Monday, January 27, 2014

Dolly Gray Book Award

In the opening session of the CEC-DADD conference the CEC awarded this year's recipients of the Dolly Gray Book Award. Although I thought I was up on my special ed novels I clearly am not because I did not even know this award existed.
The award recognizes, " high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with developmental disabilities."

I glossed over those words in the program, thinking that it was great they were giving the award, but I didn't givie it any more thought than that. Yet as they began to describe the criteria for the award I realized just how important the award is and how much thought is behind it. To decide on a winner the committee dives into what it means to "appropriately portray individuals with developmental disabilities". Does the book reflect inclusive practices? Does the book portray a realistic and accurate sense of the disability? Does the character with a developmental disability change during the story, or is he/she a character only intended to help other characters change?

There is a difference between a character with autism who only serves as a vehicle for the author to create sympathy for the main character and a character with autism who is his own person and who grows and changes himself within the book. Until that morning I had not given much thought of the importance of that distinction and why it is essential to have books that portray children with developmental delays as meaningful characters who change throughout a text just like typically developing characters. To shift the national mindset about who children with disabilities are and where they belong we must have examples in what we read for pleasure.

This year's young adult winner was Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. As we watched the author's acceptance speech I downloaded the book through Amazon, and was reading it by the end of the day. From a creative writing perspective it is a fun read- the author tells an entire story through the eyes of an imaginary friend. He creates the world of imaginary friends, the boundaries that are set for them, how they interact with one another as well as the outside world. The main character, an imaginary friend named Budo tells the story of his creator, a fourth grader with autism. Although the story itself is engaging, I was impressed with how Mathew Dicks was able to portray the traits of a boy with autism so well through the eyes of his imaginary friend. It appears effortless on first read, but as you step back and realize how he wove so many elements of autism into the story you realize how much of it must have been intentional.

I highly recommend reading Memoirs, and also checking out the other books that have won over the years.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Video Self-Modeling

I am still on a high from the CEC-DADD annual conference on Autism, Intellectual Disabilities and Developmental Delays. It's going to take me a while to process all the great ideas I heard and everything I learned. I came back with so many ideas I am anxious to try out.

One concept I cannot wait to try out is video self-monitoring. I had heard of video modeling before but had never spent time to learn much about it. I made assumptions on what it was and always meant to try it out, but never had. I kind of assumed it was like a video social story and thought it was one of those things that was trendy because it was technology based but that wouldn't really offer more than the social story itself. I'm glad I never did until now because I would never have done it effectively or with the same understanding I have now.

I sat in on a session lead by Tom Buggey from the Siskin Children's Institute who walked us through the ins and outs of using video self-modeling to promote positive behavior changes. It is particularly effective with students with autism who are visual thinkers- if they think in pictures then seeing themselves on the screen is going to be a memory that stays with them longer and speaks louder than our teacher narratives of what good behavior looks like.

The first thing he covered as to never use video self modeling to show a student the mistakes he or she is making. Watching yourself fail over and over again will not change behavior, it will only cement a child's mindset that he or she is a failure and is unable to do the task at hand. Instead, we can use video self-modeling in two ways:

1- As a positive self-review- We can take video of a child performing a skill they can already do that we'd like them to do more of, or do better (such as reading fluently)

2- As a "Feedforward"- We can use video editing to show a child doing a skill he or she has not yet learned.

The "Feedforward" concept fascinated me. Buggey explained that through editing a video he is able to show a child speaking in sentences, going down a slide, or playing with friends- skills a child is not yet doing. In showing the child the video of them performing the skill the child begins to see themselves as capable of doing the skill, and begins to believe they can do it. In fact, Buggey said that it seems to always replace the child's memory- in some cases the child forgets the skill was ever difficult for them.

He showed us videos of his grandson speaking. He ran different video clips together to make it appear that his grandson was producing 3 word sentences when in fact the child had only been saying words in isolation. The 3 word sentences were typical of the child's age and his next developmental step. Buggey was clear that it will not work if we show a child a skill that is unreasonable for them- that will only promote their sense of being a failure and an inability to achieve.

He also discussed using video modeling to show a child go down a slide. He took a video of the child at the top of the slide, then took a video of a peer going down the slide but only shot the peer's body, not the head. Then he took a video of the child at the bottom of the slide. Editing the videos together he produced a film that made it look like the child went down the slide. The more the child watches it the more the child believes that he or she is capable of going down the slide.

