Tuesday, November 22, 2016

My Favorite Room

My favorite room in my house is an absolute disaster. Not just right now - all the time. There is glitter stuck to the floor, paint on the tables, and boxes and boxes overflowing with recycling. Abandoned marker tops hide in the dark corners where no one can reach them, nestled next to scraps of paper and those annoying circles from the hole puncher that are impossible to pick up. 
I adore this room.

In my house's previous life it was someone's work room, fully equipped with serious power tools. I imagine the previous owner snuck down to the basement for alone time workroom, away from the fast pace of the family and created beautiful, well planned projects. Not having power tools of our own, we turned the benches and cabinets he'd utilized for his wood working into our art room. 

It is about as unorganized as one can imagine. Every time I attempt to organize it someone comes along to do an art project and the creativity overtakes the room. Typically, by the time the project is complete, we are late to something and nothing gets put away in exactly the "right" spot.

That's OK. I'm making peace with the chaos. 

I love this room. We store cardboard boxes, empty spools of ribbon, toilet paper rolls, sturdy cardboard pieces, and anything else that looks like it could become a project instead of trash. *Note: Only one of the storage bins is actually a store-bought bin. The others are just large cardboard boxes. Even the kids' art table is a large cardboard box covered in white paper. It was a playhouse for awhile and before it made it to recycling it somehow because an art table. Perfect for little hands to kneel and work.
The kids have free access to tape, glue, markers, paper, scissors, stamps, crayons, glitter glue, and tons of other materials. They need to request paints or free flowing glitter from an adult, but that is because one of them is two and a half and is an expert at testing limits. Even with adult supervision we end up with painted floors. Last weekend she stepped on her glitter-glue name that was drying and our floors ended up with a path of glittery 'er' that she stamped with every step.

This summer I dedicated space in the room to my new business. I spend a lot of time here, creating social stories and projects for the kids I work with. I store my book kits here too. This ridiculously messy room is where I become the most creative. Standing here, with a book in hand, I can see what needs to be pulled together so that a particular student can act out a book. I have my two paper cutters and my laminator here to help create all sorts of projects. In the slightly organized area of the room I also have a gift station, where I have easy access to my wrapping supplies. 

I love this room.

On Saturday morning, when we'd planned to clean the house and get organized, somehow my girls and I ended up down there. While my oldest was making a jewelry box out of an egg carton I distracted the two year old with a shoe box. Somehow in our play the box transformed into a school bus. The three of us became consumed with listing the different parts of the bus and then determining how to create them with the supplies we had on hand. The five year old wrote 'stop' for us while the two year old wrote the first letters of their names all over the bus. Even after I'd stepped away to do laundry the two girls worked together peacefully on the project, solving "what if's" and accepting one another's ideas. This does not happen often, so when it does it feels like magic. There is magic in this room.

There is a lot we could do with this space other than covering it with glitter and scraps of construction paper. One day maybe we can turn it into a guest bedroom, or a bathroom, or just use the additional storage space so we can buy more at Costco. But for now, it's our art room. 

A serious mess for serious creativity, problem solving, and learning the power of transforming an idea to reality.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Bloxels and Homework

 A few weeks ago my nephew made the mistake of excitedly showing me his new ipad game, Bloxels, which lets him create his own video game levels. The poor guy... as he showed me all of his creations and how it worked, all I was thinking was how I could use this for his homeschool work. So when I assigned him homework I told him he could complete a worksheet packet or he could use the Bloxels to create levels that showed what we were doing in science. I gave him general topics and told him to be creative. I was pretty sure he could figure something out.  

He did. He built three different levels. In one, the character needs to get across a sink full of water (the character can't swim.) He used the storytelling blocks to show the character's thinking and how if he put salt in the water he would change the salinity, making it possible to float across on a golf ball. 
In another level, he created the ocean floor, with the character navigating his way through the different parts (the vocabulary pops up in the storytelling bubbles). And for yet another one, he made a Harry Potter story.

This week his homework is to demonstrate his knowledge of the parts of a plant cell in a bloxels level. We'll see what he comes up with.

I love this because he is not just writing definitions of what we are learning, or answering questions about it, but applying the knowledge. He has to understand it to be able to manipulate the ideas into a video game level. Then, he is spending much more time on making the levels than he would be if he was just filling out a worksheet. Even if he's spending time making a fancy background or creating a book that flips back and forth, he is still thinking about the science concepts. The more his mind is engaged in the concepts, the more he'll remember them.

I'd never heard of Bloxels before he showed it to me, but there are so many possibilities here to get kids engaged in curriculum topics while doing what they'd be doing in their spare time anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2016

STOP IT! Everyone. Take a breath. In. Out. Quiet.

Every teacher hits a moment once in awhile where their class goes off the wall and needs to be reset. The definition of "off the wall" is different for each teacher, but regardless, most teachers have a moment at some point during the school year where the class is sent back to their seats. The lights go off. The teacher starts off with a firm, strong voice to show how angry she is.

"Sit down. SIT DOWN! No Talking. None!" She becomes Viola Swamp for a few brief moments to regain control and send a message to the class that what they were doing was NOT OK.

After a moment of quiet she starts slowly and calmly explaining why she was angry. What the class did that was not OK. She calmly shows how they were not respecting their friends, the class materials, or her. Once everyone is calm she invites them to try again. Come back to the carpet, without talking or pushing or laughing, and try again.

After reading Facebook this morning I want to use my angry teacher voice at the whole world.

STOP IT! Now. STOP TYPING. Sit down. Put the phones down. Put your heads on your desks. Take a deep breath. This behavior is not acceptable. This is not how we treat our classmates. This is not how we treat our school, our families, where we live. This is not how we treat our country.

The day after the election the Facebook messages were about love. Sadness, but also love. A few of my republican friends expressed excitement over the election, and they had the right to do that. Those messages of excitement were not racist or angry. What they believed should have happened, did. I don't share their belief, but I am not going to tell them not to say it.

The next day? Now? That's a lot of anger out there people. We've moved from the denial stage (well, I still see a lot of those anti-electoral college posts so some of us are still in denial) of grieving to the anger stage. Like I tell my five year old, it is OK to be angry. It is not OK to use mean words or hurt someone else.

