Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Genuine Friendship

At the very end of last week we found out one of my students was moving. We were all shocked and heartbroken. This student is absolutely incredible and she is the poster child of what having high expectations and a good balance of general education inclusion and a special ed placement can do for a student. She surpassed all of our  of expectations academically, socially, and with her general language. She is incredible.

At the end of the day today one of the students from her gen ed kindergarten class was brought into my room crying. We were in the midst of end-of-day chaos and were trying to get book bags and jackets on without complete losing our minds (this is a daily adventure). When this little kindergarten girl and her tear-streaked face entered the room we all stopped and stared.

The teacher with her explained that the girl had a card at home for our friend who was leaving but she had forgotten it. I looked at this little five year old crying and felt my own eyes fill with tears. This little one was truly sad to see my friend go. Their teacher had done such an incredible job including her in the classroom that her kids didn't see her as "that special girl". She was a part of their community and she had true friends in there.

My friend hadn't shown any emotions yet during the day and we weren't sure how much she was processing her move. Yet when her friend walked in crying her expression immediately changed. "Oh no! What's wrong?" she asked. Although she hadn't been concerned for herself, she felt empathy and concern for her friend. They had a real friendship.

Friendship is something we can teach about, model, and encourage, but it isn't something we can force. Kids are "friends" in our classes, but whether or not they are genuine friends is up to them.

These girls were genuine friends.

I hope that wherever my friend ends up she will find other genuine friends, as well as teachers who are able to foster these relationships.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mulling Over Least Restrictive Environment

Lately we've been chewing on the right placement for my kiddos. Every time this comes up it is tricky to figure out. How do you decide what is the least restrictive environment?

Will putting kids in a gen ed environment not allow them to work on the basic skills they need to succeed?
Will keeping them out of the gen ed environment hold them back from achieving their full abilities?

My position this year is a funny one. Last year in my non-cat classroom I went into the year making my goal to get everyone into the gen ed environment for the following year. Whether or not that was reasonable, I made everything I did with the kids fit into that goal. What were we doing at every moment of the day that was getting them ready to move on?

This year is different. I'm in a "center" now and so many of the children have been placed in my room after their base schools decided that a center would be the least restrictive. We don't know what it looked like at their base schools, we don't know what led to those decisions, we don't know what conversations the school teams had with parents. Now that we're writing the new IEPs we have the opportunity to re-look at placement decisions.

What was behind a decision to place a child in a center? Was it the right decision? What led a team to decide a student had an intellectual disability? Was the testing valid? Is it certain that this student will never achieve at a typically developing cognitive level?

There is so much to think about. Not just how our IEP decisions will impact the child's next year, but also how these decisions are setting the child up for success later in life. Are we making decisions now that will impact whether or not the child is able to earn a regular diploma? Are we giving the child every chance to meet high expectations? Or are our high expectations forcing the child to leap over needed prerequisite skills?

Every child is a different puzzle and no conversation on a child is ever the same. It's a lot to think about, especially at this time of year. I have no real answers, other than to consider each kid individually.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Miss Clavel

As I introduced my daughter to Madeline to my daughter tonight I found myself  reading a whole different story than I'd read when I was a girl. As a child I loved the idea of the girls sleeping in one big room, walking in two straight lines, the little girl who stuck her tongue out at the tiger, and the beautiful toys she was given in the hospital. Back then, it was a sweet story.

The words haven't changed, but on this reading the sweet story melted away and all I felt was anxiety.

Here is this teacher who lives with these girls. She spends all day taking them around Paris, keeping them safe, and trying to keep up with little Madeline. Even Little Lipstick gasped in horror and said, "No, no, no!" when Madeline walked on the stonewall of the bridge. Can you imagine the heart attack that would cause a teacher? That child would be in the "thinking spot" so fast she wouldn't know what hit her. Once she earned her outings privilege again we'd spend hours practicing how to walk on the sidewalk safely.

And the zoo? I've taken Madeline to the zoo. I've held onto Madeline as she tried to climb over the fence to get to the tigers. I've held her back from attacking the prairie dogs. I wasn't on my own with 11 other girls either. And I didn't have to watch over them at night. I got to spend the post-zoo field trip evening in my own house. With wine.

Oh Miss Clavel, I feel your pain. I know you love Madeline, but that oh-my-goodness she keeps you on your toes. I hope that you enjoy long summers where you are able to take peaceful, relaxing baths, sleep through the night, and go for walks around Paris without constantly being scared that Madeline will suddenly dart in front of a street car when you're not looking. I hope that when Madeline grows up she writes you a letter thanking you for taking her to the hospital when she was sick in the middle of the night, and for all those times you kept her safe on your outings.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"What will that look like?" What to expect and questions to ask if you are getting ready for an IEP

Yesterday I wrote about a blog post I stumbled upon stating that it was IEP or negotiating season. I was a bit put off by the post because of the way it described the IEP process as the school vs the parents. When either party, the school or the parents come into a meeting ready for a fight it usually isn't a very productive meeting.