He also used it to promote social play. He'd ask friends to go play near a student and then take videos of what looked like cooperative or at least parallel play. Although in real life it was staged the video clips appeared that the children were actually playing together. Again, showing the child what it will look like when he or she plays with friends.

The three components Buggey listed of a video self-monitoring movie are starting by positively labeling the behavior "Here is Mary sharing with her friends!", followed by the film clip of the child modeling the behavior, and then a reinforcing line at the end that also re-labels the behavior like "Nice job playing, Mary!" The video should be no more than 3 minutes long.

In viewing the video with the student he cautions teachers against making comments during the video and putting pressure or being too pushy with the child. When the child watches the video it should speak for itself and the child can be internally processing what he or she is watching.

Because the videos are so short it is easy to use them to "prime" the student, or prepare the student before the behavior is expected. Show the video at a time when it will not be disruptive in the classroom, and at a time when the child will not be distracted.

There were multiple presentations on video modeling and self-modeling at the conference and it was exciting to hear the different possibilities out there. Although Buggey's talk focused primarily on the use of videos with preschoolers, other presenters shared research on using it with older students, whose needs ranged from autism to behavioral concerns.

I came back and immediately started taking videos. I spent Friday night geeking out and editing the videos and stringing them together to give feedforward to two different students I work with. I was surprised at how easy editing the videos actually was. We'll see how it goes with my third graders.  I'm shamefully excited for Monday.

For more information go straight to the source=  example videos, explanations, etc.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ahhhh, Florida

On Tuesday morning, while they were calling for a DC size snow storm in the metro area, my team and I raced to the airport, hopped a plane and managed to escape the city before a flake fell. When we landed it was 68 degrees, sunny, and the minute we left the airport we could smell the Florida sunshine and the ocean air. Later that afternoon, with my feet in the sand I talked to my two year old on the phone about her very first sledding experience. My team and I clearly made the right choice.

We are in Clearwater, Florida for the 15th annual Conference on Autism, Intellectual Disabilities and Developmental Delays. Tomorrow we are presenting our action research on using guided reading principles with students with intellectual disabilities and today I am in full conference mode- ready to geek out at the litany of topics about teaching students with low incidence disabilities. Just reading the program guide gave me a high. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Other Side

Last week I sat down with a group of third grade students for our weekly scheduled book-club lunch bunch. I'd taken a risk with the book- instead of a humorous book designed to get the very active third grade boys to analyze character traits I decided to introduce one of my personal favorites and try to talk about character traits in something a bit more serious. We read The Other Side by Jaqueline Woods.

The book is told from the perspective of an African American girl whose property is separated from a white girl's property by merely a fence. Both girls' mothers have told them not to play on the other side of the fence, but the white girl keeps coming and sitting on the fence and asking to play with the African American girls who tell her no. Eventually after a summer of watching each other the main character goes and sits beside her white neighbor on the fence- neither girl is breaking the rule and going to the other side, but instead stay right in the middle where they become friends.

  In the past when I've read this book I've read it to kindergartners and first graders who do not have much of a background at all about segregation and discrimination. They never can quite wrap their heads around the Martin Luther King lessons- "But we're the same!" they tend to tell me with confusion, as though I've somehow forgotten this and made up Martin Luther King all on my own. It is always a moment of hope and sadness mixed together- the hope of knowing how innocent the children are and how their world is so different than Martin Luther King's. And sadness because of the fear that one day they may experience that their innocent assumption "we are all the same" is not how everyone sees the world.

Third graders are different. They have a background in segregation and some have experienced discrimination themselves. They are old enough to be aware that their "but we're all the same" thoughts from kindergarten do not hold true in the greater scheme of the world. I wasn't sure how they would react to it, but I thought it may provide some good conversations so I took the risk.

At first they were shocked that the discrimination came from the African American family. One student launched into how wrong that was- and how it was only the mean white people he read about in books. The others nodded along with him. They had never considered that there was more to our history than older white people telling everyone where to sit on the bus or what schools to go to.

As the book went on we talked about following our parents' rules and how the African American girls were only doing what their family told them to do. We talked about how people are scared of what they do not understand. We analyzed how the children in the book worked around the rule in order to not break it but still be friends with one another.

I was amazed by their honest talk about segregation. One student pointed out that in his old school there were very few white kids- not so different than a long time ago. "This school is different" he noted, "We are ALL different colors."

Their understanding of the book- their conclusions that the children were doing the right thing by being friends- that grown ups do not always know best, and that sometimes just because some people are scared of things they do not understand does not mean we all need to be scared- gave me hope. They are thinking beyond what is easy and looking at what is right. These are the people we need more of.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Daughter of a Responsive Classroom Teacher

As we were headed upstairs for my daughter's nap time yesterday I tossed one of her books onto the couch.

