Thursday, June 27, 2013

Real Authors Have a Real Audience

After ten years of teaching I've collected a lot of children's books. As in, books actually written by children. Most of these books kids take home, but inevitably every year kids leave some behind. Last year when I moved schools I had a big box of these books that sat in the corner of my house for awhile as I got the courage to throw them away. Before I was able to follow through with putting these literary works of other people's children in the trash my daughter- a true book lover- found the box. And fell in love.

Now these are not good books. They are written by 6 year olds, many with special needs, and almost all were learning English. Some almost exclusively spoke (and wrote) in their native language. Some books (like the one in my daughter's book basket above) were class texts recounting a field trip or some class event. Those in particular are painfully boring because they really only list a series of events. None of these twists and turns, or meaningful plot lines we look for as adults.

And yet my daughter will ask to have us read these books to her. They are simple. The illustrations are bright and clear. They have no real underlying message. They speak to her. Short, sweet.

One of my favorites:
"The Ant Who Didn't Have No One to Play With"
"One day there was an ant. He didn't have anyone to play with.
He asked a grasshopper. He said no.
He asked a ladybug. He said no.
He asked an ant. He said yes."
The end.

Each page only has two figures- the ant and whoever he is talking to.  Simple, clear, concise.

I giggle to myself when my daughter goes for these books. I told the 6 year olds that they were authors when we wrote these books. I made a big deal of how they were writing REAL BOOKS like MO WILLEMS. And yet, we all knew the truth. Or we thought we did.

To my almost two year old- they are real books.

For those of you who teach writing feel free to share this with your 6 year olds. Who knows who might one day find their published books?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

To Teach or not to Teach?

Since about April I've been struggling with the question of whether or not to keep teaching. Around spring break I came to this realization that I wasn't sure what I was doing anymore.

In the past I loved my job. I was proud to say I was a teacher, and would scoff at people who talked to me condescendingly about my "cute" job. I was in this for kids, and what's more, I was exceptionally happy doing it. Everyday on the way home I'd think about my day and send a silent prayer to God thanking Him for blessing me with a job I loved. I felt lucky to be in this career, lucky to work with the children I worked with, and lucky to be able to help teach children to read. I was proud.

I'm not sure what changed. Going back over old blog posts from this year I can slowly watch the transformation. The year started with some "I love my job" posts, but towards the end they were few and far between. It's been the slow death of a dream.

What changed?

Is it me? In April I realized it's been TEN years. I've spent ten years perfecting my craft. I like to think that I'm good at this job. I am extremely dedicated to being good at this job. I read books, take classes, reflect, blog, analyze, research, and put in long hours to do the best I can at this job. In ten years I've learned so much. I'm a much better teacher than I was ending my first year teaching ten years ago.

And yet, I have the same job that anyone right out of college could have. Although I've personally made huge gains professionally none of those really matter. I hold the same job 22 year olds are qualified for. We have the same voice, are treated the same professionally, and are considered the same in the eyes of the school district. For that matter, we're treated the same in the eyes of society. Or maybe not. Maybe the 22 year old is given more respect because there is still time for her to get out. This isn't her career yet- it's just a stopping place.

The realization that despite the work I've done I haven't actually gone anywhere was humbling and shocking. What am I doing? I wondered. Why work so hard? Why be so dedicated? Before I was a mother it wasn't even a question. Hours and hours after school was worth it. But now? I love working hard, but I realize that hard work- and I'm talking about the hours late into the night, the hours on the weekend, the checking and responding to emails while my daughter plays- seems pointless. Now I'm taking away from family time but where am I going? I'm treading water, and exhausting myself doing so, for what? To continue to hold a job I could have been hired for at 22, and could keep until I was 65.

This took me to job search engines, hoping, perhaps that I'd find jobs that my ten years would justify. I didn't even want to apply for these jobs, I just wanted to know that somewhere out there my ten years of experience meant something.

What I found was that there seem to be few jobs out there that want a former teacher. If jobs do want someone with teaching experience they seem to want a 20 something- at least 3 years of classroom experience. If I apply for those jobs I'll be competing against 20 somethings who will work for less. Twenty somethings without families.

Has my ten year dedication and love for my job backed me into a corner? Is this the meaning of teacher burn out?

