holding a book wondering how on earth I was going to make this book interesting for them. I listened to them read and wondered what words are suppose to be high frequency words. I wondered why they could read so fluently without stopping to decode the massive amounts of big words on the page. I wondered what next step to choose for them- what word study to pull from the book, what teaching point, what to have them retell.

These are all decisions I no longer agonize over in the lower grades. There was a time when I did, of course, but that time was years ago. This uncertainty isn't comfortable either. In fact, it's down right scary. What if I screw up these poor readers?

I remember my first year being so ashamed that I didn't know what "guided reading" was. I tried to hide that I had no idea what I was doing, and then was scared to ask questions because I felt everyone was judging me for not knowing what to do. I made it so much worse on myself by not allowing myself to ask someone to show me what to do.

Now, 11 years later, I'm slightly embarrassed by the amount of questions I keep shooting off to the reading teacher but now my embarrassment isn't going to stop me. If I learned to teach guided reading once I can certainly learn to teach it again. It's uncomfortable to no longer feel like an expert, but it's also a good experience. It reminds me how the kids feel when they are learning something new, and how the new teachers feel throughout their day. That unsettling feeling that you really have no idea what you are doing while you try to fake your way through the day. Luckily now I'm older and have less to prove. I look forward to one day feeling like I know what I'm doing, but until then I'll keep asking questions and chugging along.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How do you interpret "retell the story"?

Today I had a student completely retell a book for me using nothing but sounds. He acted out the noises the animals in the book made, the creak of a swinging gate, the bounce of a basket ball, and all the other noises that represented events from the book, all in the correct order.

Not exactly what I expected when I said, "Tell me what happened in the story," but now I know he can sequence the events of the story correctly. Tomorrow we will work on adding words to our retellings. And since the student is very literal, I will work on giving directions that completely and clearly show exactly what I expect. Teacher lesson learned. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kindergarten is hard

Kindergarten is hard.

In March and June we forget just how hard kindergarten can be. By then the kids are independent, they are confident members of the school. They know the routines, they are starting to read, they walk boldly down the hallway and don't think twice about naps or extra snacks.

In September? Not so much.

We forget what a hard transition kindergarten can be. Many of the kids were in half day preschools before, so although they know how to follow school routines, listen to a teacher, and share their crayons they have a tolerance for only doing so for about three hours. After lunch time they are pretty much done. Only a few weeks ago it was nap time or quiet time or just down time. And now we're asking them to do math and reading and to keep sharing and to keep sitting up on the carpet and remembering to raise their hands.

Sharing all day is hard. Following directions all day might be even harder. Controlling those impulses to not call out, grab crayons, run across the room, and do your own thing? Nearly impossible.

It's coming together. Every day you can see the children standing up straighter, working longer, and remembering to raise their hands a little more. It's a work in progress. On Friday a girl proudly told me that she was working hard. She was so pleased with her own hard work that she barely noticed other children in her room were starting to goof off. A few weeks ago she wasn't exactly sure what it meant to work hard in school. It's only been three weeks and she's already taking pride in her work. By March they'll all be confident almost first graders and we will have to try hard to remember what the beginning of kindergarten was like and just how far they've each come.

But right now?

September is a hard month on a kindergarten teacher. If you know one give him or her a hug. They are working magic right now to prepare our youngest students to be life long learners. And to not pick their nose while doing it.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stating the Obvious

One of the biggest transitions between working exclusively with students with intellectual disabilities and working with a more general education population is how aware the kids are. They don't miss a thing. My students in my classroom last year were accepting of most adults and situations. They didn't question if your clothes didn't match, if you had a bad hair day, or if you made a mistake. They would roll with it. I guess I started to take that for grant it.

Of course if you work with typically developing elementary school students you know this isn't the case. At least one kid in each class is going to be aware of something out of the ordinary. My first year teaching I had a student ask me, "How are you even going to get a husband if your hair looks like that?" 
You know, that kind of thing. Comments your friends would find a way to point out to you nicely and your acquaintances would simply ignore. 

Last week I went over to speak to a boy who was loudly whispering to a friend in line. He was very into his conversation and clearly didn't want to be bothered by this new teacher who'd suddenly showed up in his classroom. He turned to me, slightly, as I reminded him to stand quietly in line. He looked like he planned to ignore me, but then his eyes started to get big.