 The IEP is a meeting about a child. And not just any child. A child who everyone at the table (or almost everyone) knows and cares about. The opinions on what to do in the best interest of the child may not be similar but in most occasions everyone at the table has a common agenda- doing what is best for the student.

BTW, IEPs do not only happen this time of year. They happen throughout the entire year (sometimes even in the summer). Many merely fall in the spring, but they do not have to. In fact, if you have an organized special ed team hopefully they have spread them out throughout the year.

If you ARE getting ready for "IEP Season" here's what you can expect:
  • You should receive the proposed goals ahead of the meeting. If it is two days before the meeting and you haven't seen the goals yet ask the special ed teacher or the case manager for them.
  • The goals you get ahead of time are proposed goals and are merely a draft. At the meeting you can suggest changes to them.
  • When you get to the IEP meeting there should be a special education teacher, a general education teacher, and an administrator or an administrator's designee (this could be another special education teacher in the building, the guidance counselor, or someone the principals have asked to sit in for them.) Anyone else who serves your child- the ESOL teacher, the speech pathologist, the occupational therapist, etc will be there. If they are not you may be asked to sign a release saying that you give them permission to not attend.
  • You can bring anyone you like with you to the meeting, but if they are not the child's other legal guardian (your spouse) you may be asked to sign a waiver before the meeting can begin.
  • The meeting will start by everyone introducing themselves (even if you already know them) and stating why you are there. You will be asked to sign in. At this point you are not agreeing to anything, you are merely stating that you are in attendance.
  • The meeting will start by going over the proposed goals. This is my favorite part of the meeting because as a team we get to really look at the child's strengths, identify areas for growth, and then discuss a goal for him to meet that will address these needs. These goals are for the next calendar year. When you're working with the special education teacher to develop the goal think about whether or not the goals are realistic to be met within a year. Are they too easy? Too hard? If your child meets the goals before the end of year the team can hold an IEP addendum to make changes and write a new goal. 
  • There is a page on the IEP called the "PLOP" page. It is the "Present Levels of Performance" page, but is commonly referred to as PLOP. We can document anything and everything on this page. Anything you want documented on this page- your child's favorite color to your child's fears, strengths, medical concerns, etc. can be put on here. This is a great place to state any concerns you have with the current placement or proposed goals.
  • The IEP will then cover how your child will be assessed through state testing and any accommodations or modifications your child can have. The team will read the legal definition of the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to you and then determine what the LRE for your child will be. This is a great time to ask questions. Will this be in a special ed classroom? A general education classroom? In the hallway with other students? We don't get offended when you ask questions. You should leave the meeting with a clear picture of what your child is doing during the day and where he/she will be served!
  • IEP language can be overwhelming and technical. Don't assume anything and don't let us get away with using acronyms that you don't understand! Question us (you can questions us nicely, we like that), ask us to tell you what this IEP will look like on a day to day basis. 
  • If you are bringing an outside therapist it would be wonderful to let us know ahead of time. We really value the 360 view of your child, but can sometimes be taken by surprised when a therapist shows up unannounced. The same goes for if you are suggesting a new therapy or idea. I've found that the school team is usually more open minded toward ideas when the IEP meeting isn't the first time they've heard the ideas. You are welcome to bring things up at the IEP meeting, but know that teachers and staff can feel suddenly defensive. When you set up the IEP meeting mention what your concerns are, what you'd like to talk about, and who you'd like to bring. It lets us know that we are all on the same side.
  • Know that we really do love your kid. We wouldn't do this job if we didn't. An IEP is an excellent time to get a bunch of educators in a room to really dive deep into how to best meet the needs of your child. Take advantage of the resources in the room. Ask questions, provide input, relate what we're telling you about your child's school performance to what you see at home. Help provide us with a greater picture of your child.
  • You should also know that you never need to sign the IEP that day. You can ask to take it home, think about it, and sign it the next day. Get it back to us in a timely manner, but there isn't any rush. 

The most important advice I can give is to remember this question, "What does that/will that look like?" Ask it frequently throughout the meeting. Ask it when the team is going over your child's strengths and needs. Ask it when they are telling you how they will take data. Ask them when they are explaining the service delivery options. This will paint a clearer picture for you of what is going on during the day.