Or is it the job?
In ten years of teaching I've seen the profession change. When I started teaching I was a first grade classroom teacher. The same curriculum, same lessons and activities we used in first grade then are not being used in kindergarten. The kids haven't changed, so why has our expectations for them changed?

I've spent ten years doing research, analyzing kids, reading books, being coached, and truly trying to understand child development and how children learn so I can apply it in the classroom. And for awhile we were asked to be professionals and apply our knowledge to our teaching. But that too seems to have changed. What we know is best for kids- what we know about how kids learn, how to teach, how to analyze children's mistakes to use as teaching points, anything that made the job a place for an intelligent professional seems to no longer be respected or wanted. I loved the job when it asked me to watch children learn to read as a scientist- analyzing and making decisions to produce a better reader. That no longer seems to be what we're asked to do. And I don't know if I want to be a part of that anymore.

Where do I go next?
Last year I decided I was not going to finish my doctorate program because I couldn't have a family, teach full time, and get my doctorate- and I wasn't ready to be out of the classroom. Now that I'm ready to go full time for my doctorate my GREs are expired. Am I going to spend the summer studying? (I'm trying, I really am.)

I want to love my job again.  But I also want the profession to be different. I don't want to wake up at 50 feeling absolutely stuck in a job that doesn't respect me despite the years of work I've put into it. Why is our profession like this? What has happened to teaching? When is the pendulum swinging back?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Driving Miss Lipstick (random, non-education related moment)

I sit in traffic, my hands on the steering wheel, staring out at the road in front of me, feeling like a chauffeur. The two girls in the back seat giggle and squeal in what seems to be their own language. Their music blares from the back seat- nothing I would ever choose to listen to on my own. My rides with  my daughter are usually filled with conversation. We talk about everything, our observations, our plans for the day, what we should have for dinner. Now though, as she chats non-stop to her best friend in the back seat I am silent. My few attempts to join in the conversation are met with a long silence, followed by a sharp "Mama". Her normally sweet voice is short and exasperated. As if to say, "Drive women. Your opinion isn't wanted for back here." A new song comes on and they squeal in delight and start singing along. Again I am silent. Usually we swing The Wheels on the Bus together, but today it's clear I've been replaced by a perky 18 month old. A week of carpooling with her best friend to daycare has left my almost two year old with a new sense of independence in life I didn't think I'd experience until she was 16. Or 12 at least.

We Can Do Hard Things

Between our Readers' Theater excitement and our Authors' Celebration we held a "We Can Do Hard Things" award ceremony in our classroom. This wasn't just to celebrate what each student did well, but to highlight what they worked hard on this year.

 It was powerful to stand up in front of a group of children who try so hard everyday and announce to their families and friends what they worked so hard. Maybe not what they are the best at, or even good at- but to draw everyone's attention (including their own) to the magnificent growth they made.

Some of my students might not always be able to write their names correctly, but in the beginning of the year they could only write one letter. Throughout the year they worked so hard on the rest of those letters. While writing comes easily to most children- visual motor planning happens without a second thought- my students agonize over connecting lines on the page, placing their pencil on the paper, remembering what letters to write, in order, and how to write those letters. For them it is no easy task. But they did it.

What my students need to learn more than anything is that they can do hard things. Because things are harder for them than most children adults and their peers end up doing a lot for them. This sends the message to my students that they can't do it themselves so why even try. Independence is something they have to fight for. They have to learn that doing hard things pays off in the end. It's a harder lesson than most children have to learn because for most children things- writing their name, walking, talking, reading- aren't too hard. My kids watch their peers learn to do these things "easily" and assume that they can't do them, or that the hard work isn't worth it.
Boy with Puzzle- Drawn by former student with autism when he was in first grade

I tried to create the "we can do hard things" culture in my room this year. A message that doing hard things is just what we do. We don't just do things that are easy- we do things that are hard, and that is OK. I hope the message went through- and that the kids will proudly look at their "Hard Things" award as a reminder that hard is good.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Celebrations- Surviving readers' theater and an author celebration all in one day

Our end of year Readers' Theater version of Hattie and the Fox went off with, well, lots of excitement and energy, just like everything else in our class has gone this year. We had quite the turn out in the audience and for the most part the kids all remembered their lines and spend the play grinning wildly and delivering their two sentence line over and over again. Our cow remembered to moo and with prompting everyone was pretty much on cue. We used the ipad app Answers HD to program in one child's line so that when it was his turn to perform he just had to hit a button that said the line for him. After hitting the button he then repeated the line orally, which he did during the performance for the most part. Everyone was themselves during the play- I wish I could post pictures of the awesomeness on the blog because even the still pictures sum up the nature of the play and our class.

