Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Waiting Game

The process of referring a child to contract services can be grueling. It's not the paperwork, although there is a lot of it. It's not the additional testing that's often needed.

It's the waiting.

Maintaining this boy in our setting, day to day, minute to minute, is the challenge. The intensive interventions we have put into place until a new placement is approved ARE working-- none of the other students have been hurt since we moved into DEFCON 1. That's my nickname for the hellish, stranglehold of a plan that keeps the kid in my class but separated at all times from other children. We must be hyper-alert, always at the ready, with no room for mistakes.

For God's sake, don't let down your guard. And by the way, keep teaching, and do it well.

The pressure is poisoning my year.

Today, I got a little sip of antidote. The woman from contract services came by to observe my little guy, and now the process is being fast-tracked. Still, mid January is the likely date of departure.

Like I said, it's the waiting and maintaining that is killing me. Imagine how the kid feels.

Friday, November 17, 2006


So I'm ready to explore (alittle) the source and path of my exhaustion.

Only because I'm feeling some relief.

Lately we've been unable to keep our students safe from the seemingly random, often vicious attacks perpetrated by one other of my lil darlings. No new strategy, firm consequence, altered behavior plan, or intervention had any impact on this child's aggressive outbursts. We are already a very restrictive program; it's not like he belongs somewhere else. Or does he?

The last straw came when the other children began to scatter like bugs when the angry child began to flinch. Very post traumatic stress like. So I gave it up. I can't do anything more for this child given our staffing ratio, etc. It feels weird to say we've done all we can, especially in the kind of high intensity job we're in.
You have an explosive kid? Send him our way. So annoying you want to pull out your hair? We can manage. We are in the business of finding some success where success seems unattainable.

But not this child.

So we're preparing a packet for referral to contract services. And as a temporary fix, I've developed classroom behavior plan (too intensive to maintain over time)that completely separates the guy from the rest of the kids. No playtime with others. No sitting with others at the work table. No group activities of any kind. By moving his desk to a corner behind my desk, we can provide a physical barrier of sorts. I can't 100% guarantee that the other kids will be safe, but I am doing all I can do, and therein lies my source of relief.

Today was day one, and happily, it was successful. No one was hurt, the class moved nicely through the day, and did a fair amount of learning. The angry kid was accepting, even alittle relieved I think. He, too, did a bit of learning, a nice side benefit.

But like my boss says, the first day of a plan usually works.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I'm a slacker.....

So tired.

Can't get motivated to keep this up.

Is it the way the kids drain the life out of me each day? Or the added stress of having an intern? In any case, my beloved blog is no longer a priority for me, and that makes me a little sad.

What can I report? My class is always hopping, the issues we're facing each day are complicated, entrenched, maddening.

Abuse issues, real psychiatric disorders,neurological problems, cataclysmically poor parenting, baffling learning problems.... we're facing it all.

I'll need to end on a good note. The kids couldn't be cuter, and they often try, try, try with all their heart to do well and "be good".

Sometimes, that's enough to get me through the day.

Monday, October 09, 2006

MEETING our needs.....

Here are some things that don't happen everyday:

Our adminstrators CANCELLED A MEETING because it wasn't necessary...
made optional a series of staff developments after paying attention to the evaluations filled out at the first one!

They are smart. We really are meeting-ed out.

Last week I showed up to a mentor-mentee meeting about 15 minutes late, and everyone had gone by then. The empathetic, on-the-ball lead mentor had assessed the situation, acknowledged that what everyone really needed in order to do a good job was TIME. You know, time NOT spent in a meeting.

I, of course, was late because I WAS IN ANOTHER MEETING!!!

My AP and I were talking about ways to improve our school based child assessment team process, and when we looked to the calendar to schedule a meeting with the various members, it hit us again. We just don't have time not already scheduled by other committees and teams.

There is a very good reason for this. That will be the subject of my next installment. In the meantime, I'm off to create the agenda for our next ED team meeting!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Welcome kid # 6!!

On the occasion of my new kid’s very first day, we organized some changes in our classroom routines (in order to meet his special needs). He’s a very young kinder, a child who found nothing but frustration in the general ed setting… and with his identified disabilities, how could he not? There were 19 kids, lots of fun activities--- translate to stimulation---, general ed routines and behavior program (ie, not super structured) . It just wasn’t appropriate for him.

Even within our specialized setting, our routines and expectations had to be tweaked. For example, reduced work requirements are a must for now. He doesn’t go to the cafeteria or loud assesmblies; we only play outside in the fenced in areas because of his tendency to “elope”. We hold tight to his hand in the hall, and change our walking route.

He resisted doing paper and pencil work, but later in the day wrote his name with great concentration. So this morning, at journal writing,when he began to balk, I said today’s job was to just write his name neatly. He seemed to feel comfortable with this direction, and took his time crafting it nicely on the lines. He left his work area feeling successful—as evidenced by his demeanor, relaxed voice, and kind words to classmate.

Tomorrow, we’ll complete his journal with a nod to name writing and then perhaps using the tracing cards to do something more. A step at a time, and no more, will be key helping him succeed. By late fall, I’m hoping he’ll be at a place where he’ll approach the empty page of his journal without trepidation! 

I can dream, can’t I?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Let's take a moment to reflect..... please.....

The idea of TEACHER REFLECTION gets a bad rap on some of my daily blog reads. Some folks complain that teaching preservice teachers to REFLECT is just fluff. They make fun of it. Call it a waste of time. It's identified as something ed professors do OTHER than teach teachers to teach.

Well, it just so happens that lately I've been working hard with my intern on how we teachers ask ourselves questions to assess and change our lessons. With the ultimate goal in mind -- improved student achievement-- good teachers think through the days' events, consider the various layers of learning that resulted from the implementation of research based instructional techniques (of course), figure out what we did well, and most importantly, what we must do to improve our teaching. You know, so student achievement is improved.

What's so fluffy about that?

UPDATE: Check out this article about reflection in the NY Times....

If journalling is just a method for recording the cute stories or heart wrenching challenges of the day, then, yes, I guess you could call that fluff... ie instructionally useless.

But when our thinking promotes/records a process of considering why and how and when and what next... all with the express goal of getting kids' to better understand the material, that's instructionally useful.

In our class of emotionally disabled kindergartners, first, and second graders, teaching kids to work more independently is a big deal. Little Brenda has been balking big time during her math lessons, withdrawing and whining unless she gets undivided one-on-one attention, missing fairly easy concepts (maybe on purpose?) and generally causing a scene. And yet, she comes in each morning, sits at her desk and completes 5 or 6 of the same kind of math problems-- without a fuss and with a high accuracy rate.