We got into this mess from anger. Anger is dividing us and separating us. We're so angry it's turned to rage. We've stopped trying to understand one another. We haven't tried to understand each other for a long time. We've made it impossible for people to express an opinion that we don't share. We're all so shocked by the outcome because we had no idea so many people were actually going to vote for Trump. People were scared to admit it. People outwardly  lied about who they were voting for, and then in privacy voted their heart. We silenced them so that the only way they thought they had a voice was through the polls. We've taken away open discourse. We made it socially unacceptable to express views different than our own. We isolated ourselves and stopped listening to those outside our walls.

I'm married to a republican. A lot of people ask me how I can do that, which confuses me. I enjoy hearing his opinions and thoughts. It makes me grow. We debate politics, question each other, try the other's opinion on for a moment, and then explain why we don't agree. It makes him grow too.

Through him I know a lot of republicans. Republicans who work for republicans. Whose entire lives are about being republicans. They aren't racist. They aren't homophobic. They aren't filled with hate. They truly believe the free markets and smaller governments will help everyone. It's not about letting big business win, or shipping people out of the country, it's about finding a way to help everyone. My husband and my socialist brother actually agree on a lot of issues. They agree on outcomes, just not how to get to those outcomes.

The last few days I've just read posts about pure hatred of republicans. Talking about them in a way that assumes they are Voldemort. Hatred for them coming across in every angrily typed word. I get that we're angry and hurt. But don't let the anger turn to hatred. That's not going to help.

It's OK to be angry. And disappointed. And hurt. And scared. Use those emotions to do good. Pin the safety pin on your shirt, but make sure that when you do it means you are also there to support the republicans. Make it a symbol that you'll listen to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, and political beliefs. All means all.

Go find a Trump supporter and get them to explain their rationality to you. Don't listen so that you can argue with them. Don't try to find a hole in their argument. Just listen. Understand. Think about where they are coming from. Go for a walk and replay that conversation in your mind. You don't have to change your mind about your own political beliefs to understand what other people think. Understanding both sides of a situation will only make you stronger. Being a republican isn't contagious. You aren't going to come down with some horrible disease from listening to someone's beliefs.

Later, once you understand how they are thinking you may find a counter point. Maybe an article or a podcast that presents a different view. And because you listened to them, they will listen to you and take your data and facts into consideration. No one accepts data that is thrown in their faces as a "Ha! How do you like them apples?" So find another way to get the facts out there.

A few years ago I was helping prepare a group of third grade boy with autism for a Socratic seminar. We had to work hard to get them to understand they could not say things like "I respectfully disagree with you because you are stupid." Or, "I think the author said .... because I know I am right and you are wrong." It was hard to get them to understand that they had to actually listen to one another's positions before responding. Facebook feels like my angry third grade boys before our social skills work. We don't let our kids talk like this to one another.

Before the election a Facebook friend posted about health insurance. She isn't someone I was really ever friends with, but we attended the same rural high school. She's a farmer and from what I see on Facebook runs a small family farm. She and her husband have kids, and because their health insurance went up so much they realized they couldn't afford to be insured anymore. It was cheaper to pay the fine than to be insured. Many other people from the farming community replied to her post and shared their similar situations. These are people doing hard labor every day - putting themselves in situations where they likely will need ER visits, and they are paying to not be insured because they can't afford to pay for their actual insurance. Reading these posts was fascinating to me, because I have no other window into the farming community. It's not a group of people I interact with on a daily basis. I've driven by the Trump signs on the fences of the farms and wondered how these people could possibly vote for him. Must be racists, it's easy to assume. And yet, this post made me realize it's not. They are scared for their families. They are scared about not having health insurance, having a catastrophe, and ending up bankrupt because of the health bills. That makes sense to me. Their votes were not out of racism. It was out of desperation to fix a situation.

Reading this did not make me change my vote, but it did change how I thought about those signs. People have reasons. If we listen to their concerns we can find a way to address them without telling people that their problems are selfish and evil. If we have open conversations we can find solutions. We can't fight hatred with hate.

Please, stop the hate. Stop yelling. Stop assuming anyone who doesn't share your beliefs is wrong or out to get you. Stop telling people that they don't have a right to their thoughts.

Go out and fight. Love your neighbor (all of them, even ones you don't agree with). Get involved. Volunteer. Talk to people. Cry. Listen. Put away the angry Facebook messages that aren't helping anything and look for ways to make a difference in the community.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

College Futures

I begrudgingly got in one of the two open check-out lines at Target, frustrated that on a Saturday evening they would have so few lines open. I had lost track of time and needed to get my five year old home for dinner before the earth melted under us and hangry-ness took over.

Glancing up I realized I knew my cashier and somehow my heart leaped and sank at the same moment. It was the older sister of a group of children I taught and coached years ago. I had not seen her in years. Her family is one of those that will find it's way into your thoughts at strange times when you are not thinking about school at all. I've wondered about them for years, hoping they would all be doing well. It was wonderful to see her, but was she really here working at Target? Please, please, please, I prayed, let this be her job while she is going through school. Please let her be in school.

It turns out she is in school. Nursing school, which is a perfect fit considering her kind nature and how well she took care of her younger siblings. And her siblings are all in school too. Two are at the local community college, one of them is about to transfer to a four year university. The youngest is in her senior year of high school and wants to be a vet.

I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to hear all of this news. Any frustration at the long Target lines vanished, and I became the woman holding up the lines for others as we talked about her family.

There are children you teach who you know will go to college. Their families will make sure of it and financially it has been planned since the day they were born. There are other children whose futures are not so clear. Not because they cannot handle it, but because it will be a financial strain on their families, and they are up against many, many other factors. You desperately hope they will go, but are not surprised when you hear they did not. Heartbroken, but not surprised. Having a family with the financial resources to send you to college is a gift.

This family in particular stuck out to me. We traveled together for a jump rope competition and they were the ones who taught me that Taco Bell is the cheapest fast food by far, and told me exactly what the cheapest items on the menu were. As elementary school students they had a firm grasp on how to maximize their money so they would not be hungry.

I taught one of them in one of my remediation reading classes, back when our school was year round and every 9 weeks we would offer a one to two week optional class at the school during our intersession breaks. That year my class was designed for kids in danger of not passing the 5th grade reading standardized test. (The group did not know this. They thought they were hand picked to be reading coaches for new first grade readers.)