"Are you having a baby or something?" he asked in horror, staring straight at my stomach. 

And I knew, immediately, that I was back in a typical elementary school classroom, for better or worse. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Changes, changes, changes

In two weeks a lot has changed for me. I went to work two Mondays ago as a teacher in an intellectual disabilities class. A bit overwhelmed with beginning of the year craziness, but understanding and accepting of the craziness because it is the beginning of the year and I expect nothing but craziness.

Then some things changed. Without going into too much detail, I ended up on medical leave for a bit due to complications with Little Lipstick's coming sibling (arriving in March). Everything is FINE and no need to worry, but suddenly I was forced to have series of conversations about the nature of my job, the physical requirements, and whether or not I could fulfill those requirements safely.

It was an odd thought process to struggle with. I love my job and I love my students. I want to do everything I can for them. I belong in the classroom. But it soon became clear to me that because I love my students and want to do right by them that I wasn't capable of taking care of myself and my new baby while being the best teacher I could be. It was a strange realization, and to be honest, a hard realization. I didn't want to accept it for awhile.

So I was home for about a week, coordinating with my doctor and the school, trying to figure out what it all means. Thankfully, my fabulous administration worked some magic and I'm back at work, just in a different role that doesn't have the same physical demands working in a classroom for students with intellectual disabilities does.

At the moment (and it is fluid so who knows how it could change) I'll be supporting a kindergarten classroom as well as third grade. I'm back to being the special education support for students in inclusive settings. It's a good thing. I love co-teaching, I'm thrilled to be working with kids, and I really enjoy supporting kids in their general education classrooms. It's not what I thought I would be doing a week ago, but it certainly is something I enjoy doing.

I still get to work with my class from a distance. I'm supporting my long term sub with lesson plans, behavior plans, and problem solving. I'm tracking their individual data and following their progress. I'm enjoying that- although I miss actually getting to teach them.

I'm sure it's just Baby Lipstick's way of telling me that once again my world is going to get rocked by a little one so I'd better get comfortable with being flexible. I'm lucky to work at a school where I can be flexible and where no matter what position I'm in I get to work with great people.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Teaching Sharing and Turn Taking

I'm not sure what parenting book I read it in, but at some point when Little Lipstick was still not talking I read that teaching turn taking was much more effective than teaching kids to share. Sharing is an abstract concept, and when we tell kids to share they don't exactly know what we mean. To kids sharing is the term grown ups use when you really don't want anyone else to touch your toys. In some situations it seems to mean "give the other kid your favorite toy". In other situations it means "use the toy together even though neither of you is happy with that situation." My daughter likes to use it when she wants my food. "Share Mommy!" she says in a sweet yet demanding voice. To her apparently, sharing means other people can give her things.

Turn taking, however, sets a clear pattern. It's your turn, then my turn, then your turn again. It feels OK to give someone else a turn because if you understand the pattern of turn taking then you know you'll get your turn back- you just have to wait.

I found that not only was turn taking very effective with my daughter*, but it has also works great with my students at school who also find the term sharing ambiguous. For many of them I start with taking turns by just rolling a ball back and forth. For students with autism this also promotes a safe, predictable interaction with another person that is the basis for future social interaction. While we roll the ball we label "Johnny's turn. Sophie's turn. Johnny's turn," repeatedly because I want them to become clear on what a turn is. A turn is a part of a pattern, you take one, let someone else have one, and then it is your turn again.

Then we start applying it in the classroom by labeling whose turn it is to use the smartboard, or whose turn it is to turn off the lights, hold the book, or line up. After I feel they have a good grasp on it we transition into playing a board game together. (Because I can never just play a board game I'm of course also working on math skills or something else, but any board game works). We label turns for the board game, and then begin to scaffold the idea of turn taking into pretend play.

Free play in my room is never really "free". I try to give them free reign to explore but in many ways it is guided play- a chance for me to sit with them on their level, interacting with what they find interesting, facilitating social interactions or even practicing academic tasks (can we count the blocks? Add the yellow and white blocks?)