Ahh, the perfect chance to reflect.....

I asked my intern... What does Brenda's helplessness at math workshop “look like”? What is it about the two different learning settings (morning seat work vs. a workshop setting with another kid) that is different? How are they the same? What are the payoffs in each situation? And the consequences for non-compliance? Might scheduling be a part of the equation? Any other questions you might ask yourself to get a better handle on the situation?

So ye who poo-poo reflection, I say
don't let the soft-fluffy feeling of the word reflect fool you. Reflection, at it's best, is the hard, unvarnished, critical look at how we actually teach kids will learn.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


It's true I don't loose much sleep these days because of school-related worries. But that hasn't always been the case.... When I started this job in 1989, I dreamt about the kids and their sad stories all night long. Like a heavy weight on my heart, I dragged the burden of their lives with me, asleep and awake.

Experience over time lessens the stress, and I have had to learn to meditate to settle myself. For me, prayer is part of the solution,too. Here is a portion of a prayer/poem I found at this wonderful site:

It is night after a long day.

What has been done has been done;

what has not been done has not been done;

let it be.

My intern is feeling the stress (how could she not?) I pray she soon finds the peace of "let it be".

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Letter to My Intern on the Completion of Day 1, 2006-07

"You marveled today about how much there is to learn. You are right, ours is a sometimes wild, often overwhelming environment where it can be said that learning more about everything is the name of the game!!

This is only day 1, but you couldn't help but notice how delayed in other areas our students are. Many ED kids have such delays. Poor social skills lead to poor learning….. and learning challenges often lead to poor social skills. It sometimes seems like a chicken or egg proposition. Neurological problems can spark both kinds of deficits, as can abuse issues…. It seems endless. Instead, I try to see the child as a whole, identify strengths and weaknesses, and move toward helping them grow in all areas. It’s a challenge, as you got a glimpse of today.

Everyday you will be faced with new situations that will surprise you. You’ll get fast on your feet, become more confident in your own decision making, and feel better about predicting behavior. For example, with kids who tend to overreact and become violent, we know we must be ready to intervene in the blink of an eye. Better yet, we'll learn their triggers and be able to act proactively to avoid some of the acting out. You’ll be learning words to use to diffuse situations (“You wish you could have your turn now?” or “ Are you worried you’ll miss out on a turn?”). You learned the value of stepping in and separating kids today.... trial by fire as they say. Your lessons will come, some dramatically like today, and thankfully, others will come more subtlety.

During our next planning hour, you can begin to read the kids’ social histories; many of your "why" questions will begin to be answered. You’re right, the behavior we deal with comes from somewhere….. and you’ll be interested/amazed/appalled to read the sad stories of loss and hurt many of our kids have endured.

From my perspective as your mentor, you did very well today. You were calm, attentive to the children's needs, focused on doing your best... AND the kids took to you. That is a very, very good sign.
It is only day one. The first step is often the most frightening!!!!!"

Dee, I'll be there every step along the way.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Night Before.....

It's been awhile since I planned for tomorrow, THE FIRST DAY, so tonight I rewrote the plans in full, just like I was cramming for a test. It feels good to get into them; I made the choice to forget all about school throughout the weekend. And that's exactly what I did. No thoughts of morning arrival routines, early assessment activities, playground rules and singing new songs. Instead, college football, dinners out, visits with my daughter the HOKIE, and pony-sized Coronas took center stage.

More tomorrow.... until then, I wish all of you who are also beginning the new year the best of starts. To those of you who have been back for a while now, belated best wishes. Our kids deserve nothing less than the best, eh?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The sunny side of life....

Some bright spots in the day:

The tile workers worked very very efficiently and got done ahead of schedule. And they were cute!

One of the workers (an outside contractor) gave us some of the left over material for use in another room, and even came in to help install it properly. Such kindness.

I was able to use my sometimes too assertive personality for good rather than evil today! When one of my colleagues felt overwhelmed by the placement of a highly disabled child in her general education class, I helped get her what she needed to feel settled. It was a good moment, but also very revealing. No wonder gen ed teachers get frantic when they face the prospect of having complicated spec ed kids in their class.

Our team of ED teachers are teasing, joking, razzing each other rather freely. It's a good sign.

One out of my 5 students came for Open House. I was worried none would show.

Truly, this year is starting with a happy, positive vibe. I'll continue to appreciate any bright spot in my day, and hold on for an even better tomorrow. Even though, as Rosanne Rosannadanna says "It's always something!", I plan to look on the bright side of anything that comes my way.

At least for now.

We'll see how I feel come late September.....

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I'm a little tired right now.....

Imagine this if you will. You have moved the heavy furniture in your classroom with great care. You sorted and reorganized boxed and baskets full of books, manipulatives, art supplies, and files. You plugged in lamps from home, rolled out the area rug, and set up your desk and work spaces. The tapes and books in the listening center are organized, and the toys are ready and waiting.

Tomorrow is Open House. Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, is Day1 of the new school year.

Then comes word that the CARPET REMOVAL WORKERS arrive tonight, and the TILE WORKERS come tomorrow morning. Everything that sits on and in anything that sits on the floor must be moved. By you. Just you.

Get busy.

That was my day.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Posters are strewn across the floor. I'm wondering which ones to use this year. Supplies have been sorted; new classroom library books are organized. We've proudly displayed a few of the best. Please let them attract and "speak to" my students; for a few of my kids, this will be a critical year for their reading development and I need all the help I can get.

I've reviewed the first parts of the internship guide with my new intern, setting the stage for a year of challenges and unsurpassed opportunities for growth. She's enthusiastically helped me trim newly laminated classroom decor and organized the toys and puzzles. She's unafraid of asking questions..... I love that. There are no stupid questions. I mean it, I really do.

I practice my presentation to the staff scheduled for Monday, a 10 minute intro of new aspects of our school-wide positive behavior plan. My job is to outline some new, required activities tied to teaching the school's code of conduct. The principal will stand to the left of me, giving weight to the message, a visual reminder to the staff that sometimes we just have to do what is asked of us. Thank goodness I believe in the message, because the good cop/ bad cop routine is a little weird.

Finally, I embrace my weekend, this the last before the school year actually starts. Sleep in til 9am. Eat breakfast in the warm morning sun on the deck. Read for pleasure. Oh, and finish the clean up of our flooded basement.

Breathe. Before it gets too nuts.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Summer reflections continued.......

The wave slowly rolls over me, the methaphorical tide of excitement and focus that comes with the end of every summer break. At this point, the wave is piddly, just touching my toes, a refreshing tickle, but the promise is there. Soon I'll be completely washed in the joyous frenzy of preparation and planning!

