Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How'd the baby get in there, anyway?

In exactly two weeks I will be starting my maternity leave. By this you can infer that I am currently very large.  And tired and uncomfortable. But mostly just large.

This largeness does not go unnoticed by the students I work with.

Although the comments, particularly from children with autism have been going on all year, but now that I seem to be expanding daily, AND the students know that I'll be leaving soon the comments, concerns and questions are amplifying.
~~  ~~
"Why do you keep your baby in your belly?"  (From a third grader with autism)
~~  ~~
Another third grader:  So how do you get the baby out?
Me: I'll go to the doctor and they'll deliver the baby.
Him: How do they deliver it? They put it in a box and mail it to the hospital and give it to you like delivering a package?
Me:  That word deliver makes it sound like that huh? Let's get back to work...
~~  ~~
I went to pick up a kindergarten student today for reading group. This was only the second time he was in my group and I guess the first time he didn't notice my large belly. His class was working quietly at reading workshop and I was trying my best to get him and his reading group out of the classroom without disruption. Yet the poor boy couldn't take his eyes off my belly. "Why is your belly so big?" he asked me loudly. When I gave him the quiet signal and pointed toward the door to indicate that he should line up he turned to his friends."Why is her tummy so large? Is her belly big? What's wrong with it?"
I can only imagine the horror he was going through trying to figure out why a teacher would walk around with such a large belly.

At the end of reading group, his eyes still glued to my stomach he asked, "Why did you want to put a baby in your belly?"

~~  ~~
"Mrs. Lipstick, when you're baby comes can I be your respite care baby sitter?"
I'm totally touched that this third grade boy would offer, and I do love that he called it respite care. But no. Not going to be the baby sitter.

~~  ~~
I'm starting to think that teachers should be granted maternity leave months before the baby is born so we don't have to handle these awkward social questions.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kindergarten Too Easy?

There have been a lot of articles and blog posts lately about how kindergarten is the new first grade based off a working paper coming out of UVA. In 11 years of teaching I can verify this. When I began teaching I was a first grade classroom teacher. The same lessons we did in first grade are now being taught in kindergarten. So, yes, this revelation doesn't surprise me. I've certainly seen it myself.

Another study due to be published in the American Education Research Journal does not contradict this, but still says that kindergarten is actually too easy. You read about the article here, on the Education Week blog. The study shows that children learn more when they are introduced to more academic concepts- instead of simply teaching letters and numbers teachers should be teaching the sounds that correspond with the letters and addition concepts. The study states that most kindergartners come in already knowing what is taught in kindergarten and are ready for something harder. Those who don't come in with the background knowledge needed learn the basic concepts while learning the advanced information.

I'm torn on how I feel about this stance. First of all, I agree with the concept. When we "teach up" kids do tend to learn more, often because we are giving more meaning behind the basic, rote concepts we want them to learn. This is why I saw so much progress in my intellectual disabilities class last year. Not knowing another way to teach I simply taught the class the way I would run a general education classroom- and the kids responded by soaking it all in.

Of course this also had to be paired with differentiation. I couldn't assume that just because I was teaching high frequency words in connection with letters and letter sound when we did word wall work that they would automatically know the information. I still had to provide small group work and individual, direct instruction that worked on basics like what is a word vs a letter, or even what is a picture vs a letter. While the children benefited from being exposed to the more academic content they wouldn't have gotten anything if they hadn't also had the information paired with instruction at their individual level. This takes a lot of time and flexibility throughout the day, and a lot of pre-planning on how to daily make sure everyone is getting the exact instruction they need. I believe it is how every classroom should be, but I also recognize the difficulty of putting it in place. It was hard.

In saying kindergarten is too easy the study focuses on the academic tasks the children are learning, but not the social, emotional development or the learning to learn behaviors that we need for children to have to be successful in school. Now that I have my own daughter I watch with amazement as she soaks up information that I think of as a kindergarten skill. She's learning at an incredible rate (which I also assume is completely normal, just incredible to me, her mother). So I can see how parents begin to worry that their child will be bored if they come into kindergarten already reading.

I can see that we are capable of cramming our kindergarten day with reading, writing and math and having very academically capable kids come out on the other side. But we also have to remember that these children are five and six. While I believe they are perfectly capable of learning the information (and should be exposed to the information) I don't think this should be a prescription for drill-and-kill activities or to pack the day with academics leaving no time for play.

Play and learning can be embedded together in a way that gives more meaning to the learning while engaging the children where they are. And in my personal experience, what children learn through play seems to stick in their memory a lot longer than what they learned through straight lessons.

