Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Toilets in Kindergarten (Or, what's really important?)


"I'm five years old. I'm going to kindergarten. They have automatic flush toilets."

I couldn't tell if this was said with apprehension or excitement, but either way, it's a good reminder that what we focus on as adults may not always be what our younger friends see as important. I'm sure this boy's mommy is more concerned with his academics, whether he listens to his teacher, or whether or not he has friends in September. Her son, however, is spending his summer informing random strangers of the toilet flush situation at his soon-to-be-educational setting.

(Parent/teacher tip: those sensors can be covered up. I carry sticky-notes in the diaper bag for my noise-sensitive three year old, and when I had my own classroom I taped paper over the sensor to calm down my friends with autism. For those of you with rising kinders I would recommend finding out about the flush situation if it is an issue for your child and doing some proactive teaching. Kids can learn to cover it with toilet paper or their own sticky-notes, which at least gives them some sort of control over the angry-toilet gods.)


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Love, Learning, and Our Communities: What we see when we celebrate success at the end of the year

The business of the school year came to a grinding halt as we watched the last bus pull away from the school and head into the neighborhood on the last day of school. Just moments before the building had been filled with laughing, clapping, and shouts of goodbye from happy students on a hurry to start their summer. Now all that was left were the teachers, the empty building, half packed boxes, and one last celebratory staff meeting standing between us and the start of our summer.

It's funny how a place can feel alive in one moment and in the next go back to being just a building. Just a place. That yearly shift in a school between being filled with the energy of students to being nothing but long empty hallways is such a reminder of why we teach. We may focus on data points, closing the gap, improving our lessons, writing school improvement plans, and increasing scores because they are our profit margins. We may consume data as though it is the only sustenance that will keep us alive. But all of what we may do, all of those vitally important professional tasks that drive us to provide better futures for students are meaningless if we forget about the little beings we are doing it for.

From preschool to fifth grade our students are everything. Each one is a different human being entering our building every morning for a new experience. Each one comes to us in search of a place to belong, a need to feel love, and a hope to learn. Each one watches us for signs that they are important within our rooms and school community.

On the second to last day of school we decided to create a slide show of our student successes. My special education team and our school counselor wanted to go beyond data points and celebrating a year's growth and look at the other successes each child made. So we started pulling students aside and asking them, "What did you learn this year?" "What are you proud of?"

Here are some of the responses:

"I learned to be a part of morning meeting."

 "I learned to to be a good friend."

 "I learned to use calm-down strategies."

 "I'm a good problem solver."

"I can read with fluency."

"I learned I like math."

These were the students we struggled with, pulled our hair out over, held meeting after meeting to problem solve about, and lost sleep the entire month of September as we lay in bed wondering how we were going to help these little ones get through the year. And in June? These little ones could articulate their successes themselves. They did learn to be a part of morning meeting. They figured out (with our careful coaching) when to use calm down strategies and how to not hit their friends. They discovered aspects of the school day they liked. They found a place to belong. They learned they were loved.

 The end of year data points don't capture their small successes. Their reading and math scores are captured within the whole school data. They made amazing gains on paper. But it is the story behind those gains we need to embrace. They are more than data points and are bigger than part of a gap that needs to be closed. They are little humans, but humans none the less. They are why we teach. Why we give up personal time on weekends to plan, why we work extra hours, why we are in this profession. Without them a school is just a building and we are just doing a job. With them we are a community of learners preparing for the future.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Planning for Next Year

It's finally the last day of school. Every June it feels like we may be the last people in the country still in school. With my southern friends' Facebook posts of summer break starting in May it's hard to focus on these last few weeks. And yet in many ways the end of this year doesn't seem possible. I could use a few more weeks with these kids. We're on a roll, we've got a good rhythm going and there is more learning to be had. Apparently it's not just me.

Earlier this week I was rushing to a meeting during arrival and I ran into one of my fourth grade students coming up the stairs. I worked with this student in two different groups this year, one group for guided reading and one morning group for the executive functioning intervention group where we used the curriculum Unstuck and On Target. As he saw me on his way up the stairs his early morning face seemed to slowly register that it was me. 

