* Writing surveys

For twice exceptional (2e), high functioning autism kids (ASD), and kids with attention disorders (such as ADHD), writing can be pure trauma.  The key to providing effective support is understanding where the writing process breaks down.  As I’ve mentioned before, careful assessment is vital.  Your student’s feelings and personal assessment should not be overlooked.  Apart from observation and analysis of student work, I use surveys and graphs to elicit feedback from kids.

The surveys always begin with a focus on positives, such as what kids enjoy and which academic subjects are easier.  I create a unique survey for each student, depending upon my assessment to date and their ability to answer questions.  I may already know the answers to some of the questions, but I am interested in the student’s perspective.   Here’s a sample:Survey

As students answer, they refer to the following chart:

survey 2

This chart helps kids keep the answers in mind, although I may probe further if their answers are unclear.  It also gives them something to look at besides trying to decipher what I am scribbling on my clipboard.  When I’m done, I can safely show them the actual survey, since my handwriting is illegible to all but me!

Next post: Writing Graphs

* Brain-friendly teaching #2

In my last post, I mentioned “neuromyths,” or ideas that we have commonly accepted as true but which have no basis in fact. In Mariale Hardiman’s book, “The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools,” she discusses the myth that classical music can influence learning.  There is simply no truth to to “the Mozart effect.”

brain-targeted teaching modelI do remember when teachers first adopted variations of this myth.  One hopeful variant was that playing classical music would create a soothing environment.  Kids would be less likely to act out if those orchestral chords were playing.  The novelty effect did impact some kids, along with teacher directions that no one was to interrupt the music.  As a resource teacher, I was chastised for breaking the classical music spell as I came to the room and gathered my little squad.  In that classroom, the teacher was more influenced by the music than anyone else.  And to be fair, she stopped playing the music as the novelty wore off.

Despite faulty strategies, the underlying goal of using music was to create an optimal environment for learning.  Current brain research indicates that stress interferes with effective learning, while positive emotions enhance learning.  Hardiman states that “setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day.”  What a marvelous goal!  If we set about to create a positive and joyful classroom, our students’ brains will be much more ready to learn.  If we help students make positive personal connections with information, they are much more likely to derive meaning from learning activities.

Hardiman cites a study in which students were surveyed to determine what emotions they experienced throughout the course of a school day.  Anxiety was the most frequent emotion reported.  Our daily experiences as teachers confirms that kids are stressed at school.  Music may not be the key to stress reduction, but the relatively widespread use of it indicated our awareness of strong connections between emotions and learning.

Some effective strategies I’ve used for setting a positive tone in a class:

  • Before the kids arrive, review your own emotional state.  Acknowledge that you may be tired or frustrated about something, but deliberately set that aside.  You can (hopefully) take care of those issues later, on your own time.  Your first priority must be the kids who are entering your classroom.
  • Take delight in the opportunity you have to impact so many young lives!
  • Greet each child with a sincere smile and/or comment.
  • Adhere to morning routines that create a sense of safety and familiarity.
  • When students arrive, provide a quick way for them to share their current emotional state (such as rating their feelings on a chart).
  • Start with an overview of the day’s schedule or refer to a written (or picture) schedule.
  • Praise kids specifically for their behavior, especially those who are more vulnerable.
  • React calmly to crises, which reassures the class that you are not threatened.

We are privileged to create a fresh start each morning.  Make it a joyous one!

* Follow up to “So this happened today”

I love this post “So this happened today” and the wonderful opportunity it provides for a discussion of school climate.  The teacher shared a thoughtful observation of two kindergartners in distress and is wondering why the kids in her school seem so angry.        I have three hypotheses:

1.  Stress caused by academic overload.  I have seen this occur in the lower grades, especially kindergarten, when a school district increased the academic demands in reading.  For the majority of students, it was no big deal because they were already beginning readers.  Kids who came to school without knowing the alphabet and letter-sound associations basically had one report card period to get on board.  They were doomed from the start.  The reading train was moving forward and they were not even at the station.  Most of those kids felt stupid.  Those strong feelings manifested themselves in aggressive play at recess and disruptive behavior during reading and writing.