I never did learn if those children passed their tests, but I knew school was a struggle for each child in that class. These were kids who did not just struggle academically, but were also up against many, many challenges in life. School was understandably not a priority.

Yet all these years later I was learning that one of the students is headed to a four year college. Sometimes as educators we forget that passing the end of year tests is not an indication of how well the student will do in life. Struggling in fifth grade does not mean that they will not go to college or have a job in the real world. Not passing a test is not a sign that a child cannot make it in academia. Thank goodness for that. We are not in the business of giving kids a set future. We are there to give them as many skills as we can to get them on their way. We may not even see their successes when they are in front of us, but that does not mean they will not have success down the line.

Ever since Saturday the family has been in my thoughts more and more. I hope everything the older sister said was true. I hope one day the youngest is my vet and that a four year college goes well for all of them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Creating an Edible Ocean Floor

 One of my projects this fall has been to help homeschool my cousin's son. They are a military family and are headed overseas in a few months. Rather than start and stop another new school this fall we decided to try homeschooling. 

So when when were studying about the ocean floor and he jokingly said "We could make a model of this out of brownies and cake" there was no reason not to say sure, let's try it.

The worst thing that could happen would be that the project was a total disaster, but from a learning perspective, even if it looked frightening or never turned into an actual cake, he would still have to know the elements of the ocean floor in order to create a disastrous looking cake. We'd learn something in the process. So why not? It's oddly freeing to not have any time restrictions when planning a project. Of course, in this case we did need to worry about the over excited younger children (both my daughters and his brother) who were obviously fascinated and a bit horrified that we were absolutely destroying a cake like this. My two year old kept telling us "No! You don't cut cake like that! NO!" 

He drew out a model of what we were going to do, and then I baked two sheet cakes. One chocolate and one white with blue flood coloring. (I did not use enough blue food coloring though so the final outcome was a bit greenish. But that's more appropriate for ocean water anyway, right?)

Then he spent time figuring out how we were going to put the cakes together to reflect the ocean floor and water. In the end we cut the cakes in half so we had four blocks to work with. The bottom two layers of chocolate were the ocean floor, and then he cut into them to create the Continental shelf, slope, rise, and abysmal plain. From there he had to figure out how to make the blue cake fit onto the chocolate cake like a puzzle piece. 

Part of his plan was to use an upside down ice cream cone to reflect an underwater volcano and fit it into the cake. 

As we worked he also decided the cake needed waves on top, so we used some of the scraps of blue cake to put "waves" up above.

The end result was a fantastic cake that required not only a knowledge of the ocean floor but a large amount of vision, problem solving skills, and perseverance at set backs to create. Oh, and it was delicious. So there is that too.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Teacher Influence. What happens when we find the hidden talents inside our students, and when we don't.

At this year's National Book Festival, my family gathered around the children's stage to hear Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewis read from their new book, Click, Clack, Surprise.*

The new book is delightful and my girls rocked back and forth with the rhythm and giggled at the silly baby duck's antics.

Toward the end of the talk, another child asked Doreen Cronin when she started writing. Cronin explained that she had been a very shy child, and although she had a lot to say, she often had not said it. Instead of expecting her to talk in class, her first grade teacher encouraged her to write down what she wanted to say. That was when she became a writer. First grade. She would write at home, adding extra homework to her plate.  As her first grade teacher watched this unfold, she told labeled Cronin a writer, which made that little first grader think of herself as a writer. That thought carried her through the rest of her life. In college she majored in journalist because she was a writer. She went to law school because law school was a place she could read and write and she was a writer. The choices she made in her life were shaped by the self-image her first grade teacher gave her of being a writer.

I hugged my five year old, hoping she picked up on the message that Doreen Cronin had not liked to talk in class and that was OK. I'm pretty sure at that moment she and her sister were wrapped up in tickling each other, but it does not matter. I heard it, and I can repeat the story to her all I want. It is OK to be quiet and thoughtful. Just find another way to share your thoughts. 

I was an extremely quiet child, and I see that playing out in my own daughter as well. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I did not have a teacher that accepted this character trait and found a strength hiding inside.

 In fourth grade my teacher decided that my quietness was unacceptable and was going to end with her. When she called on me she would walk outside the classroom and stand in the hallway, refusing to come back in until she had heard my loud voice. Let me tell you one way NOT to motivate a child to talk. All these years later I think about those moments and I feel the panic building inside me. Just the memory of that skinny woman standing in the hallway makes me never want to speak again. At the time I remember thinking, in pure anger and humiliation, that one day I would write a book to get back at this teacher who would only accept my answers if I yelled them loud enough for her to hear them outside the classroom. Unlike Doreen Cronin, I have not accomplished that goal yet. One day. Apparently, positive encouragement from teachers is a more powerful motivation than revenge.

There is power in her story for teachers. Instead of seeing her shyness as a weakness, or assuming she had nothing to say (another assumption teachers made about me over the years), Doreen Cronin's teacher found a hidden strength. She turned the quietness into a powerful positive force, that gave Cronin an identity that carried her throughout her life and influenced the choices she made.

In comparison, I spent my life fighting the message that what I had to say was not worth listening to because I said it so quietly, or infrequently. That because I did not speak up in class, I was not a valuable member of the classroom community. I did not go to law school because, if I am honest with myself, I saw that as a profession for those other kids. The confident, self-assured ones who thought quickly on their feet. I tried to find a safe place to land, one that would not require too many people looking at me or demanding that I be loud and different. 

It is amazing the power teachers have. Amazing, and terrifying. Those decisions we make when we are frustrated, the way we snap at kids who are on our last nerve, or how we interact with kids who we do not even consciously realize bother us, have lasting impacts on the little people in front of us. We have the power to form a future adult's self image. What we say to children sticks with them, long after our days with them end. When we mine for the positive under a child's weakness, we can create a long lasting impact for that child, who will go into adulthood knowing their strengths. When we break a child down without finding the positive under the "problem" we will do the exact same thing, except this time it is not an impact we want to have.

