Saturday, April 30, 2005

"You like me....You really like me!!"

It hasn’t passed my notice that most of my fellow bloggers on the weekly CARNIVAL OF EDUCATION (at the Education Wonks site) are high school or college level educators. (Nothin’ gets by me!). I often wondered how my perspective as an early primary teacher of emotionally disabled little ones can illuminate the higher-ed discussion so prominent in the edusphere. But my contribution this week to the dilemma faced by the math teacher over at A DIFFERENCE seemed to validate my presence and participation.

Mr. K the math teacher wrote:

“As I watched her from a distance I could tell she was getting frustrated. I went over to her, crouched down so that we could talk at eye level, and asked: "Are you having trouble with that one?" She said yes. I started asking her some leading questions to help her find her way through the problem when I got this creeping feeling that she was getting tense and anxious. I thought she was just frustrated; anxious about not being able to solve the problem. I don't know what it was, but that wasn't it. I asked her if she wanted me to help her with the problem or if she'd would prefer that I just go away. She said she'd prefer if I just went away.

Now I suppose she might have been uncomfortable that I was physically too close to her. Maybe she was intimidated by my crouching down to talk to her at eye level. I don't know. Whatever it was, it wasn't the math. How am I supposed to help a student learn who gets flustered by my standing near them and talking to them? How can I give a stuggling student the one-on-one attention they very much need (and which I can rarely give) without standing next to them? How does a struggling student learn when the simple proximity of their teacher makes them nervous?”

Now, all my ED colleagues know what’s coming next! Check out my response and Mr. K’s appreciative response back HERE.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Me and the staff after a particularly tough day! Posted by Hello

And I consider this neat!! Posted by Hello

"Your desk is so messy, Mrs. Ris!"

In honor of the picture above of my messy desk, I am including this insightful post from Susan Ohanian :

Resisting the Specter of Fierce Neatness
By Susan Ohanian
Posted: 2005-04-28

You will try. And try again. And again. And you will smile. Because it’s so much healthier than crying or throwing up. —Molly Ivins Whenever my principal complained about my mess of a desk with “Cluttered desk, cluttered mind,” I responded in kind, “Empty desk, empty mind.” In our tough city school, this ritual exchange Substituted for, “Have a nice day.”

Appearances notwithstanding, I admire tidiness, and yes, I’m tempted by the Lorelei lure of all those sleek organizational systems on the Web offering me a beautifully organized Future. But life intrudes, and I’m skeptical of form triumphing over substance. Years ago, then-New York Times metro reporter Michael Winerip wrote a fascinating piece about a member of the Association of Professional Organizers, people paid top dollar for organizing other people’s closets. Winerip asked to see the professional organizer’s own closet and reported that for every piece of clothing, this woman keeps a note card of matching accessories: With her green suit, she always wears her green shoes, amber pin, and beige pocketbook. “I never have to think about anything, it’s great,” she said. I used to pull out this clipping when speaking at conferences, insisting that teaching isn't neat and tidy and predictable.

Don't Iknow it! I've come to believe that the best teaching comes from an openess in our environment that encourages "truth-seeking". Parker Palmer reminds me that obstacles to this openess often come "within us; we often create them ourselves to evade the challenge of truth and transformation". When I attend to the neatness and organization of my work space, that becomes my focus. The business of teaching and learning takes a back seat, and student achievement is compromised. So I have come to accept my quirky piles as part of the package. Besides, if I want to feel better, I just head on down to the reading teacher's room and check out her REALLY REALLY BIG MESS!

You are what you read....

Hedgetoad had a cool post about her love of books....I call this dedication to and immersion in books BOOK COMA!

I am following her format, inspired by her idea, and here is my BOOK COMA PROFILE:

1. I'm stuck in Farenheit 451 and I am.....which book? After much thought, I can't pick any other story other than the one I have been writing for the last two years now, on and off. When I finally realized I was having a hard time identifying the right made perfect sense. I am my own book-in-progress!

2. Have I ever had a crush on a fictional character? Yes, Margaret Mitchell's Rhett; not the movie version. Very powerful feelings as an impressionable eighth grader!

