Monday, March 30, 2015

Background Knowledge

Last week I hurriedly grabbed a non-fiction book I thought would be perfect for teaching that we can make inferences with non-fiction texts. VGLA binders (the alternative to the state assessment for students who are learning English) are due in less than a month and we are frantically trying to get them completed. I was really focused on getting a text that would lend itself to inferences and would be at the right reading level (which is harder than you think. Inferring from non-fiction turns out to be not nearly as simple as with fiction.)

So I sat down in my group of two and explained the worksheet in front of them. In the first box they would need to record their background knowledge on the book's topic, then record what the text said in the next box, and then write the inferences they made in the last box. They nodded along until I handed them the book, titled "Africa". One student messily scribbled, "Africa is big," as his background knowledge. Fair enough. I don't know what other background knowledge a fourth grader in Virginia would necessarily  have. Yet the other student stared at me awhile before she wrote, "Africa is a wonderful place to live but you can't go into the forest by yourself or you might get hurt." Then her pencil hovered over the paper for awhile as though she couldn't decide to write next.

That's when I realized. In my frantic focus on teaching nonfiction inferences I'd forgotten about the actual students I was working with. She was from Africa. A year ago she was still living in Africa. And here I was asking her to tell me her background knowledge on the entire massive continent. You know, just write a few sentences in this tiny box to pretty much sum up the place you called home until a few months ago.

She looked at me and began to tell me a story about her and her mom back in their kitchen in Africa. The other member of the group stopped reading and we both sat and just listened- her insights about how different her kitchen was there were far more interesting than what we could find in the leveled text book I'd chosen. Slowly I took the worksheet away and replaced it with a piece of blank notebook paper. She didn't need to worry about fitting her story into a box- just write what comes. We'll figure out non-fiction inferences another day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"That's me. Sad." My personal reminder to respond to students' emotions

When I arrived at the door of a classroom to pick up my reading group of upper elementary students with intellectual disabilities I was met by some unhappy faces. It was a Friday afternoon after a very long week (the first full week we'd been in school since January because of all the snow days) and it was clear that the week was just as long on the students as it was on me. One of the students in particular was having a bad day.

He mopped into my room, begrudgingly sat down at the table with his book box, and reluctantly went through the lesson. He got up occasionally to get a tissue to wipe the tears from his eyes. After he completed the assignment he spontaneously drew a picture of himself, crying. "That's me," he labeled. "Sad."  Once he had my attention he stood up and walked over to the feelings target we have hanging on our wall from the Unstuck and On Target program. "I'm number four" he stated. "Four."

I've worked with the student since September but I've known him for three years now. I don't think we've ever had a conversation about emotions. What he likes, his weekend, what happened in his reading book, but never how he's actually feeling. Then again, he is usually a fairly happy fifth grade boy.

I looked at the picture, the feelings target and then at his writing. It wasn't his best work. In fact, he'd left out a lot of words out of his sentences. My entire goal for the activity was for him to write complete sentences, so I was going to have to ask him to redo the work. Then again, he clearly was not in a space to begin to re-write. "Why don't you write about how you feel?" I suggested. He nodded vigorously and then got to work, head down, pencil flying across the page. He filled five pages of pictures and writing, drawing how he felt, how he wanted to feel, and writing phrases and sentences with his thoughts. He included numbers from the target- 4, 4, 4, around the pictures to reinforce how he felt. Some words he wrote even included, "Go home to cry. I'm done. The end."

When he finally put his pencil down he was smiling. I went over each page with him very seriously, taking time to make eye contact with him and ask questions about why he drew what he drew and what had happened that day. At the end I asked him how he was feeling now. "Happy." he said. "Happy?" I asked, almost confused because he was not anywhere close to happy when he entered the room. I pointed to the target just to make sure that's what he meant. "Yes, number 1."
Taking a risk I asked him to go back to his work and re-write it. He did, almost perfectly.