"Mama," she looked at me suddenly with large serious two-year-old eyes, "We don't throw things." 

"You're right," I said, in my hurry up and go upstairs to nap voice, "We don't throw things. Next time Mommy will not throw."

"Mama," she said again slowly, "Put the book down gently." She pointed at the book in all seriousness. "Put the book down gently." She stared at me and waited, her little foot hoovering above the stair, making it clear she wasn't going upstairs yet.
"Put the book down gently."

Now, I'm the parent so part of me wanted to say, "look sweet heart, it's time to go upstairs. Mama can throw things if she wants to. And I don't have to "practice" putting it down gently."
But instead, because I usually try to have her "fix" her mistakes or "show me" how to do something the right way, I sucked up my pride and modeled putting the book down gently.

"Thank you Mama," she said sweetly. "You put the book down gently." 

Ah, yes, she's got the Responsive Classroom 3 R's down. Remind, Reinforce, Redirect.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Remember Magical?

I saw Magical today!

I can't even tell you how much I've missed that kid. He's the same- two years older- two years wiser. I can't stop thinking about him. I even missed his robot.

There are some kids who truly change your life forever and he is without a doubt one of them.

Deciding on the Least Restrictive Environment as a Team

One of the hardest parts of my job is trying to determine if a child fits into our Intellectual Disabilities program or not. Students whose IEP teams decide (and go through a lengthy process) are bused to our school to be a part of our program (we are not their neighborhood school). So as the year goes on we are asked to go observe students at other schools whose school teams feel they may benefit from a different placement.

Of course it isn't our decision alone to make, but we are a part of the discussion on whether or not a child will benefit from a more restrictive environment. It isn't a decision that can be taken lightly because deciding to move a child to a more restrictive environment has long term consequences. It means the student will use a different curriculum, be exposed to different peers, will attend a whole different school, and will have an entirely different school experience.

Even in the most clear-cut case I feel it should be a decision that is agonized over because the team should look at the student's needs, not what paperwork and procedure imply.

How do you decide a student is ready to leave his or her base school and be a part of a self-contained setting? Are the students learning in their current environments? Are they engaged? Are lessons meeting their needs? Are they making progress? Do they have peers? 

What is best?
The tricky part is it is easy to look at a student in their general education environment and say "this isn't working- the student isn't making progress- this setting isn't appropriate." Yet it is harder to look into the future and see whether an ID placement is the right place for a student. There are no crystal balls to predict how a student will do and what the right choice will be.

Will the child have peers in the new placement? Will they make progress? Will their behaviors improve? Do they absolutely, without a doubt require intellectual disabilities services that can only be provided in a self-contained setting to make progress with their life skills? These are questions that are difficult to answer- an IEP team can only speculate. But if a team does not truly look at these questions and ask "will this placement truly be better than what is in place now?" a child can get lost in the wrong placement.

ID classrooms work at a different pace, focus on different skills, and approach lessons in different ways. For some children it is exactly what they need, and for others it can be limiting. The team has to consider whether or not moving a student will actually limit the child's academic ability, or enhance it. 

As a member of the team I always feel better about the decision when every step of the placement process is done in a full-collaborative discussion- where everyone, even those members who strongly believe a student belongs in one placement or another- take the time to discuss every option available. Even in the most extreme cases- when it is obvious to everyone at the table what the "right" decision is- it is reassuring to have a team openly and genuinely discuss concerns. No decision is ever going to be perfect. If a team is willing to recognize concerns with every side and then come to a decision I personally feel better about the decision a team is making for the student's future.

It is hard to always remember as an IEP team that we are talking about a child. Often we can get caught into "the child's label says x so we need to do x". Or, "My principal says x so that's what we have to do." It is hard to break those mindsets down and turn them into a discussion about what is best for the individual child- the child that will one day be an adult- a child whose future belongs to us. 

Lately my program has had numerous students come up as candidates for our program. When we go and meet each student we fall in love- they are the students we were meant to work with- they are the students we got into teaching to teach. Of course we want them. But we also want to have a true discussion on what is best for them. It is never an easy answer, and constantly becomes a nagging question we struggle with late into the night as we try to determine what is really best for the child.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Bringing Balanced Literacy to Students with Intellectual Disabilities

In a little over a week my awesome research team and I will be on an airplane headed to Florida for the 15th annual Council for Exceptional Children's Division on Autism and Developmental Delays (DADD) conference. We can't wait.

