* Bureaucracy “at work”

Question:  What would happen if schools were run this way?  Are they run this way?

After years of putting it off, my dearest teaching widower (DTW) and I decided to refloor the upstairs.  That was over 2 months ago.  We got 2 estimates from Big Box home improvement stores.  We went with the $500 cheaper quote, but it turned out their offer was cheaper because they didn’t order enough laminate.  For over a month, people at various levels in the Box world assured us that the delivery would be made “on Monday.”  My DTW called and emailed and went in person to sort this out.  The laminate finally arrived, but we were still short those 11 boxes.  After another month of reassurances and many more “Mondays,” we were told by a multitude of folks that indeed our order was there, waiting for us to pick it up.  Seriously?  We had paid for them to deliver it.  My endlessly patient DTW told the last person who called, “I don’t believe you, but I’ll wait.”  As a rule, DTW’s become quite patient waiting for their wives to return home.

hallway

There are even more boxes in our kitchen- but still missing 11!

This experience is not unlike having a leak fixed in my classroom.  No one was ever responsible, the only person who knew how to fix it had retired, and there were multiple “fixes” that never worked.  It became just about as difficult to identify and serve a student with special needs once the Box Response to Intervention model was instituted.  I am 100% in support of providing modifications and accommodations to ensure that kiddos don’t get placed unnecessarily.  But when you have a kid who can’t read 3 letter words in second grade, you don’t need months of new strategies.  You need your 11 boxes of laminate OR specialized instruction, whichever comes first.

 

* Lose that control

“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”  — Mario Andretti

Take advantage of all available moments to breathe curiosity into your kiddos.  Match activities to their interests.  Create new interests.  Let them go wild!  Go wild with them!

dancing kiddos

my dancing kiddos

I think one of the most inhibiting and frightening factors for teachers is fear of “losing control.”  The truth is that we do not have any control.  Each student will make choices and you cannot control those decisions.  We have love, acceptance, affirmation, modeling, structure, curiosity, passion, consequences, and joy.  We can control how we respond to every choice around us.  And in that environment, kids will thrive.  They will not be robots nor will they be crazed.  They will dance and delight in learning.

As you prepare for the next school year, determine that you will aim much higher than “having control.”  Paradoxically, unless you you do have sufficient love and skills and structure to manage a class, your group will appear quite out of control.  Embrace their choices and draw them into your dance.

* DEPPILF-FLIPPED learning

FLIPPED Learning is the topic of a well-written article in the May, 2018, issue of Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School.   The authors, Lim and Wilson, share their experience and expertise in embedding questions in videos as a part of the flipped classroom.  I have blogged before about the flipped classroom, a model in which students acquire knowledge outside of the classroom, usually through videos.  This knowledge is then applied in class through discussions or projects.  Research supports the benefits of hands-on activities for learning math, but does a flipped classroom automatically include such active learning?  Not necessarily.

My biggest concern is that homework is especially fatiguing for students who struggle at school, extending the hours they must concentrate and process information.  There is no shortcut for learning new material, although Lim and Wilson share terrific examples of how to maximize the use of those videos.  Still, videos or not, kids must focus on new content, practice math skills, and then apply that information the next day.  All after a long day of effort.  Ouch!

Many special needs students are simply too worn out for homework.  They need the opportunity to recharge their batteries, engage in physical activity, and focus on their strengths (which may not be tapped at school).  And what about all those kids with social weaknesses for whom group discussions are a blur of white noise?  What about students who have no access to computers?  Videos are also changing; it’s become popular to speed up the presentation, add visual clutter, and increase noise levels to make videos “cool” or catchy (although not as often with math content).  These features actually decrease some students’ ability to focus and make sense of concepts.

If you are looking for good strategies to improve math videos for students, this Flipped Learning article is for you.  But please consider using videos during the school day,  Special needs kids may require a different or second explanation of a concept taught in class.  The pause and replay features are quite useful, as are headphones to eliminate background noise.  The embedded questions can provide opportunities for teachers to determine how much students are learning without the distractions of a group setting.  Use them to provide feedback for your students, too.

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Videos are potentially powerful tools in a classroom.  Let’s not make them a burden.

* Bittersweet

Color Your World: Bittersweet

bittersweet bittersweet 3.