Blocks are great for turn taking because you can build a tower together with each child putting on a new block. It requires adult guidance so it doesn't become parallel play, but it works. Slowly I've been able to step back from dictating turns and watch them play together, with no adult intrusion. It's "sharing" but meaningful, predictable sharing. And it begins to transfer into other areas of the day as well. Sharing the crayons means it is Sophie's turn with the blue and then it will be Johnny's. Sharing the books means when Johnny is finished Sophie can have the book.

It's so simply that it makes me wonder why it took reading it in a parenting book for me to fully understand how we can teach sharing instead of just lecturing kids on sharing until they get it. Hopefully as Little Lipstick grows we'll continue to see her willing to take turns and share.

*And while it has been effective in many ways, please don't read this and think my daughter is the perfect sharer or turn taker. She's not. She's two. We're still working on it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

More Room Arrangements

I finally got around to taking more pictures of the classroom (please not that I didn't straighten the classroom first....  )

The computer/technology center:
This table holds our desktop but it is also where I set up the laptop or the ipad when it needs to be plugged in. As you can see I use it for storage as well. The place where the laptop can go also easily becomes an independent work space for a child who needs to be away from the group but will not be tempted to play with the computer. So far this year we haven't actually used the computer, but we will.

(Behind it is our "We can do hard things!" bulletin board. The work that goes up there isn't uniform- the kids can ask to have a certain item put up there if they feel they worked really hard on it, or I can put it up there if I observed them working really hard on it. Our class is all about hard work and independence, so we want to celebrate it any way we can!)

I wasn't sure how I was going to use this shelf when I set up the room. In my mind it would be for center storage but it's quickly become a place where I can store materials I need to have at my finger tips when we're hard at work at tables. The top of the shelf is where I keep ABA type behavior plans (then they are easily available on both the meeting area and the work area of the classroom). The little bags on top are individual reinforcement bags so that the minute a child earns a reinforcer he or she doesn't have to wait for for us to get it. Each child that needs one has her/his own bag with things he/she likes inside.

In the rest of the shelf I can keep materials I need at my finger tips- math maniulatives, lesson activities, different containers for sorting, even my anecdotal note binders. So far I've loved having them right there.

 This is the reading area. We haven't started guided reading yet so right now it looks pretty bare. It's in the back of the room so that when I'm working there we wont' be distracted by the rest of the class. The shelf behind it holds my professional books as well as all the reading materials I may need so that I can easily grab them when working with a group. I also have the book baskets right beside the table. This way when I give the direction "Now put this new book in your book basket" the children won't forget the direction when they get across the room (that's how we find books floating around the room...)

The library/break area. I don't really like that I only have one shelf for my library, but for now it is working. The pillows and mat make it inviting. The mat also serves as an area where kids can go to stretch out (some of them need to stretch out during the day per their IEPs) and some have conditions where they may need to rest during the day. This area makes it easily accessible for a rest area.

We'll see as the year goes on if the room continues to work.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Quick and the Ed on Professionalism

I was thrilled to read this post on the Quick and the Ed a few days ago. Cookson writes about the importance of treating teachers like professionals. Take a few minutes and read it. It's rings true in so many ways.

He writes:

"We appear to be on a path to de-professionalize teaching. Implicitly we require teachers to teach to the test and evaluate them on student test scores. We seem eager to replace teachers with computers. We applaud Ivy League short timers as heroes. We revere studies that appear to be meaningful (i.e. students do better with good teachers) but resist actually paying teachers a professional wage. We demonize teacher unions.
In short, we are missing the point big time. If we want to liberate learning for all students, we need to liberate teachers and institute policies that professionalize teaching. To do that we need to dramatically overhaul the curricula of schools of education, demand excellence from teaching candidates, provide professional autonomy to teachers and reward success in the classroom with more than a pat on the back or a token bonus.
These are straightforward ideas, not original to me. Unfortunately, we suffer from political paralysis. Let’s get over it. Let’s be leaders in professionalizing teaching."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Beginning of the Year and High Expectations

I watched Rock Star raise her hand for her new teacher in response to a general "What happened in the story we read this morning?" question. No visuals. No choices for answers. For a question about a book they'd read 4 hours ago.

She confidentially answered her teacher, explaining in her Rock Star way that Chrysanthemum was a book about a girl who felt sad and had not nice friends.

