Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An Alternative View on Sensory Storytimes

As I chatted with a children's librarian to get book recommendations for my upcoming sensory story time a nearby woman listened intently. She began making suggestions herself, and as she talked she shared that she really didn't see why the library would put such a story time in place that would actively separate children with autism from typically developing children.

For a moment I was stunned. That wasn't the purpose of the story times at all. Our hope is that the story times will have the opposite effect- parents will feel comfortable enough at the sensory story times that they will see the library as a place they can bring their child- and that they will eventually bring their child to the traditional story times as well. Yet as she talked I could understand her point of view.

In her eyes we were saying that we didn't think these children could handle going to a traditional story time. By creating a story time to cater to specific needs, she seemed to feel that they were sending the message that children with autism and developmental disabilities were not welcome at other events. "Why can't parents just bring their child to any story time?" she asked.

The conversation was eye opening because until that moment I hadn't realized that hosting a specific sensory story time could be interpreted this way.

The story times are becoming increasingly popular and the feedback we've gotten from parents is that they appreciate a welcoming place to bring their child, and that it's a relief to come to the library and feel comfortable that they aren't being judged. After the story time you can see most of the participants and their families selecting books from the stacks. Our mission seems to be working- we are giving parents a place to bring their children and encouraging a love for books.

Listening to the woman's perspective was a good reminder that we shouldn't just stop at offering the separate story times- there is more we can do to make all story times, or really any event that welcomes kids to be good for all kids- not just the typically developing. Hopefully the parents will also notice the busy bulletin board with flyers from all the different story times offered and will begin to think about bringing their child to those as well. We can even encourage them to look at the bulletin board and remind them that their child is welcome at any of the sessions.

If you are in the Northern Virginia area the next sensory storytime will be at the Kings Park library on Dec 5th at 10:30 in their meeting room space.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Student Trust, Testing, and Grit

Last week I watched a small group of upper grade students try as hard as they could on a standardized reading assessment, submit their computerized test for grading, and immediately receive their scores. Their faces fell when the computer gave them their results. They hadn't passed- hadn't even come close. There is nothing more disheartening as a teacher than to watch students try so hard- doing everything you've taught them to do- fail, and then be heart broken by the results.Their responses to their scores haunted me all weekend. "Why even try?" seemed to be their question as they berated themselves for their scores. "Hard work doesn't matter."

I was disheartened by the scores myself. Many of the students I've put my blood sweat and tears into did quite poorly, even on questions I would have thought they could answer. While my reaction to the scores was not as extreme as the students themselves, I certainly related to where they were coming from. For that one moment on Friday afternoon it felt like all of the work we've put in for the year had been meaningless. And that's a pretty horrible feeling to have.

Soon after I sat in a 3 hour meeting where we combed through the grade level scores of the assessment. We analyzed each question, looked at trends across the grade level, and made instructional plans. Which children would receive more direct test prep and which ones need more specific reading instruction? How do we want our lessons to address the gaps from the test? What do we need to focus on?

I left the meeting feeling better about the scores- as professionals we have a plan. The results may not have been pretty but now we have specific methods to bring up those scores. We know what we need to do. My teaching can be more exact, targeting the key areas where my students struggled. The test, as unpleasant as it was, is going to improve my lessons and in the end the students will be better readers.

Now how do we take that lesson to the kids? Kids who are already asking the question of whether or not school is meant for them. There are no easy lessons for how to help these kids see that failure right now means future growth. That doesn't seem to be an intervention group we can plan for. It's going to be more than a conversation- we're going to need to prove our words to the kids- over and over again- so they'll believe us. They did everything we told them to- worked hard, used strategies, didn't give up- and the results didn't match their effort. Now our job is to keep their attention and trust long enough to prove that failure now means growth later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Can't vs Won't

For the past year I've been participating in a research study out of Georgetown University and Children's National Hospital looking at the executive functioning curriculum, Unstuck and On Target. I can't say enough about this curriculum and the impact I've seen it have on students with high functioning autism and ADHD. Yet one of the greatest benefits I've gotten from the program is how it has been able to shift my thinking about these students and their behavior.