How much will my kids have learned this summer or lost over time? Will they have matured JUST A LITTLE, enough to make a difference in their (our) day? How will the new additions (I expect 2) change our classroom community?

And please Lord, let them all have been protected and safe.

I welcome August with open arms, and expect to live each of the last summer days to the fullest. I'll go to the beach one more time, use a spa gift certificate, and say goodbye to my youngest child as she sets off for college.

So much left to do. So much to look forward to. So much to be grateful for.

Friday, July 21, 2006

WAtch out! I'm in teacher-mode!!!

It's looking like I will get an intern this year!! YEEHA! After a year "off", (the candidate pool was very limited last year), I am so psyched to get into the swing of the mentoring process!! I liked my IA last year, she was talented and accomplished, but my real satisfaction is teaching pre-service teachers.

Instantly, my outlook about the new year is changed. Where there was uncertaintly, I am now blessed with the joyous anticipation! I'm feeling very lucky.

More later as I get my internship guidebook/information together!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Parent-School Connections... tested....

I was wrestling with the problem of an irate parent. She had been receptive, in the school's corner for the 6 weeks since her son started, responding positively to calls and notes home, getting him to school on time, etc. When the principal had to call about her sweetie-throwing rocks at the windows of the trailer units out back of the school, she shape-shifted to a venom spewing supervillian, projecting her intense disatisfaction through the phone.

"Don't you be calling me at work, Moth** F***er!! I can't help what shit my boy does there at school. What you think I can do about it, anyway? He don't listen to me, and now he don't listen to YOU!"

I'd been standing at my boss's desk, at the ready in case the mother had any specific questions I could answer. I was glad from the start that she wanted to call the parent herself, but as I heard the yelling coming across the lines, I was doubly grateful. There are few things less troublesome than a screaming, yelling parent.

In years past, I was so surprised by the tantruming adult, I didnt' get a quick handle on many of the outbursts I faced. It took me three times to learn to quietly hang up the phone on a parent who was threatening to hurt me or cursing voraciously. Believe it or not, I had thought hanging up wasn't even an option.... like I was obligated to listen attentively to the threats/name calling because, after all, we are trying to build the parent-school partnership.

This said, strengthening the home-school connection is one of my goals next year. I've already started dreaming about school again, so I guess summer is farther along than I let myself believe!!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Maine memories.....

Just back from a wonderful week "Down East".... My husband has been trying to get me to go anywhere but the southern beaches for the last 20 years. I've resisted, the southern belle that I am, but am now sorry I was so stubborn. We enjoyed Boston, but the best part was the Down East section of gorgeous Maine!! (See accompanying photos.)

God's country.
Heaven on earth.

And the folks were so very, well, nice. I have been a bigot all my life, thinking southerners were the most hospitable. I have learned, so late in life, that I have been wrong. Maine. Maine. Maine. It's my new mantra, my daily chant into relaxation and rejeuvenation. Maine. And we have already made our reservations for next year.

While I admit we traveled in a relatively small geographic area, I kept wondering as I looked around: Where were all the poorly behaved kids? No screaming toddlers, no militant middle schoolers? Just happy, active children. Everywhere I looked. Although I will confess I wish their parents had been stricter with them about running while in a restaurant, I was amazed at the fun I had "baby gazing". Even the newborns were well-behaved. And when they weren't, who cared anyway? They were just so damn cute. Case in point:

While in LL Bean, I met a young mother feeding one of her twin infants. The other was fussing in his stroller and I asked this lovely, calm woman if I could try and entertain him. She kindly agreed, and I began to talk silly to Keegan in hopes of settling him down. He was just hungry, and very little of my cajoling worked. The mother's three year old little girl Molly ran up to check me out, and together we tried to hush the pathetic, "starving" tot. As the feeding twin finished off his bottle, and the mother began to switch arms to put him away in the stroller, I got a first look at her prosthetic right arm. With a smoothness that surprised me, she made the switcheroo, began to feed little Keegan, the Molly and I got to play with Braedon.

She was a teacher, middle school Math, and so was her husband. She was just waiting for her teenage cousin to finish shopping so she could get her brood back home ASAP. Throughout this torture of shopping-with-babies, she never seemed to get flustered. Not once. I remember tripping up ALL THE TIME when my babies were small, always alittled frazzled.

She was magnificent.

On the way back to our "resort home", I counted my meeting Molly and Keegan and Braedon's mother as one of the joys of our vacation.

That, and the discount prices at LL Bean.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Summer reading...

At the library on Monday, I came across a book for parents titled THE UPS AND DOWNS OF RAISING A BIPOLAR CHILD. As a teacher of several children with mood disorders, I have great interest in the latest research and support mechanisms.Well, this book was short on new information, but chock full of comforting, supportive quips and quotes. Sprinkled throughout the chapters, moms and dads of bipolar children make relevant comments that "bring home" the otherwise practical/technical information.

How diagnosis is usually a long time coming...
The reasons to consider hospitalization....
How to talk to others about your child's illness....
The value of small group, individualized learning environments...

Bingo. That's us.

I try to imagine the pain of being so out of control, of wanting desperately to fit in, and fearing the consequences of acting out so overtly. Our little Sadie comes at me like a whirling dirvish, unable to stop herself at that scary moment in time, and I know she yearns to be calm, settled, "normal".

What's the hardest thing about teaching kids with mood disorders? At this point, it's balancing kids' academic needs in this age of testing and accountability against the need to reduce kids' stress and slow the world down a bit so agitation is minimized.

Well, it's not a tough decision on a day to day basis. I KNOW what schedule to pick when my children show acute signs of irritability and volatility.

The tests be damned, this day, this hour, for now. We'll get back on the ESSENTIAL KNOWLEDGE path as soon as we can.

I don't "raise" a bipolar child, but I do love me one or two each year. And I am loving taking a break this summer from the heartbreaking ups and downs of doing so. My prayers go out to the families who don't have this luxury.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Summer beckons....

It's amazing how a few days of relative relaxation can foster a more creative mind. When I am as stressed and pressured as I have been since May, all of my capacity for inspiration dwindles. I move in a regulated, step-by-step pattern, focused on getting what needs to get done done. The trouble is, I hate my life when I'm in this kind of rut, and I am so much less a teacher than I want/need to be.

The good news is that I was able to channel some of the last energy I had toward making my daughter's graduation experience wonderful. She was tickled pink, very grateful, and that was sure nice to see.

In my younger years, I suspect I was more able to keep both school and home life moving with creativity and positive vibes. Maybe I was just more physically able to sustain the energy needed. Perhaps I am just fooling myself: it's ALWAYS hard to bring delight and excellence to every aspect of one's life.