Birthdays can be bittersweet experiences for kids at school unless there are clear guidelines to keep celebrations equitable.  And even with those guidelines, some populations (wealthy, privileged) have a clear advantage.  I have seen improvements over the years.  It used to be that the “entitled” families provided a sugar feast for the class, along with balloons and performers.  Many classes still celebrate monthly, but I’m not sure that school is the place for birthday events.  Those poor souls born during summer months never quite make the birthday cut.

There are many other appropriate reasons to recognize students at school, such as effort, perseverance, initiative, and kindness.  

* Alternative seating at school

Color Your World: Red Orange

Research is finally catching up with what teachers have known for years: Kids (and teachers!) do their best work when they are comfortably seated.  You will still find many hard plastic chairs in classrooms, but there are also nooks of beanbags, bouncy balls, and form-fitting chairs like this one in red orange.  As with instructional methods, one size does NOT fit all.

red orange chair

* Gifted piano teacher

Making goal-setting, review and assessment a joint exercise with my students is helping me teach them to make clearer connections between their practise and the quality of their performances, and take responsibility for their work.

via Setting clear and achievable goals in piano class — eliza says

To my readers:  Wow.  I keep telling Eliza that she missed her calling as a special education teacher!  She is doing a fabulous job teaching piano, so I shouldn’t fuss!  Her approach to teaching piano will work well no matter the setting and especially if students have learning challenges.  Follow her blog for terrific ideas!!

* Keep Your Passion

I am shamelessly borrowing Kendrick Vinar’s message and applying it to a passion for teaching.  The big question is: What drains your teaching battery?    Around here, next Monday is the grand opening!   Best to explore these issues BEFORE the school year starts, right?battery

Kendrick gave six examples of Passion Drains:

  1.  Unaligned priorities.  Ask yourself, “How am I actually spending my time?”  (Not “How do I wish I were spending my time?”)  You might think that you are devoted to parent-teacher relationships, but how much time do you spend talking to parents?  Or perhaps lifelong learning is high on your written list, but do you really devote time for reading and collaborating professionally?
  2.  Unbalanced schedule.  I can provide the perfect example of this, being the only teacher with 40+ years experience who worked at school every weekend.  Uh-oh.
  3.  Unresolved conflict.  This is an emotional drain which may lead to darting into closets to avoid the principal or refusing to make eye contact with another teacher.  For my part, I was actually oblivious to the anger I had stirred up in a colleague.  Yikes.
  4.  Unforgiven sin.  OK, you don’t have to be a Christian to understand that those lies or mean-spirited words can’t truly be ignored or swept under the carpet.  They will come back to bite you unless you make things clean.
  5.  Undernourished soul.  Ever feel like you are running on empty deep inside?  Our spirits need nutrition, just as our bodies do.
  6.  Unclear purpose.  It’s natural to feel some discomfort when vacations end, but do you also feel a genuine excitement about getting to know your new students and families?  Are you excited about all the fun that is to come?  Is it a thrill to inspire others to learn?  Don’t stay in teaching if there’s no passion in your heart.

You owe it to yourself and your students to blaze with the joy of teaching.  

* Christopher and me: defining success

Christopher failed the reading portion of the End of Grade (EOG) tests.

Christopher 1

I tutor my precious nephew, Christopher, a 4th grader on the AU spectrum.  He’s made terrific progress in the past year, with gains in vocabulary and reading comprehension.  But was it enough?  During a benchmark trial for the EOGs at school, Christopher melted down with tears and distress.  After 3 hours of testing, he had answered 7 out of 45 questions.

In our follow-up tutoring sessions, Christopher spoke angrily about the injustice of test questions that were meant to “trick” him.  He stated accurately that he could not read the test passages.  What to do?  If the EOGs were an accurate measure of his growth, I would have been very concerned.  In reality, Christopher’s gains are best measured against specific objectives on an IEP, not against grade level norms.  His reading performance remains well below that of his peers, but remarkably above where he was a year ago.  And we have long abandoned efforts for him to read orally; he cannot maintain focus, he benefits from seeing what he hears, and natural phrasing helps him use context for unfamiliar words.

