* Book Fair

A local elementary school, where I taught for about 17 years, is holding its biannual Scholastic Book Fair.  I have always been impressed with the following elements which made the Book Fair something special:

1.  The PTA, in coordination with literacy coaches, special needs teachers, family specialist, and others, made sure that all low income kids received a free book.  If I had a pull-out group with mixed income levels, all the kids would get a book if I were unable to distribute them individually or needed the books for a group lesson.  The beauty of these free books is obvious; the people selecting the books are able to ensure that the books are a good choice for the kids.

2.  Teachers are encouraged to create a wish list of books so that families can donate books to a class.  Currently, each teacher’s photo is taped to a basket with the books already selected.  It is then easy for someone to choose a gift book from a wide range of prices and topics.  It’s a great way for families to make a lasting contribution to their school.

3.  The school coordinates the book fairs with an evening of larger, free community events, such as this week’s ice cream social.  The atmosphere is humming with excitement and it’s obvious that the school’s diverse population is well-represented.

4.  Although Scholastic’s well-priced books are on sale, the book fair is brimming with donations of books available inexpensively to kids and adults alike. Typically, the last day is a “fill the bag with books” for a very low price.  The school collects gently used books all year for these occasions.

The effort to make this an inclusive and community-building event is notable.  It’s now possible to shop online for a Scholastic Book Fair, as well as preview new books through Booktalks (see image below), with a short review of the book and suggested grade level.  As easy as it is to purchase from home, I’m glad so many folks are enjoying the Book Fair in person!

book talk

* Z is for zinc

medical-681119_640Blogging A-Z: Z is for zinc.  And all the other supplements that teachers use in an effort to stay healthy.  It’s a battlefield out there, especially for teachers working with younger kids who routinely slime their teachers and classmates.  Zinc, vitamin C, echinacea, astralagus, and licorice are favorites.  Some teachers absolutely swear by certain herbs and their arguments are quite compelling if they seem to resist every “bug” making its rounds.  One teacher comes to mind; I think she had iron guts.  At her suggestion, I tried some kind of mushroom which reduced me to a sliver of myself.  My doctor thought it quite an amusing “cure.”

Antibacterial wipes and cleansers are ubiquitous in most classrooms, far surpassing supplements like zinc in their widespread use.  Take a look at teacher supply lists and watch the frenzied after-school scrubbing.  Those invisible microbes are the enemy!  I use alcohol wipes on pencils and computer keyboards, along with door knobs and the edges of tables.  Did you know that table edges get incredibly gross over time if you’re not vigilant?

A third important strategy is to teach kids to cover their cough.  There are two important components of that instruction: coughing into an arm AND turning away.  It did me no good when a kid coughed past his elbow into my face.  I’d also like to teach “cover your cough” to many adults.  How many times have I seen a teacher cough into her hand and then offer me a pencil or tissue with that same hand?  Yuck!  I’m not a germaphobe (perhaps), but that makes me cringe.

After listening to me complain endlessly about being slimed at school, my husband suggested that I wear a mask.  I have had to do that on occasion when teaching a medically fragile student.  “Teaching while masked” is an oxymoron.  First, my glasses turn foggy with every breath.  And there is no way to effectively communicate that wide range of subtle (and not-so-subtle) teacher expressions when your face is covered up.  The mask also makes my soft voice even more muffled, so I might as well stay home.

How do you stay healthy when “bugs” are rampant?  I have some zinc and mushrooms to share, if you’re interested.

X is for /ks/

siamese-cat-408766_640 (1)Bogging A-Z: X is for /ks/.  Yep, bring your hands up like claws, make a snarling face, and go /KS/ like a cat!  Louder!  That’s one way I help kids learn the /ks/ sound.  If you consult an ABC poster, you’ll find “xylophone” and “x-ray” as the top choices representing the letter X.  Apart from X-Men on a lunch box, most young kids aren’t going to run into words beginning with ‘x.’  Dr. Seuss really helped further the renown of the ending sound of /ks/ in his “Fox in Socks” book (customer image below from Amazon):FOx in SOcks

I also like the above book because it illustrates the most common way to spell /ks/ in closed, single syllable words (-ks).  Kids who struggle with reading and writing often have trouble with syllables like “ex.”  The short e is not really distinguishable from some consonants that follow (n, m, p, l, s, f), as in exit, enter, empire, and escape.  I work with a fifth grader who still spells closed syllables without a vowel, because all he hears is the consonant.  For that reason, it’s important to teach kids that vowels rule, consonants drool.  You know what I mean: we can’t have a syllable without a vowel.  In the southern part of the US, once you draw attention to the missing short e, many kids will substitute a short i instead.  Many adults do the same thing around here.  “Do you write with a pin or a pen?”