Four years ago when I first met Rock Star this is not the student I saw. I saw a child who never, ever talked. I saw a child who didn't follow simple one step directions with visuals. I saw a child who poked and hit her friends to get their attention. A child who did not recognize her name, the alphabet, or colors. She read books upside down. In fact, we were THRILLED when she sat and read the books and turned the pages even if they were upside down because that was massive progress. She cried. A lot. When you put a crayon or pencil in her hand she either scribbled wildly while staring into space or dropped it on the floor, letting it slip between her fingers as though she didn't recognize you'd even placed anything in her hand.

Over the years I've watched her grow. It's been slow growth, and different than your typically developing child, but growth none the less. And now- she is verbal and confident. She can answer open ended questions and she can remember what she learned and talk about it later. She can look at a book by herself and retell herself the story, or make up a story from the pictures. She recognizes some high frequency words. She is, as her name suggestions, a rock star.

This year I have a new group of children who remind me of Rock Star so long ago. Except, they didn't remind me of her right away. My first response was, "WOW. We can't do anything in here anymore. How are we going to learn to read if aren't holding the book in right direction, if we are poking our friends, if we are staring into space and we don't talk at all?" It wasn't a positive thought. Some may say it was a realistic thought, but not positive.

It took me listening to Rock Star participating in her class on Friday to realize the connection between her and my new friends. She made remarkable progress because we always thought she could. Not having any other experience with children with intellectual disabilities, her teachers and I just plowed ahead, trying our best and still teaching her to read and participate in school. And it worked. She learned. Not at the expense of her self help skills or independent life skills either. She learned it all together.

Now that I'm in an intellectual disabilities program it is somehow easier to think, "Wow, OK, well maybe we should just work on life skills". Because now I know that is an option. It's something people do. It's acceptable in these programs. And for some kids it may be the answer. But I can't let myself change my expectations for my new students because now I "know better". I need to hold them to the same expectations we held Rock Star, giving them the opportunity to learn and interact. It shocked me to realize that for a moment I had low expectations, but it was a good wake up call to realize that I have to always check myself and make sure I am truly "teaching up" and not simply giving high expectations lip service while limiting my students' growth.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

And we... survived?

No really, we did.

The first week is always this amalgonum of high hopes and expectations, reality, and survival. I can't help but get to the end of the week and thing, "Good grief, the kids have the same behaviors they had on the first day, they still don't know X, Y, and Z, and what's worse, I only got to half of my plans. This week was a disaster!"

It's hard to remind myself that four days of school doesn't magically make children into super star students. It's going to take a little more time, love, patience and direct teaching to change behaviors and get new knowledge in place. The first week has to be about building community, getting comfortable with routines, and letting each child find that they fit into the classroom.

I say this every year. I go into every year telling other teachers to relax, it's going to be OK, follow Responsive Classroom's First Six Weeks of School. And yet...  the end of the first week always feels a bit like a failure. Really, it's more like the first water stop at the beginning of a 10 mile hike. You're already tired and you feel a blister coming. You've made meaningful progress but it's so tiny that you can't even appreciate it because the mountain ahead is so steep.

But we'll get there.

I have four friends returning to my room this year and three new friends. (Sadly, Rock Star has moved on to an older class. I still get to see her every day and she continues to amaze me with her growth and progress). However, losing three students and gaining the new three has really changed classroom dynamics. Not in a bad way, just in a different way. The class has a different feel and a different focus. The kids that were used to being the followers now have no choice but to be the leaders. Everyone is taking some time to get comfortable in their new roles. We'll gett there, but it's all about baby steps.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

More Room Design

I meant to take more pictures of my classroom but as you can imagine, last week was a bit crazy. So somehow this is all I ended up with (more to come as I keep reflecting on meaningful use of space in ID classrooms)