3. The last book I bought... The Quest for Meaning (a book recommended through my church)

4.Which 5 books would I take with me to a deserted island?
Sense and Sensibility
The Bible
The Diary of Mattie Spencer
The Poisonwood Bible
Out of Africa

What's YOUR Book Coma Profile?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

In A League Of Her Own

Margaret Spellings is reported to be amazed that others find her intimidating. "I 'm a 47 year old soccer mom," she declared recently.

I've met some soccer moms on the travel soccer circuit who would be proud to call the Education Chief "one of their own". You know the kind of soccer mom I'm talking about:

The one who runs up and down the field yelling instructions, ever mindful of the need to control her child instead of trusting the child's training and instincts.

The soccer mom who resorts to name-calling : she has been heard to yell out across the field at the opposing team "You are UNAMERICAN!!!

When the other parents or coaches hold a different opinion or perspective, this soccer mom uses the cold shoulder technique to make clear her point: play my way, or no way!!

Finally, this is the kind of soccer mom who spouts the virtues of flexibility, but if you accidently bring the WRONG brand of juicebox for the team snack, be prepared to face a backlash!!

Yep, she just might be a soccer mom after all..... the soccer mom from hell!!

Monday, April 25, 2005

"Thinking About Your Own Thinking"

I love reading Erica Jacobs' column in one of our local papers. Jacobs invariably brings me back to my own days as a high school senior, and then she tweaks my teacher-heart with her practical wisdom. It happens every time!

This last week, Erica writes, “Trees are in bloom and students' eyes have become shifty: to the window, to the person sitting to the right, to the Game Boy surreptitiously being played on the left.” Don’t we know it! As a means of recourse, this sly teacher brings up the use of self-evaluation as a tool for hooking distractable, unmotivated students who would rather NOT be doing work.
“But be sure to include a self-evaluation. They will try harder to please one another and
themselves than they ever will to please you.”

I am reminded of a project I undertook in the spring of 2002. It was the end of my two years of masters work, and my team mates and I were frantically putting together a paper to describe the various strategies we implemented in our classrooms. I was analyzing the results of several strategies that had made a difference in my students’ learning, when it became clear that the simple change to include a self-assessment form with each lesson had made a small but noticeable improvement in grades. Using a smiley face picture rubric, my second graders were asked to “think about their own learning” by monitoring their own attitude, effort and achievement after each academic workshop time (3 times a day).

I remember being struck by how self-reflective 7 year olds could be.

All these years later, Darren really stands out in my mind. Struggling to overcome severe ADHD, inconsistent medication schedules, and a violent, abusive home life, D. often spent workshop hanging upside down from his chair with little interest in whatever we were doing. When the self-eval form was introduced to the mix, he often took it upon himself to try to complete the activity. He was his own best critic, and when I pulled myself from the singular role of managing him, he found the resilience to manage himself. More often than not, he tried. Sometimes. Well, at least 50% of the time.

I am left to wonder why I didn’t bring this technique with me into the following new school year. After all, it had worked for several kids. D. moved on to a new teacher, and perhaps the little ones who stayed with me seemed too immature to tackle this kind of self-evaluation technique. But I see now I need to pull my files and explore again the value of this very cool strategy. I have a few second graders who just might be ready to “think about their own learning”.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Dress for Success

This week, the teacher behind the blog The Daily Grind explored the value of dressing in “business attire” on most teaching days. I appreciate Grind’s pseudo experiment that pointed to professional dressing as one way to increase the seriousness with which his students approach his lessons and their learning.

As I read his contribution to the edusphere, I fondly remembered my former male teachers, most of whom wore shirts and ties (no jackets tho). When I became a high school special ed teacher in rural Virginia in 1980, I remember wishing I could get by with the slacks, oxford shirt, and goofy tie my male teaching partner threw on everyday. I had to contend with skirts, hose (good Lord!) heeled shoes, fussy tops, etc. You get the picture.

At my current school, an expansive 1,000 student elementary (that includes our small emotional disabilities k-6 special ed program), teachers generally wear trendy, cute, preppy, and colorful “ensembles”. Most of us are women, and as women do, many dress to impress each other! (Good jeans and fresh looking athletic shoes are absolutely a-okay.) And to my recollection, our male fourth grade teacher wears jeans on and off, but always with a collared shirt. (Better to participate in kickball at recess?) Such care about our look speaks to our professionalism, but also to the realities of teaching younger children.