"Oh, Mrs. Lipstick," he said slowly, "My mom says I can be in your morning class again in fifth grade."

"What morning class?" I asked, confused. I hadn't offered him a morning class for fifth grade.

"You know, our morning class. I asked my mom and she said I could do it again. In fifth grade."

"Great! We'll have to see if we can do it next year." I replied, not wanting to squelch his enthusiasm but also not wanting to commit since we finished our work for this year and another round of kids will be a part of the intervention next year.

"But my mom said I could. In fifth grade. I can do it again," he insisted, his eyes seeming to get more sincere by the second. 

I'm not sure there is anything more rewarding as a teacher than having a student tell you they want to work with you again, especially in an intervention group that takes them away from downtime in their classroom. Especially when they are a fourth grader who is starting to be too cool for school. I'm hoping he asked his mom if he could do it again because he saw that the intervention worked and he developed problem solving skills from our work.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Three Guided Reading Hacks for Teacher Sanity

As the school year is coming to a close I've been thinking about what worked (and what didn't) this year. Some of the most simple changes had the greatest impact to my reading groups.

  1. Guided Reading Organizer:   Using a drawer organizer to organize myself for guided reading lessons. It's so simple and makes everything available quickly because I can look down and see where everything is that I need. At the moment I took the picture it was actually a bit disorganized because a group had just ended, but you get the idea. Highlighter tape, magnet tape, markers, scissors for cut up sentences and word study, 'wh' question dice, index cards, highlighter, erasers, magnetic letters, pencils- everything I need for the group can be kept here so I can easily grab it. My reading groups for students with intellectual disabilities often have more 'stuff' than typical guided reading groups so this has been extremely helpful, especially when something arises that I didn't plan for.

 2. Help Wanted Signs:
One side of the little table tent says "Please help" to let me know a student needs my attention, the other is a smiley face that indicates everything is good and the child is working independently. I got this idea from an incredible teacher I worked with years ago. I loved it but never tried it until this year. In a moment of desperation I grabbed index cards, folded them in half and wrote "Please help" on them. If I had planned ahead I could have made them cuter and sturdier, but to be honest these worked just fine. They take care of the constant "Mrs. Lipstick, Mrs. Lipstick, Mrs. Lipstick" competitive cries for my attention. If a student is writing and needs help they simply flip the sign and get back to work while they wait for me. Once I help them I flip the sign back. It saved my sanity in guided writing groups this year because four students with "Please Help" signs are easier to get to than four students calling my name and wanting immediate attention. The signs let the students reach out for help without completely stopping their work flow to call my name. They reduce the opportunities to distract peers, and encourage independence. The students don't feel the need to constantly try to get my attention while they work because they know there is a clear system for when they need help, and they know I will be there when they flip their sign. If I can't get to them right away I often give them a thumbs up to let them know I see it and I'll be with them as soon as I can. I've been surprised that in every reading group the kids get the signs themselves if I forget to put them out. They seem reassured by having the signs in front of them, and this creates a calmer group dynamic.

 3. Sticky Note Stars to give non-verbal praise-
 Two of my groups struggled all year with dropping the endings from their words (plurals, ing, ed). This is common for English-Language Learners, but it is still holding them back as readers. Lesson after lesson focused on reading the whole word, sorting words by 'ed' and not 'ed', and hunting for these words in their books. I tried so many ways to draw their attention to word endings but nothing seemed to work. Another teacher shared this idea and it seemed almost too simple, but I was desperate so I tried.

I placed a sticky note on the table in front of each reader and told them that every time I heard them read a word with an ending correctly I would put a little star on their note. The stars give the opportunity to give positive non-verbal feedback so that I'm not interrupting the flow of their book to say, "nice job reading that ending", but still letting them know they are on the right track. Like magic, suddenly the biggest ending-skippers were reading their endings. One boy even marked his own endings (he put a check to differentiate between my stars). We used the sticky notes for about a week before fading them away. I am still hearing them emphasize the endings of the words.

