* Pre-holiday schedules

autopilot 2If I could ask regular classroom teachers for one “favor” before a long holiday, it would be this: Please don’t let your class run on autopilot in the midst of other schedule changes.  What am I talking about?  Keeping the plane in the air until the last bell rings.  Imagine this scenario: Your class is going to watch a special holiday play or sing at a nursing home.  The kids know what they’ll be watching (hopefully) and they have practiced their holiday songs.  But before and after these special events?  Your class is on autopilot as you take care of paperwork, clean up after holiday meals, or organize all those handmade decorations.  Some kids are sorting their work into bags and others may be cleaning up their tables.  Most of your class will be fine with “free time,” socializing, perhaps reading, or zoning out.  But your special needs kids with social weaknesses?  Your kids who are very active and distracted?  They are likely to get into squabbles or other mischief without teacher direction.  They are the ones who end up being sent to my room or some other place to chill out.

Your class is watching a movie?  How much more entertaining can things get?  Again, for special needs kids, a movie can be boring or overstimulating, too long or too familiar.  What now?

Consider some alternatives for kids who cannot handle long, unstructured periods of time, including those movie times that most kids enjoy.  I am sure you could identify which kids might potentially struggle, so that makes it easier to create a backup plan for them.  Perhaps they need to go to a different space, like the library or a computer lab.  Perhaps a packet of holiday puzzles, favorite books, or sticker activities would help them stay engaged productively.  Maybe some of the more socially adept kids could be their partners in holiday games.  Ask the resource teacher or other specialists if you are uncertain.

Remember that structure = success for many special needs kids.  And happy holidays!

* Should kids do schoolwork during a break?

calendar 2Schoolwork during the winter break?  What?  As one kid said to me, “Are you kidding?”  If you’ve followed this blog, you know I am generally opposed to daily homework.  But working during a school break, especially one that is two weeks long, has its benefits.  Who could benefit from schoolwork during a break?  And where would this work come from?

For kids who lag far behind their peers:  These are usually kids with learning disabilities who need to invest strategically-timed effort to reduce that gap and retain skills.  They are kids who are very much aware of their memory weaknesses and have the motivation to keep going.  The work is individualized and includes much computer-based instruction.  This plan works well for students if their parents have to leave them in the care of older siblings or other caregiver.  Students in this category typically earn a reward for completing assignments.  They may check in with me during the break.

For kids who need a consistent routine:  I’ve created work packets for kids on the autism spectrum who do well with some “schoolwork” time during a break.  These are the kids who are at loose ends without their usual school day (and their parents, may start to unravel, as well).  The packets are filled with familiar drills, activities, and personal messages from me.  In fact, in coordination with their parents, if the work comes from me, the kids will do it.  Otherwise, all bets are off.  The goal of these packets is not so much academic as it is functional.  The packets typically include links to computer-based instruction as well.  Not all ASD kids will respond well to this plan, especially those twice exceptional kids (see below), but it’s been very helpful for some.

Which kids do not benefit from schoolwork during a long break?

Kids who are burned out from school work.  These are often the kids who are also anxious about their school performance.  Twice exceptional kids typically fall in this group.  The last thing they need is a reminder of dreaded school days.  Instead, they should occupy their time with lots of physical activity and special interests.  This population is already at risk for melting down before school ends, so they need to “forget” about school for a while.

One note: These guidelines are for a two-week break.  The longer summer break has unique pros and cons for many special needs kids.

* Survival Tip #14: What’s cookin’?

DuhI always advise student teachers and interns to avoid cooking projects on the day before a break from school.  Then I ignore my own excellent advice.  Why?  Perhaps it’s sacrificial on my part: they won’t ever forget what happened to me.  (No, they scattered when the kids were dismissed.)  Perhaps it’s because I am too dense to remember last year’s fiasco.  Whatever the reason, I end up at school long after Elvis has left the building.

Here’s an example.  The Breakfast Club kids were begging for another homemade breakfast and the only “convenient” time was the day before winter break.  After hours of scouring the cafeteria, I stashed all the extension cords, borrowed griddles, mixing bowls, extra cereal and pancake mix, orange juice, cooking oil, plastic gloves, and potholders in my classroom closet.  Throughout the day, I squeezed into the closet to extract all the gifts I had prepared for others that week, cooking well past midnight each day.  I also stashed gifts I received into that same packed closet.  The closet door had to stay shut because my socially-needy gang had been sent to “relax” with me, since their teachers and classmates couldn’t relax with them in their room.  So I forgot all about the closet until the kids had been sent merrily on their way.  Then I started chatting with a speech therapist who is a great listener.  Then I checked my email.  Then I began my winter break “to do” list on the board.

