Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kindergarten is hard

Kindergarten is hard.

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

In September? Not so much.

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

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

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

But right now?

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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stating the Obvious

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

Changes, changes, changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

Teaching Sharing and Turn Taking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 14, 2013

More Room Arrangements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

Quick and the Ed on Professionalism

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

He writes:

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

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Beginning of the Year and High Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 7, 2013

And we... survived?

No really, we did.

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

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

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

But we'll get there.

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

Sunday, September 1, 2013

More Room Design

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

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

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