Friday, December 19, 2014

December School Applications: The agony of determining what is best

This December my husband and I are frantically trying to find the perfect school for our daughter for next fall. With school officials constantly reminding us of the importance of getting our applications in early, other parents excitedly talking about where their children will be going in the fall, and the ever looming question "will this school set her on the perfect path for the rest of her life?" we are feeling a bit of stress.


We are looking for the perfect preschool. There is something wrong when I can commiserate with parents of students applying to college and my daughter is only three. I still am unsure why I am looking for preschools in December when my t

hree year old daughter will not start until next September, but no matter. It must be done. Applications are due, spots will fill up, and waiting lists will get longer and longer. December is the time to act.

This has left my husband and I having long conversations about what we want out of a preschool for our daughter and what the true purpose of a preschool is. Unfortunately, the three most important factors in our decision are location, hours, and price. We have to find something that fits into our current commute since we'll also have to manage to take her sister to daycare as well. We also need a full day program since we both work, and we'd like to not spend her college tuition right now. 

I'm quickly finding that the best programs, or at least the ones I'd like to enroll my daughter in- the ones that are the most child center and developmentally appropriate- are half day programs. This is tough because there is no way we can put her in a half day program, but there is a good reason these child centered programs are only half day. Preschoolers probably shouldn't be in a preschool setting for more than half a day. I don't want to hear about the full day of academic learning they are doing because God bless them, they are three and four. They need a few hours a day to run around like banshees in the backyard. But that isn't an option for my daughter.

So that leaves us trying to determine how we want our daughter to spend 8+ hours a day, five days a week when she is four years old. Do we want a play-based program? Montessori? And if we want Montessori, do we want AMS or AMI? (Schools throw these acronyms out with pride, boasting of which one they are, but really I have no idea what the difference is.) Do we want a program that promises our daughter will be reading when she leaves them? (No, we don't) Do we want a program that promises to teach  morals? Social skills? Prepare our child for academic success in her future? All things preschool websites boast they can do.

After some deep conversations we've realized these are what we want in a preschool:
1) We want to send our daughter to a place where she is excited to go everyday. This is setting the groundwork for her school career, and we want her to love it. We want her to love her teachers, and we want them to love her. We know she'll have days she doesn't want to go, but we don't want a situation where she starts to associate school with pressure, whether that pressure is to do well academically or to behave perfectly. That time will come (sadly, in kindergarten, when the crunch is on.)
Box play. Note both children inside. What you don't see is the stack of clothing I was trying to put inside the box before it became a bear den.

2) We are not worried about academics. Maybe it's because I work in kindergarten and so I understand where students are when they enter kindergarten, and how quickly they learn, but I'm not concerned about her learning to read in preschool. I am not worried about her going into kindergarten behind her peers, and if she does enter behind I am not concerned about her ability to catch up. There's time for that.

3) We do want her prepared for the social norms and expectations of kindergarten. I want her to know how to sit on the carpet and listen to a story. I want her to know how to line up, listen to the teacher, follow directions, and share toys. If she can do all of those things when she enters kindergarten then she will be ready to learn the academics she needs.

4) We want her to be a kid while she enjoys her last few years before elementary school starts. Since I am not able to pick her up at noon every day, bring her home for lunch and give her time to have independent exploitative play I want her to have the closest thing to that. I want her to have lots of time for unstructured play, whether inside or outside. Opportunities to pretend a box is a boat, a castle, or an animal den. Opportunities to see what happens when she runs as fast as she can and falls down in the grass. Opportunities to "read" a stack of books to herself and giggle at the pictures without an adult trying to teach her something about the text.

5) I do not want to have to bring my daughter to an interview, and then wait to hear whether or not she's been accepted. She's three. She changes every day. Today she might decide she is Elsa the Snow Queen, tomorrow she is Piglet from Winnie the Pooh yelling that I stepped on her imaginary best friend Christopher Robin. She's silly, outgoing, shy, serious, friendly, stubborn, and reserved on any given day. Sometimes she can dress herself and some days she throws herself on the floor in protest as though picking up one pair of pants would be the death of her. She is three. I don't want to be looking in the mail for an acceptance letter. She has the rest of her life for interviews. Why start now?