Our play was followed by a writing celebration with another class. We had reserved the multi-purpose room so that each child got to sit at one long table decorated with a "Meet the Author" table cloth and the stack of books the child had written throughout the year. The guests were asked to circulate throughout the room, stopping to read with each author. Minus a few behavior issues and children who were overwhelmed by the amount of adults and family members in the room it went well- and was certainly a moment where our kids got to shine.

I went home on quite a high that day, which I realize was rare this year. But that day, watching the students show off their hard work from the year, giggle with each other, and celebrate their accomplishments was a fabulous remember of why I do this job. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Our favorite characters

Every year I ask my students to make puppets of their favorite book characters.

Here are some of this year's:

Two Pete the Cats, the Paper Bag Princess, and the Ants Go Marching

Being Over

And it's over. The year ended for the students on Tuesday, and I have to admit that I've needed that much time to even begin processing the year. The first two days I had to myself I spent doing nothing but dropping Little Lipstick off at daycare and coming home to sleep on the couch for hours on end. It was a good year, but it was a hard year.

I don't think I am fully processing what it meant to be at a brand new school. So many little things had to be established- almost unimportant after thoughts that you normally wouldn't even think of because in most places these routines or unspoken rituals have been in place for years. Important small things like the fire drill procedure to unimportant small things like where supplies will be kept, how to get coverage for a meeting, where to hold meetings, how to reserve rooms, who do you tell when you need to get a sub, how to send students to the clinic, how to communicate between rooms, even how the flow of student traffic at dismissal will go. Every month, every new event brings another question of how we will handle something. And even if you aren't making the decisions you are impacted by the questions and newness of it all. Watching a new community of teachers, students, and parents form from what was just a building is an experience that could be a sociology thesis.

And personally I was in a brand new job myself. Although I had two of the same students I'd taught in the past, being in an official intellectual disabilities program meant I was in a whole new field as far as what sort of curriculum I was expected to teach, and some of the behaviors and abilities of my students. I learned so much. Learned isn't even the right word- grew, changed, experienced, lived- the year itself was so much. I don't think I've put in this many hours since my first year teaching.

The year WAS. It changed me as an educator, made me look at education in a new way, and refocused my thoughts on what I am doing in the field. It wasn't a good year or a bad year, it was just The Year. There will be days the rest of my life that I will regret that I was a part of The Year, and there will be days I will be truly thankful that I experienced it.

And now it is over. Well, almost over. The nature of the year meant that there are some unfinished loose ends that we'll be working on tying up all summer. So it is over on paper. At night my thoughts go to next year and not surviving the next day. The pit in my stomach of having to go back to work on Monday is still lingering, but with time will fade. I feel like I can start being the wife and friend that I just haven't been this year. I've never felt like I deserved a summer break so much.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

End of Year Inner Struggles

I have decided that it is fundamentally impossible to pack up my classroom. There aren't enough hours in the day/boxes available/ space to store items to make it so that one week from today my classroom will be packed and ready to go.

This time of year, and the stress of "how will this all possibly ever get done?" always brings about the same inner turmoil.

Inner struggle #1- I am absolutely determined not to take anything off the walls yet. The minute things come off the walls the kids know that it is OVER. The posters we've referred to all year, their art work, the rules- once it's gone the classroom no longer looks like it belongs to them. And once they know longer feel that the classroom is theirs, well, why bother acting like it is theirs?  EXCEPT that OMG taking things off the walls is so easy to do, and makes you feel so much better. The room is a disaster, you have piles of work to do, but at least your walls are clean and ready for next September. Every year I tell myself I'm going to wait to take things off the walls. And I'm going to wait, and wait, and...  eventually I crack. We'll see how far I can get this year. Let me tell you, right now it's rough.