We're presenting the work we did last year on adapting guided reading and balance literacy practices to work with students with low incidents disabilities (Intellectual Disabilities, Autism). Last year our ID team along with a general education kindergarten teacher and one of our school's reading specialists took current research that supports using balanced literacy approaches that is typically found in the general education classrooms and applied it to working with our students with intellectual disabilities.

We spent today combing over our power point trying to make it bridge the gap between addressing practitioners like us and a more research-based audience. (Sadly it feels like a hard gap to bridge. Why is the gap between research and practice so wide? Why is it that what is currently
published in education research rarely makes it into the hands of actual teachers? )

You can follow my personal growth in the project here as I blogged about it last year. The project came about very organically as our team found a need in our classrooms and began collaborating and seeking resources that would help us bridge the gap between the general education balanced literacy instruction and what we were doing in our intellectual disability classrooms.

We set up our classrooms to meet a balanced literacy structure using reading focus lessons, word walls, shared reading, interactive writing, guided reading, centers, and a reading workshop structure. We took what we knew about guided reading and task analyzed it down to meet the needs of our students so that we were still using a guided reading structure but meeting the exact needs of our students, while still giving them opportunities to interact with real books.

As we talked today we realized that perhaps of all the elements we put in place last year teaching the students to interact with real books was the simplest but most powerful act we did. Many of the programs in place to use with students with intellectual disabilities teach specific skills in isolation without giving students an opportunity to open a book, turn the pages, look at the pictures, think about the story and look at the words all at once. Although the programs can be great and teach excellent skills, solely using a program often holds us back as teachers from pushing our children forward. We assume because they  haven't mastered a certain part of the program or a specific skill that they aren't ready to move beyond and have greater literacy experiences. Following the program allows us to forget that we're teaching a life-long habit and not a rote set of isolated skills. We simply forget to give the children books and let them experience the pleasure of turning the pages in a book themselves.

Using the balanced literacy approach allowed us to use the research-based programs that taught specific skills, but also let us teach the children how to use all their reading skills at once- to open a book, look at the pictures, point to the words, think about the sounds the words made, using the writing skills, answer comprehension questions- the list goes on and on- all around one specific text. Merely putting a book into their hands added an element of fun to the lessons.

The results surprised even us- some of our students made significant gains in both their book handling skills and their ability to interact with a text (essential read simple texts) but also in their specific boxed programs. Our students became more engaged in the mere act of reading. Looking at books was something they could sit and do independently for an extended period of time- which often surprised people who visited our classroom. The assumption was often that our kids could go on the Ipad or the computer to have something to do, but would not read independently. We were able to show their parents that reading was an actual leisure activity. They could buy their child books instead of Ipad apps.

While we found research that supported what we were doing it was not research that fell into our laps- we had to seek it out, which is something that is difficult for any teacher to do. It is rare that we have the time or energy as teachers to look for current research. Frequently we rely on our districts and schools to apply professional development opportunities for us and we often don't question the research behind what is given to us. We're hoping that our presentation next week will reach actual teachers and will be a part of bringing the research into the classroom.

Whenever I leave this collaborative team I feel energized and ready to dive into teaching. Even the tangential conversations that arise as we go through our data and previous lessons lead us to look at our teaching in new ways. As we're considering our children's growth and progress we find more meaning in our project- why it worked and why we need to keep it up.

If you happen to be at DADD next week look us up!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

What do you look for in a school?

One of my former fabulous co-workers from the Think-Tank posted yesterday that she is planning on leaving the Think Tank next year.   In her post she asked for people's advice on what to look for when she is considering new schools to work for. She also posted the question on Facebook, where she got over 20 comments very quickly.

I've found myself watching the comment thread closely to see what other teachers value and look for in a school. It's become a thread of describing one's dream school- everyone chiming in with what they've seen is best for kids and what doesn't work.

Some comments include looking for evidence that kids live in the building, a supportive administration, school culture, and collaboration among teachers. Some of these are hard to get at in an interview- how do you ask "Will you really support me with an angry parent? Do your teachers really collaborate or just sit in meetings and look like they collaborate?"

In my career I've now worked in 3 schools (4 if you include student teaching). With every school my "must have" and "must not have" list changes a bit as I get new experiences, live in different school cultures and work for different administrators.