Giving a detailed explanation of the randomness of the age appropriate art work. It's beautiful. That's all it has to be.

This list is hard to find. At least it is hard to find in full day programs in the general vicinity of our daily commute. It's hard to predict whether or not she'll love the school. So much will depend on her teacher and the relationship she builds with that teacher. That's something we can't have control of, and that's scary. It's surprisingly hard to figure out which preschools focus on academics. They are all trying to sell themselves to us, and so many of them believe all parents want their children reading before kindergarten. We politely sat and listened to a four year old decode consonant vowel consonant (cvc) words in isolation. With no books around her and just a stack of flash cards she timidly "read" the words. We were supposed to be impressed, but I just felt sad. I don't need my daughter reading words yet. That will come.

All of this leads to the question- if this is what I want for my own kid, what do I want when I think about other people's kids? One of my former co-teachers wrote about this topic earlier this week.  What do we want from preschools? What should we want? What skills do we want our little ones to come to kindergarten prepared with, and what skills should we developmentally expect of them? I usually think it's wonderful when I see students had full day preschool, but I've never stopped to think about what that means before. Were they in an enriching environment where teachers responded to their wonders and excitement, or were they in a high pressured preschool where they were expected to act older than they were?

Yet I'm looking at preschool from two very different perspectives. As a parent I am soley interested in my own daughter. I know her anxieties and her personality. I want to find the school that's right for her. I don't have any judgement about people who put their children in high academic preschools, because when I wear my parent hat I can step back and see that it's their choice and I can make my own choice. When I wear my educator hat I'm thinking more about closing the achievement gap and fighting to get every kid the opportunities they need to succeed in life. Why are those two views end up with contradictory answers?

This also makes me think about the head start programs at all of the schools where I've worked. I would put my daughter into one in a heart beat. In fact, I'd like to slip her in and see if anyone protests. They all seem very play based and child focused. Perhaps because they are not day care centers in disguise, and they are not trying to teach kids to read to please parents paying a high tuition. Why can't I find a preschool like that for my own daughter?

One of my former co-teachers wrote about this topic earlier this week. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

You Can't Catch Me! Following student motivation in kindergarten

Last Friday I sat down with my kindergarten remediation author group. My plan was to re-read our Mrs. Wishy Washy at the beach book and then move on to reading an actually published book. (What was I thinking?) As I gathered the group I quickly realized that my plans were not the right course of action. The kindergarten classes had just finished reading different gingerbread man stories and had baked their own men, only to have them escape. They'd made wanted posters for their men and hunted them down. This was so exciting that they couldn't stop talking about it. I hadn't been at school that Thursday so they couldn't wait to fill me in on everything I'd missed. Listening to their excitement of retelling what happened to the gingerbread men I threw away my lesson plans for the day and decided that instead we'd write another story like our Mrs. Wishy Washy book, but this time about the gingerbread men. 

That day I grabbed some construction paper and together we hand wrote the words to our story (and read, and re-read the words while they each took turns pointing). The next time we met I had pre-printed pages for us to include in our book. Each student could dictate what the gingerbread men ran away from. I gave out the page to the first student, scribed where her tasty convict escaped from, and went on to the next student. When I turned back I saw that she was furiously writing. She wasn't just writing strings of letters either, she was saying her words slowly and trying to record the exact sounds she heard. I hadn't told the group to write, I'd only told them to draw. Keep in mind this is considered a remediation group. This is a group of students identified as being below the expected benchmark in concepts of print, so much so that they are in need of daily intervention. And yet, without being prompted this student was applying everything she'd been taught. Happily. With purpose. When the others realized what she was doing they added words to their pages as well. Suddenly my quick activity designed to merely to create a text we could use the next day to practice reading together turned into a writing lesson.

