Tuesday, July 30, 2013


For any of you who have followed this blog over the years you know I have an up and down battle with inclusion, that usually ends with the closing thought "there are no easy answers. Each kid needs something different, inclusion can't be something we just do, it needs to be thoughtfully put into place".

After a year teaching in a program for students with intellectual disabilities I've seen even more shades of gray within the inclusion movement. I've seen children thrive because they are now in a small environment getting the exact instruction they need, while I've seen other children lose out on an opportunity to be exposed to more academics. And if we aren't exposed to something- aren't taught something- we will never learn it. So not including children can put an automatic cap on their ability to learn.

Then again, if we include children for the sake of inclusion we overlook other skills they need to be able to be successful with higher level academics. This in turn lets us have low expectations for them because we think "Great, Johnny can sit on the carpet with his general education peers and look at the teacher. We don't think he'll actually learn it because they are talking about reading strategies and Johnny still doesn't know his ABCs, but at least he's with the group."

Inclusion shouldn't just be for the sake of social interactions with general education peers. If we are able to be deliberate in our opportunities for inclusion we can build academic and social skills in a gen ed environment. We may need to pre-teach some academic skills, we may need to spend time strengthening essential knowledge so that our children can be successful when they are pushed in. We may need to look at how we can take a higher level general education lesson and put in deliberate questions, an off-shoot activity, and adapted materials that will make it work.

What I saw this past year was that children we didn't think would ever be able to be included during the school day- in music, PE, or art- rose to the challenge because we gave them the challenge. We set the expectation that they would be a part of the school community, we gave them the support they needed, we pre-taught skills and analyzed what wasn't working- and our kids shone.

Because of their inclusion in the gen ed specials our students learned how to behavior around their peers, how to handle loud noises in larger environments, and how to deal with distractions in a way that allowed us to push them into their general education classrooms for actual, meaningful academic blocks. Successfully. And often my students did better academically in their gen ed environments than they did in my room working on the same academics.

We have a limited amount of time during the day when we can reach our students- and we have so much to cram into those hours. Every moment is accounted for, whether it is teaching life skills, learning to learn behaviors, or academics. We don't have time for inclusion for inclusions sake, but we also don't have time to not include because it doesn't fit into our schedules, or is too much of a threat to our current working models.

It's something every school fights- the right balance between including all students and meeting each students' needs. The balance can't lie within the school policy, but instead within the students themselves (what do the students in front of me need?) with educators making meaningful and informed decisions about their students' growth.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Good Night, Gorilla: Lovable Children's Text or Tale of Horror?

This afternoon I settled into an over-sized comfy chair with my daughter to share one of my favorite books with her- Good Night, Gorilla. I love teaching this book. It's so fun to watch kids giggle as the sneaky animals, and it is one of those books that all kids can access. The simple text lends itself to teaching reading strategies like checking the picture and using one to one correspondence when reading. It's also a great story for kids to retell and act out.

Little Lipstick has been on a zoo animal kick lately so I was sure she would love those sneaky animals. In fact, in the beginning of the story she did love it. She giggled and whispered "shhhh!" to keep the zoo keeper from realizing that all the animals were sneaking out of the zoo. Yet as the story began to take shape and she realized what was happening she became a bit more apprehensive.

The animals were leaving the zoo.

The animals were in the house.

OMG the animals were in BED with the zoo keeper and his wife. In the DARK. Where the poor sleeping family had no idea that a huge gorilla was sleeping IN THE BED.

Little Lipstick freaked out. "NO, NO, NO, NO," she mumbled while she sucked harder on her paci. She slammed the book shut and buried her head into my shoulder.


Guess it hadn't occurred to me that Good Night, Gorilla could actually be read as a horror story- the animals rising up against the zoo keeper, sneaking into their house and sleeping in their bed without the humans even realizing it. In the pitch black, no less, when it is already ridiculously scary at night anyway. The idea of waking up to a gorilla in my bed isn't overly pleasant, I have to admit.

I'm a bit worried that tonight might be a rough one. I hope we don't wake up at 2am with screams of "GLILLA! GLILLA!"

Straddling Both Sides of the Mommy Wars

One of the benefits** of being a teacher is the ability to stand on both sides of the Mommy Wars* phenomena- most of the year I am frantically trying to survive in the working-mom camp, but in the summer I get to test out what it is like to be a stay at home mommy.