What are your questions to ask a principal of a school you are considering working in?
What do you look for when you walk into a school where you'd like to work?
What are red flags to you?
How do you ask the tough "so you SAY your school does this, but how do I really know you mean it?" questions to get a real answer?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Searching for Answers to Tough Behaviors- Together

Getting to the route of behavior problems in students is one of the aspects of my job I find the most difficult but also happens to be one of my favorite parts of the job. Getting to the bottom of a child's behavior- what motivates him, what causes the outbursts or defiant behavior is something I see almost as a puzzle. The answer is rarely obvious and I find it frequently takes multiple perspectives, different hypothesis, and taking a deep look at the student's behaviors, motivations, and how he reacts to consequences. 
Unfortunately, in the time when we're still hashing out what's going on with the behaviors and trying to develop a workable plan I find that I cannot get the student, the behaviors, and the plan out of my head. I'm constantly thinking about the student- analyzing what he said, how he reacted, what I could have done differently, why he did what he did- throughout the day. I think about it driving home, making dinner, putting my daughter to bed, and reading for pleasure. It's the kind of thought process that will exhaust you when you are trying to relax.

If only it was easy- if only children were programmed so we could apply an equation and get the outcome we want. If only there were clear answers so we could write a prescription for a particular behavior plan and be done. 

The tough part is that we often assume there is an easy answer- especially when it's a child we're not working with. We do it as parents and we do it as teachers.

 "If only she did x, y, z the behaviors would disappear".
 "He just needs ..." 
"If he was in my class he'd never get away with that!"

When we're talking to our coworkers or making isolated judgments on the fly we often fall back on these quick assumptions. We feel good saying, "We're going to say no more of this behavior so now it will stop." I've seen many groups of confident teams end meetings on a child's behavior with this sort of plan. Kind of an "OK, now that we're all on the same page and we've talked about what behaviors are bothering us we can easily fix them by just telling the child the behaviors are wrong."  

I've also seen a lot of confident teams come back together frustrated with the child and with each other when that initial "just put your foot down plan" doesn't work. 

The worst part of that is when we get frustrated with each other from these plans. Collaboration and getting multiple perspectives is essential to getting to the root cause of a behavior. But once a plan doesn't work and we start to get frustrated with each other as teammates we turn to judging one another instead of keeping open lines of communication, truly listening to each other and considering the different perspectives as a way get to the bottom of a behavior.

The child in all this, of course, is left with a behavior plan that probably frustrates him and his teachers. It is not a recipe for success. 

Trying to keep an open mind, accept the different perspectives and search for the answer is what makes a behavior plan succeed.It's exhausting and trying and seems to take away from so much of our actual job of teaching academics. It's easy to get angry at the child, our coworkers, the teaching profession as a whole, parents, society- anything that seems to make our job harder. Yet when we get past the anger, look at the child and manage to find what drives the behavior we can turn the corner on behavior, which allows us to turn the corner on academics as well. 

Until then I find myself thinking, analyzing, re-thinking, planning, plotting, obsessing. There has to be an answer here- we just have to find it. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cold Day Perspectives

Like many school districts in the US, we had a "cold day" today. Not nearly as magical as a snow day since it lacked the beautiful white blanket that seems to whisper "stay in bed, don't do anything taxing" to teachers, but the results were the same. A surprise day off to fill at our leisure- either to catch up on work or to catch up on rest. I used the day to catch up on work and spent many hours in the warm school building trying to work through IEP paperwork that I should have completed over br

The last time we had a day when we were off because it was too cold I was in my second year of teaching. My roommates and I decided the best place we should live as 20 somethings in the big city would be in one of the sketchier parts of DC. It was "up and coming" we told ourselves. (10 years later it still has not "come up"). The house was a gorgeous row house that was over 100 years old with four fire places. In addition to the safety concerns we faced living there we also discovered that once winter hit we had no heat. Our landlords ignored our attempts to contact them, or told us that we were asking too much from a house that old and that we should have known better when we rented it. (The fire places had no flu- when it snowed that winter the snow piled up inside. But a flu was expecting too much).

It was COLD. So cold that if you opened the refrigerator you felt no change between the inside of the fridge and the kitchen. We slept in our gloves, hats and winter coats. We had elaborate routines developed to avoid being home at all except at night. Five blocks away was a coffee shop/bar/Ska concert hall. We'd sit there until closing time, watching the teenage guys in kilts and trying to blend into the background so no one would notice we had been sipping one cup of coffee for three hours and were not a part of the concert crowd. We had colds and sicknesses we couldn't shake. A doctor gave me a long lecture on the need to get heat and take care of myself. I tried to explain the ins and outs of breaking a lease and relying on a landlord but she told me she couldn't treat me if I wasn't committed to staying warm and healthy. (Ten years between that January and this one I can see the doctor's perspective. But at the time, when all my roommates and I were doing were trying to stay warm we'd somehow lost our ability to problem solve and use logic. It's amazing how much of your common sense you lose when you are putting so much of your energy into surviving).