I should add that nothing I have written here is the opinion of my school or my school district. It is all my personal opinion. Please take this as a simple picture of what you can expect at a meeting, but know that every school, school district, and state is different. Nothing I have written here is in any way binding of what you can expect at a meeting, nor I am saying that schools have to do things certain ways. I'm not a lawyer. Don't take my advice as legal advice. I'm sure there are other things I should say in this disclaimer, and perhaps I shouldn't post this at all, but I want parents to know what to expect and that they are a valued member of the team.

Consequence of Too Many Meetings...

I've been in so many meetings outside of my classroom lately that one of my parents wrote me a note asking if I was still her child's teacher because her daughter comes home saying "No Lipstick, no Lipstick".

I need to get back into that classroom and get down to actually teaching as soon as possible!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Negotiating Season? Not quite.

I was taking a break from IEP prep this evening by scrolling through my Flipbook feed when I ran across this blog from Parenting Magazine about the IEP "Negotiating" season. I've read it a few times now and I get more frustrated each time.
The blog author, Robert Rummel-Hudson, a father who is getting ready for his child's IEP warns other parents of what the process will be like. At first I thought he was writing to encourage parents to take an active role in their child's IEP and to understand that they are an essential part of the IEP team. This is great! I thought. I want more parents to understand their role and how important they are. I want the parents to have a voice.
Then I kept reading.
Rummel-Hudson is speaking from his own experience, which I sincerely hope readers take into account as they read. His experiences are not going to be indicative of IEP meetings everywhere. Each state, each county, each school is going to hold them a bit differently. The same legal guidelines are the same, but every county puts its own spin on it, and each school, each set of personalities and school cultures is going to change how the meetings go.
I fear that parents gearing up for their first IEP meetings are going to be frightened by Rummel-Hudson's post, or will feel that they need to come in ready for a fight. He writes,
As parents, we advocate for our kids receiving as much in the way of services as we can get, and we do so knowing that our success could very well mean fewer resources for other students. That sounds harsh, but we shouldn't worry too much about that, because the school's position is the opposite. Giving each student as little as they can in the way of individual resources means more for everyone. It's an awkward dance that shouldn't be about money and resources but absolutely is.

Um, no. We do not sit at the table thinking, "let's give each student as little as we can because that means more resources for everyone." We sit there and think about what will be best for each individual student. As teachers we are passionate about your child- we want your child to succeed and we want your child to make unbelievable gains. We also know that some things that look like they will be beneficial actually can be a determinate to your child's learning. Some services look great but will hinder your child's ability to scaffold his/her learning, transfer skills and be independent. And then there is the legal aspect that we are, in fact, held to. Schools are required to provide what is considered a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE). Sadly appropriate doesn't always transfer to your child achieving their full potential. This "appropriate" piece stumps us too. It's not us, it's the law and the courts and how the word appropriate is determined. But many of us, if we think there is a way, will fight for you. 

I don't know Rummel-Hudson's situation and I am not a frequent reader of his blog so I may be missing important key points.

I'm not saying that parents shouldn't fight for their kids, but I'm worried that readers may get the wrong impression of IEP meetings from his post. It should never be a school vs the parents meeting. Tomorrow my post will be about what to expect in an IEP meeting.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Love Her for Her

A few weeks ago my day care provider said that my daughter walked kind of funny and recommended that I see a doctor. "She's a year and a half!" was all I could think. What toddler doesn't walk funny? I started to dismiss it but then remembered how frustrated I get at parents who ignore my recommendations to see their doctor. So, out of a professional courtesy we made an appointment.  

Sure enough, my doctor thought that well, maybe my daughter did need physical therapy.

So much has gone through my head since the PT recommendation. At first I was calm and collected about it. What's a little PT? That sounds great! I still don't see how she's walking funny, but from everything they show on the PT website it looks like lots of fun. It can't hurt, and selfishly I'm excited to see what private PT is like. Sure, we'll go. Look at me being the calmest parent in the world, I thought. This is nothing to worry about!

Then I was going through files of students at my school and found a student with significant developmental issues who was diagnosed with the same thing that my pediatrician suspects my daughter may have. I couldn't sleep for days. What does this mean? My wonderful, perfect daughter may have something going on beyond PT concerns? Then, I did what every concerned parent does. I Googled.

Worst. Mistake. Ever.

Fifteen minutes on the internet had me convinced that my daughter has serious problems. After an hour I was curled up on the floor crying. 

Finally I remembered my daughter herself, her smile, her laugh, her toes, the sparkle in her eye, her delight at being outside and playing with friends. I pushed aside my daughter-on-paper, or symptoms-on-internet thoughts and just focused on her. And everything became clear.