By that time, the school building was eerily silent, with lingering odors of latkes and peppermint.  I was more than a little horrified when I opened my closet door.  All those stinking skillets and cookware were still sitting there, waiting for me.  I was dimly aware that my blood sugar had plummeted.  In a foggy stupor, I stared into the closet brimming with oil-soaked bags.  I gazed dully at my classroom, which was cluttered beyond imagination.  The lone custodian had wheeled the last bin of garbage out of the empty building.  Lights were turned off.  My brain was shutting down.

I jumped when my phone rang.  My husband had called to see if I was ever coming home.  I snapped at him.  He asked if I needed help and I said I was just fine.  He showed up at the outside door a few minutes later (we live close to school) and hauled the ripped bags to his car.  I was in a fog as he maneuvered me to the teacher parking lot.  Do you recognize this tune? “Joy to the world, my blood sugar died! My brain has turned to mush!”

I think I know why I make the same mistake year after year.

* Living out the holiday season

joy-of-giving-logo-e1314220942113I love this time of year!  I delight in celebrating Christmas, my two week vacation is about to start, and it’s time to check the Farmer’s Almanac for hints of snow.  Woohoo!

As teachers, though, we must be mindful that not all our kids celebrate the same holidays.  Hanukkah is not a Jewish “equivalent” for Christmas, nor is it the most important of Jewish holidays.  Most white families don’t celebrate Kwanzaa but many communities have events to broaden those perspectives, such as the ones advertised through WRAL News. KwanzaaThere are a multitude of excellent books and other resources on celebrations during December; the teachers I know carefully plan activities for this last week of school that reflect the diversity of our communities.

Although most kids are ecstatic to have two weeks off school, some kids I’ve taught are apprehensive about vacations or even dread them.  For them, school is the place where regular meals were provided and where they benefit from a structured and predictable environment.  I have even seen those kids cry when it was time to leave for a holiday.  While some families will be taking extravagant vacations, others will be struggling to find child care.  Many schools now have holiday food drives and our community has several food donation programs.

If you haven’t already contributed, if you haven’t already reached out, if you haven’t already shared in some way, it’s not too late!  No matter what you celebrate, the holidays are a great reminder to reach out to those in need.

* Gifts for a teacher

Christmas gifts 2Should kids give gifts to teachers?  As we approach the holiday season, it’s a time when some school districts remind teachers and families that gifts are off limits.  Despite this type of board policy, many kids (and staff) exchange gifts informally.   Some teacher’s desks are laden with goodies.  Parents may drop off presents personally or give them to their kids to distribute.  As someone who loves to give and receive gifts in other settings, I have been concerned about issues of gift-giving equity in a school environment.  Not all families celebrate Christmas, can afford to give gifts, or even thinks it’s appropriate.  Overall, I know teachers are increasingly aware of the diversity of the communities they teach.  I do remember years past when teachers carefully opened every present in front of the class, hugging those who brought gifts.  Even a casual observer could tell that by the quantity of gifts that not everyone in the room was getting a hug.  I am REALLY opposed to that sort of nonsense.

On the other hand, for people who do celebrate Christmas and love gift giving, I think that there are inexpensive or personal ways of sharing their affection for teachers and staff.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Keep it private.  Place the gift in the teacher’s mailbox if you can’t share the gift privately.
  • Keep it personal.  Consider photos of students, handmade cards, or something that reminds the teacher of that wonderful student.  One special family gave me a hand-painted wooden box with words and phrases (written by the student) of the many fun things we had done at school.  I’ll always treasure that!  I regularly use a bookmark made from a student photo.
  • Keep it inexpensive.  I know from personal experience that even homemade baked goods can be costly (but a part of the expense and value for me is taking the time to make that gift).
  • Consider a donation to a favorite charity in the teacher’s name.

Bottom line:  Follow your heart and be sensitive of others.

* Quirky: Understanding the “different” learner

quirky 2Over time, I have seen an increase in the number of kids who don’t quite fit into any special education category, who don’t quite fit in socially, and who don’t more-than-quite achieve their academic potential.  This “increase” in number is probably due to three factors. First, there’s an improved level of appropriate identification of kids with special needs.  Early intervention is occurring.  Parents and teachers have access to better resources and legal support.  Second, as a society, we examine ourselves and one another in ways that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago, mostly due to changes in technology.  We have new, often-used labels like “geeks” and “nerds,” along with a wide assortment of labels related to interests in music, pop culture, etc.  Third, there are some actual increases in the number of kids who are now labeled autistic.  Along with that increase, I now see more “quirky” kids.

“Quirky” kids come very close to looking like twice exceptional students.  They are bright but not dyslexic.  They are bright but not autistic.  But they come mighty close to having a disability.  Their reading or math difficulties are typically camouflaged by their high IQ.  Their social difficulties are viewed as annoying but not disabling.  Their parents and teachers wonder why they don’t get along so well with others.  They wonder why these kids don’t score as high on standardized tests as expected.  These students are proficient but there’s a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right.  Another feature of these quirky kids is their own nagging sense that they don’t measure up.  School is boring but not always easy.  Last but NOT least, they are a joy to teach!  They respond extremely well to individualized support and tackle tough issues with perseverance.  With the right level of support, these underachievers gain confidence and begin to enjoy their school experiences.