And um, they are both really, really hard.

Of course, as the spring months edged closer and closer to summer break I was counting down the days until I had Little Lipstick all to myself. Oh, the fun we would have, the relaxed life we would lead. The pool, the playground, the art projects, the books. Sure, standing there in the beginning of June, trying to survive two long last weeks of school, nothing sounded better than summer break. From that perspective being a stay at home mommy seemed like heaven.

And then, reality hit. There are tantrums and tears, half read books, hot days on the playground with "just one more slide", and the public tantrum when it's time to go. It's not the beautiful Norman Rockwell painting I'd mentally prepared myself for.

I love my daughter, and I'm cherishing everyone of these days. It is awesome to get to spend so much time with her day in and day out. I love being there when she wakes up from her nap, and I love being the one to feed her lunch, take her to the park, and giggle with her over silly books. We're building train tunnels, baking cookies, painting, and having intense water play on the back porch.


There may be some things that are actually easier about being a working mom.

Take for instance, the house rules. When you are a working mom enforcing house rules is no big thing. You are home for an hour in the morning, maybe two hours in the afternoon, and weekends. That's plenty of time to lay out clear ground rules, but not much time for the kids to break these rules. Rules like "We only eat at the table", "We clean up our toys before we go upstairs", and what had, until this summer been our number 1 rule, "We can't go downstairs unless we have a clothes on".
For the first few weeks that turned into "We can't go outside unless we have clothes on."  That's now rubbish. We now go outside to play in diaper only. Lord help us in September when we have to get her to leave the house with clothes on.

The house stays a lot cleaner when you are a working mom. Having only an hour in the morning and two hours in the afternoon to mess up the house really prevents a lot of the chaos that occurs when you stay home. The look on my husband's face in the afternoon is one of pure shock when he walks in. I can't invite people over. It's too scary in here. And none of the baby dolls strewn around the living room have clothes on.

And the food. I'm 100% confident in my daughter's daycare that she gets a well balanced breakfast, lunch, and snacks. During the year I provide a healthy dinner and she goes to bed full of healthy goodness. This summer? We're eating a lot of Mac and Cheese (sometimes Annie's if she's lucky), and applesauce. Occasional PB&J thrown in there for kicks. Well balanced? At least she'll be going back to daycare mid-August. I'm sure that will make up for our horrible eating habits.

Come November I will be looking back at these summer weeks and missing them terribly. I'll shake my head at my lazy enforcement of rules, and how I found the "we have to put shoes on" fight ridiculously stressful. But it is.
Being a parent is hard. Fun. Rewarding. And hard. No matter how you do it.

As a teacher it's nice to get the view from both sides to appreciate that grass isn't greener, it's just different.

*I'm trying hard not to turn this into a mommy blog. But I'm home during the summer and instead of my usual summer reading of professional books and blogs I'm finding myself reading From Head to Toe by Eric Carle on repeat. My inspiration is a bit different these days. My apologizes.

**I'm not one that usually considers summer break a job benefit. Don't get me wrong, I love summer break, but it's not a job benefit. It's a forced vacation, as one of my friends calls it, or a forced furlough. I don't understand people who go into teaching for the summer vacation.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Getting Kinder Ready

~~ I originally posted this last summer, but since it's about time for kinders around the country to get ready for school I thought I'd repost!~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer Thoughts- Map Unit?

One morning as I started to break down a box for recycling I realized that it would be the perfect size for my daughter's toy bus and cars to drive through. We immediately got to work making a tunnel. You can't see it in the picture but the "tunnel" is covered in her almost two year old scribbles. Lots of hard work. We made a road, a stop sign, and a parking lot. It's cluttering up my living room floor now, but we've gotten so much play out of driving the cars in and out.

Of course, since I can't just sit and enjoy my daughter- I'm always lesson planning- I immediately realized what amazing language the tunnel was promoting with my daughter. Just rolling the cars in and out of the tunnel was working on prepositions. Was the bus in the tunnel? Did it go through the tunnel? Put the cars on the road. In the parking lot the fire truck is next to the ambulance.