How is it we get so caught up in what's normal, what's above average, what's intelligent and what's not as parents? The world of Facebook, Google, mommy blogs and twitter lets us know how far advanced everyone else's kid are. The mere passing breeze of an idea that a child might not be "normal" sends us into a panic. And as a teacher I see it in school as well. So often we want to jump and label a child as "different" and "needs help" instead of accepting them for who they are and moving forward from there. 

Sitting in on special ed meetings with parents I often try to go out of my way to show the parent how much we love their child. Because we do. It's easy at those meetings to get focused on how the child is different than everyone else in their class. It's easy to make a list of everything their child needs to do to catch up or become normal. But part of those meetings must be to find time to step back and talk about the great qualities the child has. To remember that we are talking about a human being that we are privileged to get to work with each day. To tell stories that show the child's strengths instead of just the needs.

They are still our children. They still have hopes and dreams and favorite colors and books that make them giggle. There is no reward out there for the child who can count to 100 by 2 years, or the child who can write her name at 3. That's great and wonderful, but it doesn't make the children that can't "behind". There is no race. 

I recently finished reading Glennon Melton's book, Carrier On Warrior (Glennon was a teacher at The Think Tank  years ago. We overlapped by two years- I didn't know her well, we really only ran into each other at optional Responsive Classroom meetings). She talks about her hopes for her own children in school that aren't about academics, but instead about being good people. About being caring and nice friends who look out for their peers and speak up to injustice and bullies. Academics will come, she writes. Sometimes when we worry about our children's academic achievements we forget to enjoy them where they are.

In my midst of worrying about Little Lipstick's possible walking issues (that may or may not be indicative of something far greater) I forgot to enjoy her for HER. I missed a good week of her life worrying about her when I could have been laughing beside her, tickling her, reading to her, and just being amazed in her individual, daily development. Whether or not her walking will be indicative of something greater is not something that needs to keep me up at night. It will be what it will be. What she needs is someone that will love her for her, fight for her, and give her whatever support she needs so that she can do hard things. It's what any kid needs.

Every parent should be able to clear their head from what the rest of the world expects and enjoy their child's own achievements and personality. Every child deserves parents who adore every move they make because they are amazing human beings and not because it's better than what anyone else did at daycare. 

Tomorrow we go to our PT appointment. Part of me is excited to see what private PT looks like. I'm excited to see the equipment and to have the experience. And part of me is terrified that going there will push us down a rabbit hole we'll never get out of. The worry is silly and illogical, but unmistakably there. 

It's hard to write this over such a seemingly small issue. We're not struggling with an autism diagnosis, or a down syndrome diagnosis, or a traumatic brain injury. But I am acutely aware of my emotions over something so small and how the parents I work with, who have gotten much more significant diagnosis must have felt, and how they must be dealing with these emotions constantly. It's an anxiety I want to understand better in myself so that I can help the parents I work with to appreciate their children for who they are.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Nose Blow

Today I watched one of my kiddos very carefully take a tissue from the tissue box and wipe his own nose. This was a huge, awesome, amazing success and I sat there happily thinking about how far he's come.

Then I watched as he carefully pushed the dirty tissue back inside the tissue box. He turned and gave me a huge grin, knowing that he'd just accomplished something very big.

Baby steps.

Mom vs Mouse

*this post has nothing to do with education, other than the fact that the events that transpired added stress to my life and therefore negatively impacted the education of my students I'm sure*

Around spring break I started to notice something distressing in my car. Tiny little black pellets seemed to be sprinkled around the floor of my car. That's odd, I thought, but I was late for work so quickly forgot about them. The next day there were more sprinkled in new place along with a tissue that overnight had become very holey- the type of holes a small creature may make with its mouth. Black pellets plus small mouth holes could only mean one thing.

This was decidedly NOT OK. There could not be a mouse in my car. Absolutely not. It did not have permission to live in my car. My car is not an inhabitable place. It is for driving and for singing the ABC song at the top of your lungs* even when Raffi's toddler-friendly voice is singing something totally unrelated to the ABCs.Yet it seemed that even after explaining my Absolutely Not reasoning to the mouse he had no intention of leaving my mouse-house of a Corolla.

I realized I had limited options. I could:
1) Ignore the fact that a mouse was living in my car and pray that he'd go away on his own
2) Sell the car
3) Leave the car unlocked in an unsafe place and pray that it got stolen and never returned
4) Catch mouse, clean mouse droppings, disinfect car
5) Name mouse, adopt him as a pet. Leave him food every night and pretend that we live with Stuart Little.