Back to X.  Once you teach the hissing cat sound with lots of drama, that /ks/ is firmly memorized.  If you’re going alphabetically, you know the problems we encounter with W and Y.  Many kids get totally undone by these two letters.  After all, there’s a pattern of similarity between the NAME and the SOUND of most letters.  But W becomes “duh” as in ‘duh-ble-u” and “wuh” is the letter sound for Y (why? why?).  There’s something to be said for teaching letter sounds “out of order” for kids who are showing signs of reading problems.  If not, they guess at letter sounds for W and Y by trying to follow a familiar pattern.  Then practice makes permanent.  Speaking of practice, show me your sharp claws, your sharp cat teeth, and HISS!  /KS/!  Great!

* W is for writing

mudflat-hiking-57666_640Blogging A-Z: W is for writing.  As much as I enjoy writing, there’s a giant ache in my heart when I hear that word.  Why?  Because of the anguish many of my students feel when they write at school.  To what lengths do some of these kids go to avoid writing tasks which are beyond their reach?  They get out of reach themselves, going under desks or tables, leaving the class, taking an extended vacation in the bathroom, and going to the nurse’s office after throwing up.  Or they lash out, disrupting the entire class.  Seriously.  I’ve seen all of that and more.

We must change the school landscape for these kids who live in fear of writing.  I spent much of last summer desensitizing a kid who could no longer THINK about writing without overwhelming panic.  He had to cross an emotional abyss in order to attempt writing again.  His was not an isolated problem.  For twice exceptional kids, especially, this can be the daily terrain.

We know from brain research (and common sense) that some kinds of struggles are “good.”  Persevering through certain learning challenges can improve our ability to problem solve.  Succeeding when struggles are at the right level of difficulty is vital.  But writing phobias are not an outcome of “good” struggles.  This writing distress and cycle of failure begins by tasking kids with assignments for which they are not capable, plunging them into a mire from which there seems no escape.  If I were expected to write a sentence in French, even if the teacher said kindly, “All you have to do is write TWO words,” I would be at a loss.  I don’t know the letters, sounds, words, or grammar.  I would be mortified if this happened in front of my peers.  I would feel like Alice in Wonderland if my teacher assured me that I was fully capable of writing a two-word story in French.  Does she even know me?  Where would I begin?  After a few assignments like this, my anxiety would rocket when it was time for writing.  I’d start worrying about it before I got to class.  I’d feel stupid and ashamed when the teacher’s help simply didn’t help.  I would wonder what was wrong with me.  When I looked around at my colleagues, busily at work on writing tasks, I’d feel incompetent.  Maybe I’d try to copy a colleagues’s work.  Perhaps my stomach would start hurting, so I’d end up in the nurse’s office.

Changing writing phobias to writing success starts with understanding our students’ learning differences.  The website Understood has realistic videos of kids with writing struggles.  Listen to kids talk about their struggles.  Look at this supposedly simple task from their point of view.  Effective instructional change is possible.  The writing topography can be one of success.

How many of you had writing struggles as a student?  Would you share your experiences (anonymously, if you prefer)?  

* Be Inspired by our Uses Page

Here’s more on Glogster, which is a tool only limited by your imagination! Go for it and please share your glogs with me!

Glogster Blog


Are you in need of a quick lesson plan? Are you excited about creating multimedia posters but stuck for efficient ways to use them? If your answer is yes, you’re in luck, because Glogster has recently added a brand new page to the site – Glogster Uses – giving you four complete guides to fantastic glog assignments including custom-made templates, examples of completed glogs, and simple step-by-step instructions detailing how you and your learners can get the most from each assignment. Once you’ve filled up on inspiration, you can make our templates your own, letting creativity take over without the hassle of formatting! Check out our Uses below for an idea of what you can achieve with Glogster:


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* Um, Yeah–It Actually IS about Testing

My take on testing is that you end up on the instructional trajectory with which you began. Like this educator, if you start out with inquiry-based learning, you are more likely to end up with authentic assessment. If you start out as a testlet instructor, you end up with bubble sheets.

My So-Called Literacy Life

There are a myriad of reasons why families and students decide to opt out or refuse standardized testing. Some refuse because they resent the number of hours teachers spend testing (and “preparing”) students when they could be engaging in more meaningful instruction and assessment. Some refuse because they are frequently tied to teacher evaluation, which most reasonable, public education-savvy people would agree is unfair. Some refuse because they–let’s face it–will find any excuse they can to jump onto the Outraged American bandwagon.

angry_mob Pretend there’s a bandwagon in this image.

A popular refrain among those who are opting out or refusing this kind of testing almost always includes some version of “we are not opposed to tests in general, just to standardized/high-stakes/one-size-fits-all tests.” They then go on to list the number of ways that standardized and/or high-stakes testing traumatizes students and undermines the value of authentic, meaningful learning.

