* Crucial Conversations #1: overview

crucial conversationsI have finally started reading Crucial Conversations!  Here’s what I have learned after three chapters:

1.  There’s hope for all of us.  Those of us who had disastrous role models for communication (me) can still learn to talk effectively with anyone.  I am already encouraged as I read through the illustrations and research studies.  As I have noted in reference to classroom environments, establishing a positive, encouraging emotional climate is truly important.

2.  My reading of brain-based teaching conforms to the authors’ contention that our brains “fail us” when we are engaged in conflict.  As our special needs students too frequently discover, when we are stressed, the fight-or-flight response has already kicked adrenaline into our systems, giving our muscles extra energy while reducing our ability to reason.  I laughed out loud when the authors describe the consequences of emotional distress, leaving us “with the same intellectual equipment available to a rhesus monkey.”  Yes, that’s an apt description of some of my crucial conversations.

3.  It IS important to speak up honestly and respectfully.  The second chapter is illustrated by a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.  I have often found myself championing unpopular causes.  And I have not always done that with grace and humility.

4.  The authors describe three key issues we must address in order to navigate the world of conflict without crushing anyone or simply shutting down.  The first one is something I actually learned years ago but never connected to crucial conversations:  I can only control myself.  That understanding has helped me become a more successful teacher, for it removes potential conflict, frustration, and determination to control kids’ behavior.  I can create an environment that makes better behavior more likely, but I cannot force students to make the right choice.  Second, I must focus on what I really want.  If I find myself angry, I need to ask what that behavior means and whether it is congruent with my goals.  Third, I must avoid what the authors call a Fool’s Choice, a belief that we must choose between two poor alternatives.

Here’s an example of a crucial conversation I missed, but which certainly revealed my heart.  I was a resource teacher at a school where the administration was strongly opposed to pull-out services for special needs kids.  I was told to work with these kids directly in their classroom, but they were so far behind their peers (and so easily distracted) that our small group work was not effective.  I ended up teaching in a small, filthy closet adjacent to the classroom, since the administration felt that students should not waste time walking to a resource room.  You can perhaps imagine my emotional reaction to this situation.  There were a number of legitimate reasons for my preference to work in my well-equipped classroom, including the fact that kids were walking to rooms all over the school for “regular” small group instruction.  But ultimately I saw that I was most upset about the way I was being treated, not the way students could potentially lose out.  I worked diligently to make sure the students did not lose out, and in the process discovered some cool strategies to make that unpleasant closet an effective teaching space.  I also saw that I was no longer in an environment I could support, so in conjunction with other issues, I retired from full-time teaching.  I wish I had read Crucial Conversations back then; perhaps I could have participated in an effective crucial conversation about the conflict between my philosophy of special education and that of the administration.

* What’s the Point?

Here’s an interesting perspective on autism and the process of labeling. If you have self-identified as autistic as an adult, would you like to share your thoughts?

Monaresa smiles

einsteinToday I stumbled across on interview that NBC’s Brian Williams recently did with Jerry Seinfeld, where Seinfeld reveals that “on a very drawn out scale,” he thinks he is on the autism spectrum.

Because I have personal experience being a mother to children on the spectrum, I always find articles like this interesting.  Last year while I was working on a paper for school, I encountered a topic I had never thought of; that is, adults who are diagnosed with autism as an adult. My question is What’s The Point?

I’m really not trying to sound insensitive towards people like Jerry Seinfeld, or anything like that.  I really am just curious why as an adult; in particular, successful adults like Jerry Seinfeld really need to diagnois themselves with autism.

Like I’ve mentioned before, when my sons were much younger the possibility of autism would come up and I would…

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* Math Is Fun

Math is Fun logo 2

Math Is Fun (mathisfun.com) is an amazing, free online resource for parents, teachers, and students alike.  In the years since I first discovered it, this site has grown phenomenally.  It is continuing to grow with the contributions of folks who like to teach math (all contributors are named).  Math Is Fun is designed for users from kindergarten through high school.  Math content includes numbers, algebra, geometry, measurement, and data.  Each topic is clearly described, with well-designed visuals (without clutter), and many topics have interactive features to aid learning.  At the conclusion of each topic, there are questions to test your knowledge.

To give you an idea of the scope of manipulatives on this site, here’s a glance at the index:

Math is fun manipulatives 4

The site is designed for both US and UK users; it includes the variations of terminology between our countries (such as trapezoid vs trapezium).  For parents who want to provide support for kids with homework, this site is a plus.  If there are math skills you’ve forgotten, check out the clear descriptions and practice exercises.  For students who struggle to process information in a large group setting, Math Is Fun enables them to review a topic with excellent visuals.  Here’s an example of the first lesson on decimals:


Math Is Fun also provides math games and puzzles in a section called Mathopolis.  Mathopolis

The games are not elaborate but provide effective practice of skills with immediate feedback and explanations.  By registering, you may keep track of your scores.  Registered users may also post comments and questions in the math forum which is not a chat room; all comments are moderated before being displayed.