As a first grade teacher I'd watch the children come in from different kindergarten teachers. One teacher in particular was always a teacher I enjoyed getting children from. Her students came in with a love of books. They knew how to sit on the carpet and shared with each other without my intervention. They loved school and came in ready to learn every day. The teacher was known as being a a more play-based classroom and the children didn't always end kindergarten with the best test scores. But she'd given them a huge base for first grade and they typically soared to the top of the class once I had them. Because I didn't have to spend time reminding them how to sit on the carpet, how to work independently or how to share the crayons they were ready for all the academic requirements of first grade.

I suppose my thoughts on the study can be wrapped up in the simple phrase of "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater".  Yes, we can increase our instruction and expectations in kindergarten- but let's not do it at the harm of the children.

How can we teach smarter? How can we put creativity and play into academic concepts? How can we take a good book and connect all of our standards (and beyond) to it in order to engage the children? How can we use good classroom structure to differentiate for our students?

It's easy to read the article and decide that kindergarten is too easy and should look more rote- children in desks- more teacher directed lessons- but I caution us from taking that angle. What can we do to increase our academic expectations while keeping true the fact that we are teaching five and six year olds?

My other thoughts on the article are:
1) I've worked in 3 schools and none of them have simple taught numbers and letters. All of them presented kindergartens with high academic expectations. I realize I work in a very good school district, but I am saddened to think of kindergartens out there that wouldn't teach reading.

2) What about the children who do not come in with those skills? There are two different types of children who come in lacking basic kindergarten skills. One is a set of students whose families read to them, played with them, had resources (even though very limited) to expose them to different opportunities. Families who talked to them but never thought to teach their children their letters and numbers. The other type of student is from a family in significant poverty who struggles to survive. The families share apartments with other families, the children rarely go outside their apartment because of safety concerns. The families may work multiple jobs, children may only eat once a day, and they don't have resources to expose their children to much outside their homes.
In my current school I see a lot of the children in the first category. The children are picking up skills fast even though they came in with little. In my former school I saw children in the second category. They were from families who were from such significant poverty that school was often the first time they had seen their name in print. Their parents were illiterate and their homes (that I was often in for home visits) had almost no print other than what was on food wrappers. Those children require a lot more intervention and intense differentiated instruction to make up for lost time than the ones who simply hadn't been told the names of the letters.
Of course these children benefit from high expectations and being exposed to the higher academics all kindergartners should be exposed to. But we can't just teach and hope they will catch up. They may need intense intervention, lessons re-taught, and a chance to get a firm foundation so that they have something to build the rest of their academic career on.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Understanding the Deeper Meaning Behind "Thank you, Mr. Falker"

One of my favorite books of all time is Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Palocco. In fact, at the 2012 National Book Festival I was able to shake Patricia Palacco's hand and tell her that this was the book that made me want to be a special education teacher. I love the book and I love reading it with students to watch them either connect with the text or grapple with the concept of what it means to be smart and dumb.*

     This year I read it with my third grade lunch-bunch/book club. One of the students in this group is a child with autism. Like many children with autism he is a very literal thinker. Only a few pages into the book he was going crazy with how "dumb" Tricia, the main character is. "Why doesn't she just try harder?" he exclaimed with frustration. "Stop drawing and start working! If I was her father I wouldn't let her draw anymore, I'd lock her in her room until she started reading!"

No matter what I said to him, or what his sympathetic peers said to him, we couldn't convince him that Tricia wasn't dumb just because she couldn't read. One third grader even got into the concept of right brain and left brain and how people have different strengths but he wouldn't let it go. "Whatever," he replied, "My brain doesn't work like that. Everyone just has one brain and it's either smart or dumb."

I think I died a little inside.

I'm also a huge fan of the book Mindset by Carol Dweck, and my school has put a significant emphasis on adapting the culture of Mindset into our daily work. We actively work on embedding Dweck's theory into our routines, our teacher language, and how we talk to kids about their work. Most of our students get embrace the culture.

My friend that day did not. In fact he was so upset about the book he told me he didn't want to come to lunch bunch with me anymore if we were going to read a book about "dumb kids". This kills me because it is a conversation we need to keep having, especially to encourage empathy with the other friends in the class. I have a feeling we will be building slow, baby steps towards breaking down the black or white thinking around intelligence, but I'm determined we can get there. More open and honest conversations about books- more character talks- more books with surprising twists to character development- but we can do it.

Any recommendations?
My moment with Patrica Palacco

*If you aren't familiar with the story it is about a young girl who loves to draw but struggles with reading. She tries to hide her reading difficulties but she believes she is dumb because of them. Once a teacher intervenes and helps her read and begins to see herself as a reader. The best part? (spoiler alert?) The ending reveals that it is a true story about Patricia Palacco herself. I love watching children's faces when they realize that it's true.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Smart Phones in Class? What do you do?

A friend of mine is a high school teacher, which means he lives in a world that can be very different than mine. Some of our job is the same- educating students- but I'm constantly fascinated by the differences between the high school issues and elementary school issues.