Max is also a fan of the "stuff and run" method
Inner struggle #2- Do you take the time to organize materials now so they'll be ready for unpacking in August, or do you stuff everything in a box and pray that you have enough time to deal with it in August? Every year I'm determined to organize in June. Some years I even start in May. It's admirable really. Today I even brought Little Lipstick back to my classroom and let her "help" me pick up the linking cubes and put them away so I could take time to really organize my math games. Once she started to melt down and my own stomach was rumbling I did the "stuff and run" strategy of "I'll deal with this tomorrow so I'll just stuff this into the closest box right now."  Let's be honest. Those games are staying in those boxes until September. But since I probably will no longer be able to find them because of the stuff and run, they'll be staying in them a lot longer.

Inner struggle #3- Do I methodically wipe down all of the book baskets and plastic crates? Do I scrub stray marker and pencil markings off the supply caddies so that next year feels more like a fresh start? Or do I just roll my eyes, figure they'll only get dirty again by the end of September and just stack them in a corner? Yeah. That's usually the option I go for, but the inner struggle occurs when I feel guilty about the stacking with the crayon markers still on them.

Inner struggle #4- All lessons up until the last day will be meaningful and engaging. No movies, no meaningless activities designed to keep the kids busy so I can get work done. Good intentions really are something, aren't they? The book room books have been turned in, the math materials are packed up waiting to be turned in, report cards are completed and progress reports are typed and ready to go. Define meaningful and engaging activity. I mean, a movie, when given the right intro can be meaningful and engaging,
right? (I have not yet shown a movie. That doesn't mean it won't happen. I'm trying, I really am.)

And so I will fight my inner battles right up until the last day. Please, oh god of teachers, help me be strong.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Break a Leg? When readers' theater takes on a life of its own...

I'm not sure what I was thinking when I decided that we'd do Hattie and the Fox as a readers' theater. Perhaps I was feeling ambitious, overly zealous, or thought that in the midst of all the rest of end of year chaos that it would be a really good idea to take on another project.


What was I thinking?

We have one week of school left. Everyone wears their shorts to school and then spends the day checking out the scars on their knees from their exciting summer misadventures. The swimming pools are open. The kids can smell the chlorine calling them from the open windows of the classroom. Heck, I can smell the chlorine calling me. 

Put a fork in us, we are DONE.

And yet, we still have this play. A play that is making Mrs. Lipstick be a bit grouchy and unrealistic right when we should be having dance parties and celebrations.

Now, in the past readers' theater presentations have been no big thing. The kids practice their lines, we make construction paper costumes, we paint scenery, we invite other classes, we really don't make a big deal of it. It's something to keep us busy once all the guided reading books have been turned back in. This year it's about the same on paper- we practice our lines over and over again, we've made the construction paper costumes and painted the scenery, but everything is harder. Each step needs a lot more forethought and planning. Instead of ending up with activities that can happily keep kids busy for an hour after five minutes we have paint on the floor. And the door. And the table. And the kids. I will owe the custodian a large bottle of something delicious after this project is over.  And although we've made costumes I'm not sure that anyone will actually put the costumes on. We're a bit particular about what we wear. Sentence strip headbands aren't anyone's favorite thing...  But we're trying.

We practice everyday. Since Hattie is a pretty repetitive story it's the perfect readers' theater play for our kids because they each only have one line (except for Hattie) but they get to say the same line over and over and over and over again. Which is, frankly, beautiful. High participation with only one line to read. We even have the ipad cued up so that our non-responsive friends can hit the button on the ipad which will say then line and then our friends can repeat the line. So far so good. 

It's getting better. Everyday they seem to be able to say their lines with fewer prompts. Less reminders. They are even starting to sound like they are in a play. They are taking turns with their lines and understand when to talk and when not to talk. We're even able to sit still during practice without giggling hysterically, sitting upside down in our chairs, or touching our neighbor. Well, almost. Maybe I'm in a glass-half-full mode right now.

We've invited everyone we know. Parents, principals, teachers, friends. If it is going to be a disaster there will be a large crowd to watch the disaster unfold. I have faith that people coming love our kids and will be understanding. I have faith that everyone will appreciate the hard work the kids themselves are putting into this project, despite whatever outcome may happen when we fill the room with strangers and force them all to wear paper crowns and signs. 