One of the concepts the curriculum has taught me and my coworkers to consider is looking at a student's behavior and asking, "Is this a can't or a won't?" We often see a student's behavior as a won't- when we ask the student to do something and they just refuse to do it. We ask them to keep their hands to themselves, get started with their work, organize their desk, go with the flow, and adapt to changes in rules and schedules on the fly. When they don't follow our directions it often looks like they made a conscious decision to ignore us. It looks like they are playing with their pencil to avoid getting started on their work, or that they are arguing with us over a change in a rule to be difficult and get attention. We think that they focus on one topic or ignore a direct instruction because they are fighting for control in their lives. And sometimes that is true, but sometimes it's not.

Putting the pieces together on student behavior
Sometimes their behavior is a can't. A student can't get started on his work because he doesn't have the executive functioning ability to organize his thoughts at that moment. So he sits there, looking like he's avoiding doing work, when in fact he wants to start but doesn't know how. A student can't disengage with one idea in his head and continues to come back to a certain topic despite the fact we've told him to move on.  In these cases the student behavior is not about getting attention, controlling the environment, or escaping from situations or given tasks (which is often what we look for when we're identifying the causes of misbehavior) but an inability to organize one's self to follow the rules and direction- even when the student really, really wants to do exactly what was asked.

This one question- is it a can't or a won't? has changed the way my school looks and responds to student behavior. Just asking it allows your mind to shift from thinking that a student is intentionally driving you crazy to wondering what behaviors you can teach to help the student regulate and organize himself.

Last year I was talking with a childhood friend who was recently diagnosed with autism. I was shocked at the diagnosis and was arguing with him about it. There was no way. The friend is now extremely successful, went to a top college and graduate program, and is now making more money than I will ever see. On the outside it looks like my friend has it all together (and he does, I don't want to imply that people with autism can't have it all together). In arguing with him I brought up all those debates he had with teachers over the years, all the assignments where he did the opposite of what the teacher asked while still following the exact directions the teacher gave, and all the moral stands he took against things in our school. His peers had always assumed he was anti-authority and just so much smarter than the teachers that he was always finding small ways to prove it. My friend turned red as he listened to me talk. "That's not how it was at all," he explained. "In every moment you just mentioned I wanted to follow the rules more than anything. I wanted to blend in and do what the teacher said. But I couldn't. There was always a reason. When I did what I did I was often doing exactly what the teacher said- it just wasn't what she wanted. Or I was trying to clarify what the teacher wanted and it came across as arguing." This struck me like a slap across the face. I couldn't stop thinking about it (I still can't). Even as his peers we'd assumed he was making a conscious decision to do these things. It became a part of how we saw him. But it wasn't a choice he was making. It was a can't.

What students are calling out to us for help through their behavior and we automatically think they are making a conscious decision to break the rules? We assume their behavior has a motivation behind it and we react to the motivation. When you change the lens you use to look at student behavior you suddenly realize areas where you can actively teach skills instead of simply modifying the environment or drawing a line in the sand.

Our job is always to teach, whether we are teaching how to read or how to behave in school. We can teach students how to have cognitive flexibility, how to respond to frustration, and how to problem solve. We just need to check the lens we are using to study the behavior and insure we are seeing it clearly.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Implying Trust vs Judgement Toward Our Fellow Educators

Teaching is changing. When I went through teacher training fifteen years ago the idea of co-teaching was barely touched on. It was expected that you would teach in isolation, only see your co-workers in the teacher's lounge or before/after school, and would pretty much be on your own with making your lesson plans and determining how to help a struggling student.

The expectations for teachers today are very different. Collaboration and team planning are a part of the territory, and working together with your colleagues is essential to being a successful educator. This is a wonderful, welcomed change.

But we need to change with it. Working together only works if we are willing to trust each other as educators. We need to drop the idea of who is a better teacher (just like we need to drop the idea of who is a high student and who is a low student). We need to recognize one another for our different strengths as teachers and come to the table with not just open and honest dialogue but respect for one another's professional ability as well.

Team work falls apart when we don't trust the members of our team, but too often I see us undermining one another's teaching skills. I hear this underlying tension in conversations I have with educators at schools across the country. In talking with teachers they relay a conversation with a team member who thought she was being helpful but in fact left the teacher feeling judged and helpless. Teamwork falls apart when we become skeptical of one another's teaching styles and in turn become uneasy because we suspect our colleagues are skeptical of our teaching style as well. It's too easy for conversations to become laced with judgement and defensiveness instead of being about the facts at the table.

