* 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.


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

* Christopher and me: another tool for replacement behavior


A stair stepper donated to me by a family who also used this as a calming tool.  You can find these at thrift shops or on Craigslist for reasonable prices.

This post is another in a series about my work with Christopher, A Seriously Sweet Dude on the autism spectrum.  At eleven years old, he is a poster child for “practice makes permanent.”  It is only in the last year that he has had limits placed on his video obsession, been encouraged to eat vegetables, and experienced effective intervention in social and academic skills.

Although his rate of tantruming has been markedly reduced, Christopher still “entertains” the neighborhood with manic episodes of frustration and agitation.  What to do with all that wild energy?  A stair stepper is a useful tool for replacing random running and pacing.  It must be part of a system for calming, with rehearsal in its use before Christopher reaches the point of no return.  That calming system, best presented through social stories, is more effective for him with some payoff for making a better choice.  He also responds well to a cost-reward system where he might lose some perks for tantruming.  Eventually, self-control will replace the wild-child habits.

Researchers (and many parents) are concerned that extrinsic rewards undermine motivation and effort.  In my experience, students like Christopher have not yet experienced the intrinsic joys of self-control and peaceful negotiations with adults and sibs.  He has not normalized his behavior independently; peer role models and parent/teacher directions been ineffective.  Christopher is a rule follower and eager to please, but operates according to an idiosyncratic set of goals and a rigid definition of fairness which are not shared by his family or classroom teachers.  As Christopher is rewarded for doing what we hope will become internalized behavior, social stories and graphs will assist him in charting his emotional growth.  We are capturing his attention, so to speak, by providing incentives to overcome habitually inappropriate behaviors.  The potential payoff is great.

* 15 Things That Don’t Require Qualifications or Talent


The testing systems in the US and UK share some unfavorable effects. Suzi recalls the fear and dread they can evoke but focuses primarily on 15 life skills that seem more predictive of success in the Real World. They are in the realm of EQ, social skills, and character traits. It’s a list worth reading!


Suzie Speaks

imageWith the impending GCSE results due out tomorrow, the topic was already trending in the early hours of this morning on Twitter with thousands of teenagers anxiously waiting to see how they had fared, many of them already dismayed at the fact that grade boundaries for certain subjects had been raised… again.

At school, I was a high achiever who enjoyed the process of learning. I worked hard with the belief that qualifications were the be all and end all to everything that would make my life successful and happy in the future, and even after doing my A levels and a degree, my GCSE exams still remain as one of the scariest and most stressful experiences I’ve ever had.

And yet, eighteen years of life after leaving school (and spending ten years working as a teacher) has made me realise that, while qualifications on paper are important, there is…

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* How to Become an Olympic Hero: 7 Golden Rules – By Elena Verigo — Kindness Blog

You could call these “rules to live by.”  In this spirit, we can all be Olympians.

Being a hero isn’t about killing yourself. It’s not about crazy persistence and unhealthy stubbornness. These qualities may lead to outstanding achievement. But often consume and destroy one’s life. Long-term success is about being kind to yourself. And others. Olympic values guide us on the way to becoming a hero in our everyday life. (1) […]

via How to Become an Olympic Hero: 7 Golden Rules – By Elena Verigo — Kindness Blog

* Teachers celebrate, parents navigate

dog jumping for joy“It’s that most wonderful time of the year….”  La la la!  As the last day of school approaches in my neck of the woods, teachers are running and stumbling to the finish line.  For most of them on a “traditional” school calendar, the last quarter has been all about testing, and in the past couple of weeks, stripping the classroom bare.  Kids’ projects and paperwork are filed in grocery bags outside classroom doors.  Some teachers are ready to lock and walk.  Others, like me before retirement, aren’t even close.

If parents have been smart (and have the resources), they’ve already lined up camps, tutoring, home schedules, babysitters, and vacations.  Many special needs kids need their summers carefully orchestrated, from being free of all school work to engaging in a steady schedule of predictable and interesting activities.  All kids should read and practice math facts during the summer.  Lots of schools provide year-round access to familiar learning sites, with links from their media center’s website.  Many excellent online resources are free, such as multiplication.com and ABCya.  Your local library may be a refreshing alternative to muggy summer days.  Audiobooks are a perfect resource for longer car rides or relaxing before bed.

Want to help?  Check out your community for opportunities to provide food for low income families.  Without school meals, kids may go hungry.  Some communities also offer opportunities to volunteer as a reader to students who might otherwise lack access to books during the summer.  Since stores usually start stocking school supplies early, buy extras this summer to donate to families who can’t afford that growing list of required supplies.

Enjoy your summer!

* F is for flipped

The flipped classroom and flipped learning have been around for a while now, but those terms continue to generate some confusion.  The flipped classroom has been somewhat controversial in that students watch videos or read online info at home and then participate in classroom activities which require that knowledge.

The rationale for this model of the flipped classroom is that school time can then be spent in creative applications of knowledge instead of its acquisition.  Sadly, the brain doesn’t work that way.  Front loading a stack of information is a sure way to overload the brain.  And for struggling students, attempting to assimilate new information after a LONG day at school is mostly futile.  Many of our at-risk students don’t have access to a computer or tablet.  One variation on flipped classrooms is for students to produce these videos for classmates to watch, a kind of “jigsaw” cooperative learning process.  Again, if the watching and learning process must occur after a long day, it’s usually counterproductive.

On the other hand, the flipped learning model is, to me, another way of describing authentic project-based learning.  Teachers establish content and appropriate materials but create a flexible physical environment for group and individual endeavors.  Students are provided rich opportunities for exploration and self-evaluation.  In this role, teachers are facilitators, not lecturers.  They must allow students to explore content by working with others (which can be noisy), provide continual feedback to guide the progress, and establish suitable evaluation procedures.  This kind of teaching requires skilled and experienced educators who know where their kids must be going and can support unique ways for them to get there.  I’ve seen this flipped learning modeled in classes of National Board certified teachers.  Flipped learning is no small task for teachers or students.


* Training daze

dog walker

This dog trainer is an inspiration.  I snapped him doing clean-up as his “students” patiently waited for directions.   Researchers at Duke University are quantifying the amazing social skills of dogs.  Many of us already knew canines are quick studies of human behavior.  My Sheltie always focused on my facial expressions.  If I pretended to be upset with him, Luke would be instantly miserable.  It may sound politically incorrect, but teaching pups and teaching kids share some similarities.  No, I did not say that kids are dogs or should be treated as dogs, although some dogs ARE treated better than some kids.  I know that from personal experience.

But take a look at this guy’s class.  You’ve got your leaders and followers, your distracted ones and your “what are you looking at?” students.  You’ve got a diverse group that wants to do their best.  They are patient with teacher foibles and even internalize them.  And with structure and consistency, you help them achieve their goals.  The tone of our voice, the expressions on our faces, and our “unconscious” behaviors affect our students in ways we cannot imagine.  They go home and tell their parents The Truth According To  My Teacher.  Imagine what happens when we dump our prejudices about race and income on this vulnerable group.  Think about their hearts, their eagerness, and their naivete.  Let’s resolve not to crush these precious spirits.  Let’s cherish each one.

One more thought:  Not one of them dashed to the fire hydrant.  So much for preconceived notions!