Those who teach with me in the special ed program for ED kids tend to dress more comfortably. For one thing, we are often called on to restrain children. It’s not unusual for us to slip out of our shoes during such times, or strip a jacket or jewelry off when necessary. If someone took an AFTER snapshot of us, I’m not sure the words “professional” would come to mind!

I’ll bet Daily Grind’s Mr. M wouldn’t hold it against us that we dress as we do. (He seems like a nice guy.) For us and our principal, dressing professionally means being neat, clean, and dressing for demands of the job.

But when an educator’s professional attire is defined by others’ standards based on others’ needs, we teachers of the young or active end up labeled “unprofessional”.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Breathe in, breathe out

Today was one of those days when our special ed program felt more like a hospital unit than the local elementary school. For my colleagues, and anyone else who is interested, here is a recap: (not in any particular order. Gawd, it would take too much out of me to try and remember the actual timeline!)

One first grader arrived almost an hour tardy, ran into the building from his car, his mom drove off without signing him into the office; he zoomed eighty miles an hour through the halls and down to our room, arriving out of breath, no backpack, no lunchbox … and no meds! He growled through a good part of the morning lessons.

One little one was in crisis over 50% of the day…. In and out of the counselor’s office, back to class, then flipping out, screaming and crying, running and kicking. (It’s part of a bipolar cycle, not much we can do about it.)

New kid kicked me twice, HARD, on the upper thigh. Later complimented me on my watch and bracelet combination. He’s got a sense of style, that one.

‘Nuther new kid peed on the walls of the time out booth in anger.

The gen ed principal was helping to calm a frantic kid…then he hocked a big loogie at her and it dripped down her nose. Now she REALLY knows the answer as to why we don’t get more of our students fully prepared for the state standardized tests.

Student entrepreneur caught selling weapon related projectiles to classmates at lunch table.

Doors in our small section of the building were temporarily locked to prevent a belligerent kid from going from room to room to disrupt any semblance of learning going on at that moment.

A university supervisor of student teachers observed her charge and got a great snapshot of this wonderful new teacher in action. “You’ve got your hands full,” the supervisor noted with a straight face.

At days end, most of us stuck around to mull the day’s happenings, to tell and retell as a way of making sense of the sometimes senseless. It took a while to “decompress”, but we are buoyed by the knowledge that tomorrow just has to be better!!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Carnival of Education

Check it out! For our reading pleasure, the Education Wonks have put together another diverse, amazing collection of education related blogs. I was up before 5 am this morning, and they had already posted this thoughtful array of reflection and rants! Gooooood reading!

Why, you ask?

School violence is an issue that jumps out at us menacingly from the headlines (bloglines?); we are left appalled but not terribly shocked. With observation and commentary, check out Edwonk , Number Two Pencil , and Mr. Babylon as they inform the discussion.
At my school we know a little something about dangerous learning environments. Clearly, the threat of violence is inherent in our work. It’s a fact of life. So how to explain that we teachers generally feel safe and protected?

Partly, it’s our mindset. Instead of brushing over issues or conflicts, we approach them head on. We know that’s how to foster change. By welcoming conflict, we are able to see what must be done. My longtime mentor often reminded me, “If we don’t see that behavior, we can’t deal with it.”

It’s also a matter of confidence in our training. Many of us have therapeutic restraint training, and all are instructed in the art of non-threatening posturing that helps de-escalate crises. We are “fully” staffed (which helps tremendously) and have a time-out booth for use if necessary. We are as prepared as we can be. That makes a big difference.

In addition, here is a short list of “DO”s that help me (and my interns) make it through each day:
1. Keep a cool head when students are in crisis.
2. Develop a thick skin so insults and inappropriate talk aren't personally devastating.
3. Think on your feet: be ready for anything that is thrown your way (sometimes literally!).
4. Weed through the advice and suggestions of colleagues to find what works for you.
5. Take the time to unwind and soothe your mind at days' end.
6. Remember the adage "Everyone Makes Mistakes".
7. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes.
8. Remember that the pain a child creates is never more than the pain they are feeling.
9. Keep asking for help.
10. Listen…really listen to your students.