You can only imagine the sadness I felt when they closed school one day because it was too cold. Too cold?!? I was too cold in my own house- I had to go to school to stay warm! I needed to go to school that day. For maybe the only time in my career as a teacher I was sad to have a day off. Of course, I had a car and so I was capable of going in to work, driving to coffee shops and finding other warm hiding places to spend the day.

As crazy as that time was, it is an experience I value because it gave me a completely different perspective- a perspective that I imagine many of my children and their families face. What if a day off from school because it's too cold means that you are actually stuck in your house that doesn't have heat? What if it means you won't eat because you rely on school for your breakfast and lunch? Sometimes we forget just what a haven our schools are for our neediest students.

As I sat in my warm office this morning getting my paperwork done in peace and quiet my mind kept wandering back to that beautiful, cold row house and my students who may be in similar situations. I hope that none of my students faced that today, and if they did I hope they were able to find a warm place to go since school was closed. It certainly gave the day off a different perspective.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Random Children's Lit Thoughts After a Trip to the Library

A recent trip to the library with Little Lipstick introduced me to a whole new set of Maisy books.

Maisy's world is of course confusing in general because there are very few adults, her parents don't exist and yet she still goes on these adventures- the city, the doctor, swimming, preschool- with only her slightly scatterbrained friends.

Yet after reading Maisy Goes to Preschool and Maisy Goes to the City back to back I was horrified to see that poor Maisy's preschool teacher- Mr. Peacock- has a second job working in the city as a toy store clerk. Times are even rough for teachers in fiction. Poor Mr. Peacock- not only does he have to take care of Maisy (who keeps her panda with her throughout the entire day at preschool- and gets paint on panda- you know that wasn't easy on Mr. Peacock) he also has to check out Maisy at the store in the city and help her when she gets lost (because who lets preschoolers wander around the city by themselves????)  I hope his next call was to CPS to alert them that Maisy and friends had somehow taken a bus and a subway train all by themselves and were loose in the city. But it doesn't look like he does. He must be one depressed teacher. 
Three characters that are NOT in Mo's version

On another note, we also checked out Mo Willem's Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. Little Lipstick is too young to get the humor, but I found it hysterical. I cannot wait to read this to a kindergarten class. It is perfect for ending a unit on Goldilocks and the Three Bears as well as teaching predicting- at each stage you can predict what you think is going to happen based on your background knowledge of the Goldilocks story, but then Mo surprises you.

My favorite part of the book is that the dinosaurs take the time to test the temperature of each bowl of pudding to make sure one is hot, one is cold, and one is just right. As someone whose read a lot of Goldilocks lately it always bothers me that Mama Bear serves everyone out of the same bowl of porridge but only Baby Bear's is just right. I mean, shouldn't his get cold first since it is the smallest? 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Re-teaching Routines

Catching Readers Before They Fall wrote a great post today on the importance of using this week back to re-teach routines and re-build community. Take time to read it- and picture me making the "connection" sign throughout. It speaks so well to exactly what our students need after a 2 week break. 
They write:
Tomorrow I want to be sure and listen to every child. I am sure they will be full of stories to tell and memories to share from their two weeks off. I don’t want to jump right into the new math unit or literacy unit of study right away. I want to make time to welcome the children back to our classroom family, to allow them to reconnect, play, enjoy each other, share their hopes and dreams for 2014 and to ease back into our routines and life in the classroom. 

While she is speaking about a kindergarten class I think it holds true with all of our grade levels. After two weeks off our students are going to need to re-learn the routines. Some are going to need to re-learn to trust us. Some of them haven't been in the best situation over the last two weeks and they may be unable to step right back into the warm community we'd created before we left for break. Re-building trust, reminding them that we love them and are here for them, while also reminding them that our classroom is a place where they can feel secure- they can trust in the routines and in our structure- will allow them to open up and be willing to learn throughout 2014. Taking the time now will give us more time to teach later on. 
Tomorrow will be about patience, but patience now will go a long way.