When they were finished and we read the story together they spontaneously high-fived each other out of excitement and pride. Another reminder to me of how powerful it can be to follow the students' lead. My previous plans would have worked just fine, but our fast twenty minutes would not have been packed with nearly as much literacy practice if I'd stuck with my original plan.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tapping into student interest to increase motivation

 I spend a significant part of my day working with students in intervention groups. From kindergartners learning concepts of print to fourth graders working on improving their reading fluency and decoding, I'm usually with a group of students who have been designated as needing extra support. Now that the year is in full swing all of these groups have gotten into a comfortable pattern. We know and trust each other and we know what to expect from one another. This means I can start go take risks as a teacher, and they are comfortable taking risks as a learner.

With all of these groups, where I have just 20 to 30 minutes a day to work on their essential skills, I've discovered that the key to making the most of our time is following their lead and selecting activities and books that respond to the group interest. Choosing high interest activities certainly isn't a novel teacher strategy, but it is one that I think is easy to forget when we get busy, especially when we are working with intervention groups. There is so much we want to teach and so little time to get it done that we can stock our lesson plans with excellent activities and learning objectives that overlook the target audience- the kids.

In my fourth grade reading group I realized that they were very interested in re-told stories, or folktales. For whatever reason these stories with morals had them excited to debate the greater meaning of the story in a way I wasn't getting from realistic fiction. They started asking me for more re-told stories, which was shocking. These are fourth grade students who, well, are not the kids you'd think would ask for more books to read.

In following their lead and looking for more re-told stories I also found two more high interest activities, making posters and readers' theater. Having them work with a partner to make a poster for their story map on the book proved to be motivating, and kept them on task. It was the same story map I could have given them to complete on a work sheet, but now that they had to work with a partner they were talking about the story with someone else. They were debating their answers and going back into the text to support their thinking. And somehow working with a partner kept them more on task than when they do independent work. Plus, there is a strange magic of getting to use markers instead of a pencil that somehow encourages work out of the otherwise inclined. 

After they completed their story maps we started reading the reader's theater version of the story. Two of the students are working on their fluency, so readers theater is a great way to get them to practice "reading like they are talking." 
Yesterday we had our first read-through. The student who needs the most work on fluency was the most engaged and excited about this. He even modeled how to read lines for his friends who weren't using as much emotion as he would like. He was far more willing and eager to re-read lines of text when he saw it as practicing for a play than when I ask him to re-read for fluency during a typical reading lesson. He even sang a two page song for us, all by himself. I saw more reading strategies and independent engagement with the text from him when he was singing that song than when I do during a typical read. 

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Tomorrow's post- current high engagement in kindergarten. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Teaching and Respect

This year I am our school's local screening chair, which basically means I am the special education teacher tapped to sit at the special education meetings that involve determining whether or not a child is or continues to be eligible for special education. It's far from glamorous and involves a lot of paperwork, a careful following of the legal process for finding a student eligible for special education, and scheduling meetings. A lot of scheduling. (Which sounds far easier than it is in reality.)

This is a new role for me and I have a huge learning curve. I like learning new things and usually I thrive on being new at a role and learning all of the ins and outs of a process and the theories behind it. This role is hard. Perhaps because there isn't a lot of theory to learn, but there is a lot of dotting the eyes and crossing the t's. I am enjoying the learning process, but I do find it frustrating that this role is so time consuming and takes away from time with kids.

What I find the most striking about this is that many people act like this is a promotion. The "oh, you are just a teacher" people seem to react with a whole new level of respect when I describe what I do now. Perhaps this is the respect I've been waiting for all these years when I've secretly fumed at cocktail parties from getting the pat on the head and the "A teacher? That's so cute!" comments. But now I'm still fuming. 

I'm not sure how being surrounded by the tedium of paperwork is possibly considered more prestigious than working with kids. Teaching a child to read- that's meaningful and important. Teaching a child learning to speak English, from an underprivileged  background and who is struggling to learn how to read? That's essential. I think of it like being an ER doctor. Every second of the day should be devoted to getting into working with these kids and teaching. That's when the details should matter. That is when everything is on the line. These students have to be successful and it is our job to get them there. 