In the back of the room we have all three teacher desks along side an independent work space. In the middle of the room I've put the supplies/writing center. This is probably what I am most nervous about. Last year I kept my supplies off in the corner and really didn't give the kids access to them. This year I'm going to try to make it a bit different. Now they are up front where everyone can easily get them. Hopefully we'll be able to encourage independence while also monitoring the class for only taking materials when they actually need them. If it doesn't work we'll just quickly move the materials off to the back corner of the room again. Everything is labeled with scissors, adapted scissors, pencils, crayons, glue, etc so hopefully we'll be able to get the kids to put materials back where they go. Beside the supplies are two boxes of paper (these are just amazon boxes covered in wrapping paper from the dollar tree. They held up great last year and saved me money!) One box is full of blank sheets of paper and the other is full three page booklets so that the kids will have the opportunity to choose if they want to use a booklet or one sheet of paper in writing workshop. Below are what I'm hoping to use as our writing boxes this year. Last year just using writing folders was difficult for my kids because we did so much with gluing, cutting, and coloring. I'm hoping using writing baskets will allow them to be more independent with their writing materials.

This shelf is in the middle of the room, which creates a nice divide but also makes me nervous about monitoring behavior and getting to children quickly who may need help. I have two students in wheelchairs and while I think they'll be able to get around easily I don't really know. Stay tuned...  I could be re-arranging by the end of week one.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Taking time to get to know our students

Yesterday a friend contacted me on Facebook. She has a friend whose son just started kindergarten and by day 3 the teacher had decided that the student needed to be evaluated for special education because she wasn't adjusting well.
It is day 3.
As educators we think we can pick out the kids with needs immediately. I know teachers who like to joke that in the grocery store they can say "typical, autistic, LD, ID" just by watching the kids for a moment. It's one thing when we keep it to ourselves. It's a totally different story when we are the teacher and we are making decisions that will impact how a child will access school for the rest of their life.
When I worked at the think tank we joked that the first month of kindergarten was rocking these little ones lives. Because of the background of our kids we knew that the kids we got in September were not the kids who would be leaving our rooms in June. Our kids had never been in any sort of school setting before. They had never been around so many kids in one room, they'd never had to listen to an adult that wasn't family, they'd never gone so many hours away from their parents. The first month of kindergarten is hard. Those are big transitions. At the think tank we knew that we couldn't make assumptions on any kid in September. It wasn't fair to the kids and it would totally collapse our screening process if we tested kids too early. We would end up testing everyone.
Now that I no longer work at the think tank I realize not every school operates this way. When you have a class where most students went to preschool and have similar socio-economic backgrounds then individual kids may stick out more. This doesn't mean those kids shouldn't be given time to transition into kindergarten. They still need to be given time to become comfortable with a school setting, being around large groups of kids, and the fast transitions that happen in school. 
We have to give our kids time. Still not adjusting in October? Ok, time to talk. But give kids time. You never know what amazing individual is hiding behind the scared, overwhelmed September 5 year old.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Feeling Old

This weekend while running errands I ran into one of my former students at Home Depot. It had been years since I'd been his special education case manager, but he gave me a huge smile and was clearly excited to see me. As we walked away from him my husband asked, "Is that the Johnny* H. from your second year teaching?"

"No," I laughed, "Johnny H. is in high school now. That Johnny is from 5 years ago."

My husband looked at me in utter horror and confusion. I could see what he was thinking as he tried to hide it- there is no way that cute little 6 year old  Johnny that filled our lives with stories is now in high school.

Whenever I am running errands in the neighborhood where I teach I find myself looking oddly at tweens and teenagers, wondering if they are the grown up version of the six year old person I taught. It's always a bit unsettling. The other day I drove past My Smart Cookie. I almost didn't recognize her, until I realized there was only one person who it could be. She was laughing with friends, her hair wild and unbrushed, but she looked happy.

*Name has been changed :)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Grumpy Teacher

I love my job, I really do. I love getting the room ready. I love the beginning of the year, the kids coming back, the energy and excitement. But at this moment I really, really do not want to go back tomorrow. Feeling like hiding under the bed and hoping no one notices...

Friday, August 23, 2013

Asperger's Book Rec

I'm currently loving the book, The Gifts of Asperger by John M. Ortiz. It's got great information, and then a series of short experts about kids with Aspergers, their gifts and their strengths. It makes me proud to teach special education and excited to get back into the classroom with my own amazing kids.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Room Arrangement Reflections

Today I was invited to participate in a focus group looking at ideal room designs for classrooms serving low incidents populations (autism and intellectual disabilities). The story behind the focus group was that our district is predicting a decrease lack in physical building space as our whole population continues to grow. This leaves everyone in schools to be faced with how to best conserve space, including our low incidents rooms. It was frustrating to hear about the problem and to listen to the district's architect explain the ins and outs that go into decision making. Yet I appreciate that they pulled a group of teachers together to ask our opinions about what we can do to conserve space but also meet the needs of our students.