The break to write about his feelings didn't detract from his academic work. It let him decompress, get his emotions out, connect with me, feel as though someone cared and then, get back to work. When he left my room he was smiling, which was a stark contrast to the crying boy who had entered. It was such a strong reminder to me of how important it is to respond to what our students need and remember that they are human beings.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Eric Jensen, Poverty, and Relationships

About two months ago the education blogging community was furiously debating whether or not grit is racist. It brought about some interesting points of view from both sides of the debate, and hopefully added to our larger understanding of what we expect from all students, what it means to be successful, and what students need to achieve that success. Not long after stumbling into the debate I read Eric Jensen's book, Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. None if it is new information, but what I appreciate is that Jensen does an excellent job of bringing up the many different factors that impact students from poverty, along with the research that shows how these factors interfere with students. I found that much of what he says resonates with Responsive Classroom, and it is reaffirming to read the list of research studies that support the ideology Responsive Classroom is based on.

Instead of just saying "students need grit," and leaving it at that, Jensen lists seven factors that teachers need to consider when teaching students from poverty, which he determined by examining the effect size of these factors in various research studies. The seven factors with the greatest effect size? Health and nutrition, vocabulary, effort and energy, mind-set, cognitive capacity, relationships, and stress level. 

As a special education teacher who has primarily taught in schools with high poverty, relationships is the factor I have always found to be the key to everything. All humans have a biological need to connect, and Jensen sites a 2012 study that links relationships to the size of the hippocampus, which controls learning, memory, and emotional regulation (24). I've found that when I've connected with students everything else falls into place. They believe in themselves, become less stressed, feel more secure and are willing to learn, take risks, put effort into their work. 

Students, regardless of their socio-economic background often walk in our doors in the morning carrying a tremendous amount of life we only see through slumped shoulders, tired eyes, or angry expressions. We never know what they had for breakfast that morning, what fight they overheard between their parents, or what they believe about themselves. Yet it's these unseen stressors under the surface that drive our students' actions and their approach to school. What we see in our classrooms often looks like apathy, anger, frustration, or restlessness. Jensen describes these states as attractor states, which he defines as "the preferred or default state toward which conditions or systems tend to move. In other words, people become attracted to states according to their frequency of occurrence. As the brain strengthens repeated neural networks over time, these attractor states become habitual. Soon these states become comfort zones" (39).

It sounds odd that apathy, anger, or frustration would become a comfort zone. Think of someone you would describe as an angry person. They get angry quickly, argue with everything, and see every event that happens to them as the world working against them. This is where they are most comfortable operating. It's their attractor state, and where their thought patterns go time and time again. It is true for our students as well. Many of them have been reacting to their environment for years and have developed thought patterns to help them survive and process the world around them. They bring those thought patterns into school and use them to process what is happening in our classrooms.

So what do we do? There is so little in our students' lives we can control. We can't change their home lives, and we can't force them to forget their stressors when they walk through the school doors. What we can do, however, is to create an environment that allows our students to relax, take risks, and experience positive emotions. We need to shape their mind-body states within our classroom, the one environment we can control.

What our students need is a place to belong. When our students walk into our schools in the mornings, and then into our individual classrooms they need to feel like they are part of a family. They need to trust us and their classmates, feel safe to take risks, and feel like they are important to their community. They need to feel so strongly connected with us that when they walk in our doors they feel like they don’t have to carry their burdens alone. They need a place to experience and practice a positive mind-body state. A place to feel what it is like to have hope.

Our relationships matter. We aren't just teaching a series of facts or academic strategies, but instead teaching students that it is possible to thrive when the world seems stacked against them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Using Concept Based Teaching in Guided Reading

I few weeks ago I sat through a professional development on using Concept-Based Teaching. It was intended for classroom teachers who can apply one concept to their entire school day- social studies, reading, writing, and math- as a way to reach students receiving Advanced Academic support (who was formally known as the gifted and talented students). As a classroom teacher I loved using one concept to teach, and I would use the over-arching theme of problem solving for a whole school year. Everything we did looked at what a problem solver was and how to be a problem solver. Now that I work in lots of different classrooms and mainly teach guided reading groups for struggling students I was momentarily frustrated that I couldn't apply the professional development to my own work. But only momentarily.