In any case,

I am mulling some ideas for classroom research topics for next year. I am leaning toward doing something to boost reading achievement, and will soon begin earnestly exploring research-supported ideas. Any suggestions?

That's enough positive vibe and delight for one day.... I'm off to the pool.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Grateful that it's over.... for now.....

Do I end the year on a scholarly note and comment on the newest research to improve my teaching practice?

Does it make more sense to search the edu-news sites for wild stories worthy of my scathing analysis and caustic humor?

I could report on the way my kids handled the end of the year transition, and how my heart shuddered a bit as I said goodbye.

Instead, I think I will take a minute and express my thanks to my ED team colleagues who stood strong against the winds of change, always focused on what is right for kids. When resistance was called for, we rallied. When polite acceptance made sense, we did so. And when new opportunities beckoned, we weighed the benefits against the risk factors, and again, chose with an open heart.

I am grateful for my students who remind me that the inner spirit is at once vulnerable AND indominable.

I am grateful for my AP who seemed to "get me", even when I didn't "get" myself.

I'm grateful too, for my grade level team. They embraced me, laughed with and at me, and valued my work. Their expertise, committment to kids and to each other is inspiring.

Finally, I am grateful for the love and support shown by my family. They understood my need for a nap each day, even if that meant dinner was alittle late. They laughed and worried with me about my kids, and bragged about me to their friends.

They loved me even when I acted unlovable. Moodiness is a side effect of stress, and they let me off the hook for grumpy behavior more times than is fair.

And for the blogging community, they who share so easily, find joy in reporting and analysing, and never cease to have an opinion...... thank you for that!!!

Monday, June 12, 2006

The TO-DO List is a Killer....

One week and one day til the end of SY 2005-06.

One week until my youngest graduates from high school.

So many mixed emotions about these endings..... and the stress overload caused by massive amounts of paperwork and special activities is maddening. Awards ceremonies, field day, end of year parties, my families' many many graduation obligations, including baccalaureate, my daughter's graduation brunch for 35, the all night grad party, several family and friend graduation bashes.... no wonder I have been MIA from my blog.

On a happy note, my student George, the little guy from Mississippi (also known as "our Katrina kid") will be with us next year. His parents have wrangled their family situation so that their very emotionally fragile first grader can have the stability of continuing here.It's not been easy. The cost of living here in Northern Virginia can be daunting; the pace is never-ending. It's taken much planning and sacrifice for them to be able to stay in our area for one more year. Bless them for their loving commitment.

I'll hold this good feeling about George and his family with me tonight as I lay in bed, mulling the millions things left to get done. The good news is it'll all be over soon.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Things that distract a blogger from regular production:

* planning a party for local high school alumns in an effort to get help to plan a 30th reunion

* blogger's lovely *Hokie Girl* is full out involved in pre-prom activities, including dress shopping, alterations, coordinating dinner plans for 24, and limo aquisition. Next up: graduation festivities

*attending local country music fest reminds said blogger of the hassle of sitting on the lawn among thousands of heavy smokers, drunk teenagers, short-tempered rednecks, and kissing couples who "need to get a room"!

*students and teachers enter the dreaded testing window for state testing and various other required assessments..... anxiety surges, moodiness swells, exhaustion creeps in. Blogger and colleagues try to remind each other why we chose this job in the first place!

So for now, I'm taking everything day by day. Breathe in. Breathe out. I'll return to my more regular blogging ways in due time!!!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Joanne Jacobs is coming......

I ordered Joanne Jacobs' book before it came out because I knew (from her blog) that she's definetly had something to say. She's coming to the area to talk.... and the lucky ones will take the time to go and listen. Here is her info, in her own words:

"I’ll speak and sign books on Thursday, May 11 at 5:30 pm at William E. Doar Jr. (WEDJ) Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, 705 Edgewood St. NE, Washington, DC (near the Rhode Island and Brookland-CUA metro stops). In addition, the school’s musical troupe will perform and I’ll ask guests to donate a children’s book to the school library.

Founded in 2004, WEDJ School enrolls students from all over the city. Students take classes in music, dance and theater and perform in at least one public exhibition or performance each year. A longer school day and Saturday classes ensure enough time for academics and arts. Currently an elementary, the school is adding middle and high school classes in the fall.

On Wednesday, May 17 at 5:30 pm, I’ll speak at Russell Byers Charter School, 1911 Arch St., in downtown Philadelphia. I'll also do a "bookraiser" for the school's library.

Founded in 2001, the school educates children in kindergarten (a two-year program starting at age four) through sixth grade using the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound program. The school was created to honor the memory of Russell Byers, a Daily News columnist killed in a mugging.

Both the Washington and Philadelphia charter schools primarily serve black students. “Our School” follows the principal, teachers and students at Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school that’s 90 percent Hispanic. Most students come from Spanish-speaking immigrant families; most earned D’s and F’s in middle school and enter ninth grade with fifth-grade reading and math skills. They were left behind academically but promoted anyhow. Operating with a work-your-butt-off philosophy, Downtown College Prep now outscores the average California high school on the state’s Academic Performance Index and sends all graduates to four-year colleges.

After 19 years as a San Jose Mercury News editorial writer and Knight Ridder columnist, I quit in 2001 to freelance, start an education blog at and report and write “Our School.”

I think “Our School” enables readers to step inside a charter school that’s struggling, learning from mistakes, adapting and improving. "

-- Joanne Jacobs

“Joanne Jacobs's "Our School," a vivid account of the creation and first years of a charter high school in San Jose, Calif., . . . reads like a novel whose characters are both stereotypical and improbable. . . But this isn't fiction. The challenges are real, the stakes high, the lessons important -- and the achievements extraordinary.”
-- Henry Miller, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 17, 2005

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Carnival of Education

This week's edition of The Carnival of Education went up Wednesday. Check it out. There's no better place to get a variety of opinions about education!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The long walk down the hall .....

Sometimes I just have to give myself a break.

I was beating myself up today because I just haven't been able to make headway with a small group of my kids who just can't seem to get the basics of money. They mix up the coins, their value, forget to add on or just plain add wrong. Even with supports like wall posters, number charts, etc., it's just taking so daaaarrrrnnnn lllloooonnnnngggg!!

When my more reasonable side took hold, I remembered that 2 of the 5 kids have severe processing deficits, and, OF COURSE, for them, it will take longer for the concepts to gel. A third child has been absent so much she has missed any sense of continuity of instruction, and the last child often sleeps through Math because of his afternoon meds. His little nap doesn't usually cause a big problem, because I am able to catch him up easily at another time. But he's having trouble with the memorizing needed to identify the coins and match their value. So the challenges continue.