Option 4 sounded way to hard but since Mr. Lipstick refused to let me do options 2 and 3 and option 1 and 5 seemed bad for my daughter's health, I gave in. I even called a car service station and asked them if they could get rid of the mouse for me. They laughed. A little too hard, and then told me that having a mouse in your car is a huge problem and that I should get rid of it. Thanks, that hadn't occurred to me before.

So we set traps*. We woke up in the next morning like it was Christmas day and ran to the car to see if we would discover that we'd caught the little guy. Nothing. Maybe he left on his own, we thought. Maybe with the warm weather he's off to better places. Maybe he realized that my car isn't a great place to live.

We cleaned the car and then drove it to one of those car detailing places to get it professionally cleaned. We paid for the fancy anti-mouse cleaning and then marveled at the beauty of the car. Post-cleaning we even contemplated selling it because it was never going to be that clean again. But alas, we decided to be responsible.

Turns out we should have sold it (mouse included) because the next morning we came out to the beautifully cleaned car only to find brand new mouse droppings. The mouse had in fact not left, but had hidden somewhere during the cleaning, watching and plotting when it was safe to return out into the open to poop around my car.

We put down the traps again and waited.

Nothing inside the traps but just to mock me the mouse pooped all over the traps. The mouse, who at this point we'll call Herman because he's practically become a part of the family (but not a good part, like an evil step mother who's out to get you) was clearly thumbing his nose at us. Fine, little mouse. BRING IT.

And yet...

For two weeks he pooped beside the traps and at one point even managed to unset the trap making it safe for him to sneak inside to steal the peanut butter. This mouse was good. I wonder how many other "Squatter Car Rights" he's pulled in his lifetime.

For two weeks I drove around in my car knowing that Herman was sitting nearby just watching and waiting. Perhaps like my daughter he was bobbing his head up and down to Raffi, enjoying the tunes. I felt watched constantly.

Yet this afternoon I sank into my car seat only to find that my car was filled with an unmistakable odor- the stench of a dead rodent on a hot day.

Unless Herman was just a low level mouse in a much bigger mouse conspiracy, my car is mouse free. Or at least Herman-free. I hope he died while happily gorging himself on peanut butter and singing Raffi songs in his head.

*It should be noted that my 19 month old is not actually singing the ABCs. She sings "A,B, EIEIO, LMNP, SSSSSSSS, XXXXX, MINE, MINE, MINE AAA".  I like the fact that 1) EIEIO shows up in every song she sings 2) Her interpretation of the end of the ABC song is to announce that they are all here letters (as in, "now I know MY ABCs") and 3) She is, for whatever reason, obsessed with the letter S.

**There was a time in my life when I was totally a no-kill trap type of girl. That was before the internet and before I had a daughter. Once I googled and realized just how dirty those mice are I wasn't taking any chances. However I do feel confident in the fact that my car momentarily provided Herman a very nice house for a few weeks. He had a good thing going for awhile.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Miss Nelson is Missing!

I love sharing my favorite children's books with classes each year. I haven't read Miss Nelson is Missing with a class in awhile because the humor in it is easily lost on my kiddos with disabilities. However, after playing with adapting books this year I decided to try it.

If nothing else, I enjoyed the literacy experience of going through the book and deciding what vocabulary to pull out and what needed to become a touch-and-feel experience to help their understanding. 
Now I just need to find a good Viola Swamp doll for our retelling center!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kid Watching vs Kid Telling

Yesterday I looked up from a reading group to see one of my students standing on the carpet, mouth open, staring through toy binoculars. She was supposed to be sitting on the carpet retelling the story Scaredy Squirrel with her friend. The binoculars were a part of the center, but they were not for her to use, they were for use with the toy squirrel as the kids retold the story. I'd modeled how to retell it using the objects so there really shouldn't be any confusion on the subject.

Scaredy Squirrel, in case you don't know, is a scared squirrel who refuses to leave his tree. He is scared of just about everything- germs, green Martians, sharks, poison ivy, and killer bees. He takes all sorts of precautions to avoid leaving his tree. Then one day, while looking through his binoculars he sees a killer bee. He panics, jumps from the tree, realizes he is a flying squirrel, glides to the ground, and then starts to take more risks in his life. There is a whole series of this little squirrels adventures. I highly recommend reading them.

Watching my appealingly aimless friend I took that brief teacher moment where you contemplate what to do. I could leave my reading group and go lecture her on not following directions. This would disturb my readers but maybe next time she'd do the right thing. Or I could stay with my readers and hope that she'd make the choice to come back to get to work on her own. At which point I would praise her for making such a good decision. The praise would influence her future behavior more than a lecture. She wasn't being disruptive, just aimless.

So I left her there but kept a look out from the corner of my eye.