Still, the question lingers. Why? Why teach emotionally disabled kids when the risks are ever present, the stress is off the charts, and the rewards few and far between? The answer for me is a bit philosophical: “When nothing is certain, everything is possible”(English author Margaret Drabble).

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Least of Their Troubles.....

I’ve used this space to complain about the inadequacies and inequities of NCLB and its application in my home state of Virginia. It’s been a kind of release, really, to pound out my ideas about this important and dramatic piece of legislation; after all, my colleagues and I face the consequences of this culture of change every day.

I’ve said this before… It’s not that I’m against accountability. It’s just that for many of our emotionally disabled students, the path to academic achievement isn’t easily illuminated. And yet they are being held to the same standards as general education students….

It’s like being in a game of flashlight tag without a flashlight. (You know flashlight tag, don’t you? Tag, at night, in the dark….)

But today I was reminded that NCLB is, for many of our kids, the least of their troubles:

Daryl spent much of this morning under a desk, crying the rhythmic, wailing pitch of an infant. It had all become too much for him when he was asked to take turns during a PE activity.

Stephenie walked through her day with robotic, painful self-control. The prospect of letting go a little and risking any misbehavior meant sure, swift punishment at home. Her momma’s kind of punishment left no marks but was torture nonetheless. So she held on; kept it together. No mistakes. No fun. Not much learning.

Bobby ran off from his day care provider this morning; we didn’t find this out until later in the day. But by then he had been aggressive and out-of-control for the better part of the morning, spent some time in the isolation booth, and missed most of his reading and writing lessons.

Last week, Cheyenne’s new medication schedule had her wound up so tight she could hardly get through a 20 minute academic lesson without screaming about the other kid’s looking at her crooked. Today, she was back to her original dosage, noticeably calmer, but, no doubt, left to wonder about her unpredictable “bad” behavior.

Finally, the scratched, tender spot on Mrs. W.’s hand was hardly noticeable today. It had healed some since Kyle went at her last week, clawing and pounding at her in an angry frenzy. Most of us teachers have marks like this, some permanent scars, some invisible now, but all still a bit raw.

These are our kids, and no doubt, you know kids like this too. It’s true, in an informal group of educators, someone is likely to lament the recent increase in children with more complicated, challenging behavior and emotional problems. ( I certainly notice a difference in the kids who have come through our doors these last 16 years.)

So,despite the growing numbers and/or increasingly intense problems, I worry that it is they, our most fragile and dependent kids, who will ultimately be left behind. That, and not any test, is what keeps me up at night.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Paper mache turtle and the culture of standardized testing

I read fellow educator/blogger Will R.’s posting on his Weblogged site with a sad heart. His observations about his daughter’s school project ("My mind caught a picture of 18 cloned paper mache turtles drying on the window sill in her classroom") spoke volumes about how teachers (and their students) are restricted by the burgeoning culture of standardized testing.

Will lamented our continuation of an outdated delivery system that stresses test taking over developing a “passion for learning first”. “(W)e continue to do what we’ve done for the last 100years…”

But as recently as 5 years ago, I felt encouraged to take stock of and plan for my students’ unique interests and skills. Now, the state and county have “teacher-proofed” the curriculum to maximize time and focus, with the goal of passing the state tests. No more leeway. Limited creativity.

And less satisfaction for me as a teacher.

I empathized with Will’s daughter’s teacher. Chances are she/he would have loved to differentiate the turtle project, but with so much at stake (AYP, for example), just providing an art response activity was probably a big risk.

Will recognized something I notice about my own teaching now. He sees “islands of success in seas of mediocrity”. My goal is to surreptitiously carve out as many of these creative, transformative islands as possible, even if that means some of my units are less active, more mediocre than I would like.

I end up making choices. And ultimately, isn't that all any of us as teachers do?

Monday, April 11, 2005

Carnival of Education..... Don't Miss It!