As you can tell, I am a big fan of this site!  Have you tried Math Is Fun?  Please share your experiences with it.

* Math Struggles 301: Effective strategies

Sousa mathIn David Sousa’s book “How The Brain Learns Mathematics,” he cites researchers who have found that number sense is not intrinsic but can be shaped though both formal and informal activities.  Sousa lists a number of effective strategies for developing number sense.  Here are a few of them:

Meaningful estimates.  Helping students practice meaningful estimates goes far beyond, “Guess how many goldfish crackers are in the jar.”  In my experience, those kinds of estimates require more than number sense; they tap visual spatial understandings, as well.  Estimation jars are often used in lower grades where many kids are unlikely to have sufficient practice with this skill.  Early number estimates should involve items and quantities which can easily be counted (certainly less than a hundred) so that kids can improve their ability to estimate.  Kids should also be exposed to multiple opportunities for making reasonable estimates. Teachers can create realistic and necessary opportunities for estimation.  For instance, kids might estimate how many books are in a reading bin and how many pencils are in a caddy.  It’s important for kids to learn early on that estimation is not just another tedious step on worksheets, that estimation is not a hurdle to make math more burdensome.  One student recently blew off the estimation portion of his classroom assignment, saying, “It doesn’t matter what I get.  Anything is right.”  Clearly, estimation was taught in isolation and as a meaningless activity.

Solve problems and consider the reasonableness of the solutions.  This strategy sounds reasonable, but for kids with math difficulties, an unreasonable answer can be hard to recognize.  The kind of problem where I typically see younger kids struggling is comparing values or quantities.  A classic question is: If Kevin is 8 and his sister is 5, how much older is Kevin?  The majority of K-2 special needs kids I teach will add those two numbers and feel their answer is reasonable.  They have learned to subtract when items are missing, eaten, or given away, but using subtraction to compare is another beast altogether.  Some kids learn faster when they start solving this type of problem with pieces of cereal or other food.  Using cubes that interlock or stacking blocks is another way to visualize the number comparison problem, helping them “see” how much more one quantity is than another.  It can take a LOT of experience for kids with math difficulties to master this process.  Simply asking students if their answer is reasonable is ineffective if not preceded by plenty of experience with manipulatives and real-life math problems.

Model the enjoyment of numbers and number patterns.  Research studies conclude that the teacher’s attitude “is the most critical factor in establishing a climate for curiosity and enjoyment of mathematics.”  For me personally, this statement means that I must watch myself for subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that math has not been my favorite subject.  As I set a goal of making math enjoyable for my students, I am also enjoying it more.  I ask myself: If I am short on time, what subject is going to be curtailed?  Do I look for opportunities to create and solve math problems?  Do I encourage kids to talk to each other during math instruction?  Is my math instruction engaging and meaningful?  Integrating math into other content areas is a terrific way to make problem solving meaningful.  Free Math is another classroom strategy to provide time and resources for those “random” math questions that arise during the course of the day.  Dedicate a space where teacher and kids can jot/dictate questions on sticky notes, to be addressed during Free Math time.

Do you have favorite strategies for developing number sense?

* Kitten Therapy

I thought I had seen it all. This is a terrific way to relax. Just click on the video. No commercials. Just sweetness. Go ahead, relax!

Suzie Speaks

The world is a busy place – our lives are filled with jobs, traffic, places, colleagues, family and children every day and many of us are living in a state of constant fatigue and stress. So what happens when a unsuspecting and stressed-out member of the the public sits in a glass box with a pair of headphones and a bunch of kittens? Have a look at this lovely video – as an avid cat lover (and owner of two) I think that every workplace should have a room filled with kittens!

What do you do to de-stress at the end of a long day?

You can also find me in Twitter and Tumblr @suzie81blog and don’t forget to check out my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/suzie81speaks

Video uploaded by SoulPancake

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* Teaching: tyranny of the urgent

Alarm-Clock-Simple--4926-largeTutoring students in a one-to-one setting without typical classroom constraints has its advantages.  I enjoy being able to select appropriate materials, tailor activities to student interests, and address skills without the pressure of teaching the core curriculum.  On the other hand, I am frequently in the same battle as resource teachers and other specialists.  Homework and projects routinely impact my valuable time with students.  You know that I am not keen on homework, if you’ve been following this blog.  After an hour or more of tutoring, I don’t want my students to face a stack of homework, so I typically assist them to complete it as quickly as possible during our session.  But the disconnect between students’ skills and their homework drives me NUTS!