In another reading group with students that all happen to have ADHD I used the sticky-note system for simply giving stars when they were reading quietly to themselves. The group had gotten a bit talkative and off track. They'd start off commenting on something they read in the book and then before I knew it they were all comparing the book to a video game, then talking about the video games they were going to play after school, then talking about what else they would do after school, and suddenly I'd lost them. This usually happened a sentence or two into any new book and took a lot of work and wasted instructional time to get them back on track. Again, the stars on the sticky notes gave them non-verbal feedback that I was impressed with how they were working without interrupting their reading. And again, it worked like magic. They were intentionally more focused on their reading, while only occasionally glancing at their sticky note to see how they were doing.

I love this because there is virtually no prep to this system, it communicates exactly what I expect the students to do and provides positive feedback for them that doesn't interrupt their workflow. The kids themselves seemed to love it. All three groups would take their sticky notes with them at the end of the group and I've since found the sticky notes being collected in the corners of desks where their owners can pull them out and reflect on their hard work.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

End of Year Creativity

I left school Monday afternoon feeling energized and excited. As I hauled my teacher bags to my car I caught myself smiling as I thought about the work my students had done that day and wishing we had more than two weeks of school left. Where did this energy come from? I wondered, thinking about all those other afternoons where I felt wiped out on the very same walk.

End of year testing is just about over. The individual reading assessments have been completed and the school year is wrapping up. With a more relaxed air throughout the school my reading groups and I are digging into Readers' Theater with all of our end of year energy. I love it.

I have three plays going on right now, one at a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) Level 6 (The Three Little Pigs), one at a level 18 (The Ugly Duckling), and one at a level 34 (Robin Hood). Each group has very different students and different reading needs, but every group is dedicated and excited to participate. I'm watching students re-read lines with vengeance, coaching one another on how to make their lines more dramatic. I'm sending kids off with play scripts and learning that they made one another practice in their free time. One boy, who I now think must be destined to be a director, came to the group having already mapped out costume and scene changes to reflect character changes in the story. My 34 group had debates on just how expressive lines should be read depending on the character's feelings within the story. When a squabble came up over who would be the main character the director boy solved it without me having to intervene. He even compromised his own desires to make sure everyone had the right part. They are thinking about how to reflect the character traits in their costumes and ways to show important scenes from the play when our only props will be made with paper. The groups that have been painting scenery have been messy and there are blue and green streaks across the floor of the special education room, but when they were working it was almost silent. My role as teacher has been to stand back and get out of their creative paths.

They are working on all the areas of reading I see a need for them to develop- reading with fluency, noting the difference between vowel sounds in words like 'swam' and 'swim', identifying the setting and characters, analyzing the characters, retelling the story, and discussing the deeper meaning.
A scene from the Ugly Duckling with white swans in the air

It is the end of the school year and the students all have pool-brain. They know there are nine days left and are excited for summer. They know testing is over and are already talking like they have moved on to the  next grade. Yet my reading groups have been going smoother than they have all year. My need for behavior management is down because the students are engaged. They've taken on ownership of their work and are pushing themselves to work harder than I could ever push them.

Why do I wait until the end of the year to do this? I become so focused on getting them to make a year's growth that I take the fun out of reading. I put the responsibility for their reading development on myself and I work harder while they can be begrudgingly along for the ride. Yet when I give them an assignment like a play where they can have more ownership of their own learning they work harder for themselves than they do for me. I'm willing to bet they can still make a year's growth if I let them do more of these activities during the year. In fact, based on what I've seen lately, they may make more than a year's growth if I get out of the way and let them become more excited about their reading. I need to trust them to work hard and to trust myself to be able to keep them on track and find ways to embed the needed skills into the more engaging activities.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Age Appropriate Guided Reading Books- I found one!!

I've written before about how difficult it is to find age appropriate guided reading books. There is nothing like handing a fourth grader a book on his reading level about a pink turtle trying to find a home, or a book about preschool toys, and asking him to try his best.

The other day I was combing through our DRA level 3 books (an end of kindergarten level) to try to find something that didn't have young looking children on it and I found this: 

Seriously. I'm loving Tim. He is driving his mother crazy with his teenage antics like eating a whole pizza, watching TV too loudly, playing the guitar, and skateboarding in the house. All with the simple level 3 text. This is a book I can hand my fourth graders without reminding them how far behind they are. More like Tim, please!