We spent a lot of time talking about our physical room design, our use of tables, chairs, work areas, and how we store the equipment our students need (the walkers, standers, wheelchairs, adaptive seating, etc). If you don't work with a low incidents population you have no real understanding of the amount of physical materials that are required to get through the day, nor the amount of space those materials take up. Finding a spot to store my slant boards alone just about kills me. Let's not talk about extra wheelchairs and standers.

They asked us to reflect on how we plan to use our space this year and to continue reflecting throughout the year. They hope to be able to document our thoughts as we make changes to our rooms, noting what we find is and isn't effective. Of course, I reflect by blogging, so you'll have to bear with me as I use this space to think intentionally about my room design.

As of Monday I *think* I have my room pretty much set up. Here's what I have so far.

These pictures were taken when my room was still in the bare bones phase, so they don't fully show my current thought process. In the first picture you can see the meeting area (carpet area) where I do most of my large group instruction in front of the smartboard. The calendar is off to the side and on the other side of the smartboard (not pictured) is the word wall. The teachers desks (all 3 of them) are pushed to the back. I'd like to get rid of them all together...  still toying with that idea. They are so big. When I taught gen ed I got rid of my teacher desk, but I find special ed is a different ball game because of the amount of paperwork.

I have three tables for small group work in the classroom, along with a large circle table in the back for my reading group. I also have a small table in the back of the room for independent work. Last year I had enough space that I could reasonably spread everyone out around the room in an independent work space if some children worked on the floor and one worked at the computer table.

I don't have any designated center areas. Instead I store centers in boxes and crates in the shelves in the middle of the room. The students are able to get the center materials and take them to a specified work area. This allows me to use the tables for more than one purpose, spread out students when I need to, and helps the students become independent with getting out their own centers.

This of course is beginning of the year ideals. More pictures and my idealized thoughts will be coming soon. As the year goes on I'll compare my beginning of the year ideas to what actually gets happens and we'll see what works and what doesn't.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Hearing a thank you

Yesterday I logged onto Facebook to see a status update from my former pastor. She wrote to bless the teachers at her daughters' high school for staying at school so late on back to school night only to have to be back again early the next morning.
I'm not a teacher at her daughters' high school and I don't even have my own back to school night for a few weeks. The message wasn't for me, but it touched me like it was. It's so rare to hear a thank you or an acknowledgment for those long days we put in. It always seems expected that we'll work those 12+ hour days and get up with energy the next day to sing and dance with the kids. We do it happily (though sleepily) regardless, but it is so nice to hear a thank you toward our profession. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Changes in North Carolina: What is happening to our profession?

I haven't been good about following the North Carolina educational changes this past year, partly because every time I hear something about the legislative changes I am so horrified that I assume it isn't true and I put my hands over my ears and hum loudly to myself. 

Lisa Sorg in Indy Weekly sums the changes up like this:
In education, lawmakers march toward privatizing schools: ending salary increases for many teachers with a master's degree; no longer requiring charter schools to hire licensed teachers; allowing students to use vouchers—taxpayer money—to attend private schools, including religious ones, while draining $90 million from public schools statewide.

This is what I'd been trying to pretend isn't happening.

Sorg's article goes on to profile one of my college classmates who is leaving the state because of these changes. He is quoted as saying, 

"The pay differential is a huge deal. For me, there would be no difference in pay between a master's and a bachelor's degree. [Lawmakers] are saying we want you to saddle yourself with debt, stick with it, and say you're noble for doing it.
So I started broadening my search. This is a good chance to get out of here and go where I would have a chance to make more. People in my situation—single, no kids, no deep roots to North Carolina—are looking to get out of the state. Some teachers can't or don't want to leave; they're not going to give up. But a fair share of them told me to get out of here while I can"

My family has talked about moving to North Carolina to escape the craziness of the DC area. We have family in Charlotte and it would be wonderful to raise Little Lipstick with her cousin. But now? I certainly do not want to move into a state that boldly says, "We do not believe in our public school teachers. We do not believe in the teaching profession, the craft of teaching, or the importance of having good teachers in the field".  I do not want to teach there and I certainly do not want my daughter to go to school there. 