One more week and I think I'm going to give myself an ulcer before Friday's show. Keep your fingers crossed and tell us to break a leg.

Animal Research Mural

This is our class mural after we finished our animal research projects. It's one of my favorite murals from the year. Each student got to choose one animal to research using the site Pebble Go. After they did their research and answered questions about how many legs their animal has, what it eats, what kind of babies it has, and how it walks, each student wrote an "All About Book" (Think a very basic research report)

When their book was complete they were able to work make their own animals out of construction paper. It was completely free-form, as you can see. I sat with each child to help but didn't really provide any guidance and they pretty much had to do all the cutting, gluing, and planning themselves. I mean, look at that duck. That is one inspired duck. And the two sharks clearly look very different, but are both awesome. The children had to decide where their animal went on the mural based on what they learned in their research (how did their animal get around? Did it swim? Walk? Fly? Notice the duck has it's feet in the water. Very intentional.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mrs. Wishy Washy success: Just look at them!

It took me an entire year but I found the old, good Mrs. Wishy Washy books, ordered them, and now have them in my classroom. You can only imagine the dance I did when they were delivered to me, and the happy gasps that came out of my students' mouths. Look at all those Mrs. Wishy Washy books!  Just look at them!

Bring on next September! I'm already mentally planning my lessons around The Hungry Giant, Mrs. Wishy Washy and The Meanies.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Just 30 minutes... 30 seconds?

My poor cat gets the brunt of most everything around here, especially now that we have a little one. But seriously, after a full week of taking care of students then coming home to take care of my daughter and then just being a friend and wife to my husband I can't take it anymore. All the poor cat wants to do is cuddle but I am absolutely incapable of giving anything, even a cuddle to anyone else for the next 30 minutes. I need time to not have to think of anyone but myself.

30 minutes. That's it.

The look the cat is giving me tells me that I am not going to get it, but at least she's quiet and not yelling "MRS LIPSTICK" or "MAMA" loudly into my ear...

Monday, June 3, 2013

Touch and Feel: Adapting our Guided Reading Texts

Another Donors Choose project up and running! 
Adapted Version of The Snowy Day

This whole year has been one long exploration into how best to bring reading to students with low incidence disabilities such as autism and intellectual disabilities. It started with trying to adapt our read aloud texts to make them more engaging for my students. After working together with a great team we're getting ready to spend time this summer adapting actual guided reading texts.

Max Cleans Up turned into a touch and feel book
Our school ordered the guided reading books for us and they are already in our hot little hands. Now we just need the artsy materials so we can turn what would be a regular guided reading book into a multi-sensory reading experience to engage our readers. We've put up a Donors Choose project and we're over halfway to our goal (shameless plug: if you donate this week your donation is matched. We have $61 to go, but if you type in INSPIRE as the code at checkout your donation will double.)

Poor man's adapted guided reading book. This summer we'll use velcro to let the kids match words into the texts.
Adapted Miss Nelson is Missing
In my adventures with adapting regular texts this year I learned that the glue, even a glue gun, doesn't stick well to laminated pages. However foam stickers do. The Donors Choose project will get us sheets of sticky back foam paper, foam number and alphabet stickers, foam sticker shapes, and foam sticker animals. It will also get us Wikki Sticks and our own copy of Rhyming Dustbunnies that we'll throw into our pool of texts to adapt this summer.

We are ridiculously excited about our work this summer. Not only will we be adapting text but we'll be working with a reading specialist and a general education kindergarten teacher on making our literacy block model a general education balanced literacy approach. We're leading a training on this in July as well as a series of trainings next year.

Dreams of next year...

It's the time of year when I can't stop thinking about everything I want to do better next year. Grant it, planning to improve next year starts in September when I start making mistakes and start thinking "next year I won't do that..." but right now I'm desperately trying to remember all of those fleeting thoughts.

This was my first year in an intellectual disabilities program. I've learned a lot, and I did a lot of learning on my feet. I planned lessons I did for years in general education classes, only to find that I had to adapt, and adapt, and adapt some more to make them work. I tried things that flopped and tried things that kind of worked and finally settled on teaching methods that worked for me and the kids.