This past weekend on Facebook he had a series of posts that really got me wondering. The first was simply a link to a news article noting that a popular game for smart phones was going to be pulled off line. (As an elementary school teacher I had never even heard of this game). The comments on his post seemed to be from other teachers who were relieved at the news because they could stop trying to compete with the game when they were teaching.

Ack- definitely something I don't have to deal with in elementary school. That would drive me CRAZY. But what do you do about it in high school? Not being in high school I don't know what the rules and regulations are, but I'm inferring from the fact that this is a problem many teachers have that there isn't a simple "turn your phone off or X happens" rule.

His next post was reaching out to former students to see what their teachers in college do about cell phones. He wanted to know the cell phone policy for different classes and what works at actually keeping phones away. I was fascinated by the comment chain. Some students talked about using apps on their phone that let them respond to group questions, while others talked about ways phones were discouraged. I found myself going back to read the comments because I wanted to see if anyone came up with a better answer that could be applied in a high school class.

His third post was asking other educators about how they incorporate twitter into their classrooms. Again, these answers made me realize just how different the worlds between high school and elementary school are. It was interesting to read about how educators opened up lines of communication with parents and students through twitter, but the question of "do you follow your students back?" came up. Do you want to know what they are posting? Does that make you liable for any of the poor choices they make outside of school?

So what about you- if you work in high school or middle school- what do you do about cell phones? Do you have school set consequences for texting/game playing in class? Are you able to momentarily confiscate phones when they are being used inappropriately? Do you need to find ways to get students to use their phones in class to keep them on task?

My world is so different I don't even know where I would begin to handle this one.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Retelling with Playdough?

Saturday morning (way too early for anyone but a toddler) my daughter discovered her pigeon doll in a basket of toys. This meant of course that she immediately needed to find her pigeon book about the hot dog, and then she needed to give her pigeon a hot dog. This led to play dough to create a hot dog  (anyone feel like this could be an If You Give a ______ a ______ book?) which then led us to making a dough form of the duckling. And once you have a pigeon, a play dough duckling and a play dough hot dog you really have no choice but to act out the book from beginning to end, over and over (and over and over and over...) again.
 This was so simple. We went from a Saturday morning of bouncing around to retelling a story. 
It made me wonder if this could become a very simple reading center. The last few years I spent a lot of time and money buying small items to help my students act out familiar books to help with retelling. It never occurred to me that I could create the same type of learning activity with play dough. I don't think it would work in an intellectual disability classroom (some of my students fine motor isn't there to manipulate play dough) but it could work in a gen Ed classroom. Hmmmmmm.....

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How do we teach self advocacy?

One student I work with is working hard at being the class clown. He's found this identity for himself and spends much of his time working on getting his peers to laugh at him. Although he is funny it is tough to watch such a great kid spend so much time trying to be funny when he has so many other great qualities. He also has a specific learning disability.

The other day during a lesson he was attempting to make the class laugh instead of answering a question. His very skilled teacher was managing to completely ignore the attempts at humor and keep him focused on the question at hand through restating her question and asking him to rephrase what a peer said. 

Finally he said, "I can't understand what my friend says. He speaks too fast." 
 His teacher and I were taken aback for a moment. "Thank you for telling us that," she said, and restated what the peer said for our friend.

It was such a clear moment of self advocacy. Instead of trying to distract the class and hide his struggle to comprehend oral directions, he took a moment and honestly explained the problem.

How do we harness that self advocacy? How do we help him understand that there isn't anything wrong with not being able to process things differently, it just means he needs a different set of instructions? 

How many times a day is his humor and willingness to get in trouble masking his real difficulties in the classroom? How do we reach him?

Monday, February 3, 2014

"I work independently!"

Last week I blogged about my excitement of trying out video self-modeling with a few of my third graders. At the time I hadn't even started yet and was just trying to get my ideas in order.

I managed to edit a few videos and show one to one of my students last week. As we sat down in the hallway outside her classroom to watch the video I found myself getting chills at just how intense she became as she watched the video.

On the first watch she leaned closely in, "That's me?" she'd ask as she'd read the labels on the screen (Mary works independently, Mary sits quietly). Then she'd turn towards me, her eyes wide with excitement and say, "I work INDEPENDENTLY! Look, all by myself!"

When the two minute video ended she asked to watch it again, and then again. Each time she labeled what she was doing well in the video- I tried my best to sit quietly and let the video speak for itself. Without any talking on my part she was able to see what she was doing well, and even added to it. "Look, I'm sitting criss-cross apple sauce and not talking to my friend" she pointed out at one viewing.

As teachers started to walk down the hall she called them over to see her video. For each teacher she'd once again label her behaviors and then explain to them in a very serious voice what she was doing well.

I've only dipped my toe into the video self-modeling water but I am excited to see where it takes me from here. If this is the beginning I have big hopes for where it can go.