Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Taking time to get to know our students

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

Monday, August 26, 2013

Feeling Old

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

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

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

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

*Name has been changed :)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Grumpy Teacher

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

Asperger's Book Rec

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

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Room Arrangement Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Hearing a thank you

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Where in the World Should the Word Wall Go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Link between recess and eye sight?

As a teacher I don't love & support recess because it gives me a break (it doesn't, recess is crazy stressful trying to make sure nobody hurts themselves, managing friend squabbles, and redirecting behavior), but because the kids need it. It doesn't take you long when you are working with a group of kids to discover that after they've gone outside to play they are more engaged and ready for the rest of the day.

I found a short paragraph in September's Parent magazine about a new link between recess and kids' eyesight. Who knew? A new study published in Opthalmology found that when they compared two groups of children- one group got 80 minutes of outdoor recess and a group not required to go outside- that the group without recess was "twice as likely to have developed nearsightedness, or myopia, at the end of the year."
The researchers hypothesize that this could be because recess gives additional sun exposure, but also breaks up long stretches of children sitting inside reading and focusing on close up work.

Who knew?
Go outside and play!

I don't know any school that gives students 80 minutes of recess, but it does make me think about what our kids do when they come home from school. Some families do not have the means to take their children outside to play after a long day in school and the kids go from being inside at school to being inside at home. These, of course, are the same families who are less likely to have vision insurance, or to be able to afford glasses, leading to undiagnosed vision problems that may poorly influence academic performance.

It's something to think about.

Parents Magazine, September 2013, pg 70.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Somewhere around a pool in New Mexico it happened. The excitement of the upcoming school year crept up on me. I was lounging poolside, reading for fun, minding my own business when I realized that I hadn't actually read a word on the page I was currently staring at. My mind had wandered into planning my first week's lessons, thinking about the kids I know I'll have and how to start the year on the right foot with them, and what books I knew I wanted to read day one.

I was worried that the excitement wouldn't come this year. I normally feel it around mid to late July, but this year, chasing after a toddler, I haven't had much time to think about school. Somehow, sitting around a pool doing nothing (the toddler happily across the country with her grandmother), it happened. I got excited.

Don't get me wrong. I have big plans to enjoy my last two weeks of summer. But among those plans will also be the excitement of the new school year, opening the classroom, introducing the routines, singing silly songs, and reading great books. I can't wait.