Not only did she play non-stop, but she talked to herself the whole time, narrating the position of all her cars. We are totally doing this next year in my classroom when we study maps. We'll hit the grade level objectives for map skills, but we'll also be able to embed all of our speech and language goals into the unit. We'll build a larger town (we can create our own buildings out of cereal boxes, etc) and connect it with maps. We'll also get literacy skills in there by making signs for our town. And of course we can tie it in with some good book. Hmmmmm.  Any book suggestions out there? 
My daughter currently loves Little Blue Truck, which we could re-enact but it isn't very town focused. 
I love when a unit starts to come together all at once, with the pieces falling into place simultaneously. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


I'm not sure what made me think about this today, but it was a memory that made me laugh. It's the small things that are great reminders of why I love my job. I wrote about the incident once, but it's worth repeating since I'm still giggling about it years later.

~~  ~~  ~~

When I was pregnant- and really pregnant-one of my little ones came up and gave me a huge hug- a big, tight squeeze and didn't let go.

"Oh no," I said, "gentle hugs please".

"BUT I WANT TO SEE THE BABY NOW!" she bellowed, in full kindergarten frustration.

Her over zealous hug was no mistake- she was intentionally trying to pop me.

Job hazards of kindergarten.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Reaching out to undergradutes

The other day I did something very uncharacteristic of myself. I emailed perfect strangers- college professors at my Alma mater, and asked to meet. I'm not sure what possessed me to do it- perhaps the shock of finding out that my school that had an education program in a plastic file box when I arrived now was staffed with not one, but two on-campus professors. What are they teaching now? I wondered. What is their program like? What are they up against?

I went to a small, liberal arts college that was decidedly NOT a teacher college. Just in case the plastic file box that was handed around from dean to dean wasn't enough to send the message, the college would nicely transfer our credits from another university half an hour away if we wanted to pursue the crazy idea of becoming a teacher, but it would not offer on-campus classes.

During my four years there the plastic file box slowly merged into a slightly larger profession with one professor, one class offered on campus, and the ability to student teach in our college town. There were three of us who participated in this my senior year. Education wasn't a major, and many of my friends had actual majors who wouldn't let them re-arrange their senior schedule so they could student teach. I was lucky- the religion department allowed me to write my thesis AND student teach at once. (What a winter that was...)

My classmates were horrified that I, or any of us, would want to teach. People assumed we just weren't very intelligent, were wasting our parents' money, or had maneuvered the school into letting us get a "MRS" degree (I went to a very southern college).

So ten years out, what's changed? The college that prides itself on sending so many people to Wall Street, into law schools & med schools has expanded its teacher program. What kind of candidates are they getting? Are those candidates up against the same peer-pressure to find another career that I was?

And more importantly, what can I do to help? I don't quite know what the answer to that is, but I do know that there are very intelligent people at my college- the type of intelligent, thoughtful people that we want in the field. And the more we grow the field with the "I could be a lawyer but instead went into teaching", the more we encourage promising individuals to go into the field (not for just two years, but for a career), the better our profession will be.

Improving the quality of teacher candidates will improve how the field is seen to outsiders. Maybe they'll start trusting us. Maybe we can change the tide.

I'm not sure what inspired me to ask for the meeting, or necessarily what I'll say when I'm there. But I'm excited to know that teaching is becoming more popular on my college campus, and I want to be a part of supporting those new teachers to enter the field.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Stop & Freeze- Playing games to teach safety an impulse control

When I co-taught in kindergarten classrooms at the Think-Tank my co-teachers and I spent a lot of time playing impulse control games with our classes in the beginning of the school year. They were the perfect way to let the kids have fun while we got to know them, but at the same time teach those "learning to learn" skills the kids would need to be successful throughout the year.

Now that I teach students with intellectual disabilities I've had to alter the games a bit. One that I found extremely successful this year was our daily "stop and freeze" game. For the adults in the room it could not have been more mind numbing. Every day between morning meeting and our reading lesson (a chance to get the wiggles out) we'd play a song (usually 'The Ants Go Marching One by One'. We found that if we changed the music it would distract the students too much and they'd focus on the new song, not the game.)

The game basically entailed me, marching with a stop sign, with the class marching in a line behind me. Every once and while I'd suddenly shout "STOP!" while holding the stop sign. The kids would all have to freeze.

In general education this is a pretty simple game and most kids would have gotten bored with it after a week. In my class, however, it was a daily safety lesson.