Reasonable or not, I felt like a crummy teacher this afternoon.

I've used all kinds of strategies, including using real coins and playing store, lots of singing songs adapted to teach the names and value of the coins, "drill and kill" (not very successful at this point), peer coaching, whole group and one-on-one instruction, playing money games that teach trading and adding money.... and still we flounder.

My next step? Wander on down the hall to veteran first grade teacher Mrs. A, and get her take on the problem. What other strategies does she use? Her kids are ready for the chapter test... what exactly did she do differently that brought such success. Mrs. A, just what am I missing??

In retrospect, that walk down the hall I plan to take is one way I know I am not such a crummy teacher after all. Crummy teachers don't take the time to think through their challenges and ASK FOR HELP!!

Teaching is hard, and because I have been doing it a long time and fairly well, I forget just how hard it can be. Thank goodness I have my colleagues to turn to. Thank goodness my school is a collaborative learning space, and asking for help is encouraged and honored.

Thank goodness for teachers like Mrs. A.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

To expell or not to expell....

A raging child throws over a chair. Another child's tantrum spirals as he kicks his teacher. Another aims a firm push on her teacher's shoulder.

None of these behaviors are acceptable. But in our special program for children with emotional disabilities, they are not uncommmon. We are used to dealing with reactive, aggressive students. But in the interest of building an environment that supports both trust and learning, aggressive behavior must be dealt with swiftly and consistently. We do that, for the most part, everyday, using strong preventative measures AND effective consequences.

I, for one, need to feel everything is being done that can be done in order for me, my colleagues, and our students to be safe. It's just unrealistic, though, to think we will not be subjected to dangerous situations, no matter what kind of preventative programs we put into place.

It comes down to this: it's part of the job.

But when our overtly aggressive students lose their already tenuous grip on rationality, how can we say their reactions are NOT caused by their disability?

That happened this week in a hearing about one of our students who threw a chair directly at a staff member in anger, and then hit her in the face with a closed fist.

While the psychologist who works with the child and his family saw a clear connection between his behavior and his disability, and his teacher agreed, the other two school admin types on the committee voted NOT CAUSAL.... and the child is expelled.

Now, I'm not saying this child should be allowed to return to our program. I'm in agreement that homebound services might be helpful in the short term until a more appropriate placement can be found. And since, even though he is expelled, the county continues to be responsible for providing services for him, I think the whole expulsion issue teeters on nonsense.

But in handing down this decision, the child and his family have lost the one positive connection they had as they struggled through the most horrific kinds of home dysfunction. Ultimately, the child is uprooted, the parent is abandoned.

The powers-that-be say that despite a medical diagnosis and the assertions of the school professionals who work most closely with this child, his emotional disabilities DID NOT cause his aggressive reaction.

He's gone.

Why don't I feel any safer?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Detention unveiled....

It appears my description of “detention” as implemented in our ED program has left the venerable Dr. John at EBD Blog “at sea”!! He’s right though, I did kind of tiptoe around it all.

See if this helps:

Today Calvin was in our crisis room, sitting at a desk in a study carrel with the counselor, discussing the incident that sent him there: when Calvin was directed to go to his desk after morning circle time, he lingered with unrestrained defiance. The other children complied, and the IA made a verbal comment complimenting one of them specifically. At that point, Calvin jumped up and ran at the complimented child, grabbed his face (yes, grabbed, with both hands, taking hold of plump cheeks and nose parts.)

The IA got there before great damage was done, separated the boys, and walked with Calvin to the crisis room. I got the great job of hugging the hurt fella and getting him the TLC he needed.

While in the crisis room, the counselor and Calvin talked a bit, and she determined he wasn’t really “available” yet to be constructive. He demanded the use of a rubber ball, and when she redirected him, he bolted out the door and ran down the hall with reckless abandon. Then, fortuitously or unfortunately, Calvin tripped, fell to the carpeted floor and began to cry loudly. Our counselor helped him to his feet and walked him back to her office.

Her intervention lasted about 20 minutes more, and included a structured 5 minute time out, some time to use the putty for relaxation, and talking through a plan for next time. Our experience with Calvin is that he is highly anxious, often thinks irrationally, and takes a long time to truly settle down. So when he reentered the classroom, he sat at a desk near the coat closet, a bit away from the group. I set a visual timer for 15 minutes, and went over the expectations with him: “No talking or getting up. Draw or read quietly if you choose. Use this time to show us you are ready to put on your listening ears and come back to the group.”

With a minor blip in the routine—Calvin got up to sharpen his pencil, and twice called out to me—he completed his detention time successfully, was heartily invited back to the group where he immediately went to the other boy and apologized/hugged him.

Those extra minutes at the desk really work for most of our kids. Traditional short timeouts are often just not enough time for them to physically settle enough to get back to the stimulating classroom environment. The trick is to find the right balance of extended time so effectiveness is not diminished.

I hope this is a bit clearer. It’s a process, one created by caring and respectful teachers over several years time. It’s really not a detention, more like a last phase of recovery in the crisis cycle. But it works. Targeted behaviors are reduced. Kids are successfully returned to class and instruction. If it didn’t, we would change the procedure, find another way. That’s key to being effective, right?!!!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Can detention really help?

At least bi weekly, we of the ED staff meet together for something we call "Collegial Support". We brainstorm about our students, always with an eye toward improving our approach to instruction and to behavior management. It's a cool forum for supporting each other AND making school a more successful experience for our challenging students.

Recently, an administrator questioned the implementation of a teacher's detention policy, and that got us all to thinking about the value of using detention as part of our continuim of strategies. Because the first step to working through questions about policy is to clearly define and describe, I decided to put to writing my use of detention in my classroom. Here is a copy:

DETENTION Policy and Procedures

Detention is the last phase of a multi-step intervention strategy designed to address dangerous /unsafe behaviors. It is the period of time after a child has moved through the crisis cycle, and is ready to demonstrate behaviors incompatible with the negative, inappropriate behavior previously noted.

Because our emotionally labile students often need more time than the average child to truly settle down, the designated detention time (15-30 minutes depending on the child) is necessary to ensure their success in the next activity.

Unsafe behavior is defined in terms of potential for injury. When a child throws a lego to the ground in frustration, and it is determined that the child was not attempting to injure another, that behavior is not generally deemed “unsafe”. The same lego piece hurled across the room with the apparent goal of striking another person, is, indeed, a dangerous behavior. Moreover, the second behavior, even if it does not hit its mark, works to make the overall climate FEEL unsafe, and we often keep this in mind as we address concerns.