When I sat down to write this I was not planning on sharing about my own adventures as a quiet child. I just wanted to focus on the power Cronin's first grade teacher had on her. But I suppose something about the story struck a nerve. I obviously don't blame my fourth grade teacher for all of my life choices. I made those myself. But I can blame her for hating fourth grade, and perhaps the terror that struck me for years whenever I was asked to speak in class. In college I just told teachers that I was not going to participate. They could dock my participation grade or give me extra papers to write, but I would not talk. If I had to talk in class, I explained to them, I would become so fixated on what I was going to say that I would stop learning in the class. I would not pay attention to what else was being said. I was in their class to learn, and I truly wanted to take in everything everyone else was saying. So I would not be participating. Some teachers were very concerned, others accepted this as long as I was OK getting a B because I would not get my participation points. I was. As long as I did not have to talk, I would take anything.

Don't be my fourth grade teacher. Find the positive and bring it out of every child, even if they do not fit in with how you think a child should be. The world needs more authors like Doreen Cronin.

*I LOVE the Click, Clack, Moo series, probably more than an adult should love a children's book series. But there is so much you can do with the books. On face value they are silly books about unruly animals on a farm, who drive poor Farmer Brown crazy with their antics. On another level, they are perfect for getting budding readers engaged in a read aloud because of their repetitive text, which allow kids to "read" sets of text from memory. They can sit down with the book by themselves, or during a read aloud, and proudly recite "Click, Clack, MOO!" every time the phrase comes up in the text. It is perfect for teaching beginning concepts of print and encouraging those early literacy skills. On a whole other level, the books are strategic thinkers. Click, Clack, Moo and Giggle, Giggle, Quack are about the power of literacy and what a group of people (or animals) can do with an ability to write and non-violent protests. Duck for President is the perfect intro to presidential elections. Each book gives an opening for deeper discussion on particular topics. Or, if your readers are just too young for the seriousness, allows you to just have fun in with the text.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Go Baby Go

 On Saturday I had the privilege of spending the day at Marymount University, watching teams of volunteers put together cars for kids with disabilities. The day was like nothing else I've ever experienced before.

Just on the surface, this is an incredible initiative. Take those battery powered cars kids ride around in, adapt them so they can be operated by a simple push button, and then figure out how to best adapt the car so that a child with disabilities can safely sit in it and operate it independently.

By giving a child with a physical disability a motorized car, the team is giving them the independence to move themselves around without relying on someone else. For many of the kids this is the first time they have the power to run away from their parents. Suddenly their world is going to look different as they realize that they can move, and turn, and manipulate their environment through their motor planning. And unlike when they are in a motorized wheelchair, the cars are just cool. If you take one of these cars to the neighborhood bike-ride, the kid is immediately going to attract some peers, not because he is different, but because he has something other kids can relate to, or even want. A very cool car.

One of the participant's older four year old brother leaned over to me as he watched his brother's first solo drive and said, "Oh man, now my brother's car is so much cooler than mine." Yeah. Pretty much. I bet that doesn't happen very often.

Watching kids begin to realize that through the push of a button they could zip around the halls of Marymount choked all of us up. The children's unsure expressions quickly changed to smiles as they got farther away from their parents. Others were able to drive around their siblings in a two-seater jeep. I am sure the typical pattern in their households is for them to be depending on their siblings for access to toys, food, or play. The change in play-power brought many big smiles, both to the drivers of the cars, and their sibling passengers.

Beyond just how amazing this was on the surface, I was fascinated by the process. There is a lot we could learn from how the day went down. This is creativity and teamwork at its best.

A team trying out different seating options.
The morning started in a room full of cars, where volunteer teams were given a car, a tool kit, an iPad with instructions, and told to go at it. After the car was able to be drive through simply pushing the button, a team of physical therapists joined each car and started looking at the child's physical needs to determine how to fit the car to the child.

From there, the creativity started. Everyone had one task to achieve, and they could use any available material to make it happen. One wall of the "garage" was lined with a variety of PVC pipe, harnesses, pool noodles, foam, foam kick boards, decorations, and different seating options.

Every team had the task of looking at the child's needs and then using what was in the room, in any way possible, to make the car work for the kid. There was no choice but to problem solve until it was perfect. The car had to work for the child, no matter what. People stood over the cars, brainstorming, trying different things, re-purposing anything around, stripping down seats, cutting PVC pipe, trashing ideas that didn't work, and trying again.

There could not be any ego on any team so there just wasn't. It was not an option. There wasn't a "this is the best we could do so now we're going home." This wasn't about pleasing a boss or winning a contest. It was about the simple goal of safely making a child mobile.

Every car ended up being drastically different. I wish I'd had the opportunity to take pictures of each car, but I am sure the various news crews that were there captured them. The big buttons were placed anywhere in the car the child needed it to be placed, whether that was up at the child's head or by the child's hands. PVC pipe and pool noodles created structures to help a child sit safely in the car, and kick boards went behind seats to provide back support.

Planning the PVC pipe structure
The event took over the entire second floor of Marymount's Arlington campus, and included a playroom for kids to hang out, a room with therapy dogs, quiet, calm rooms where kids could go to get away from the noise, food, and of course the "garage" where the magic was happening.

I hope that today, the day after, there are twelve happy kids spending the afternoon zipping around their driveways, exploring what freedom and play can feel like. I hope there are shared laughs, children driving a little too fast, sibling fights over who gets to use the car, and just pure exhaustion from the new activities.

Kickboard back support with PVC pipes and a red pool noodle for additional side support.

One participant zips down the hallway, testing out his new wheels.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Parent's View of Responsive Classroom

I've written about Responsive Classroom often over the years. As a classroom teacher I lived and breathed Responsive Classroom. I read all the books, went to as many trainings as I could, and worked hard on making my classroom as RC as possible. I did this not because I was trying to be a groupy, but because through my teacher eyes I saw that it worked. If I followed RC then my life was easier. I was putting out less fires and I was teaching more.

But that was through my teaching lens.

My daughter just started a new preschool and she's ridiculously happy with life. The change in her at the end of the day is noticeable. She's calmer and yet has more energy than she did two weeks ago at her old preschool. We loved her old preschool, and so did she, so it seems strange that we would see this shift in her at the end of the day. As she described what she did in school one day I made comments to my husband that this new school was "Very RC". He of course has no idea what this means, so just nodded in agreement. Then I read her teacher notes from the day and felt this was all very familiar. I've taught this before... not in preschool, but this structure, this plan. I could almost tell you what was coming next. Yesterday morning I walked in to see the blue First Six Weeks of School book sitting on a table, tabbed and well-loved. When I asked her teacher about it she beamed. Yes, it's what she's been using, every year. She loves it. (Of course she does. Anyone who has used it loves it.)