Suddenly she dropped the binoculars, yelled "ahhhhhhh!!" threw her arms out to the side and ran across the carpet. A big smile spread across her face and she repeated the whole series of motions, the long staring through the binoculars, the "ahhhhhh", the arms, the running and smiling.

That's when I realized she wasn't standing there just blankly looking through binoculars, she was actually acting out the story. It was exactly what I wanted the kids to do. The entire purpose of the center is for the kids to interact with the story using their imaginations. I want them sequencing the events of the story through play so that they are really spending time with the story.

She was actually being Scaredy Squirrel. She was watching for danger as she stood there, looking around with her binoculars. Then she was seeing the killer bee, panicking, jumping, flying, and realizing that she could be brave.

She wasn't doing exactly what I had told here to do, but she was doing exactly what I wanted her to do. She got the story. In fact, she got it enough that she could independently act out the plot line.

I went back to my reading group silently, but smiling as she panicked, fell, and flew across the carpet over and over again. If I'd zoomed over with my own agenda I would have squelched her creativity in that moment. I'm so glad that for a moment I was a kid watcher instead of a kid-teller.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

And we're.... READING!

Today wasn't my favorite day. I was frustrated with myself, with my profession, with just...  everything. I spent most of the day feeling like I wasn't a good mommy, a good teacher, a good friend or a good wife. The pieces of my life felt like the jumbled left overs of a puzzle that you spend time trying to jam together, bend the cardboard a bit, and make them fit, but never quite work.

Then, one of the awesome kindergarten teachers I work with stopped me and told me that one of my friends was included in her guided reading group today and rocked it!

This seems small, yet- this is a student whose been put in an "intellectual disabilities program" because she wasn't thought to be able to handle the general education curriculum. She's worked and worked and we've worked and worked and we slowly realized that she maybe COULD at least spend time in the general education classroom. We pushed her in for morning meeting- a low key, community building, no stress time of day.

Then it was reading workshop. Reading centers are another low stress part of the day where she could work in the classroom with her gen ed peers but not be under any pressure to perform. That went well, so the kinder teacher and I decided to take a leap of faith and push her in for actual guided reading.

Guided reading may be the most important part of our day. It's a small group where we as teachers work our little readers hard- not letting one moment slip by without squeezing in some teaching point or chance for academic work. It's right beside peers, working along with them, all reading simultaneous to themselves.

And yet, she rocked it. She apparently sat with a group of other students, listened to the book introduction, read the book to herself, and answered questions about the book. She wasn't given lower material than the other students just to be included- she was doing what they were doing.

I could dance on the clouds.

The rest of the day still felt like trying to make a puzzle from lost pieces, but every time I think of my friend I have to smile.

We can do hard things.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Proud of Our Profession: NPR gives a window into Harper High School

In looking for something to occupy me on a long car trip while Mr. Lipstick did grad work and baby Lipstick slept I stumbled upon NPR's podcasts on Harper High. I soon became so pulled into the podcast that I found myself giving my poor husband and daughter dirty looks if they talked or tried to interrupt me.

The two hour long episodes are like something out of The Wire, except that its not HBO, it's real. Real kids, real school, real neighborhoods. Yet it's hard to wrap your head around the reality of it all.

What struck me immediately was the dedication of the teachers and school staff. It was another moment where I was fiercely proud of my profession. The work the school staff does, the lengths they go to in order to keep their students alive is incredible.


Not test scores, not finding good colleges, not acing SATs (although I'm sure they do that too), but alive.

One social worker at the school breaks down in tears by the lack of control- knowing there would be violence yet being helpless to stop it.

The two episodes paint a realistic and in depth picture of the lengths school staff goes to for the students and community, while also showing the pain and connections they have with the students.

Listening made me proud to say I am a teacher, proud to be a part of a profession filled with such dedicated people.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Poetry Success!!

 The general education kindergarten classes, who I just started planning with, are doing a poetry unit. Listening to them plan their unit once again made me nostalgic for teaching gen ed- I loved teaching poetry! I loved pulling poems from kids and exposing them to poems that don't rhyme. I found that students who have difficulty composing stories or essays felt much more successful and safe writing poems.

How on earth, I wondered- was I going to take poetry and bring it to my students? I struggled with this all week, wondering how I'd get them interested in poetry and then how we'd even begin to write a class text, let alone how they'd write independently.

After a lot of thinking as well as a lot of promsing myself that it was OK to try something that may utterly fail, I printed out a lot of Board Maker icons. I made 3 pages that each were on a topic- one was on the playground, one on reading, and one on dancing.

