* Back to school we go

Back to school.jpg

As long as I can remember, each year begins at the start of school.  I may be semi-retired, but I’m already having those back-to-school nightmares dreams!  Here are some teacher survival tips for handling the new school year.

  1.  Never live for vacations.  Sure, they can be marvelous, but there’s no telling what might happen during that supposedly carefree time off.  I’ve had a taste of that disappointment.  Live for each day instead.  Live for each school day.
  2.  Cut yourself some slack.   The beginning of school can be hectic, so don’t beat yourself up if those trips to the gym or time with a loved one get squished a bit.  Or a lot.  Give yourself time to get into the workplace rhythm again.
  3.   Set up your room early, if possible.  If you get a head start on organizing bulletin boards and arranging tables and chairs, you’ll have more time to catch up with colleagues and offer support to others.
  4.  Assess your digital organization.  Maybe your desktop is neatly organized without stray files and your documents are not tossed into one humongous file called “school.”  If not, this is a great time to think about more specific categories for documents, purge junk, and clear that inbox.
  5.   Get back on a workday sleeping schedule.  If you’re a night owl, it’s time to transition to being an early bird.  (Hey, wasn’t that clever?)  There are apps for that transition; iPhones also delight in giving you bedtime reminders.  If you have to drink a lot of caffeine to focus, you might not be getting enough sleep.
  6.  Remember that the only behavior you can control is your own.  Sure, you must set up an environment and use strategies that encourage cooperation and a sense of community among your students.  But in the end, all you control is your response to those around you.  Respond with kindness, patience, self-control, and flexibility.
  7.  Look forward to all you will learn this year.  Isn’t that why we teach?  Because we love to learn?  You’ll learn from everyone, including those tough kiddos, if you have that growth mindset we are endlessly hammering into kids.
  8.  Teach all kids well, not just those who look like you.  

I hope your new school year is a wonderful adventure!

* Clutter: another lesson in belief

“I am not a hoarder!  In fact, I am quite organized.”  I can see your eyebrows rising in disbelief.  Yeah, we have an uncontrolled junk room, tons of closets stuffed to the brim, and every drawer and shelf in the house is packed.  But that clutter is not hanging over my head, as of a day ago.  My dearest friend, who shared her “A-student” story, has inspired me to ignore the whispers of “clutterer.”  Those shelves and shelves of teaching supplies?  Their days are numbered.  Today I filled up 2 bags of clothes for the thrift shop.  Whee!

In the past, in a far away land, my cleaning binge radar was firmly fixed on my dearest teaching widower’s clutter.  In fact, my own stacks seemed to disappear as I grunted and glared at his piles of paper, pounds of erasers shavings (he writes by HAND), and random books, paper clips, dead staples, and wine-stained napkins.  My displaced clutter-righteousness had no bounds, kinda like my own messes.  Poor guy.  But NO MORE!

junk 2

 

The New Me does not need to focus on my dearest widower’s writing detritus.  I don’t need to accomplish a clutter-free environment today or tomorrow or within a month.  I don’t feel intimidated by what needs to be done.  I want to do a little every day.  How obvious, you say.  It’s not rocket science.  But until I heard the A-Student story, I was crushed under the weight of clutter.

With my confident belief and God’s grace, along with a dearest friend to whom I can be accountable, the era of clutter in this house is over.  I am so excited!  In fact, this will be my “before” photo:

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* 50 Easy Steps to Make Life Better — Suzie Speaks

At first glance, you might run as fast as possible from this post.  50 STEPS?  Are you CRAZY?  You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that these are DOABLE.  As Suzi points out, you don’t do all of them in one day.   You’ll find many that resonate, so start there.  Consider these as timesavers for the school year that looms ahead.  Many of them are perfect for keeping your classroom well organized.  Teach them to your students (I wish I had learned some of these when I was younger).  I am going to make them my Bucket List for the next month and keep you posted on how I’m doing.  Thanks, Suzi, and let the journey begin!!  