For the first time I'm seeing Responsive Classroom through a parent's lens. I'm seeing how my daughter appreciates the slow, deliberate nature in how everything is introduced in her classroom. She knows what the rules are and what to expect on a daily basis. She has more energy at the end of the day because she hasn't spent her energy anxiously trying to interpret what is going on in the classroom and what will be expected of her. But it is a calm energy. She has the energy to re-count her day, tell me what she learned, model how to line up, and how to be a "good schoolmate". Before she had good days at school but she came home and crashed. She was exhausted from trying to teach herself the social curriculum.

While we loved her other school and her teachers, we did not know what the world could be with a little Responsive Classroom in place. I feel like I am re-discovering RC in a whole new light. I want to preach from the rooftops, yes, yes, yes! People, this doesn't just work because it is a trend or a program or something to do because the school system suggested it. It is a way to talk to kids to get them ready to learn. To help them feel secure and safe in their learning environment.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Riding Out the Waves

Teacher work week started this week and it's been strange to not be a part of it except for one day. Even when I missed the first three months of school for maternity leave I was still there for teacher work week because my daughter thoughtfully decided to join the world after I had everything perfectly set for the long term sub. 

The anxiety of taking a risk and doing something new is absolutely numbing. The waves of self doubt that come are those from an angry ocean, knocking me off my feet and holding me under water so I have to fight to come up to the surface, gasping for air to breath. In between the waves varies from a sense of calm, where I can look out at the wide ocean and know I am exactly where I need to be right now, and a sense of excitement, because when the anxiety is not there I love what I am doing and could work for hours on plans for my clients. Then a wave comes and knocks me off my feet again. What am I doing? What on earth am I thinking? I had a perfectly fine job with a benefits and a steady salary that contributed to my children's college fund. 

It is just scary. I'm working on being able to better handle each crashing wave and get to my feet faster each time. I know the anxiety will come each day, and that it will also go away. At least, that is the mantra I am telling myself. 

I am fighting a constant battle of trying not to sabotage myself. This is my year at sea. My year to explore, yet waves of self-doubt come with a desperate desire to get out of the ocean and back to land. Steady land, where I'm not moving forward but I'm not under water either. I have to fight the constant pull to get back to safety. This may not work, and that is OK, but I need to give myself a full year to figure it out. A full year to find my footing, see if I can swim in the ocean, and if I even like it out there. But until then I need to keep fighting the anxiety and following through on the risk. At the end of the year I don't want to be back on land because I was too scared to swim out further. If I'm back on land, I want it to be because I either realized my plans were not sustainable, or because I truly like the security of land better than the unpredictability of the ocean. 

There will probably be many more of these anxiety posts this year as I work on handling my own emotions along with figuring out the taxes and banking of having my own business. There is so much to learn, from the practical aspects to just learning about myself. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Collaborating for Successful Transitions

For the past three years our school has started our back-to-school teacher work week with a meeting about the students who qualify for special education. Almost everyone attends this meeting - all of the special education teachers, the resource teachers, the music, art, PE, and librarian, instructional assistants, and all of the administrators. The meeting takes all afternoon, and each grade level cycles through so that each team can talk about setting all of our kids up for success.

As we sat in the meeting yesterday, I couldn't help but be in awe of the teachers I work with. Every child was spoken of with love. As we passed the children from one grade level to another, teachers were full of recommending strategies that work, sharing the children's strengths, and the children's favorite things. "He loves to write about dinosaurs! If he can't think of something to write, prompt him with dinosaurs" "It is important to build a strong relationship with him early on, so one thing you can do is ask about his little sister. He loves talking about her." The art, music, and PE teachers shared their perspectives on the children. The art teacher discovered that one child works best when she lets him stand up, and the music teachers shared favorite songs, or which children love to dance. We shared behavior plans from the year before, but also considered how it is a new year and some children may have matured, or may be ready for a different plan. Teachers were volunteering to be lunch buddies for some children, and check-in buddies were put in place for some kids for the first few days. Every discussion centered around how to set each and every child up for success. How are we going to make sure every one of our students has the skills to be a successful member of the classroom, and what are we going to do as a school to help the child get there?

When we considered doing something like this for the first time a few years ago we worried about the risk of tainting a teacher's perspective of a student before the teacher was able to form a relationship with the child. To counteract this, we start the meeting with each team by reminding all of us that we to be mindful of the language we use when we discuss our students. We ourselves are very careful in how we present the students. We want our children set up for success. If we know a child gets overwhelmed by loud noises, needs an extra warning before cleaning up, or does best when standing up to work, it helps to share those tips with this year's teachers. They may find that the child has matured and these tips no longer ring true, but they are able to be prepared day one. Teachers are prepared with tips on how to build positive relationships with these students the minute the walk into the classroom, which is essential for so many of our students. Because we are doing this in a formal meeting, instead of a second grade teacher just grabbing the third grade teacher in the hallway to pass on some tips, everything is kept professional, positive, and the tips are shared with everyone who may work with the child that year.

It is stunning to sit in a room full of educators who devote so much time the first week back to going over each and every child who needs something extra. Teacher work week is not a time teachers have extra time to drop everything for three hour long meetings, and yet so many people came willing to share strategies and volunteer time to create smooth transitions for our students.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Jumping off... part 2.



I don't even really know where to begin. I'm having trouble writing this blog post because of all of my own crazy self doubt and worry that somehow people I thought are my friends will be mad at me, or tell me what I can't do, so stay with me.

I've told you all that I was taking a year off to explore different projects. This summer the different projects came together under one roof ... in the form of a small business.

It's hard to write about, or even talk about, because it still seems strange to me. Who am I to think I can have my own small business? Who am I to think people will actually hire me to work with their children? I mean, forget that the school system hired me to work with lots of children, the idea of parents personally hiring me seems absolutely crazy.

So, while I've been busy this summer connecting with parents, teachers, independent school representatives, and different therapists to talk about what families need and different possibilities I can offer, I've been somewhat quiet about all of this, especially as my different projects started to come together into the form of a business. I think most of me wanted to be able to do this without talking about it, ever. I've blogged anonymously for over 9 years now, so whose to say I couldn't run an anonymous business, right?