In my next post, I’ll examine the social skills weaknesses of these kids and some practical ways to address them.  (I’m trying to keep my posts a bit shorter!)  Look under Quirky Learners for the follow up.

* The Best Classroom

In our country’s culture of youth, this statement flies in the face of what some administrators (and young teachers) believe. Age does not always equal wisdom but I think experienced teachers have much to offer.

Chalkboard Quotes

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* Week 1 #teacher5aday

Feeling burned out? Teacher (and parent) burnout are serious issues that can affect the the most dedicated and talented folks. This administrator from the UK is launching “teachers 5 a day’ to encourage her staff. Her ideas have merit no matter what your profession.

20 years a teacher

The start of #teacher5aday – different sides of the same coin

The launch of #teacher5aday has contributed very positively to my well-being this week. Lots of support and positive feedback for the initial idea shared here http://wp.me/p4VbxY-6E.

A number of well-being #superheroes have shared their ideas about how they will start looking after themselves more and therefore look after their students as well.

http://inspiringtchers.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/well-being-teacher5ad/

http://myfethoughts.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/my-teacher5aday/

https://hayleymacca.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/thinking-about-myself-teacher5aday/

http://mycornerofteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/wellbeing.html?spref=tw&m=1

http://chrischiversthinks.weebly.com/blog-thinking-aloud/teacher5aday

http://createinnovateexplore.com/thoughts-teacher-wellbeing-teacher5aday/

https://educationconnected.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/our-well-being/

This week I hope that teachers will continue to discuss their well-being and pledge what they intend to do in January either as a tweet or via a blog. Using the ideas shared in the links above or the John Muir framework below I’m hoping that a collective approach to this issue will continue to have a positive impact.

 jm

In January I hope that teachers will share their well-being pledges under the #teacher5aday hashtag and contribute to a…

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* What a difference a year makes

Enjoy this precious story about a very special boy who has grown so much in one year. The ending is hilarious and tender at the same time. It’s a perfect Christmas story!

Square Peg in a Round Hole

Every now and then, my son will say or do something that makes me stop for a moment, take a step back, and “remember when.” This past Sunday was one of those moments where I just couldn’t stop smiling.

We had our first snow fall a few weeks ago, and my son stood at the living room window, jumping up and down yelling, “it’s snowing, it’s snowing! Christmas is coming!” “Yes it is” I retorted. Willy proceeded to start looking around for the holiday decorations and seemed disappointed when I told him that it was a little too early to start decorating.

Ummmm… wow!

Moving on.

So this past Sunday, we brought the holiday tree up from storage, and this is what happened.

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He was SO excited to decorate, that he helped take the tree out of the box, and sat there while Jason and I put it together, all…

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* Megawords

EPSMegawords is a specialized reading program published by EPS School Specialty.  EPS has long been my favorite supplier of quality materials for students with learning disabilities.  Megawords is another winner.  Created for students at a fourth grade reading level through high school, it provides systematic instruction in reading multisyllabic words.  (Click here if you want to see how this program is aligned with current research for teaching reading.)  If you are teaching a twice exceptional (2e) student with a strong vocabulary, Megawords can be effective at third grade as well.

The Megawords program is divided into 8 books, each focusing on specific skills in a logical order.  Here’s a look at what’s taught:

Megawords 3To begin with, I recommend that you purchase the Assessment of Decoding and Encoding Skills.  Although each Megawords book comes with ongoing assessment features, I like to get a really “big picture” before starting the program.  The assessments will provide a solid basis for measuring growth as you teach with this series.

Each book follows a 6-step method of instruction:

Megawords 4

Each step is designed for systematic and carefully sequenced instruction, moving from rules and word parts (syllables) to reading in context.  The progression of skills is as good as any I’ve used.  The in-book assessments are simple (reading and writing 5 words) and allow students to understand where they are and note their progress on accuracy and fluency graphs.  Students are monitored by reading words in isolation and in passages.  Based on research supporting the actual writing of words to improve retention, Megawords is heavy on writing.  For my students with graphomotor issues (most of them), I will substitute verbal responses for about a third of the activities.  I also supplement those “skipped” written lessons with activities I create on Quizlet.

Each Megawords book does take time to complete.  Ideally, you would use it daily.  I am using it with students I tutor only once a week but even at that rate, they are making good progress.  Why would I use this program under those conditions?  Because my students have not reached a level of automaticity with these skills, despite other extensive instruction in syllable types and other decoding practice.  By definition, kids with identified disabilities are intervention-resistant.  My 2e kids may memorize words and rules quickly, but forget them when we move to a new topic.  Their recall and application of skills over time tends to lag considerably when compared to their short-term progress.  Megawords ensures that they have over-learned skills, which is vital for this population.

Have you tried Megawords?  What are your impressions of the program?