Teams can only have hard conversations, problem solve tough situations, and develop meaningful strategies to increase student learning if everyone comes to the table ready to have an open and honest discussion. Yet some of the language we use often limits building trust with one another. We want individuals on the team to not take what's said personally, but we also need to watch our words to make sure we aren't making it personal. Instead of implying judgement our words with one another should say that we trust in our teammate's ability and intentions.

Team conversations can often go one of two ways. Take for example a team discussing a student's difficulty in sitting on the rug and attending to the lesson, which is leading to limited gains in math.

One conversation may go this way:

We can only help kids if we are helping each other.
New teacher: I'm having difficulty with Johnny's attention on the rug. He's never looking at me despite what I've tried, and with these new math scores I'm beginning to think it's more of a problem than I first thought. Any ideas on what to do?

Teammate 1: In my classroom I hold the students accountable for sitting on the rug quietly. I have high expectations for them to sit there quietly and they each know what I expect.

Teammate 2: Oh yes! My clear structure makes it possible for each of my students to learn. I tell them exactly what I expect and then hold them to do it. If they aren't attending they go back to their desk to take a break. That keeps them on track.

Or this way:

New teacher: I'm having difficulty with Johnny's attention on the rug. He's never looking at me despite what I've tried, and with these new math scores I'm beginning to think it's more of a problem than I first thought. Any ideas on what to do?

Teammate 1: Does Johnny know that when he's sitting on the carpet he's expected to learn? Sometimes kids get in the habit of tuning out on the rug and don't know that we want from them during that time.

Teammate 2: How would he do if you had him model how you expect him to sit on the rug before the lesson starts? It wouldn't take more than 20 seconds. You could say, "I want everyone to show me how we sit on the rug. Criss-cross applesauce, hands in lap, eyes on me, listening ears on."

Teammate 1: What about checking for understanding during the lesson? You could insert some questions into your lesson that would let you be able to tell if he's listening or not. That may keep him engaged and will let you know where he is getting confused.

The first conversation does nothing but tell the new teacher that her teammates don't think she has good structure in her classroom. She may not, but now she's brought a problem to the table and is leaving with nothing tangible but judgement. She doesn't have any strategies to go back and use with her student and she's a lot less likely to bring up a concern again. The words her teammates used- accountable, high expectations, clear structure- are meaningless. They did not help Johnny and they actively hurt all the other students the new teacher needs help with and will now be scared to ask. She knows her teammates don't trust her teaching.

In the second conversation the teammates hid their judgement. They kept it away from being personal and saying, "in my classroom," which implies that the speaker would never have that problem herself. They didn't use buzz words and gave clear suggestions the new teacher can take back and use. She left feeling like she has action items to try instead of feeling like if she was just a better teacher (whatever that means) these problems wouldn't happen.

Instead of using statement that imply judgement, "In my classroom..." or, "If he is just given high behavior expectations..." we can convey the same message by taking away the personal wording and be specific with one another. We often use buzz words like 'accountability,' 'high expectations,' 'clear structure' with one another that don't mean anything. Conversations with each other need to be open- clearly describing what we mean by high expectations, accountable, and what clear structure would look like in this case for this student.

It's hard because we often don't have time to have full, open conversations. We all approach teaching differently and the uncomfortable truth is that there are no right answers. Our job would be a lot easier if there was a strict formula for getting knowledge into little brains or managing difficult behavior, but there isn't. There are research-based strategies and proven methods, but to learn those we need to have open conversations. And here's the dirty little secret on research anyway.

If we can take away the personal, underlying messages we can build trust with one another, which leads to truly open and honest conversations about students. The more we are able to build trust with each other the more our conversations will lead to problem solving and helping kids.

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I had a hard time writing this post, and struggled to find the words to say what I wanted to say. I'm still not sure I conveyed my message. It's just- we need to build one another up instead of pulling each other down. I find myself hearing about decisions educators make at other schools and immediately assuming the teacher is an idiot. Why do I do that? The teacher is probably not an idiot- is probably doing the best she can at the moment- and my judgement isn't going to help fix that. I don't know the educator or the situation, yet I still am quick to judge. In some ways it is harmless when I'm making a judgement about a teacher I've never met, but it is extremely harmful if I do the same thing with the teachers I work with on a daily basis.  If we are going to work together to improve our students' education we need to start finding ways to convey true collaboration instead of judgement. 

We shouldn't avoid hard conversations and we shouldn't hold back when we see where a student can improve. But if our words are truly going to make a lasting impact we need to choose them carefully.