2.  Ineffective community building and behavior management.  Teachers play a crucial role in establishing norms for their classes.  Effective teachers are able to build a sense of community, despite variations in student ability levels.  Through modeling, discussion, explicit instruction, and class meetings, teachers can help kids pull together.  The use of cooperative projects, where each member has an important role, is another tool to use.  Making sure that all voices are heard is another.  Cognitive empathy is a powerful tool for engaging students.  Behavior management includes all of the above, plus consistency, structure, fairness, and motivation. Every aspect of behavior management is too broad to go into here, but I would love to ask the teacher who just posted to observe some other classes.  She has a good eye and may be able to point out some unhealthy classroom dynamics, as well as those practices which are effective.

3.  Cultural divides.  Does this school reflect and accept ALL its students?  Nationally, most teachers are white females (like me), which means we have to work harder to step outside our preconceptions and prejudices.  We have to match other cultural values by restructuring class interactions and instruction.  We know “our” way of doing life.  Now, what is their way?  How is it similar and how does it vary?  There are many resources on cultural proficiency available to educators.  One of my favorites is “How to Teach Kids Who Don’t Look Like You” by Bonnie M. Davis.

4.  A combination of the above.  Perhaps the problem is a critical mass issue of the above three hypotheses.  Exploring this through school-wide discussions may be helpful as long as the emphasis is upon finding solutions, not finger pointing.  Encouraging parental input (especially related to “cultural divide”), providing additional intervention in reading, and teachers spending more time observing one another could be effective.

Do you have any other hypotheses?  What would you suggest?

* Start the day off right

Right now there’s a a lot of advice out there about how to start off the school year.  In fact, I have offered some.  But it’s important to remember that each day is a new start.  It’s worth learning how to do that.

The best way to start the day off right is to end the previous day right.  If it was a generally terrific day, spend time talking about what went well.  If it was a generally stinky day, spend time talking about what went well.  And then pull out your handy one-page-a-day calendar and rip that stinky day into little shreds.  I’ve seen relief and joy in kids’ eyes as their terrible, horrible day is torn to bits and tossed in the trash.  It’s gone.  No hard feelings.  No record of wrongs.  No punishment waiting in the wings.  Note that I said “their terrible, horrible day.”  Sure, it may have been mine as well, but it’s mostly theirs.  They came to school, as I did, with the best of intentions.  No kid walks into school saying, “I’m going to destroy the classroom today!”  No teacher walks in and says, “I’m going to make this day miserable for every child!”  So, reward good intentions and scrap the day.  Literally.  A caveat:  My primary response to a hard day is to analyze what I did and how I reacted to the kids.  I cannot control how they reacted, but I can control my own reactions.

So you are starting a new day.  You know that your kids may have endured a yucky bus ride or a fight at home or simply feel out of sorts.  They may come in the room crying.  Or perhaps they are ready to explode like a volcano, hot magma at the top.  How do you greet these kids?  It’s certainly easier once you know them, because you can read their cues more effectively.  Regardless, I try to remember that this class is about their needs, not mine.  I may want to look like a perfect teacher (read: have a perfect day), but teaching is messy.  Kids (and teachers) are messy.  The classroom should be a haven, a place where kids get what they need.  There’s no one right way to handle a kid starting off in distress.  Here are some options: Give them space.  Follow the classroom routine. Let them chill in their cooling-off space.  Hand them a favorite book.  Start them on a favorite activity.  Ask if they want to talk.  Let them draw or use other materials to express themselves.  I didn’t include “smile” because you are hurting for them and with them.  This wasn’t what either of you wanted.  A gentle and caring expression works well.

For kids who typically have a bumpy start to their day, you must get at the root of the problem to improve their first moments at school.  Is it some interaction with others?  Anxiety about school or transitions?  Testing to see how you will respond?  Hard-wiring?  Hating school?  Each of these possibilities will need to be handled differently.  Bottom line: It’s worth making the effort to start off each day right.