BUT, a good friend said I needed to stop apologizing for what I'm doing, so I'm trying hard to talk about it without looking at the floor.

Admitting what I'm doing is the first step.

So how did I get here?

Someone over a year ago asked me what I wanted out of life. I couldn't get that question out of my head. I wasn't really happy with my current job, even though I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. In some ways it was the perfect job, a good mix of working with kids and getting to help parents. But it still wasn't what I wanted. I didn't want to become an administrator in a school system. I wanted to work with kids, have the time to be on a constant search for knowledge to become better at working with kids, and I wanted to support families with children with special needs. I thought I'd find that if I could find the perfect PhD program, but I didn't want to dive into a PhD program without first seeing what I wanted to do with that program when it ended. So I took the coming year off to start new projects and see what sticks and what doesn't.

So that's what this is. A project in the form of a small business, that lets me explore possibilities, hopefully will help lots of families and let my own family not starve in the process.

It's funny when you tell people you are starting your own business. They either become ridiculously excited for you and tell you their own future business dreams, or they look at you like you have three heads and say, "Wow, really? Good luck with that!" I don't take that personally because I have those same thoughts myself. Really? WHAT? That's crazy town. I'm just kidding. I totally didn't mean a small business. You totally misunderstood me. I meant small hobby.

I am terrified. This might be the scariest thing I've done in my whole life. And yet, so far I'm loving it. I love connecting with families and working with their kids. I love putting together learning kits for the children and helping people understand how to use them. I love collaborating with other professionals. And surprisingly, I'm enjoying learning about the business side of things. So maybe one day I'll make money doing this. Until then, I'm learning a lot. And if it doesn't stick? If it doesn't work? It's OK. I'll have learned a lot in my year off and figured out more about what I want out of life.

So, what are these small projects that came together into one business?

I'm doing private tutoring, but really it's more than just tutoring. I'm providing support and materials to families. Kind of like a private special education teacher who can design personalized behavior plans and lessons for the home environment. I have book kits I loan families for a week (or more) and personalize plans to match their child's goals.

I've teamed up with an incredible counselor and we're offering 'drop in' social groups this fall. (Announcement about dates and topics coming soon...)

I'm putting on book clubs for home schooled 4th and 5th graders in Arlington, Virginia. Interested? Let me know.

I'm doing presentations and professional development, and supporting independent schools and community groups in become more inclusive.

I hope to offer adapted music classes with an amazing music teacher I know, as well as different social groups.

All of these projects have bounded together into a small business, Lipsett Learning Connection.

I am still working with my school one day a week, and because I am still employed by the school system I cannot work with any children within my school's boundaries. I also will not sit in any IEPs or eligibility meetings as an advocate for the parent. I want to be very careful in not crossing professional boundaries. From my experience as a teacher it always felt like private therapists were somehow against us in the school. That's not good for the family or the child. I want to help families coordinate their care so that everyone serving the child is working toward the same end.

I've never done anything this scary before. It feels very much like jumping off a cliff without being able to see the bottom. So stay with me and my family on this journey as they support me from going from a household with two incomes, to a household with one income and one absolutely crazy person.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Class Updates and Teacher Pride

Yesterday everyone in my undergraduate class received an email with our class updates. These weren't the ones that people bother to send into the official magazine. This was just for our class newsletter, which is published sporadically via email. They solicited updates from us earlier in the summer, and for days I tried to figure out what to write.

I went to a pretty good college. Not an ivy, but a lot of my classmates got into ivy schools but went to my college because of it's scholarships. I graduated with some very intelligent, driven, and well-connected people.

Those people now have incredible updates to submit. I read them with a glass of wine yesterday and tried to tell myself that I too have a good life.

Johnny became a partner at the Best Law Firm in Atlanta. After the birth of his twin daughters, he realized he wanted to give back to the community so he started his own non-profit where he is helping families with their legal paperwork. 

After completing both medical school and law school Sally was appointed by President Obama to the head the "save all children everywhere" team. Here s a picture of her and her gorgeous children vacationing in Spain. Her husband will be competing in Rio this summer.

Rachel just finished writing her eighth children's book, which will be on the shelves in November. When she isn't writing, she is managing the accounting firm she owns and keeping up with her twin boys.

After completing his time in the Peace Corps in 2006, Chris has been busy starting up nonprofits in the Charleston area with the help of his wife, who is completing her residency in pediatric surgery. 

In trying to decide what to write I considered my choices:

Do I go with giving as little information as possible:
"Mrs. Lipstick lives outside of Washington, DC with her family. She is a teacher."

Or the truth?
"Mrs. Lipstick spends her days racked with guilt from being a working mom of two little girls, who are beautiful when their hair is brushed. To accomplish that feat she sits on them every morning, occasionally growling at them when they turn their heads and mess up the braiding. She just completed her 13th year of teaching, but is making less than all of you lawyers made your first year out of law school. Before your bonus. As school systems do not offer "partnerships" as your law firms do, she continues to hold the same job anyone just out of college is eligible to hold, despite her years of experience and her masters degree. Her husband is extremely patient with her as he watches her put in late nights of completing special education paperwork and writing reports."

That might be too much of a downer and sounds way more bitter than I intended it too, even just for this blog post.

(Truth be told, any of those people above could also write depressingly realistic updates about the tedium of their jobs and day to day lives, their job titles would just continue to make the tedium sound more impressive).

I wrote my best friend's, because sometimes when you are going to brag you need to have someone else put the words together for you...

TeacherMom continues to live in Virgnia with her beautiful family. Her Wonder Woman skills continued to be revealed as she completed her masters in Education Administration while taking care of her two active and sweet boys. Her creativity will be on display this coming year in the art room, where she will revolutionize elementary art before taking the world by storm as an administrator. Yet even in all this glory she continues to find time to socialize with other alumni including the equally incredible Mrs. Lipstick! (she added that last part.)

There isn't anything like Class Updates if you are a teacher to make you ponder your place in the world (except maybe cocktail parties hosted by lobbying firms). Us teachers need to get better at selling ourselves. We need to brag on ourselves and the AMAZING work we do day to day. I was so glad my friend submitted the one I wrote for her because it is true. She IS wonder woman. She may not have a law degree, be competing for partner, or starting her own private equity firm, but she is rocking it out. She took all that intelligence and promise that got her into our "good" college and applied it to helping children. Helping them every single day, teaching them to read, write, and get them passionate about school. She puts in so many extra hours that I don't think she sleeps.