It's hard for me to reconcile the i dotting and t crossing details of the legal paperwork when there are kids out there not getting reading instruction because I am doing the paperwork. It does not take theory or years of practice and training to put together a packet of documents. I do other tasks besides putting together paperwork, I shouldn't be totally diminishing the role... but it still shouldn't be seen as more prestigious than teaching kids. It kills me that it is.

Why is it that in the teaching profession the more time one is paid to spend with adults the more respect we give them? 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What does an ability to read do for us anyway?

In my previous post I wrote about reading and students with intellectual disabilities- if they are considered illiterate unless they get to a fourth grade reading level what and how should we be teaching them? Are we wasting their time with reading instruction? What scares me about that question is that if we decide that yes, we are wasting their time and stop teaching reading in a quality way is the scary question of what if we are wrong? My year teaching students in an intellectual disabilities classroom showed me that some children may fit the profile of a student with an intellectual disability at one point in their lives, but when given the right instruction and opportunity for growth they prove that they are capable of more. So if we decide that a student won't reach a fourth grade reading level are we trying to use a crystal ball that we don't actually have? Are we limiting a child's future?

A commenter on my previous post wrote, "And keeping in mind that plenty of intellectually disabled students who do reach a mid-grade reading level still end up in jobs that don't require reading, for a variety of reasons."

This of course is true, but got me thinking about why we teach reading. Why is reading important to these students if they are going to be functionally illiterate? Does an ability to read play a role in their lives beyond employment? 

I'd like to think it does. It should. There is of course the need to read bus schedules, informational signs giving directions, recipes, directions, and letters. But I think there is more to an ability to read as well. If someone feels comfortable in their reading ability I imagine they feel more confident. They have access to written information without relying on others. They have access to part of their environment they would not otherwise have. There is also an ability to read for pleasure. With social media becoming an integral part of people's personal lives the ability to read becomes tied into the ability to communicate with others. Friends connect over Facebook. If one isn't able to read and correctly comprehend a Facebook status, how much will social interactions be limited? An inability to use social media creates yet another barrier from the rest of the world.

The idea of teaching reading so that our students can use Facebook and whatever other social media platform is out there seems absurd. But I don't think it is. If I want my students to be able to connect with the world around them, access opportunities, advocate for themselves, and live a fulfilling life, then the ability to read- even if they are not using it for employment- is key.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Reading and Long Term Goals

Sometimes someone says something to us that brings everything we are doing into a new perspective, making us re-think our approach and what we've been working toward.

I spend 90 minutes a day in one of the classrooms for students with intellectual disabilities, teaching guided reading and writing groups. It's my favorite time of the day. I get 45 minutes with each group to do a reading/writing/word study combination lesson. I can tie all of those elements together, draw connections between them, and really push the skills and (hopefully) the love of literacy because we have the time to get deep into what we're doing.

Yesterday someone said, "These kids are still going to be illiterate. First grade, second grade reading level? It doesn't matter. These kids need to be on a fourth grade level to be considered literate."

It sounds harsh, and at first I was taken aback. But it's the truth. If we don't get these kids to a fourth grade level before they leave our school system then we haven't given them the ability to read.



That stopped me in my tracks. What do I want for these kids? Will we get to that fourth grade level by high school? Am I pushing hard enough to get them there? If they are in fourth grade and reading on a kindergarten level what do we need to do? Is it time to work in survival literacy skills, or is there still a chance to produce literate adults?

My gut is to push. To start thinking long term- what do we need to put in place now to get to that fourth grade level long term? Is what I'm doing enough? Is it time to change the path and re-think my approach? But by pushing am I overlooking needed survival skills they will need in their future? Is reading essential to their lives?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Teacher Pay- Thoughts on the recent Freakonomics Podcast

Last week's Freakonomics podcast was titled, "Is America's Education Problem Really Just a Teacher Problem?"   Yeah. I know. I almost didn't listen to it. I was too worried it would send me into a massive temper tantrum that would ruin the rest of my day. But I got myself prepared to listen and finally hit play.

And I didn't disagree.

In fact, the beginning of it, when it discusses the importance of good teachers, actually inspired me. It made me proud to be a teacher. It laid out all the reasons why teachers are essential to our society, the impact great teachers have on students, and why it should be a more respected profession in our country (and historically why it isn't). And since, of course, it's an economic podcast- why teachers should be paid more.