This was a list of physical, psychological, financial and emotional things that I created a couple of months ago to make life that little bit easier… and it really works. Of course, it’s impossible to do all of these in a day, but I have broken it down into smaller chunks – I’ve found that […]

via 50 Easy Steps to Make Life Better — Suzie Speaks

* Blossoming in the new school year

It won’t be long before school is back in session.  For those on a year-round calendar, the new year has already begun.  How do we help our special needs kids flourish this year?  I’ve been inspired to write this by Cee’s photography, of all things.  Here are two images to consider.  (The crepe myrtle on the left belongs to a neighbor; the one on the right is ours.  Bummer.)  Which image best represents our hopes and dreams for kids this school year?

 

Since I am far more adept at teaching than growing plants, here are some tips as you prepare for the new year:

  • Make sure you start adjusting bedtime schedules.
  • Start building stamina for longer periods of sitting and listening.  The local library is a good option for this.
  • Let your child help select lunchboxes and backpacks, where possible.
  • Get your child the school’s tee shirt (often available from thrift shops).  I have seen these add social credit by creating a sense of belonging.
  • Start preparing a daily/weekly routine for school days, most likely with some kind of break when kids get home.  The light at the end of the tunnel is important.
  • Assuming your child has issues with behavior and/or attention, plan or resurrect a reward system for extra motivation.
  • If your child’s IEP does not already include an individual orientation with the classroom teacher, ask for one.
  • Start spending time around the school with your kids.  You could probably find a garden bed to weed and trash to collect.  You might ask the secretary for some other ways to help.  Perhaps there are boxes to recycle or catalogs to file in teacher mailboxes. I’ll bet the office staff would enjoy a homemade treat.  Bribery works.
  • If homework was an unresolved nightmare issue last year, face it head on.  If your child is too worn out after school to effectively complete homework, strategize how you might approach this problem more successfully.  Talk to other parents and/or sympathetic teachers for advice.
  • Watch some “back to school” movies as a family.  Care has a list of 10 good ones, including a favorite of mine, “Akeelah and the Bee.”
  • Parent’s Choice also has a great list of back to school books.  “Thank you, Mr. Falker” by Patricia Polacco is terrific.

Do you have any other tips to share?

 

* S is for Stress

Or better yet, “Stress Proof Your Life (52 Brilliant Ideas)” by Elisabeth WIlson.   Wilson is a British psychotherapist who’s written a number of self-improvement books.  If her other works are as good as “Stress Proof Your Life,” I should buy them all.

Each brilliant idea chapter follows the same format: a clever and often humorous description of a stressful issue, steps or strategies to try, then three “idea” tips (including a witty quote).  Finally, there’s “How did it go?” followed by Q and A.  I admit to skimming over a few of the brilliant ideas, but that’s the beauty of this book.  You identify your own areas of stress and try her clever ideas.

One of my favorites is Brilliant Idea #30: Zap those piles.  (No, Wilson assures us, not THOSE piles.  Typical British humor, right?)   She has a clever yet simple plan for reducing piles of clutter.  Since I’ve been sick, I am up to my neck in clutter; I will start on #30 tomorrow.  Which is why I am still on Brilliant Idea #4 (below).

My fave Brilliant Idea is #4: Never procrastinate again.  All I can say is that #4 is brilliant.  It was written for me.  Elisabeth Wilson knows me.  I think she has been spying on me.  Perhaps she was watching when I cut the grass with scissors.

Here’s a link to her Amazon author page.  If you run into Elisabeth, will you tell her that I am onto her?

 

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Order book from Amazon here.