Detention is always part of an intervention strategy directed toward returning the child safely to the classroom setting. As a phase of the de-escalation process, it is child-centered; that is, it meets the immediate needs of a previously out of control child. Detention time provides a generally quieter setting for kids to settle their body/self monitor. It’s a reality: our emotionally labile students usually need more time than the average child to physically settle. There is a legitimate argument to be made for less than thirty minutes for some children (I often reduce the time for my younger students), but for the purposes of consistency and perceived fairness, we in our ED program have generally stuck to the 30 minute time block. Older children who are completing a written plan often use their 30 minutes to finish. Detention in another classroom or space often removes the child from the stimulus that caused agitation, provides a safe area to redirect their attention, and helps to re-establish boundaries. When the requirements of a detention are clearly explained and adhered to, children are likely to experience a reduction of anxiety. Self-monitoring can become a focus, as students work to demonstrate appropriate school behavior, especially with regard to unsafe or disruptive behaviors.

It is my experience that without the clear, consistent, effective detention process, we are setting our children up for repeated failure. The full passage of detention time is one important sign that a child is truly capable of pulling himself together. The ability to demonstrate behaviors incompatible with tantruming is key to reading a child’s “emotional temperature”. Sending a child back to the challenges of class, or to the particular stresses of art, music and pe WITHOUT the full detention process behind him/her appears irresponsible.

Perhaps what is needed then, is a name change. Call it Phase 5? The final phase? Recovery? Whichever, the final phase of the de-escalation process is so much more than a consequence, and supports our goal to help students settle and return to class successfully.

As always, thanks for reading my blog.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's Wednesday, and I'm still not relaxed!

So it's day three of my spring break, and I am still unable to settle myself and get relaxed. Instead, I piddle around the house, plan shopping expeditions, reorganize closets, think about plans for next week.. all fun and constructive activities, yes. But my mind is still buzzing, my focus still centered on DOING, DOING,DOING.

In years past, when my kids were young, I took this week as a chance to "act as if". That is, I happily slid into the AT-HOME MOMMY mode I secretly coveted. I used the time to enjoy my kids all day long, sans daycare, and I loved it. Yes, we moved in a more relaxed manner throughout our day (no early morning rush out of the house), but real relaxation escaped me, and rightly so. It was all about the kids.

Now, #1 Son doesn't need me (work and grad school keep him busy), and Hokie Girl is wrapped up in the fun of being a high school senior (my social butterfly). This is more or less MY TIME, and I've been unable to use it to the fullest.

I've got to ask myself why.

Habit? Is it just too hard to break the cycle of doing? Are my expectations for relaxation too high?

Fear? Is the silence of the quiet moment too scary? In silence, will I find something I don't want to know?

A good question for another day, another vacation.

In either case, I can't help it. My thoughts wind their way back to the kids and to my teaching, even as I try to leave it all behind. This is probably a good thing. Being a teacher is, after all, something you are, not just something you do.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Provacative Message

Seen on the back bumper of a car last night:

A Child Is More Than
A Testscore

Friday, March 31, 2006

Buck up, Mrs. Ris

"So why was it such a hard day?" my sweet husband asked with a caring lilt to his voice.

Well..... Mikee wanted our complete attention from the moment he arrived to class, and he stuck his tongue out at any other child who got some. This started the tattling, the worried frenzy of whining and complaining and moving around the room with anxious energy.... and then one kid scratched another kid's ear and you would have thought the ear had been Van Gogh-ed for all the crying and dramatics, and the scratCHER was gleeful, which set off another series of frenzied whining and complaining and moving about the room with anxious energy.....

The wonderful social worker who comes in for a social skills group on Friday mornings either "ignored" or missed my non-verbal cue about separating Mikee and the kid with the scratched ear during her lesson..... chaos ensued. Predictable chaos is lots worse than surprise chaos. I mean... it could have been avoided and is therefore waaaayyyy more annoying.

Geraldine whined all through writing workshop, or barked at me in her best "ghetto girl in charge" voice.... I don't know which is worse. The combination sucked the life out of me. Happily, she got 5 sentences down on paper. Amazing.

The new kid is so smart and interesting, but quiet, and I have to make a gallant concerted effort to check in with him one on one or he'll get lost to all the other "squeaky wheels" in our class. This one, new, small thing feels like a tipping point. Tipping, as in, I just might start screaming and never stop if I can't get a moment of peace and quiet where I don't feel ravaged by their needs. Oh, wait. That'll happen when I get home tonight. Until then, I buck up and give my best and more.

They all deserve it.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Basket Case of a Different Kind

I’ve been thinking about the philosophy of Dr. Ross Greene, a doctor/author who is known for his advice to schools and families about kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. My student Clarke is highly explosive, especially toward the end of the day when he is less able to manage the frustrations of routine school demands. He just seems “done” with it all, unable to moderate his reactions or temper his impulses for one more minute. He gets a recently altered noon-time dose of his meds, so I don’t have much evidence that it is a med related problem. It really does seem like he is on overload, unable at his tender age of 7 to do much more to stay settled and on track.

So, of course, I am left to ponder my role in helping him to manage that last hour of the day.

Just last week I implemented a different plan for Clarke, one that incorporates Greene’s idea of establishing priorities; that is, defining exactly what issues I can let slide that last part of the day, and which issues cannot be ignored due to safety.

Greene frames his priority plan in terms of “BASKETS”. Some behaviors like sassiness and refusals (as in ignoring directions to go to the time-out desk or refusing to complete a written assignment) are low priority, and are “placed” in a low priority “Basket”. I can ignore his behavior, and delay intervention until the next morning when he is capable of processing the situation without a crisis. Dangerous behavior is a high priority “Basket” behavior, and requires immediate intervention, even though it means he melts-down and escalates through the crisis mode. The probable crisis is deemed “worth it” because others or he, himself were injured ….or were at risk for injury.

I used this Basket 1 intervention last week when Clarke got very sassy, even threatening in tone. I reminded him it’s not okay to talk to me that way, and he stopped, put his head down on his desk and grumbled once or twice. When he kicked at his desk twice in the next minute or so, I directed him to the crisis room for processing/intervention, etc. He ignored my direction, and remained seated, head down, and the kicking ceased.

I looked at the clock. 2:05. Of course.

I “let it go”….. Clarke remained at his seat as his classmates left the room for end of the day recess. He even appeared to have fallen asleep. But when the kids re-entered and dismissal routines began, he calmly raised his head and followed directions amiably.

He was able to accept his point sheet with loss of points for that time of day, pack up, and get on the bus without a fuss.