Here’s what happened today:  I was teaching a fourth grader who is struggling with math.  I wanted to continue our work on place value and rounding numbers.  Instead, I checked his homework and took a deep breath.  It was algebra (or “algebraic,” as he told me).  Knowing that he works much better on frustrating tasks with me than his parents (it was that way with my own kiddos), I decided to bite the bullet.  Here is a sample problem:  Sue had 5 times more pencils than Nate.  Together they had 18 pencils.  How many pencils does Sue have?  How many more pencils does she have than Nate?  My student was required to model the problem using symbols and write three or four equations to demonstrate how he solved it.

I imagine some kids in his class are totally ready for that problem.  But my student was not.  He had no idea where to start, was dealing with abstract procedures that made no sense to him, and didn’t have sufficient opportunities to work with manipulatives (and perhaps understand) what “5 times more” actually means.  This is a student who does not know when to add or subtract.  Not only did we lose valuable instructional time on the skills which match his current math understandings, but he needed two brain breaks in order to survive that portion of our session.  And what does he know after our “guided practice?”  Not a lot.

I was facing the dilemma described in an interesting article called “The Hard Part” (thank you, Tony’s mom!).  In his column in the Huffington Post, Peter Greene writes about teaching: “The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:  There is never enough.  There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.”  Indeed!

I do understand that the classroom teacher has her own constraints.  She is required to teach “algebraic” for a short period of time and then assess, assess, and reassess.  How can she “individualize” the above assignment for my student when it is totally inappropriate for his current level of functioning?  He needs more opportunities to model multiplication, much less solving problems with variables.  His dilemma reminds me of my post from yesterday on “How The Brain Learns Mathematics” by David Sousa.  Sousa describes prerequisite skills for learning mathematics successfully, including the ability to visualize and manipulate mental pictures and the ability to reason deductively and inductively.  My 4th grader is particularly weak in those skills.  When will he have time to catch up?  Isn’t that what summers are for?

* Math Struggles 201: Brain-based teaching

Sousa mathI am enjoying another Corwin Press book on brain-based teaching: How The Brain Learns Mathematics.  In David Sousa’s chapter on identifying math difficulties, he first suggests that teachers analyze the type of math instruction being provided and consider other environmental issues before determining that a child has an actual disability.  He describes some of the pitfalls of current math instruction.  Sousa’s book provides excellent strategies to support students at different developmental levels. It also describes effective assessment for determining a student’s present level of performance.

Sousa reviews research that describes a continuum of learning preferences for quantitative versus qualitative reasoning.  Some mathematical behaviors associated with quantitative reasoning include a proclivity for linear thinking, an emphasis upon the components of problems rather than broader concepts, and difficulty with multi-step problems.  Qualitative reasoning is characterized by emphasis upon broader concepts, difficulties with precise calculations, multiple approaches to problem solving, and an enjoyment of geometry.

From Sousa’s description of this continuum, I immediately thought of dyslexic readers, who often have a better grasp of the “gestalt” and experience more difficulty with the “smaller” components of language.  However, Sousa cites research indicating that dyscalculia and dyslexia are not genetically linked, although kids may certainly have both impairments.

Research supports the use of a concrete-pictorial-abstract approach to math instruction, which allows students at all levels (including middle and high school) the opportunity to interact with math via manipulatives first.  (Check out Nerd in the Brain‘s website for her awesome use of math manipulatives.)  During the concrete stage, it is important to link math to real-world problems.  Students then transition to pictures which assist students in visualizing the math process.  The last step is the use of symbols as a more efficient means of representing mathematical operations.  Sousa emphasizes that without a concrete link between symbols and real-world problems, students will simply memorize material and procedures without understanding.

Depending upon the current bandwagon, I’ve seen math instruction stall at the concrete level or actually start at the symbolic level.  Over the years, regular classroom math instruction most often whisks students into the symbolic level too quickly.  I have also been guilty of rushing students through the concrete level because they may “waste time” or become distracted by playing with materials.  It’s a challenge to make math instruction efficient as well as cognitively appropriate.  I have found that an effective assessment eliminates some of that pressure because I can better target my instruction.  For kids who absolutely cannot touch manipulatives without building towers, there are some good online manipulatives which allow them to experiment without getting mentally lost.  Glencoe has a super set of free manipulatives, with creative work mats that kids truly enjoy.  The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives is also excellent (and free) but doesn’t have the flexibility of Glencoe’s site for creating real-world problems.