Then I modeled using the icons to write a class poem. We wrote about our brand new playground. I was surprised and shocked at how well my kids did choosing words for the class poem. When they were given a list of words to choose from they were excited to decide which words to use and which to cast away. Some even decided on words we didn't have pictures for, so we wrote the words in.

After writing the class text we got to work on our own independent poetry writing. Each child was able to choose their topic sheet, and then could select the words they wanted to use to describe their topic. Some were fairly perscribed, but others went outside of the box. Having the word-bank to ground them they were able to think of other words they wanted to add to their poem. 

  One of the best parts about it was that it was fairly independent. They got serious about their cutting and without me having to prompt them they cut, glued, and re-read their poems proudly. It was fun to watch their serious faces as they carefully selected their words.

Afterwards I asked them to read their poems to me and I typed them on the computer. The poems didn't necessarily match the pictures word for word, which was good because it allowed them to be creative in their own poem.

I love the reading poem. I love that Rock Star's idea of reading a book is the excitement of a scary wolf running away. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Introverts in the Classroom

One of my most vivid school memories is my fourth grade teacher standing in the hallway, yelling at me to speak loudly enough for her to hear me in the hallway. All those other fourth grade eyes on me as I mustered up the confidence to make my voice loud. Kids giggled and the teacher tried to play it off as a joke. As everyone laughed I was speechless, slowly deciding that I had nothing to share that was worth this. My voice had no reason to be that loud.

I don't have good memories of school. Some, I suppose, here and there. I don't necessarily have bad memories, but I can't say that school was something I liked. I worked hard because that was what you were suppose to do, but most of my memories are angst-filled days being terrified I'd be called on, or wouldn't be smart enough, or would say something wrong. And even if I knew an answer the minute I was called on the answer would slip through my fingers just beyond my grasp. I find this true even today when I'm in certain stressful situations. In college I'd tell professors that I'd rather accept a B than be forced to participate in whole group discussions- even in seminar-based classes.

A colleague just shared an article with me about Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. The brief summary of the book hit home, and while it brought back the flood of fourth grade memories, it also explained where my angst came from. Introverts often stop learning when they feel threatened by a classroom environment built around extroverts. 

The article also points out the difference between introverts and shy children. Shy children are likely to watch kids play, wanting to engage but being scared to do so, while introverts are perfectly happy to play by themselves.

With half of our population being classified as introverts it is hard to think that we've designed classrooms specifically for extroverts, but we really have. Things are changing- teaching methods that allow for students to reflect, turn and talk to one another, and to process information in small groups or in different ways help meet the needs of all students. But we still have a ways to go. 

How often are we forcing square pegs into round holes and calling it an education? 

Friday, April 5, 2013

"How do you know?"

Another teaching strategy I used constantly as a general education teacher was asking the students "How do you know?" after they answer a question. This encouraged them to think of the process they used to get to their answer, allowed the rest of the class to hear someone other than me explain how to solve a problem, gave me insight into how the student went about solving the problem (right or wrong) and took the emphasis off of whether or not the answer was correct and put the emphasis on the student's work (thank you, Mindset!).

Just like my problem with using talking partners, I'd totally given up on asking my students to justify their answers this year. Again, sometimes getting the full sentence "I am happy" is pulling teeth, so it seemed like a waste of time to ask them how they know an answer. We are really working on answering basic questions and any question that starts with "how" is usually abstract.

At the same March training I started to wonder how I could bring the "how do you know?" question down to my kids. It's a simple tool that I believed so strongly in when I was in general education. I want my students with intellectual disabilities to have the same chance to learn how to reflect on how they learn and process information. In some ways it's even more valuable for them than it is for other students. The stakes are so much higher. We think they cognitively can't understand knowing how they get information, but how will we know if we don't try?

SO, again I went back to the weather question. Now after I ask the class to turn and talk to their talking partners about the weather I ask them how they knew what the weather was. At first I had to give them two choices- did you look out the window, or did you read it in a book? And honestly, at first I had to say, "You looked out the window! That was so smart. You had a question you didn't know, so to answer it you looked out the window!" Then I'd ask the question again and if the student still didn't respond I'd give them the answer and tell them what to say.

It's taken weeks, but now many of them are able to verbalize how they know about the answer.

And although it's taken weeks it's really take no more than a minute a two a day to put into our routine. It's a quick part of our day to add in, and now that we've got it down we can start applying it to other areas of our day. "How did you know that 4 came after 5?" "How did you know that the characters in the book were a dog and a cat?"

Just having the conversation reminds them that they are active learners. I'm not sure that any of them realized that knowledge wasn't a magical thing that just popped into your brain at random times. I can't imagine what it is like to watch everyone around you learn things so quickly while you are struggling with them yourself. I think you would start to believe in magic.