It's hard as teachers to make ourselves sound successful in two to three sentences. We don't get promoted if we want to continue to teach children everyday. We can't say we've become a CEO or made partner, or become chief resident. To get promoted we have to actually reduce the time we work with kids.

Reading over this post I worry it came off more bitter than I intended. I hope not. Maybe it's because so many people I went to school with used to ask me why I was going to go to my school if I was just going to be a teacher. (The school has since started an education program, but it didn't exist when I was there.) As teachers we make sacrifices that many people don't even consider. It's not about the pay, but committing to a lifestyle where some people are going to make assumptions about your intellect and your capabilities because of your profession.

I want teaching to be a profession where the teachers in the room are given the same awe-inspiring respect as lawyers and doctors. We shouldn't feel ashamed in telling our classmates we are teachers. We should shout it from the rooftops.

I must admit, I enjoyed reading what my classmates are up to these days, and how successful they've become. I'm proud of them and their success, but I'm especially proud of the ones who became teachers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Olympics, Belly Buttons, and Life Lessons

Since the start of the Olympics, my daughters have become obsessed with beach volleyball. Mostly, because they think it is hysterical that they are "in their underwear" as my four year old said. "Nobody wants to see their belly buttons, right Mommy?" she asked the first time she saw them in the sand.

They giggle hysterically while watching it. Last night, after getting out of the bath and before getting into pajamas, my two year old started acting like she was hitting a volley ball. It's the new thing to do while naked, apparently.

Asides from giggling about belly buttons, my girls also noticed something else about the players. "Mommy! Look!" my four year old exclaimed in complete awe, "She fell down IN THE SAND and she got right back up! She didn't even cry!"

"Yeah," my two year old agreed. "No crying!"

It always surprises me the difference in how children view the world. I honestly hadn't even registered the fall.

The NBC newscasters can tell us all about the athletes strict training regimens, the obstacles and injuries they've overcome, and their extreme perseverance, but the visual image that stuck with my kids is the athlete falling down and getting right back into the game. They zone out during the inspirational cut aways, but are somehow inspired by falling athelets. It makes sense, I suppose. Early morning gym workouts mean nothing to them. But falling in the sand? Total connection there.

Our Olympic viewing has now become a constant stream of "She fell!" "He fell!" I SEE A BELLY BUTTON!" "She fell!"

Then they act it out. One of them will fall down (laughing hysterically) and will get right back up. "I"m up! I'm ready to play!" she'll say.
"I SEE YOUR BELLY BUTTON!" the other one will scream.

My facebook feed is filled with videos of how the athletes overcame obstacles and ways they can inspire us in our own lives. As adults we're in awe of these athletes and are constantly looking for ways we can copy their dedication and determination. It makes sense our kids would want to do the same. We just need to bring the conversation to their level.

While it's so important to talk with our kids about how hard these athletes worked and the grit and perseverance it took to get them to the Olympics, that is still a fairly intangible concept for our little ones. But we can point out in-the-moment perseverance that will give our kids a visual image of these grand concepts we want them to demonstrate themselves.

While watching swimming we've talked a lot about how tired they must be. "OH MY GOODNESS! They are turning at the wall again!! They must be so tired! But they aren't stopping! Wow!!"

We've paused the DVR after the swimmers shake hands with each other at the end and talked about how they don't even know each other but they are still shaking hands and saying good job.

We've talked about how those gymnasts are nervous just standing their, waiting for their turn. We look at their faces and talk about how we can tell how nervous they are. It must feel like the first day of school for them. It's OK to be nervous. Even Olympians are nervous.

We talk about how much fun they are having too. They are tired, nervous, and keep falling down, but they are still having fun! Wow! With all those feelings they are still smiling and laughing. Falling down didn't make the fun go away. Being nervous didn't mean everything needed to end. They kept going and now they are so happy.

Hopefully, even after the games are over we'll be able to refer back to these conversations when things come up in our own lives. Saying "You have to work hard at gymnastic class now so you can be like Simone!" probably won't have much of an impact on my kids, but saying, "I know you are nervous, just like Simone looked. What did she do next? She took a deep breath and then tried her best. Think you can try that? Let's do it!"

I read that Michael Phelps' mother had a visual cue she would give him when he was having trouble with sportsmanship as a child. For older kids that would be a great tidbit to share and apply in the moment.

Sometimes I worry that these blog posts are what my kids will one day bring to their therapists to say "She even wrote publicly about how she tortured us. We couldn't even enjoy the Olympics!" So, daughters 20 years years from now- think about the money I'm saving you. Just printing this out and giving it to your therapist will save so much time in you having to explain it. Right?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Choosing Engaging Read Alouds for Non-Sitters

I offer sensory-storytimes at the local libraries. Although many of these storytimes are similar to more traditional storytimes, they are specifically designed to engage kids that may not be able to sit still in a large group and listen to a story silently.

One way to make these story times meet the needs of these kids is in reading books that encourage a high level of interaction. We don't want to ask a child to sit perfectly still and listen to a book. Instead, we are asking them to move, sing, and dance with a book in a (somewhat) organized manner. 

Book choice is critical. Some of my absolute favorite books just can't be used here because there are too many words on the page, too many detailed drawings in the pictures, and too deep of a storyline. Here are some guidelines I use when I'm thinking about book choice.

Repeated Lines of Text
The key concept I look at in choosing a book is looking for repeated lines of text or a repeated pattern. Does the book have a few lines that the children can memorize and "read" along with me? This is great for non-verbal students as well. By giving them an egg shaker or a maraca, they can actively participate with the book. Before you read, establish a cue with your group so they will know when to chime in. It can be done by pointing at them, pointing at the letters, or saying "Ready?"

The repeated lines get the kids involved in the book, but also encourage them to learn concepts of print. As children begin to learn that print contains meaning they can point to the repeated line on the page as you read it aloud. As they become more aware of print they can go from pointing from to each line on the page to pointing to each individual word. When they read the story to themselves they can touch the line and repeat the memorized portion. 