Why not?

What happens if you use Concept Based Teaching within the constrains of a guided reading group? What happens if you do this for fourth and fifth grade students in the intellectual disabilities program? Will repeating one concept over and over again help them understand other areas of reading where they are having difficulties? Will the frequent repetition help them understand a concept that is typically difficult for them to grasp?

Why not try?

I decided on the concept of Cause and Effect to drive our next set of guided reading lessons because cause and effect is such a difficult concept for my students, and it can be applied to many areas within a guided reading lesson. There is the cause and effect of the events in the story, a cause and effect in how the characters feel, and a cause and effect of taking a 'c' and adding it to the word family 'at'. What would happen if we used this concept to retell stories, understand word study, analyze characters, and plan our writing? A colleague and I came up with a great cause and effect graphic organizer to visually help organize the concept and I started planning my guided reading lessons to center around this one single idea.

We started by spending time defining cause and effect. This took time because it isn't something my students readily understood. We used a lot of simple real world examples, and then tried to apply it to familiar books. In walking them to and from class we'd talk about the cause and effect of events in their daily lives. We used the simple chart for all of this, which made it easier to transition to talking about the concept when we started to apply it to books. It served as a visual reminder for the students of what we were talking about.

I've noticed a huge increase in their ability to answer why questions and talk about the stories. Previously, their ability to demonstrate comprehension centered around the idea of retelling the events of the story in sequential order. The chart gave them a structure to be able to talk about the events in a more meaningful way- what happened and why. This has given them a structure to answer inferential questions, which is something that has been very difficult for them. I'm hoping this will also translate into an improvement in writing composition. They tend to write lists of sentences on a single topic, but these sentences do not always connect or tell a story.

What I love the most about this is that it gives a further sense of purpose to our guided reading lessons as it connects them together. It is no longer just us sitting down with a book because that is what we do everyday, it links every book into a broader discussion.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The (Repetitive) Five Types of Snow Day Play

Oh dear Lord of all that is good- we are on our tenth snow day. 
Ten. Days. Of. Snow.
I'm worried I am going to go stark raving mad. Or maybe I'm already there.

I've determined there are five types of snowday play in my house. 

1) The Mommy is CruiseDirector play- where I come up with engaging, creative, and meaningful activities that require lots of materials, prep, and clean up. The actual activity lasts about fifteen minutes. I spend the rest of my day posting pictures of these activities on social media, making it look like the fifteen minutes of fun was actually three hours. 

2) The 'Let's see if we can get out all the toys' play. This rarely involves actual play, just a lot of throwing all the toys around the room, taking the couch cushions off, and dumping baskets of books on the floor. 

3) The Repeated Play-Scheme Play- where we act out one scenario over and over and over and over again. The current favorite with my three year old is "coronation day!" where we pretend to be Ana and Elsa, lay down on pillows, say goodnight, then wake up, yell, "it's coronation day!" stand up, run around the room and then go back to sleep on the cushions to do it all over again. I try to tell myself this is my cardio for the day. Sometimes I refuse to get up. Those cushions are just too comfy. This usually ends up with Elsa yelling at me, but it's her snow that got us into this mess so I don't really care about her opinion.

4) The "Mommy, can I crawl back into the womb" play- where both girls fight to see how much of me they can take for themselves at the expense of their sister. This is particularly fun for me when I need to go to the bathroom. It also involves lots of yelling and crying. 

5) The "Mommy is done" play- which involves Netflix, opening presents I didn't give them at Christmas, or just ignoring the fact they are pulling all the tissues out of the box because it is giving me ten silent minutes. The mommy guilt from this one may be what drives the wine intake in the evening.