An Invitation: All writers and readers of education-related posts are invited to contribute to the ninth edition of The Carnival of Education. Please send your submissions to: owlshome [at] earthlink [dot] net. We should receive your contributions no later than 10:00 PM (Pacific) Tuesday, April 12, 2005. The Carnival midway will open here at the 'Wonks Wednesday morning. Get our easy-to-follow entry guidelines here. View the latest edition of the Carnival there.

Celebrate...then back to work!

Effective teachers know that we have to prepare our instruction, our classroom environment, and our expectations to accommodate the wide range of readiness skills demonstrated by our students. At every level of study, teachers face this often overwhelming schism; Jenny D reminded me of this not too long ago when she described the extensive scaffolded support she gave to college students as they wrote an important research paper. A colleague who teaches first grade grapples everyday with the leeway she is having to give a young, immature, and possible ADHD child who is severely effecting what was their calm, orderly classroom life. As a special ed teacher, I, too struggle with the amount and type of extra help children might need to meet learning objectives – and with the culture of high stakes testing bearing itself down on me and my kids, there’s never been a tougher time to make these choices. We commit to doing Whatever It Takes, but with many special needs kids, on-grade-level standardized testing just doesn’t make any sense.

Last week the Learning Disabilities specialist and I quietly celebrated a small but significant improvement in our student’s writing skills. He’s seven, going on eight, but until a few weeks ago, his writing has been the nonsensical mix of letters common in an early kindergartener. We’ve been working with him for two and a half years, accommodated his developmental delays and addressed his specific learning disabilities. It’s taking a lot of patience, and focused direct instruction, but he wrote a sentence in his journal on Wednesday that could be read by just about anyone. That is, he was writing the sounds and letters, and it made sense!

He was so proud as I read the journal entry aloud.

This is a kid with definite specific learning disabilities. He has been terribly physically abused, the weight of which hammers down on his little soul everyday. His emotional disabilities are real. He stutters when he’s having a bad day, so bad he can hardly get a sound out. He throws himself on the floor and kicks and screams in response to non-preferred tasks and directions. Sometimes he hits his head on the floor or scratches at his legs until they bleed.

He’s not MR, so he is not a candidate for the alternate assessment our state offers to children who won’t pass grade level standardized exams.

So a year from now, the kid will be taking our state tests. Is there any chance he will pass? Even with non-standard accommodations, this child won’t be ready.

He’s just now getting started.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

I couldn't say it better myself!

This terrific posting (April 9) really hit home with me. Jonathan Kallay has hit the nail on the head-- I've been wracking my brain, trying to put to words the value of relationship building, leadership, and artful teaching. Kalley writes:

"Some people, particularly those who describe themselves as being 'critical of progressive education,' seem to have a mistaken view of teaching a a purely technical 'imparting of knowledge.' Not understanding the true challenge of teaching, they see student-centered teaching as examples of 'eduquackery,' a left-wing conspiracy to indoctrinate children with political correctness and siphon funding into nonsensical research, and a dangerous departure from time-honored, 'logically perfect' curricula and direct instruction. They trivialize reform as attempts to make school 'more fun', not understanding that these are the only ways we can think of to overcome students' behavior as a subject people.They don't understand that good teaching, like good leadership, is not about manipulating people into doing things our way. It is about inspiring them to want what we want, and to be willing to sacrifice in order to get it. "

When I read the various (and interesting) hardliners on the internet, I am always "yelling" questions at them, demanding they look just beyond their current point of view to what teaching really is!
Thank you J. Kalley. I will sleep better tonight. Well, wait, now I want to put to words how anti-progressives have helped my teaching. Ahhh, a challenge for another day.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Change is Good Part Deux

I just reread that previous post, and it's clear that when I wrote it, I'd one more happy pill than was necessary.

I am an optimist; that's part of my charm. But really now.

The meeting was good. Looking over the list of original concerns did make a big difference. And the reminder about having a good attitude and showing professionalism wasn't a bad idea.

But the truth is we were all being very careful, very caring in our selection of topic and words. We stayed safe.

The real tests are ahead, when we are forced to address concerns that inspire passion and conflict. For now, treating each other carefully is a sign that we are willing to build a foundation of trust.