Paying teachers more is almost always something that is said off hand. I hear it all the time, "Wow, you are a teacher. You all don't get paid enough," "You all deserve much more than we pay you," as though just saying the simple phrase makes up for not paying us as much as what teachers in other countries make. It's similar to saying to my three year old, "Wow, look at that beautiful picture you drew. We could put it in a museum!" Easy to say, easy to sound sincere, but we don't actually plan to take any action to support our words.

It's not about the money, really. It is about what the money represents. We pay more for things we value. In other countries, the podcast discusses, teacher pay is similar to what lawyers make. In those countries (that also have higher test scores) teachers are more respected members of the community. Being a teacher is competitive. Students in the top ten percent of their high school class become teachers. That's not something that is true in America.

But it should be. This job is too important for it to not be competitive to become a teacher.There is too much at stake for our students for us not to be giving them the best and the brightest teachers to work with them.

Increasing teacher pay draws more competition to the field. I bet if you look at the highest performing school districts in our country you would also find that they pay their teachers more than the under performing districts. It isn't that teachers suddenly work harder when they are paid more, it's that a higher salary draws better candidates.

I went to a competitive college where there was barely a teacher education program. I heard time and time again, "Why are you here if you are just going to become a teacher?" That's heart breaking. Many of my peers later became teachers, and became excellent ones. But the atmosphere at the school where everyone was destined to become doctors, lawyers, accountants and CEOs was fairly hostile to anyone entering the field.

There is more to the podcast than just teacher pay. It's worth a listen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Teaching "Make it Match" - Writing our own big books to teach voice/print correspondence

 Every morning I start my day by working with a group of kindergarten students who need extra support in understanding concepts of print. We want them to understand the difference between letters, words, and sentences, and know that reading is composed of recognizing the different sets of letters sitting next to each other make a word that match a word you can say verbally, and that this set of letters makes the exact same word every time. The is the is the. On every page. Some children pick up on this skill very quickly, and others need a bit more direct instruction. This group is focused working on pointing to words with correct one to one correspondence when they ready (correctly pointing to the words on the page and having it match what they say out loud.) 

I love this group because it primarily means we get to really interact with books- read them, write them, illustrate them, and read them again- over and over- to practice the skill. And most importantly we have to absolutely LOVE the books so that we are inspired to pay attention and point to the words. Which means we have to do a lot of giggling while we read.

I just happened to pull the group for the first time when their classrooms were reading a Mrs. Wishy Washy book. I had come up with a fairly boring activity where they told me what they liked, I wrote it on a sentence strip, cut it up so each word was its own piece, and then had them glue the words in order on their paper. Every kid said they liked Mrs. Wishy Washy, or an animal from a Mrs. Wishy Washy book. Which basically gave me permission to run with it. (You may not know this, but I am a bit obsessed with that crazy washing woman.)

One of them began to giggle during the lesson- what if Mrs. Wishy Washy went to the beach?? Why not? I thought. This group of kids that needs extra practice to point to the words on the page can still create their own Mrs. Wishy Washy text.

So we did. 

In our book that crazy woman went to the beach and tried to wash the sand, a shark, a whale, and a crab. (The children were convinced that she was then eaten by the shark but we left that out of our actual text. If you squint closely you may infer that element of the story from the pictures). 

I wrote the words on sentence strips and then we cut it up and each child was able to glue the words down in\order to make a page of the book. The words on index cards make it clear where the words are on the page, which provides support for when the students are pointing to each word when they read. Then we read, and re-read our pages. There was lots of giggling (the sand? She tried to wash the sand?) 

Now that they've all read it a few times and they are pointing to each word without me prompting them they are ready to point to words without the index cards. So yesterday I printed out the saying, "Wishy washy, wishy washy, splash, splash, splash" and each child could glue the words to the page and illustrate yet another picture of what Mrs. Wishy Washy was doing at the beach (more giggling). 