It's hard as a teacher who pushes into classrooms to find ways to re-teach routines and structures. I haven't done the planning or set the schedule of what needs to be taught when, so a lot of what I'm doing is responding to a lesson sequence that isn't negotiable. But what I can do is make sure that my teacher language- how I remind, redirect, and reinforce the students this week re-teaches the rules and communicates to the students that I believe in them. Repeating "it's only been two weeks, how did you forget x, y, z!" isn't going to help anyone. Instead, "We raise our hands when we need to sharpen a pencil" will go further to re-teach the rules and routines than shaming kids who may have forgotten them.

Take time to read their post!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Crack Babies and Long Term Outcomes

A few days ago Joanne Jacobs posted about a recently published study that followed 110 children to adulthood. Some of these children were considered "crack babies" when they were born and some were not. The findings of the study showed that whether or not a child is born as a "crack baby" does not impact the child's life outcomes. Whether a child is raised by a nurturing caregiver, however, does. 

Eight years ago my Emotional Disabilities professor was adamant about this and had us read the previously published research which also found that the theory of crack babies wasn't accurate. It was the parents, not the crack, that had the biggest impact on long term outcomes. At the time this was somewhat of a surprise to me. I was working with two girls who we suspected both had parents who had been on drugs during pregnancy. With the concept that crack babies are crack babies for life we found ourselves thinking, well, what do you expect from these girls?

My professor's clear stance on this and the research he showed us changed my thinking. If it doesn't matter what sort of difficulties the babies had at birth- if there were still opportunities for them to persevere- then what could we do in school to support that? As teachers we obviously never can replace parents. We will never be able to change a child's background. But we can do things in school- be supportive, caring teachers, give opportunities to educate families, let kids know we believe in them- that will better the situation. Above all the best thing we can do for our students is to not write them off because we assume that what they were born with already set their future. 

When I've shared the "being a crack baby doesn't matter" research with others I often find they have trouble believing me. For so long our mental model of crack babies was set in a hopeless state so it seems to be difficult for people to grapple with the change of thought. Yet as we learn more about the brain, how it works and its capabilities for remapping itself I feel we really will come to a place where as a society we can understand that we can't write off anyone based off their birth history.

Friday, January 3, 2014

I want this doll

I desperately want The Pleasant Company to listen to this petition and to make an American 
Girl Doll that has a disability. 
As a former American Girl obsessee (back when there were only three dolls- Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) I have strong memories of the lessons I learned from reading the books and acting out their adventures. As new dolls were added I devoured those stories as well (a highlight of my childhood was meeting Valerie Tripp, one of the series' authors). Yes, the books were formulaic but that certainly didn't bother my second grade self. The history I learned through these books changed much of my small town perspective on the world. 
I can imagine the 8, 9, and 10 year old me sitting on the floor of my bedroom reading the books about the new doll with a disability and just how that would change my perspective and open my eyes to people who struggle with disabilities. Much like books like "Rules" and "Wonder" this doll and books would create an empathetic connection that would open a conversation about disabilities for our young girls.

From The Pleasant Company's perspective I could see a bit of political resistance. How do you select a disability that will represent all disabilities? And how do you represent that disability in its most natural and kindest light without offending someone? I've heard people with disabilities complain about other people using person-first language (saying a child with autism instead of autistic child) so even when you are politically correct you can't please everyone. 

The category of people with disabilities is a large, ever growing category that encompasses many different types of disabilities. The Pleasant Company will have to put a lot of thoughtful research into determining how to best create the doll. I will be very interested in their process in determining what to create. Will they look at producing a doll that will please most people or will they come at it from what they want their take-away message to be and then determine how they can create a doll that will deliver that message? 
Dear Pleasant Company- if you are looking for help with this let me know!

Frankly, it doesn't matter too much what they decide- if they make it I'll buy the doll regardless. 

Here's the petition:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Coming Back From Break: Getting Our Kids Ready

As my darling, sweet, wonderful daughter dabbles in the terrible-twos Mr. Lipstick and I have been reading all sorts of random parenting articles to get any advice on what we could do better to prevent the amazing meltdowns* we are experiencing.