Change IS Good

For those of you who have wondered how the transition meeting went.... (hope no one lost sleep over it. HA!!):

Meeting Update: We started the meeting by reviewing a premise we accepted as a group at the beginning of the year: Great teams work together to solve their problems without relying on others to solve them for us. We believe that with honest and caring discussion we can face the challenges and controversies with professionalism... and effectively.

That said, we managed to work through some issues of scheduling and access to our new AP. We started by looking at the list of concerns a transition group put together in 2002-- and found that in every case, our initial concern was taken care of!!! None of the major headaches we predicted had come to fruition!! That knowledge made all the "problems" we've seen this year seem pretty petty. Amazing what perspective can do for you!!

Yes, the transition is going well. There is no denying.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A REALLY Mad Minute.....

But first.....
Carnival of Education
Send in your educational tidbids for the next Carnival of Education, hosted by the Ed Wonks ( ).Submissions may be emailed to owlshome at earthlink dot net. The carnival has become a weekly series of "must read" blogs from many places of the edusphere. You are sure to find something of humor, something of rant, something of value you could use in your own educational life. Even if you don't submit to the Carnival, You really must read it ! You won't be sorry or feel like you have wasted your time !


When my grade level team gets together to plan for instruction, discuss common assessment results and intervention strategies (Professional Learning Community schtuff!), we’ve been known to get off task now and then. One such dalliance last week resulted in a frank, frustration-based discussion: how and why do teaching strategies common to the first grade classroom get blacklisted?

Is it new research that sparks a strategies’ downfall? If so, why don’t teachers get information on it? Is it that our curriculum leaders find new, more exciting ideas? Do strategies simply go out of vogue, seem out-dated, maybe less pc?

We got to this discussion because in meetings with upper level grade teachers, it became clear that our students’ basic math facts skills are weak. The idea about conducting daily Mad Minute timed practice tests came up as one intervention strategy. One of the veteran teachers remembered several years back teachers were told not to time kids; timing caused a stir among parents and therefore, some school leaders. So no more Mad Minute.

We want to try this strategy again. But should we? It’s not in this team’s nature to rock the boat, but we really want to do all we can to change the status quo.

The real question is this: Will the Mad Minute strategy work? I remember that critics say that concentrating on memorizing math facts rather than building math reasoning skills is just bad teaching. But there has to be more. Our county curriculum leaders just haven’t provided the information we teacher’s really need to make a sound decision.

Especially with the new focus on Professional Learning Communities and teachers’ call to “shake things up”, we need full disclosure of how and why we are asked to teach the way we do… and the ways we DON’T.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

What's so good about teacher training programs?

As a new blogger, I’ve made it my mission to read a lot of the educational blogging sites out there. I just can’t help noticing that, among other issues, there are lots of questions in the edusphere about the quality, the very necessity of our country’s ed programs. Vocal, passionate critics see the present and future of our education system mired in disarray because of the inadequacies of embedded, self-serving teacher-training institutions.

I have a hard time hearing these kinds of complaints because our local university ed program appears so responsive. There, the special ed department recognizes the challenges new emotional disabilities teachers face, and has supplemented their program with a year long internship (instead of the paltry student teaching experience so common in these parts). I got involved 7 years ago and have loved mentoring these preservice teachers.

Every year, I get the skinny on the ed program from the students themselves, most of whom move through the program with a eye toward the finish line and little else. It’s the actual classroom experience that they say prepares them for the next year when they have to be in charge of their own classroom.

I give credit to the university for including this internship program. Still, without it, according to my interns, their overall preparation would be fairly inadequate; now that I think about it, the interns over the years have all complained that they are not learning how to actually teach in their classes. It’s the hands-on, in the trenches experience that provides that.

And I teach them what and how I have learned in my county’s staff development courses. Fifteen years ago it was whole language (hmmmm) , but in the last ten years, especially through the county’s special ed department, we are learning more scripted, sequential, phonics based approaches. That’s the approach that works most often with my students.

Tomorrow, my intern and I start another week together. She’s taking more and more responsibility for the behavior and instructional program, and I have to continue to step back. (That’s harder for me than you know.) Still, it’s the university I have to thank for this wonderful collaborative experience. They are definitely not as bad as their critics claim!