But as those charming sisters featured…

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* What to Expect When You Have Expectations

Mr. Foteah has described authentic high expectations, along with the kind of support necessary for kids to thrive. Let’s do this for all our kids, regardless of race, regardless of labels.

From the Desk of Mr. Foteah

One thing I don’t ever want to hear my students say is, “I can’t.” That’s the kind of toxic language that too many students have internalized too many times. Too many hopeful, eager students have been turned sour by disbelieving, uninspiring adults. Too many promising minds have been lost to too many negative mouths.

A little boy in my class came to me from a less restrictive environment a few months ago. The poor kid was floundering, lost in a tide of confusion and self-doubt. He looked – and was – miserable. Distant. Blank.

At first, he started coming to me just for reading. He got a special seat right next to me and, little by little, started coming out of his shell. Though he’d sometimes cry, “I want to go back to my real class,” I remained firm with him about all the reasons he should – no, must –…

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* Day 23 of light it up BLUE

Just a reminder about what’s really important: kids are kids, adorable and precious.

Square Peg in a Round Hole

FACT: What AUTISM parents want YOU to know.

  1. Not all autism is the same.
  2. Just because you know one child with autism doesn’t mean you know everychild with autism.
  3. Please accept our kids the way that you assume we will accept yours.
  4. For onlookers who think I am not addressing my child’s odd behaviors or tantrums: I ask for a little empathy. Don’t judge. Try to understand that his environment affects him/her greatly.
  5. Kids with special needs are smart. Talented. Creative, and thoughtful. It may not be obvious all the time, but their minds work differently.
  6. Children with autism are not deaf. They can hear you. Eye contact can be extremely uncomfortable for them.

Baby Arianna melts my heart. She looks so comfy in her BLUE.

Baby Jake is such a lady killer in his BLUE.

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* V is for visits

volkswagen-158463_640Blogging A-Z: V is for visits.  Home visits.  I cannot imagine teaching without home visits.  I have routinely visited many families since I first started teaching.  There’s hardly a better way to authentically connect with a family.  However, my home visits have often taken an unexpected turn.

I remember visiting a family who were quite resistant to any special education labeling of their son, saying that they never saw the issues we described.  I wanted to be more effective with that child (who was not yet labeled but appeared to be on the autism spectrum). I also wanted to understand how his behavior could be so different at home.  The reality was that their entire life was structured around his interests and atypical behavior.  We didn’t interrupt him when he was watching a particular show, while his mother cooked his only breakfast food, his father shared an extensive photo collection of the child’s primary “hobby,” and an older sibling showed me what she did to manage his outbursts.  That home visit was quite an eye opener.  And the family was genuinely sweet.

Another home visit was equally memorable.  I had been struggling to make headway with a student who had serious behavior issues.  His mother was a no-show at every conference and didn’t respond to my notes.  I knew she had been burned by only hearing negative reports from school, but I was hopeful that she and I could make a difference as a team.  I went to her mobile home and heard music playing inside.  I knocked loudly and got no response.  I kept knocking and then started calling out loudly, guessing that she was inside.  Eventually she relented and opened the door.  I was nonplussed at her appearance.  She was wearing a tee shirt, not long enough, and nothing else.  As unusual as that was, I was even more surprised that she had shaved off her eyebrows.  I didn’t know why the lack of eyebrows bothered me so much.  I was unsure where to look at her, so I focused on a spot between her eyebrows and the hem of her tee shirt.  We ended up with a working relationship and her son’s life was turned around.

Then there was the mom who struggled with addiction and felt desperately guilty when her son was born handicapped.  She struggled to keep custody of him; social services regularly visited her to supervise the situation.  I learned that she had a unique arrangement with her neighbors.  She sold all her furniture to support her addiction but on the scheduled DSS visits, the kindly neighbors would loan back her furniture.  I had made home visits with and without the furniture because she would never schedule a conference with me.  I will always remember my last home visit with her (before the child was removed from her custody).  We sat close together on the well-traveled sofa and I watched with fascination as a roach played around on her collar.  We ended up praying together but as I stood up to leave, my foot went through the floor.  I was firmly trapped and even closer to that roach (and who knows how many more?).

On another occasion, an unruly student was displeased that I planned to make a home visit.  The girl told me that I had better not report her mother to DSS. This same child had already threatened to report ME to DSS for putting her in time out, but I wondered what was happening at home.  Then she told me her mother would keep a gun handy in a laundry hamper in case I caused any trouble.  Well, I managed to get the mother to open the door on my home visit, after much vigorous knocking and yelling.  We sat down to chat and there, in that tidy living room next to the couch, was a full laundry hamper.  Like the situations with the eyebrows and roaches, I found it very hard to achieve a neutral focal point.

Aren’t home visits amazing?