Here's my starting list of things I need to improve for next year:

  1. Intentional time on "learning to learn behaviors", particularly "quiet hands". I had a student transfer into our class in January and I was much more deliberate in teaching him how to wait and not touch materials than I was with the other children. Next year I'm going to plan activities or plan to work one on one with students to intentionally teach not touching materials, waiting for instructions, etc. 
  2. Following my new writing workshop structure from the beginning. It took me a long time to settle on a writing workshop structure that worked for my kids. I love Lucy Calkins and Katie Wood Rae. I LOVE writing workshop. Giving up the structure I was used to using in general education was hard, but in the end my kids are making more progress now that I've adapted my structure. Now I do more of a center style writing workshop, and kids that are able to use that time for free writing go to a free writing center. At this point in the year more kids can do free writing since I changed the structure.
  3. Be more deliberate in inclusion. I think we did fairly well with inclusion this year, but I think we can do better. I want to spend a lot of time before school starts looking at ways we can include students with their gen ed peers and then planning how we're going to work on getting them there from day 1. 
  4. Change how I store materials- this year I didn't want my kids to have free access to pencils, crayons, etc (see number 1 change for next year) so I kept baskets empty and put the supplies they'd need inside them before the activities. It worked occasionally but lent itself to being disorganized. To work it needed heightened organization, which just isn't possible on the fly.
  5. How I organize my work table. I set it up how I used my table in past years, but this didn't transfer over to this class. I need to change how easily I can access materials while teaching. 
  6. Better organization of my math centers earlier in the year. Halfway through the year I took time to file my math games and really organize them. It's been a life saver. I want to spend a lot of time organizing them this summer so I start the year knowing where all my games are.
  7. Being more upfront with how I want the class run with my aides and other teachers in the room. This year I didn't know what I wanted so I'd often find myself thinking "why isn't anyone doing this" and then I'd realize that I hadn't actually told anyone what my vision was. 
  8. Including parents on my weekly notes to all service providers. I spend a lot of time writing an email to all the teachers who work with my students so that they know what prompts we're using, what language we're using, what behavior plans we're starting and what we're teaching. There isn't any reason I can't include parents on this. 
  9. Have a re-telling Board Maker answer chart set up from the beginning so that I have generic answers to questions like "who", "what", "where", "when", including distractors. 
  10. Actually post on my class blog and make it a living part of the classroom. I had that intention this year. Next year it will actually happen...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Goodness Gracious Me! Adventures with Hattie and the Fox

When I first picked up a copy of Hattie and the Fox I wasn't impressed. I was young, naive, and hadn't enjoyed years of reading books aloud to kids.

After a year or so of reading Hattie and the Fox with classes I'm utterly in love with it. Maybe it's the repetition, maybe it's getting to exclaim in a very dramatic fashion "GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME!", maybe it's getting six year olds to exclaim "GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME!" or maybe it's just watching six year olds yell "MOOOO" at the pivotal plot moment.

At my old school I had a big book copy (that I horded in my room and only returned to our book room at the end of the year, only to check it out again in September), but this year I only had a small, regular size book. This makes it a bit more difficult to get every student involved in the reading, but we didn't let that stop us. We made our own big book that each child can read independently.

 Now each child is in the process of writing their own version (so many great word wall words, AND it reinforces body parts for those who need it).

We also have all the characters and a barn thanks to our awesome Donors Choose donors, so we're able to act out the story to practice our retelling skills. I LOVE listening in as the kids independently act out the story. It kills me to have to give them the teacher look when they loudly yell "MOOOO!" while holding the cow. It's really not appropriate to retell the story without yelling Moo, but it's not appropriate to yell during reading workshop. It's a tough life.

We've also started practicing for our Readers' Theater of Hattie. It's perfect for my class because it has non-speaking parts (the fox), limited speaking parts where characters get to have serious attitude ("WHO cares?") while simply repeating the same phrase over and over again, while still giving higher readers a chance to be Hattie. Everyone gets to work on reading with fluency, everyone gets to work on identifying characters and setting in a book, and everyone (hopefully) gets to have fun.

 So much literacy crammed into one little story.