He came across this article from the Washington Post, which felt fairly basic except for point number six: Acknolwege that it may be hard to go back to school/daycare after a long break instead of just ignoring it.
The article states:
“As a goodbye on the first day back to school or work, be sure to smile and tell your child that even though you won’t be together (or you’ll miss each other) today, you’ll still be thinking about him and you know he’ll be thinking about you,” says Beth Griffith, a D.C. -based child and adult psychotherapist.
After a long break from school, one that included lots of overstimulation, fun and major changes in routines, children who tend to be anxious may have a tough time transitioning back and separating from their parents."
This resonated with me as a parent, but also as a teacher. As a parent I do need to make sure Little Miss Lipstick is ready to go back to daycare. She's had two weeks of one on one mommy time, lots of downtime, lots of not having to share her toys (and new toys at that!) and lots of not having to wait long to get an adult's attention. (Although I suspect some of the current drama in our house is because she's ready to be back on her usual routine). I need to start talking to her about going back to her daycare before it's the night before and I suddenly announce "Guess What!" as though it's the most exciting adventure in the world.

As a teacher I've seen it from the other end. Kids coming back from a break isn't easy. They have just had a few weeks of constant downtime, not having to wait in line, not having to raise their hand, fun adventures, computer games, getting their needs met quickly, and getting to set their own agendas. The sudden transition back to reality isn't easy. I've also thought of this as a teacher's burden- a job hazard like dealing with lice or being thrown up on. The idea of parents helping on their end never occurred to me, but I can see how helpful it would be to have parents start the prepping process so it's not quite as though these children were just thrown into the deep end of the pool.

The article goes on with some tips on how you can make the transition better. It's worth reading!
~~  ~~  ~~

Mommy: I just gave you applesauce for breakfast because you asked nicely for it one millisecond ago. It's on the table.
Little Lipstick: NOOOOOOO, NOOOOOO APPLESAUCE. NOOOOOO. *falls into crying heap on kitchen floor.*
Mommy: *smacks head into wall*

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Teacher's New Years Resolution

I've spent a relaxing week and a half celebrating Christmas, chasing my two year old, and eating far too many Christmas treats (no matter how many I eat I can't seem to get them to disappear). With half a week left of break I've found myself already stressing over going back to work- the paperwork to fill out, the deadlines to meet, the reports to write, the lessons to plan, emails to send...  just typing this sends me into a horrible frenzy of stress and despair. Yet I slowly came to realize that none of that list above- my awful and never ending to-do list- has anything to do with the kids.

When I think about going back to the kids I'm excited. I want to know how their breaks were. I'm looking forward to teaching them, listening to their third grade reasoning, leading discussions in reading group, and hosting lunch bunches. I miss the kids over break- I miss their random jokes, their smiles and watching them grasp an academic concept that was difficult for them. The most important part of my job- the reason I do this job- I miss that.

SO, my new years resolution is to focus on the kids. Not to let the stacks of paperwork and deadlines get me down. Those reports I have to write, yes, they will be horrible to do and I will spend way too many nights desperately trying to get them finished when I could be with my family. The IEPs, the meetings (oh, those meetings), the lesson plans- yes, those will not go away. But when I focus on those elements of my job I get lost in a horrid sinking depression of teaching. When I think about those aspects I start to agree with all those Facebook articles going around about "Don't let your kids grow up to be teachers" and the "I was a teacher and quit and now my life is so much better" blog posts. When I'm focused on the paperwork and the adult aspects of my job I get angry at the world. I resent my job instead of embracing it. And that's not OK.

Because in truth, I have one of the best jobs there is. Teaching children with special needs- helping them overcome obstacles, navigate social situations, and teaching them that trying their hardest even when they think they can't do something is something I am blessed to be able to do. I am lucky that in college I felt called into the classroom instead of going to law school or pursuing another job that would leave me in an office dealing with grown ups all day.

There are days when it's hard to remember that. When I barely see the kids and spend far more time in meetings than teaching. When fighting for what is right for kids seems harder than it should be, or when the paperwork of the job seems to suffocate everything else. But for 2014 I cannot let myself focus on those elements. Being depressed or frustrated at the job will not make me a better teacher. It will not help my students learn. It will not give me the patience I need to see a student with clarity and empathy so I can determine the best way to help them.

So for 2014 I will focus on what I am exciting about teaching every day. One thing a day that makes me excited to go to work. It may be small, like simply being happy to do a read aloud with a class, or to check on a student I'm worried about- or maybe it is big, like learning how to introduce division to third graders. And every time I get frustrated and angry at the teaching profession, the adults who seem to put up road blocks, the paperwork and the reports I will remember why I am there everyday. I plan to post these every morning on the Facebook page to hold myself accountable for these positive thoughts (don't worry, I'm only teaching until March when the new baby comes so it won't clog your Facebook feed that much!)

For the next few days of break I will be getting my paperwork ready to go so that we can hit the ground running on January 6, 2014. But all the while I am going to try to keep my focus on the real reason I'll go into work that day- the kids.