* Rubrics #1

If you are not routinely using rubrics across subject areas, you are missing an invaluable teaching tool.  If you have never created your own rubric, you are missing even more!  Rubrics are an effective tool for understanding what you want students to learn as well as how you will know if they have learned it.  Rubrics can serve as a graphic overview for students during the learning process and support increased student analysis of their own learning.  I will provide an outline of rubrics in this post, then detail their use in social skills development in another post.

Let’s assume you have used commercially prepared rubrics so you understand that a rubric is a matrix of features (categories), measured by a sequential rating scale of performance.  I enjoy using Rubistar for rubric creation (check here for their definition of rubrics) but rubrics can easily be made offline as well.  If you are a novice, Rubistar will guide you through the creation process through both “tours” and prompts.

A rubric for assessing students’ written assignments is a good place to start if you have not ever created your own.  The age and developmental level of your students will guide the wording of the features or categories you are assessing as well as the measure of their success.   For younger students, you could even pair simple pictures with the wording.   Here’s a sample I just created to illustrate some key points:

beginning writing rubric 2

This rubric focuses on four features or categories of the student’s writing: number of sentences, clarity of sentences, and two areas of writing conventions.  A sample picture has been added for non-readers.  The rating scale is indicated by stars at the top.  For the category “I wrote 3 sentences,” you could indicate that “I wrote 1 sentence” is equivalent to one star,” “I wrote 2 sentences” equals two stars, and so on.  Stars are a simple performance indicator for younger kids.  Older students could use a numbered performance evaluation, with more performance indicators (such as 1 through 4) or words (Beginning/Proficient. etc.)  as well as more (and increasingly complex) categories.

You can see the link to what you want students to learn right there in the rubric.  If your goal is three understandable sentences using basic writing conventions, this is your rubric.  If your goal is three sentences with transition words, your rubric would look quite different.

You will need to teach students how to use a rubric effectively.  If the rubric is used solely for assessment, demonstrate its use with various writing samples.  If you are using the rubric to guide student instruction, you could model its function as a measure of ongoing progress.  Students could check or highlight boxes to track their progress and as they edit their work.  During a writer’s conference with the teacher, even young students can share their personal evaluation of their writing to date.

Once students become proficient in using rubrics, they can become involved in the creation of rubrics individually or as a class.  You could elicit more personalized and student-driven writing analysis by adding an empty category box at the bottom of a rubric;  each writer could indicate what other category they want to include and evaluate (such as illustrations or questions).

Stay tuned for the invaluable use of rubrics to support the development of social skills.

* Beginning of the year blues?

I know it is politically incorrect to even think that a teacher could be worn out after only one week of school, much less suggest that some teachers are already looking a little crisp around the edges.  One year, I taped a funny comic (counting down to the end of the year) just a day or two after the beginning of school.  The principal whipped that little paper down immediately and told me it was NOT funny at all.  She said it was demoralizing.  Oh well.  Humor is in the eye of the beholder.

But on a totally serious note, why are some of my teacher friends already fatigued?

1.  Some of it is teacher jet lag.  After eight weeks of getting adequate sleep and nourishment, not to mention regular toileting, the physical body takes some time to adjust to constant moving, speaking, listening, directing, organizing, monitoring, and prevailing.  Especially on 6 hours of sleep a night.

2.  Teachers start looking too far ahead.  It’s a mistake to imagine yourself in every day of the school year.  Sure, you set goals and objectives.  Sure, you write stuff in your planner from August to June.  But don’t let your imagination drag you through each day of end of grade testing.  Or how you will complete your portfolio of accomplishments.  Take it one day at a time emotionally.

3.  The class has a lot of rough spots.   Get some help.   Make sure you are videotaping so you can spot those weaknesses.  Allow yourself time to get on your feet.  Be patient with yourself and the kids.