I am always baffled by parent support in changes such as these. I want my daughter to have a teacher who has a masters. I want my daughter to have a teacher who loves her job, is dedicated to the field, feels like a professional and is treated that way by the school system and the state. Teachers who feel like professionals are more likely to take their jobs seriously and put in the hard work and extra hours it takes to do the job well. Disheartened, frustrated teachers who feel disrespected are far more likely to "work their contract" putting in minimal hours to get by and not taking the extra steps that really make a good teacher. It's true in any job. Treat people well, tell them you respect and trust them, that they are invaluable and that their hard work is worth something and they will work even harder for you. 

What's happening to our profession? Are we somehow moving towards un-professionalizing teaching, assuming that anyone who can turn a page in a teachers' manual can teach? How can we spend so much time discussing our broken education system only to decide that to fix it we should actually weaken the system and punish those who want to make it better? 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Where in the World Should the Word Wall Go?

Today while one of my fabulous colleagues and I were setting up our classrooms we started talking about where our word walls should go. Because of my Literacy Collaborative background I am a huge believer in putting it in front of the classroom, right by the meeting area so it is a part of all you do during the day. Grant it, the word wall can take up a ton of space in that prime location, but I've found that for it to be a meaningful, living, breathing part of the classroom it should be right up where the kids have constant access to it.

If we want our kids to use the word wall and learn the words on the word wall then it makes sense to put it up front right where they can see it and use it. In my class we do at least 5 minutes of word wall activities every day. We always start our word wall time by singing an alphabet song. (Dr Jean's Alphardy or Who Let the Letters Out are our favorites.) This connects the letters on the wall with the phonetic sounds.

Once a week we add a new word (or when I taught 1st grade we added 5) to the word wall. We add the words all together as a class, talking about what we notice in the words, what letters they have in them, whose name has the same letters in it, and where we think the word should go on the wall. When possible I try to get a kid to be the one to add the word to the wall to show us where he/she thinks the word belongs (and of course, explain why). (For those of you in VA I'm pretty sure there is a kinder SOL on understanding alphabetical order).

My word wall two years ago right in the midst of the meeting area.
The rest of the week during our 5 minutes of word wall time we play word wall games. We play "I spy" and take turns saying things like, "I spy a word that starts with the letter C", or "I spy a word that has the 'ch' in it." We do word wall cheers and chants and take turns passing around the pom-pom. We spell the word out loud and touch our toes if the letter goes below the line, touch our hips if the letter is on the line, and putting our arms in the air if the letter goes above the line. I've gotten a flash light and shown it on different words and had the kids shout out the word they see.

This past year I started taking the words off the wall during this time to make a sentence. I'd put out the words "I like Johnny" and ask someone to read it. Then I'd remove Johnny's name and put up someone else's name and see who can read it. Do they understand that the words of the sentence stay the same and contain the same meaning if I just change one word? I loved this activity because it showed the kids that the words we are learning can be put together to make meaning- they are not just random words we memorize.

Even when we aren't doing our 5 minutes of official word wall work we are constantly talking about the word wall. When we read big books we look for our word wall words in the big books and highlight them. When we do interactive writing we use the word wall to spell our words. We also use the ABC letters of the word wall to help us form our letters and to help us listen to the sounds in the words. The close proximity of the word wall encourages the kids to make connections with the words throughout the day. Without prompting they'll often raise their hands and point to a word on our morning message to show that it happens to be on the word wall.

Last year I wasn't pleased with my word wall access. I still had it close to the front of the room, but it wasn't close enough to have easy access for shared reading and interactive writing. I spent today trying to figure out how best to maximize my space so that I can have the word wall as the backdrop to all our literacy activities. I *think* I settled on a layout. It's not perfect, but it will allow me to do interactive writing and shared reading right next to the word wall. Hopefully it will strengthen my kids understanding of how words work.

Today's attempt at arranging. The word wall will go next to the smartboard. More pictures coming....