I resisted any direct interaction with him, aside from what was required by the routines in place. It was hard. I am one who generally believes consistency is gold. But I wrote myself a note to remember to deal with the breach at the start of the next day….

That next morning on arrival, Clarke accepted his timeout consequence, including an extended detention time for “being out of his assigned space”. He processed calmly. It felt like a successful intervention, but with only a few days in, I can only hope long term, this is an effective solution.

The question then becomes “Effective for who?” Clearly, this was a satisfactory solution for me: there was no physical aggressiveness, no major tantrum, no chance he’d miss his bus home due to his behavior. But does this approach reinforce his negative behavior and thereby increase it overtime?

Or will this approach offer Clarke the chance to self-regulate his behavior as the year goes on? If time and maturity are the keys to Clarke’s improved behavior, then this framework should be successful. We will see.

Friday, March 10, 2006

You've Been Wondering About the Mystery Clues? Of Course You Have!!

It was in the 70's during the day-- break out the suncreen, we're FEELING HOT!

We sure felt like SOUTHERN BELLES as we competed against teams from CA, Utah, NY...

That FAMOUS MOUSE, Mickey, greeted us with open arms each day we headed off to the Disney parks!

It was Nationals, an invitational dance team competition that took my attention away for awhile there.

It took 2 days to plan for my 3 days of absence from school, then 3 more days to get back into the swing of things once we did get back.... and now I'm just too exhausted to do any critical thinking or witty reporting.

Just know we learned the value of "having the experience"... ahem, we didn't exactly bowl the judges over. But we did have fun!!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It's a guessing game!

Guess where I have been, thereby justifying my inattention to this blog, my favorite hobby?


Feeling hot
Southern Belles
Famous Mouse

22 high school dancers in 6 rooms and a big bottle of Excedrin!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Wanna Know a Secret?

Pssst. Psssst.

Don't tell anyone. On Wednesday, the mystery reader who comes on our elementary school's daily news program... well, that mystery reader is ME!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Read Across America Week Begins....

In celebration of Dr. Seuss, reading in general, and NEA's outreach/public relations efforts:

It is now READ ACROSS AMERICA week!!!

An employee from our local power company came and read to the class today. Too bad she had little expression in her voice and had no idea about holding the book up for the kids to see AS she reads. Still, the kids ( 4 of them in attendance) were polite. Small favors.....

In accordance with the theme, enjoy these cute pictures of my kids reading, reading, reading!!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

On The Power to Overcome Obstacles....

One way I am able to manage myself and my response to my emotionally disabled students is to meditate daily. I try to pray for a peacefulness, a centeredness that will allow me to do my best everyday, despite the terrible stress and frequent disappointments.

(Not surprisingly, I have found a source on the web, A BLOG no less, that supports me in my daily work. Ever a fan of Thomas Merton, this site includes Merton's wise words as well as daily prayers )

Anyway, this one small prayer, 7 short words, hit me hard last night as I went searching for guidance and peace.

Lord, help me not be an obstacle.

Somedays, that's all I can ask for.

1. When the angry parent calls, help me keep a calm voice, and open heart. The last thing I need is a defensive posture. Give me the wisdom to know when it’s time to refer the call to my principal.

2. When I feel overburdened, overtired, and underappreciated, let me remember why I am here: not for ease, or comfort, or accolades. I am here for the child who is fighting everyday to overcome the ravages of emotional disabilities, abuse issues, and worse. The pain he inflicts is never more than the pain he suffers each and every moment of the day.

3. When fellow teachers fall short of our highest expectations, when they appear to give less than is possible, help me see that we often only do as much as we can. Compassion for their challenges just might be the open door to supporting change.

4. Finally, help me make right-minded, ethical choices as I move through my day, always mindful of the power I have over my students’ school life.

I know it's not for everyone, but I need all the help I can get!!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The gift that keeps on giving.... time to think.

At the end of the day, when the final lesson plans are scribbled and the materials are pulled together for tomorrow's day, I have to sit back and contemplate a very important question:

What did I do today that will make a difference tomorrow?

Without this moment of reflection, I am likely to breathe in slowly, close my plan book, and leave for home still spent from the day's challenges. I'll feel more drained, possibly even mistreated, or worse, ineffective. I'll hear again and again the curses, the whining and complaining, the moments of dispair and retreat.

But when I focus on the good in my day, I am reminded why I do what I do, and for whom I am focused.

Today, Tuesday, the day after our President's Day holiday, I....

Strengthened my rep as a person worthy of my students' trust: When first grader Belle came into the classroom this morning in tears, scared about getting in trouble at home and with the principal because she brought a (broken) cell phone to school, I arraigned to be able to get down to the office and get all the details. I was able to get a colleague to cover the class, find an administrator, figure out the facts of the situation, and come back to Belle and help her understand the problem and the consequences. By attending to her worries as soon as possible, I probably held off a major tantrum, lots of anxiety, and loss of learning time. Moreover, I reinforced to Belle how really important she is to us. She is closer to knowing for sure that we will do all we can to help her understand, make a plan for improvement, and accept her consequences.

Used information from an informal assessment to plan and teach a strong lesson on number patterns on a 100 chart: I noticed last week that Belle and Mike had big time trouble really understanding the value of double digit numbers to 100; the numbers in sequence appear random rather than part of a pattern. I pulled some supplementary materials, talked to a colleague, and came up with a set of fun activities to help these two really get a handle on that all important "number sense". That feels good.

And finally,...I

Held 3 reading conferences using phonics based, research proven materials: With the support of the LD teacher, I have been using a series of leveled mini books for guided reading and reading conferences. For 3 of my kids today, these books and the individual time I was able to give them made a difference in their skill levels and their confidence levels. I closed the folder at the end of the conferences feeling wonderful! Moreover,the kids felt like readers!!!

So tomorrow, at days' end, no matter my schedule or my after school obligations, I will again take that quiet minute to identify the best parts of my day.

It keeps me coming back.

Monday, February 20, 2006

General Education and the IEP process: a high school teacher's perspective

Link here to some ideas from Coach Brown re implementing IEP's in the general education classroom. I find real value in his insight, and appreciate the difficulty faced when gen ed teachers are handed IEP's they had no voice in creating.

Also relevant: his perception of the parent factor.....

"The parents have absolute sway once the document is implemented, so teachers that have a gripe about unreasonable modifications are pretty powerless. I had a minor incident this year where a parent thought that I wasn't going "all the way" with their child's modifications. I explained that a child in a college prep class should do more than fine with my implementation of the IEP. When they started to snarl, I backed off. It wasn't worth the potential distraction that it could create. "

I appreciate Coach Brown's advise not to hassle the spec ed teacher who is responsible for the paperwork, etc. However, the spec ed teacher does need and probably wants your input. It's best practice for a reason.