4.  Focusing on too many goals at one time is a sure way to overload your circuits.  This is true for both you and the kiddos.  Be realistic.  Prioritize.  Focus your efforts on a manageable set of goals, whether it’s classroom behavior or establishing center routines.

5.  Admit that teaching is hard work.  It’s a huge responsibility but with amazing rewards.  Have some R & R this weekend and you’ll be all set for Monday!

* Moderate functioning kid with PDD #2

It took a team to transform Edward’s life.  Teamwork is usually the most crucial strategy for working with difficult kids.  As I noted in my previous post, I have not always “played well with others.”   In Edward’s case, our combined efforts had an amazing outcome.

I first observed Edward when he was in a preschool setting.  He had a diagnosis of autism.  I saw him running on the playground, flapping his hands, seemingly unaware of his classmates, and desperate to get on the swing.  I noticed that he continued circling around until the swing was available, then made a beeline for it and spent the duration of outdoor play enjoying the swing.  Edward’s mom was trying to decide between a self-contained classroom and mainstreaming into a regular kindergarten.  Edward was considered a fairly compliant kid, although he did have occasional tantrums, and his pre-academic skills were strong. I recommended mainstreaming and she agreed to give it a try.

Edward fit into kindergarten fairly well.  He did not seem to process verbal directions but followed the movement and flow of his classmates.  If everyone was on the carpet, he would be there too, on the edges.  He was able to speak but didn’t say anything without prompting.  Edward received services from a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, worked with me on social skills, and had a special education assistant assigned to his room.  And his classroom teacher was a jewel.  When I suggested visual cues, she had the charts out.  When I asked for preferential seating, he had his own spot at the front of the group.  Edward’s mom and I communicated through a daily notebook so she could follow up on school routines and vocabulary.  His mom always included a personal note in Edward’s lunchbox, which gave us the idea of using an index card to prompt communication with a peer at lunch.

Our biggest problem at this point was getting Edward to make eye contact with anyone.  We practiced with puppets and although he enjoyed it immensely, there was no carryover to real life.  His mother suggested that Edward learned best by watching TV, so I made some videotapes for him to watch at home.  His favorite puppet instructed Edward in eye contact and it worked!  After additional practice in social skills with kids and puppets, along with support from the assistant, Edward entered the world of social communication.  He was rigidly rule-oriented so the speech therapist and I taught him rules for conversations.  He learned to initiate eye contact, ask a question, and answer a question. Wow!

Before he entered kindergarten, first, and second grade, I spoke to each class about Edward’s special strengths, including his phenomenal memory for areas of interest.  Then I asked the kids to help support him in making friends, something he really wanted but found challenging.  The kids were always delighted to play a role in Edward’s success at school.  He had no shortage of invitations to birthday parties, as well.  I have used this strategy for a number of special needs students, in coordination with their parents.   The special needs kid is always conveniently out of the room during this interaction, by the way.

Edward made steady progress in most areas of school.  I wrote many social stories for him, including how to deal with his strong preferences for colors when they weren’t available or how to cope with not winning a game (he became quite competitive as he matured).  The biggest obstacle we faced was Edward’s inability to listen to the teacher during any large group activity.  He could listen in a small group or 1-on-1, but seemed almost deaf in a large group.  I tried social stories, role-playing, and videotaping.  No change.  By the end of first grade, I had borrowed a set of headphones from a hearing specialist and equipped the teacher with a microphone.  These rather old-fashioned tech tools enabled Edward to hear the teacher’s voice above the other sounds in the room.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to make a difference.  (And the teacher had the embarrassing experience of being “on” when she used the bathroom!)  Edward still had no idea what the teacher was saying.  I sat next to him, across from him, flashed cue cards telling him to listen- nothing helped.  His inability to process “teacher talk” was becoming a burden for his team, especially his mom.  He had to be retaught every topic and skill that was introduced in a whole class setting.