Then we read, and re-read the words, pointing the whole time. I can see the difference in their ability now that I've taken away the support of the index cards. We'll use this as our mentor text for the next week, practicing reading the words on the page in our scaffolded book, and then taking that skill and applying it to other books we read.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Redskin Name Debate

I want to preface this by saying I am not a football fan and until now I have put zero thought into the Redskin name debate. I understand both sides but I haven't taken time to form an opinion. I felt like it wasn't my fight. Until now.

Before Thanksgiving I was doing a lesson on the pilgrims and American Indians in a self-contained classroom for students with intellectual disabilities. We were gathered around the Smartboard and looking at images depicting the first Thanksgiving. When a picture of Squanto came up on the screen one boy jumped up with excitement.

"That's a redskin!" he declared confidently, in a voice he reserved for times when he was absolutely sure of a fact he could teach the class.

It took me a moment to catch up with him. Redskin? Squanto? Squanto didn't play football- Oh.


It took a few rounds of explaining we don't call American Indians redskins before he accepted my explanation. I finally broke out, "Martin Luther King told us not to call people redskins," which he accepted because he takes Martin Luther King very, very seriously.

The poor kid. You can see the confusion. He sees the image of the Washington Redskins everywhere. It's all over his friends' shirts at school. He's allowed to call that image Redskins. Everyone else does. And then he infers that if the football logo is called Redskin then the picture of Squanto is also a redskin. Frankly this is the type of thinking that we're excited to see from him. That's a great application of what he knows to what he is learning. Except that now I have to tell him that what he said is actually a racial slur and not great thinking. And somehow I have to get him to understand that it is OK to call one picture of a football team Redskins, but it is absolutely not OK to call pictures of American Indians redskins.

He looked deflated, embarrassed and confused when he sat back down after my Martin Luther King explanation. I felt the same way. All this time I haven't put any thought into the growing debate around the football team's name. It took a fourth grade boy to show me just how absurd the name is in 2014. As a society we're better than that. I can't explain to a class full of hopeful students that we aren't.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monday Morning: Moments to get up for.

It's Monday morning after Thanksgiving break. Hard to get out of bed and back into the swing of school after the holiday. Yet there are a few moments from last week that stuck with me and make me excited to be getting back to the kids:

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"How many sentences do you have?" one of my co-teachers asked a student. "Two? Then you need two periods."
The student nodded energetically and then neatly wrote ".." at the end of her writing. Two periods, exactly.

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I was watching a kindergarten student write what he was thankful for. Since I was trying to assess his ability of being able to say a word slowly, isolate the sounds, and record it on the page, I was holding myself back from helping him. He very earnestly said "bideo-games. bbbb-iiii-ddddd-o games." and then carefully wrote a bedo. Pretty good for a kindergartner, especially if you think you've been playing bideo games all your life, and not video games.

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Another kindergarten student got up from the carpet in the middle of a lesson and went to his backpack. He pulled out his winter scarf and carefully arranged it around his neck. The kindergarten aid quickly came over to him and requested that he put it away since we were inside and he didn't need it. He looked at her, hurt and confused. "But you have one!" he said. At that moment I realized that all three teachers in the classroom- the classroom teacher, the aid, and I- all had on decorate scarves. In fact the majority of the teachers at our school had scarves on that day. No wonder my friend thought it was totally appropriate to wear one too. If the teachers wear them as fashion accessories, why can't a five year old boy?

~~ ~~
After a fourth grade guided reading group where we read an African folktale I was sending the kids back to class. I was quite a few steps behind the two boys and they had forgotten my presence.
"The hen totally died at the end," one said. "See, it says she's gone."
"That doesn't mean they cooked her!" the other said with desperation. "Maybe she escaped."
"But the book means to not be greedy," the first argued back. "So if you are greedy you get cooked."
"But it said, 'traded a full belly for freedom'" the second tried again, "so maybe at the end she escaped and got her freedom and was hungry now."
"She got eaten," the first said as they rounded the corner and I couldn't hear their debate anymore.

If I'd tried to lead that discussion the boys would have stared at me as though I had three heads. Apparently when I'm not around they can get pretty passionate about their reading.