But if my kids can understand that they are capable of problem solving- of finding out information- and of being responsible for what they know- they can add so much to their own lives.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Turn and Talk

In the first nine years of my teaching career barely a day went by when I didn't ask my students to turn and talk to each other during a lesson. Once the strategy was introduced to me in my first year I found it invaluable. It encourages children to be engaged and actively participate during what would otherwise be a one-woman show, it forces everyone to be interacting with the concepts and ideas of the lesson, it gives you a chance to take data and do a quick assessment on the whole class' understanding, and it teaches children to listen to one another. Plus, 9 out of 10 times the lesson goes deeper than you expected it to when you get those little minds working. In general, asking children to talk to each other- however you want to call it- "eye to eye, knee to knee", "turn and talk", "turn to your talking partner" "talk moves", is one of those teaching strategies that once you start you can't stop. As a general education teacher I often found that if a lesson was going south it was because I hadn't put enough partner talk time into the lesson.

In the beginning of this year, however, I didn't see how it would be possible. My kids have a difficult time forming sentences and some of them are non-verbal. Asking them to talk to each other didn't seem very fair or productive. So I sadly let it go as one of those "that's for other classrooms".

In the beginning of March, however, I was at a training with some general education teachers from my school who were talking about different ways to use turn and talk in the classroom. At first I started to get nostalgic for the days when I could get powerful whole class discussions from turn and talk. Then I started to wonder why I needed to be nostalgic  Listening to the group of teachers talk I realized that I didn't have to give it up. I just needed to modify it, and make it an accessible strategy for my students. There was still value in doing it, and if introduced correctly, my kids could still benefit from it just as much as the general education students.

SO, I started with the weather.

We talk about the weather every. single. day. I know I'm personally tired of charting the weather, but its one of those routines that you just do.

So why not turn weather into a time for talking?

I set up my class ipad with the Answers HD app which works as an assisted communication device. My non-verbal kiddos can look the picture choices of the weather and hit the ipad button in order to tell their partner what the weather is. If I didn't have the ipad, however, I would just use a sheet with weather choices on it so that the children could point to what they thought the weather was that day.

In the beginning- and by beginning I mean first two weeks- it was painful. I'd ask them to talk to their partner and give them a partner and they'd still sit quietly. I had to model it. And model it. And model it. But the

n one day they got it. One day I said, "turn and tell your partner what you think the weather is" and there was immediate movement. Immediate conversation. Immediate button pushing.

Now that we've got it down we're ready to generalize our partner-talking skills into academic areas. I can start asking them to partner-talk during reading and math lessons as a way, just like with the general education population- to get the more involved and active during a lesson. AND, now if they are in the general education classroom and are asked to turn and talk they'll know exactly what to do. It makes inclusion that much easier.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Fools!

There is nothing quite like April Fools in an elementary school. I lament on this every year because every year it tends to be painful. As I got ready for work today I tried to decide the best tactic to take with my class-
1) utterly ignore the holiday all together and pray that no one knows what it is
2) dive head first into it and teach them about it myself
3) glare at them if they try to make a joke at all.

Seeing that it was the first day back from break and all we really needed to do was get back into the swing of things I decided to go with #2 and dive head first into the holiday.

I REALLY wanted to go with #1, but I've found in the past that kids with intellectual disabilities don't always understand April Fools Day. When someone decides to make a joke (and it always happens when adults aren't around to explain, either on the bus, at the park by their house, or in the hallways) they get offended and take it personally. Which can end up with them getting into a lot of trouble if they decide to take matters into their own hands and hit the kid who innocently said, "Hey, you have a spider on your shoe!"

SO, even though I personally think April Fools is a horrid day, I decided that teaching them about the day would actually be important. It's a social phenomena that is just a bit hard to wrap your head around.

"There's an elephant behind you!"
"There's a spider on your head!"
"There's a snake under your chair!"

Giggle, giggle, giggle, *long teacher sigh*

We ended up playing a joke on our principals. We wrote a letter telling them that there was an elephant in our classroom and that we needed help getting it out. Hysterical. Have you ever heard of a funnier joke? I know. You'd think that we never laugh in my class the way my kids roared at this joke.
They thought this was just so funny that when it came time to deliver the letter the only thing they could do was point at my principal and say "ELEPHANT!" which really came out as quite rude. Luckily they yelled "April Fools!" before anyone had time to say anything else.

More hysterical laughter.

Thank goodness for administrators willing to play along.

I'm not sure the kids really understood the concept of April Fools, but at least they weren't going to be offended if anyone played an April Fools joke on them, and *hopefully* they'll remember that we only play these jokes once a year.