Some of my favorite books with repeated lines are:

Click, Clack, Moo (and anything in the Click, Clack series)
I Ain't Gonna Paint No More
Farmyard Beat
Dancing Feet
Good Night Gorilla
Blue Hat, Green Hat
What Shall we do with the Boo Hoo Baby?
Pete the Cat

Brown Bear, Brown Bear is perfect for this in many ways, but I guarantee you that after you've taught for 5 years you'll never want to look at any brown bear again. Or talk about what it sees. Ever.

Opportunities to Be Silly
Books that just beg you to use silly voices when you read aloud, or that provide opportunities for the kids to act out the parts are perfect for engaging readers who have difficulty sitting still. When you read the Elephant and Piggy books, for instance, it is hard not to make the different voices for Gerald and Piggy. And can you read the Pigeon books without sounding whinny or angry like the Pigeon? These books are highly engaging to your readers because they love being able to watch an adult be silly.

My favorite be silly books:
The Pigeon books by Mo Willems
Elephant and Piggy by Mo Willems
Rhyming Dust Bunnies (Or anything by Jan Thomas)

Opportunities to Act
Books that give kids a chance to act out the storyline are another great way to engage the wiggly listeners. The trick here is usually to do something that keeps them active but sitting down, so that they aren't getting up and wondering around the room. Many books lend themselves to this once you start looking for it. Is there a horn to beep? A door to knock on? Clothes to put on? Hands to wash? Getting a whole group to engage in the simple actions of the book can go a long way in keeping the kids engaged.

Some good Act-It-Out books:
5 Little Monkeys (in the beginning of the book they put on their pajamas, brush their teeth, and get ready for bed.)
Alice the Fairy
Good Night, Gorilla 
Little Blue Truck
The Napping House
Caps for Sale
Knuffle Bunny
The Snowy Day

I am NOT a rhythmic person, but I do appreciate a good rhythmic book. Books that can be read like a chant are great at engaging kids and keeping their interest. This is particularly helpful when reading one on one with a squirmy toddler. If you bounce them on your lap to the beat of the book you will keep them engaged with the language. Match the bouncing to the lines of text so that the movement connects the movement with the language. Kids can also be engaged by giving them egg shakers (if you can read loudly over the noise) or even scarves they can wave while you read.

Great Rhythmic Books:
Dancing Feet
Farmyard Beat
Five Little Monkeys
Little Blue Truck
Shiver Me Letters
Pete the Cat
The Llama Llama series

Opportunities to Discuss Emotions
As adult readers we know that emotions are often what drives the storyline in any good novel. Legal thrillers, spy adventures, or chick lit are all based around someone's jealousy, greed, or sadness. Kid books are the same and the more we discuss the character's emotions in the books the more we can connect the children to the plot line. Additionally, drawing kid's attention to the characters' emotions helps them connect with the story (he's angry and I can think of a time when I was angry too!) and gives another great opportunity for acting out the story. I love asking kids to make a mean face, scary face, or happy face.

Books that make discussing emotions easy:
The Pigeon books (I love talking about how angry he gets.)
Alice the Fairy
I Ain't Gonna Paint No More (That is one angry mom!)
Rhyming Dust Bunnies (They go from happy to scared)
The Paper Bag Princess
Katie and the Kittens
Peter's Chair
The Llama Llama Series

If you are interested in additional activities that go along with these books, you can sign up for my free weekly newsletter. I take one book a month and provide a new activity for each week that corresponds with the book. Click here to sign up!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lost Boys and Peter Pans

My four year old's current favorite song is Lost Boys by Ruth B. She's obsessed. If she has her way we could listen to it on repeat for a full hour. (Eventually I cut her off after 4 repetitions, which is still more than anyone should ever listen to a song).

So, needless to say, these lyrics have been running through my head on repeat these last few weeks. I admit, I love the song too (although not after I've heard it four times in a row). People usually think of Peter Pan as a story about a boy who doesn't want to grow up, and he's often used as a reference for a longing for a prolonged childhood. Yet the more I listen to the song, I realize it draws us into the another side of the Peter Pan story- the sense of belonging Peter Pan offers these lost children.

If you interpret the lyrics in an unsettling way, you realize the Peter Pan story creepier than before. It tells the story of an unhappy, depressed child "in a town that never loved" him. The lyrics go...

"Then one night, as I closed my eyes,
I saw a shadow flying high
He came to me with the sweetest smile
Told me he wanted to talk for awhile
He said, "Peter Pan. That's what they call me.
I promise that you'll never be lonely."
And ever since that day..."
Remove the image of Peter Pan and insert anything else we worry about influencing our teenagers - ISIS recruiters, drug dealers, even strange religious cults. Maybe the ISIS online recruitment has been on my mind after listening to this podcast, but some days that's all I can hear when I listen to the song.

Peter Pan represents a promise. A promise of a place to belong, a family one never had, a safe space to be ones self. That promise is something we are all seeking, what most of us want out of life.

Our students want this too, and as they get older they can find it in different places. Will they find it in school, in an after school club, on a sports team, or through a mentor? Or will they find it elsewhere? What Peter Pan forces are out there for them?

There is one little boy I've found myself thinking about a lot this summer. He's incredibly bright, creative, and inquisitive. In just one conversation with him you can quickly realize he has the power to go far in life with his people skills and his intelligence. But he also has ADHD, which makes school difficult for him. How long before he decides everyone hates him? He can be successful at whatever he chooses in life, and we can only hope he'll choose to use his powers for good and not evil. I worry about high school with its drug dealers and gangs and the pull they could have on him. How long before he finds a place to belong with older boys who realize what a good salesman he is?

We can prevent that, I know we can. It's not easy. It's far quicker to get angry with his impulsivity, banish him from the classroom, or punish him by taking away recess or sending him to the principal's office. It's easy to think he can't learn, or won't learn, and that he's too much of a distraction to other students. But it's all of those actions that tell him he doesn't belong here with us.

We have to take a step back and teach him how to learn. We have to help him manage his impulsivity, teach him how to regulate himself. We have to put structures in place for him to learn without making him feel like it is him vs us. Because there are Peter Pans out there who will lead him away, with nothing more than a promise of a place to belong.

How can we set up places for these students so that they find belonging in school and not on the streets? How can we be the pull on these lost boys/students so that they can stand strong against negative Peter Pan influences?