When Edward started second grade, he was still not able to process information in a large group.  I was concerned that he would look odd wearing headphones, so I borrowed ear buds instead.  Perhaps it was developmental growth or maybe the ear buds, but something finally clicked for Edward.  After a month or so, he could LISTEN!  Woohoo!

Edward continued to flourish in the regular classroom setting, eventually with no special ed assistant.  His mom was an amazing advocate for his needs in middle and high school.   Edward has just graduated from college.

* High functioning kids on the autism spectrum #1

Meet Charles.  He is a kindergarten student who moved here from another state with a preschool diagnosis and special education label of autism.  Times have changed, so if he arrived today, he might be labeled as having a pervasive developmental disorder.  Anyway, Charles was a challenge to his excellent teacher.  He ran up the slide while everyone else went down.  Literally and figuratively.  He had great academic skills but his social interactions were a disaster.  If he had been the only kid at any classroom center, things would have gone well.  Same for recess.  Charles was oblivious to social norms if they interfered with his personal goals.  If he saw something he wanted, he would take it.  He bit other kids if they objected to his claim of ownership.  As the year progressed and our social skills work made a dent, he dropped the physical contact and substituted trickery and threats to his repertoire.

Some people think that all kids with his disability don’t really care about making friends, but that isn’t true.  Charles wanted friends quite badly, no matter how often he failed.  He also wanted to please his teachers, no matter how often he failed.  My task, over the next 5 years, was to help Charles function successfully in school.  But school was a foreign land for Charles, with its own language and customs.

My first step was to develop a positive relationship with Charles.  You have a huge advantage with any difficult kid if this part comes naturally.  I found it easy to connect and empathize with this super smart kid and his deeply self-centered world  view.   It’s not that he was selfish; Charles simply saw everything through his lens and none other.  Charles was assigned to social skills groups for life.  I also set up a contract to reward pro-social behavior.  Charles’ parents were a great support for that effort, because I couldn’t find anything that Charles really wanted to earn at school.

As Charles began to decipher the social code, he continued to work it to his advantage.  Initially, he had to learn how to respond when other kids “pushed his buttons,” but after a while, Charles became masterful at getting others riled up.  When he wasn’t included in activities, he retaliated by teasing kids.   He translated any kind of attention into being cool, a first step towards friendship.  And then he discovered that most powerful of all weapons: pushing teachers’ buttons.  I worked tirelessly to keep up with his adaptations on the theme of being noticed and liked.  Our role plays shifted to the creation of his own plays; he became a director and had the opportunity to orchestrate others (although the kids took turns being director).  Our contracts shifted to appropriate interactions with teachers.  I was his safe haven in school, a part of his plan to cool off before rejoining the group.  In an effort to salvage his shrinking self-confidence (masked by sarcasm), I made him a tutor for a couple of my groups with younger students.  Charles absolutely flourished in that role.  It was a perfect strategy for him.  The helpful, tender side of this difficult kid could blossom as he listened to students read, became our tech specialist, and touched the hearts of little kids who needed a big buddy.  A slightly awkward big buddy.

Uh-oh, a personal/professional issue:  As I mentioned, Charles had become an expert at making annoying and sarcastic comments to his teachers.  There were some teachers who could help him save face, smile at his humor, and see the heart of a child who wanted to be accepted.  But there were others who took it as a personal challenge, a coup d’etat in their kingdom.  My bias is evident, I know.  I loved that kid and wanted everyone to see his humor, his shy smile, his gentleness.  I failed to maintain an effective working relationship with one of Charles’ teachers.  In my defense, I thought her sarcastic comments were hilarious, too.  As she recounted her interactions with Charles, I thought she was being funny.  In fact, she was livid.  Perhaps I worked so well with Charles because I share some of his idiosyncrasies and difficulties reading social cues.  It was not my finest professional moment, although I did work hard to repair our working relationship.  Ultimately, I concluded that I hadn’t been empathetic enough towards that teacher.  And I was reminded that everyone does not like me.  (Shocking, I know.)

Charles is a successful college student today, despite his sometimes disastrous navigation through elementary and middle school terrain.