Many of my students needed to be taught that when an adult says "stop" they need to stop. Immediately. Even more importantly- they would stop and look at the adult. They need to be able to stop before touching a hot stove, running into traffic, getting distracted and wandering away from their parents/teachers, or from making a very unsafe choice. "Stop and freeze" wasn't so much a game as it was guided safety practice. 

The kids of course thought it was hysterical, or at least they enjoyed the daily marching and singing.

Most importantly, however, I was able to take data on how much times the students stopped and looked at the adult when asked, and whether or not the students were able to transfer that skill to other environments- the hallway, the playground, the cafeteria. And they were. After a few weeks of playing my class was absolutely safer in the hallways and more responsive to adult directions to stop.

Next year I'm going to have to find more opportunities to practice safety and social skills in game-like, repetitive situations. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Forgive my summer brain

Forgive my lack of posting lately. Between keeping up with my toddler, curriculum development work at school this summer, and studying for the GREs* I've found that my mind has come incoherent when I take time for reflections on life. There is so much swimming around that when I find myself at the computer I can't keep my thoughts focused.

Give me time and I'll be back, with lots of thoughts on special education, inclusion, literacy development, and parent involvement- it's all there waiting to be pulled out and put on paper.

Summer break....  (I'm not here, just trying to pretend that I am...)

*How painful is it that I have to re-take them because they only last for 5 years? How painful is it that I was in a doctoral program and dropped out, and now will need to re-take the GREs to reapply? How painful is it that I am suffering through memorizing formulas I haven't thought about in 14 years (well, except for the last time I studied for the GREs)? The world feels painfully unfair at the moment, and I'm not a third grader getting ready for my first standardized test.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

No, Mine! No! Mine! When does my teacher look work on my own daughter?

The glory of the classroom, I'm slowly coming to realize, is the beautiful, beautiful structure we get to put into place. There is reading and writing and math and recess and then- behold- the END OF THE DAY. There is the "I'm serious" teacher look at the "Now you're in deep trouble" teacher look and the quiet spot. There are silly songs that are brought to silence by the pre-arranged quiet signal, and children are trained to silently line up when the teacher just magically points her finger and smiles. When your classroom looks like this it is magic. When you train your own children to do this you are creating monsters. As teachers we say that the kids need structure, but let's be honest- the adults are really the ones who need the structure. And oh, how I'm missing it already.

My husband and I are sitting in our living room too tired and confused to even process what just occurred. Our "vacation" involved taking our not quite two year old daughter to the beach to spend the week with her not quite two year old cousin.

It's one thing to live life as a guest inside the world of an almost-two-year-old, but it is quite another thing to live life as a guest inside the worlds of TWO almost-two-year-olds, particularly ones who aren't used to sharing a house with one another.

Two year old logic is phenomenal. There was lots of "mine, mine, mine", a lot of "MY TURN!", "MY MOMMY", "MY NANA" (This proved to be difficult since neither of them could comprehend that Nana belonged to BOTH girls). 

Our days consisted of this:

Two girls giggling hysterically with each other for what seems to be no logical reason anyone who is not almost two can comprehend. It's adorable. We snap pictures and awe at how great it is to have cousins. Before the automatic lens of the camera closes disaster strikes. One cousin's foot bumps into a random object that neither girl would ever have looked twice at if it hadn't been for the accidental bumping. This draws the second cousin's hyper-focused attention to the object (because both girls were on a vigilant alert for something her cousin had that she didn't.)

 At the same moment the second cousin realizes the object exists the first cousin realizes that the object should be hers because she TOUCHED it first. Yet the second cousin believes it should be hers because she SAW it first, and both think it should be theirs because they can yell "MINE" the loudest. Chaos and drama ensue until someone manages to put the camera down to intervene. The girls retreat to opposite sides of the house to get sharing lectures from their mommies while their tears get wiped. Peace slowly starts to return. A gentle silence hovers over the house, a promise that our ear drums might recover from both the happy squeals as well as the angry cries. Yet inevitably one girl asks "Where did my cousin go?" in her sweet toddler voice, and before either mommy can stop the terror the girls would be drawn together again for a total of .5 seconds of happy giggling and another 5 minutes of crying.

Did I mention it rained for the first three days of the trip?
A moment of calm

Not that we didn't have a great time, but there were moments I missed the classroom where I could employ five year old logic, give my teacher look, flash the quiet signal, and if nothing else I could load everyone on the bus at 3:00 and happily wave goodbye, sending them off to their parents.