Knowing that he would likely produce a test misadministration for himself and the other kids in his small testing group, I suggested- gulp- that he not attempt to read the passages but instead read the questions and scan for answers.  Using this strategy on grade level passages in our sessions, he scored about 50% accuracy.  That would have to do.  The alternatives were unacceptable.

Christopher called me every night in the week-long EOG countdown.  His determination to succeed in this rather hopeless endeavor was both encouraging and heartrending.  “What does ‘most likely’ mean, Aunt Katharine?”  “What are key words?”  I reaffirmed my conviction that he would do his best and that I was proud of him.  Christopher survived.  He did not lose the gains we had made, he does not know he “failed,” and he will continue to grow.  Going forward, audio books with a visual component will be the key for Christopher’s ongoing instruction in all academic areas.

I understand the need for standardized testing, but I value the effort Christopher has made, his desire to keep learning, and the confidence he has gained this year from measurable growth in his skills.  The 4th grade EOG does not define Christopher’s future.

* Christopher and me: balancing act

I had the pleasure of meeting Christopher‘s 4th grade teachers during the first parent-teacher conference this year.  The students in his class work with one teacher for language arts and another for math.  Both his teachers are currently reading books on autism with a desire to better understand his special needs.  They obviously LOVE this kiddo!  No wonder he still has energy for tutoring after school.

balance.jpg

The conference was memorable because of their openness to strategies which have proved effective with Christopher.  As an “outsider,” I am sensitive to classroom teachers’ uncertainties and (too frequent) reluctance to accept advice.  Often, I find myself in the midst of a balancing act between the special needs student and the classroom teacher’s rigid adherence to “the way we do school.”  I am loathe to share my qualifications, as I’ve found that makes some folks wary or defensive.  I’m aware that a classroom teacher has her hands full with 22+ students.  The class cannot revolve solely around Christopher’s needs, but unless he is provided some key modifications, his needs will start to usurp effective instruction.  What a huge relief when regular education teachers are genuinely willing to listen and accommodate special needs kids.  It’s a balancing act for them, as well, and I am grateful for Christopher’s special classroom teachers!

* Anonymous scholars

This month’s Teaching Children Mathematics features an excellent article entitled “Learning From the Unknown Student.”   What’s that about?   The idea is to expose students to effective strategies and prompt analysis of others’ mathematical reasoning by using “anonymous scholar” work.  The unknown student provides an avenue for sharing an alternate problem- solving approach without leading students to believe it’s the Teacher Way of doing math.  I typically employ a variation of this strategy in writing and social skills, but it is equally effective in math.

Let’s say I want a student to recognize a common error in her writing, perhaps an abundance of incomplete sentences.  But this kiddo does not see those mistakes and is already hyper-sensitive about correction.  That’s when I introduce “a student from last year” whose writing is replete with the same errors.  Now my student becomes a helpful editor and delights in using effective strategies to catch those errors, such as reading the sample out loud and using a rubric or checklist.  I have found that students are much more relaxed about revisions and editing when they have sliced-and-diced someone else’s work.  Where do I find these student samples?  Some are actually students from last year.  Others are copied from Google images or a search such as “writing samples, grade 2.”

For those students who struggle to add a specific feature to their writing, such as an effective opening sentence, I will use commercially-prepared mentor texts (Empowering Writers is a good choice) and graphic organizers with built-in prompts (usually created by me).  There’s no point in replicating my students’ dismal classroom experiences, where other kids seem to write effortlessly.  Those scholars are not anonymous.

In social skills instruction, I tell anecdotes or write social stories about anonymous scholars who struggle to make friends or follow directions.  I have also referred to “a student at another school, but I can’t tell you his name.”  It’s amazing how my students immediately verbalize highly effective strategies for dealing with these issues.  For the younger set, we watch puppets literally wrestle with familiar social and academic glitches.  Sometimes I wonder what kind of teacher I am, since Rocky the raccoon and Sandy the pup never learn to take turns, listen to others, or manage their frustration!

In the examples I’ve shared, there is a downside to using anonymous scholars.  A student with very low self-esteem may attempt to build his confidence on the back of that pitiful kid who can’t add 1 + 1.  However, I think that is more easily managed than erasing 50% of the answers on a math page, then telling the kids they are improving.  Who would believe that?  silhouette