* Time will tell

This post is about my whacked sense of time, as well as the importance of timing in teaching.  Timing and pacing are key to a successful lesson.  There are some teachers who don’t look at the clock as often as I do, but I’m not checking the time to see when the lesson’s over.  I am trying to make sure I stay on track.  I usually plan my lessons with small chunks of different activities.  That reduces fatigue and boredom, allows kids the opportunity to absorb information, and provides time to move around.  It’s a better match for kids who are very active, hate school work, and must work extra hard (with repetition) to overcome dyslexia.  I do tend to get so involved in the lesson that I lose track of time, even though my lesson plans indicate how long I will spend on each segment.  Oops!

So what kind of clock do I prefer?  Analog, the dinosaur of clocks, for beginning clock watchers.  Why?  The significance of the number 12 in our non-metric systems of measurement, the vocabulary of quarters, sets of 15, fractional parts of a whole, and especially the visual relationship of seconds, minutes, and hours.  Like cursive handwriting, though, who uses analog clocks in everyday life?  And I agree that all of those concepts can be taught through other means, but where’s the fun in that?

clock

I have been using a cheapo analog clock but its distinct tick-tock was seriously distracting to a student.  So I purchased another cheapo clock, this time digital, since we had already worked that analog through every skill I could think of.  The cheapo digital lasted about 4 seconds after I installed the batteries.  The clerk asked me if I wanted to exchange it with a twin when I returned the defunct model.  Seriously?  I went online and paid more for another digital clock.  This one had bells and whistles like temp and days of the week.  The instructions were very clear: set the year/ date, and the correct day of the week will pop up.  Well, the day has always been two days behind!  No one is looking except for me, but since I’m always a bit confused about the day anyway….  So I reset the clock several times and gave it a couple of good knocks, but to no avail.  Then late last night, when I wasn’t thinking about ANYTHING, I could see myself setting that clock.  I had punched in 2014!  Oh dear, I wish I had picked 2015.  I’m not sure what excuse I can make for selecting 2014, except that it was a very good year.

* Executive function: organization

What IS executive function (EF)?  It is a set of mental skills and processes that we use to navigate life.  These include organization, working memory, self-monitoring, flexibility, and others.

Last year I started consulting with a high schooler, Maria, to address her EF weaknesses in organization.  Maria would forget to copy homework assignments.  Or she would complete homework but forget to turn it in  Her binder was a disastrous compilation of all things paper.  She had many 0’s and Incompletes which dragged down her grades.  Here’s summary of a system that has been highly effective for her, tapping into her desire for success at school.

First, each subject has its own binder.  Her school only requires a single binder, which creates far too much leeway for chaos.  Within each binder are the tools of the trade (pencils, pens, etc.) along with 5 dividers: binder 3

The cover of each binder has a plastic see-through section which provides Maria with an automatic reminder as she goes into class.  Black is her color.binder cover 2

And as she prepares to leave class, the binder cover now reminds her to copy homework assignments.binder cover 1

The most important section is “assignments,”  which covers every day of the school year.  Here’s a sample page:

binder 4

Now she sees her future and past!  It is easier for her to get parental support of larger projects because these can be scheduled in manageable chunks.  Maria is also happy to see holidays ahead!

Other steps to success with this system:  We role-played entering the room and flipping the cover sheet for each subject.  We also practiced filing materials correctly.  She needs access to a hole punch so there aren’t any loose sheets.  Her math binder includes graph paper along with extra notebook paper.  Maria is a smart kid but her EF organization is really weak.  This effort levels the playing field for her.

* Back to school countdown: orientation

classroom-643049_640One of the most important strategies for supporting special needs kids is an individualized, back-to-school orientation.  There will be a formal back-to-school event, but that may be an overwhelming and negative for some kids.  An orientation is especially crucial for kids on autism spectrum, as well as kids with anxiety related to their disability. Hopefully, this orientation has already been listed as an accommodation on their IEP.  In my experience, it can provide a much improved start to the school year.  Here are some guidelines:

  • The classroom teacher and specialist should collaborate on the timing to reduce stress on the teacher.  The classroom does not have to be in “perfect” form but the basics should be evident.  Furniture, large group space, and cubbies should be organized.
  • This orientation is NOT a parent-teacher conference, so parents should be careful not to use it for that purpose (which is likely to overwhelm the classroom teacher).  This orientation is a way for the student to greet the teacher without the horde of parents and kids.  It allows the special needs student to quietly explore the room.  It’s important for the student to know the location of the bathroom, classroom sink, and cubbies.  If possible, the child should already have an assigned cubby which is easily reached without climbing over other students and their gear.  Some teachers will have assigned that student a desk/table, while other teachers have a few books or materials relating to that student’s special interests. The specialist can also assist with those items.
  • The specialist should escort the parent/s and student to the class and remain during the entire orientation, which usually lasts 15 minutes or so.  Parents and teachers typically chat while the student explores, after the student has interacted with the teacher.  Again, the specialist must ensure that this does not become a conference.  Please respect teacher preparation time!   It might be possible to schedule a conference, but I would recommend giving the teacher some time to become familiar with the student before setting up a meeting.
  • Before leaving, provide an opportunity for the student to ask questions.  I have typically asked questions for most students, such as, “When can I take a bathroom break?” and “Where do we have recess?”  Parents may also know of other issues which have been worrying their kids.

Back to school countdown: school tools

backpack-152705_640It’s time to purchase school tools, which range from book bags to calculators.  Depending upon your child’s interests and tolerance for shopping, this can be an opportunity for gently reminding kids that school is approaching.  Your school probably has a supply list available.  If not, it’s still important to shop early for a couple of items which have social and personal significance: backpacks and lunch boxes.  Kids usually have a sense of preferred colors and styles, so shop before the selection is limited.  If your child can only tolerate a short expedition, make it a backpack and lunch box outing and complete the rest on your own.  Did I mention those awesome metallic Sharpie pens?  Again, based upon their abilities and interests, you might give your child an opportunity to label these two items.  I would suggest practice on a piece of paper first and limit marking to a single edge.  Having these items labeled will make them easier to distinguish for both students and teachers.  You’d be amazed at how many kids end up with identical lunch boxes.  You should label both with their name, even if your child does not.  Consider adding something distinctive to the outside, just as you would a piece of luggage at the airport.   Believe me, a cafeteria is worse than any baggage claim area!

* Back to school countdown: paperwork

As your child gets ready for school, it’s time to dust off the file folders and review paperwork from the past school year, at least.  What paperwork?  Your copy of the IEP or 504 plan, printouts of all emails and correspondence, invitations to conferences, evaluation results, and any other notes related to school.  I suggest filing materials by year, with sections for legal documents, correspondence, and other notes.

Why review the paperwork?  You want to start off with your child’s goals and progress clearly in mind.  Assuming you have an individual back-to-school orientation planned, you’ll want to be prepared for a brief Q & A with the teacher/s.  (More on that in a later post.)  You also need to be very clear about what accommodations and modifications are in place.  Evaluate their effectiveness based upon last year’s outcomes.

This is also a good time to set your own goals for the school year.  List what worked well last year and what you’d like to see happen this year.  Set up a school calendar and note important dates: IEP annual review, reevaluation (if it’s due this year), parent-teacher conferences, report cards, etc.  Make notes to ask for a draft of the IEP a few weeks before the meeting.  Remind yourself if you want the OT and SLI involved in your conference with the classroom teacher.

Decide what form of home-school communication would best support your child’s outcome.  As a special educator, I wrote in a journal daily for some students on the autism spectrum.  For others, I sent regular emails or even communicated with a team through a wiki.  It could be that you want feedback on certain activities, such as current topics for social skills groups.  Or perhaps you want to know with which students your child is making connections so you can arrange a playdate.  Did your child have a meltdown?  Was he or she sent to the office?  Problems at recess?  A short checklist can also make it easier for staff to provide feedback; in fact, that’s probably the most effective way to get classroom feedback on a regular basis.  I have created a sample if you are looking for ideas.  daily checklist