He also stipulates "Stand up for your classroom while in the IEP (management style, class policy, etc), but never say "I will not do that". It alienates everyone in attendance." That's a good reminder for all of us involved in the creation of this important document. Moreover, the focus needs to be on what is needed for the student to succeed.... not a referendum on the management style of a particular teacher.

May I add?.... instead of trying for "vague" accomodations, approach the idea of support with a very focused eye. Of course the accomodations must be "doable", but more importantly, they must be tailored to that child's needs. If you keep to what this kid requires based on his/her disability, going overboard is not likely. Maybe I am an optimist.

Lastly, he's right.....-"Document everything". Again, best practice.

Monday, February 13, 2006

On becoming a SERIOUS educator....

Over at Education Wonks, the main man reports and comments on the latest information coming out of Madame Spellings' office. She is asking of educators and those interested in school reform: "Let's get serious".

(Check here for the info and Edwonks very astute read on what's missing from Ms. Spellings' plans.)

Immediately I was reminded of a comparison I recently made between my current teaching practice and my less effective, less focused teaching of years past. Previously I noted that with the advent of NCLB, my teaching skills improved because of newly acquired data about my students learning. That is, with closer, more frequent assessment required by my school as part of our statewide response to NCLB, I can target areas of weakness, revamp plans and strategies for meeting all my students' competing needs, and therefore do a better job overall.

It feels fine for me to say I am now MORE FOCUSED....MORE TARGETED....MORE SUCCESSFUL.

It does not, however, feel okay when Ms. Spellings identifies these changes as a result of my finally "getting serious". If she thinks I was not serious about teaching/ learning in the past, she just doesn't get teachers. I've met only a handful of teachers in 20 years who were not serious about their teaching. Being SERIOUS is not the problem. It's about being effective, about knowing (not guessing) what works and what doesn't, and getting the support to put all of it into place.

Serious? Who is she kidding? Did she think I wasn't serious my first year of teaching when I stayed until 6:30 every night to plan for my 5 preps for 12 Behaviorally Maladjusted highschoolers who came to class doped up, criminally inclined, damaged and abused, or worse. I left that school after one year, and I am very sure none of the boys I taught graduated. I was certainly not effective; I was definetly serious.

Was seriousness a problem when I taught a small class of general education kindergartners at a private school? I followed the school's curriculum, organized learning and play centers as advised by the school's specialists,and worked very long hours in preparation. In earnest, I faithfully met with parents and my teaching colleagues. Looking back, I see so many holes in my teaching. It's alittle embarrassing. But no one can question my seriousness about my job and my obligations.

So the next time the powers that be make a call to arms, when Ms. Spellings or any of the government's education reform experts want to embolden teachers to forge on, do better, make a difference..... please, don't question my seriousness.

That makes me SERIOUSLY want to scream!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Gratitude for small blessings....

Hi ya'll!

It's been a good day overall. I don't usually come to my blog to report a good day, but here I am. With the Grammy's on, I'm chilling in my bed, me and my beautiful dog Cayenne, and I'm thinking about how to make tomorrow a better day.

But first, a moment to savor the good news:

For 2 days straight I have been successful in getting my very ADHD, very oppositional, manipulative sweetiepie to sit down... yes, sit down.. with me to begin to learn how to add to sets to 6. It's basic early first grade work, and we are just now getting to it. Yes, it was one-on-one, completed in just under ten minutes (an extension of his regular attention span), and I had a bag of gummy bears in my pocket as leverage. I will use whatever is at my disposal to hook this little one.

It felt good.

One little boy was able to finally accept our much practiced cues and redirection to stop crying/whining. Instead, he used his words to describe his problem/feelings. It's a big step in his emotional development, and a real breakthrough for all of us around him who are just tired of hearing his crying at the drop of a hat.

Sigh. Smile.

Derek really really really tried to make good behavior choices throughout the day, and it's not easy for him with all of his negative, even scary thinking messing up his brain. He keeps a tight lid on his psychotic thoughts, so tight he sometimes looks like he'll forget to breathe. Today he made it through with a smile on his face for much of the day. A miracle.

Praise God.

Lastly, I ended the day in a surprisingly positive way. As part of the requirement to become HIGHLY QUALIFIED, I am made to take a science class.... even though I have been teaching the early primary science curriculum for over 15 years. DON'T GET ME STARTED!! But..... the class turned out to be great. I learned alot, deepened my understanding of the various units I'm so familiar with, and have some new things I plan to try with my class in the next week or so. The three hours went by rather quickly; the instructor was talented and very knowledgable. If I HAVE to take this kind of class as a means to an end, at least it's not a total bust.

Tomorrow is another day, another chance to make a difference. I'll sleep well tonight knowing that the few wonderful, bright moments can keep me going!

Thanks for reading my blog. I appreciate your comments!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

So she slept through language arts and math....

There's been a flu bug going around the school. The kind that keeps you in the bathroom, wishing you could just end it all rather than spend one more minute on the cold, hard, ceramic tile floor just inches away from the toilet.....

So when my little first grader came down with stomach cramps on Friday, and spent a long time in the bathroom TWICE, I was sure we'd be sending her home within the hour. But she didn't have diarrhea, no fever, just a debilitating tummy ache. Most kids' parents would want to be called if their child was in this kind of discomfort. I certainly can't teach a little one who can't concentrate because she feels sick. But this mom does not want to be called unless it is a real emergency. You know, the kind of illness that fits the guidelines for MUST GO HOME NOW: fever, throwing up, stitches required, etc.

So little first grader lay sprawled on the bean bag for several hours, in and out of sleep, all the while wondering why I wasn't making her mom come pick her up.

This happens a lot. Kids don't get enough sleep, they sleep during the day. Kids' meds are wrong, they get sleepy, they sleep during the day. They don't get breakfast at home, and they arrive at school too late for school breakfast, so they eat in the classroom (from reserves we collect just for this purpose). They come in clothes not appropriate to the weather/season. We lend them clothes from our stash. I've duck-tapped shoes, bought toothpaste and toothbrushes for kids with chronic bad breath, slipped kids extra food to take home to their siblings when none of them are getting enough. I buy them children's books to take home, as well as crayons, paper, tape, scissors.

If you are a teacher reading this blog, you probably have your stories to tell too. It's something we all end up doing because we care about the kids. It's just counter-productive to withhold supplies, books, clothing, even sleep and food. And so the cycle continues.

The folks who say that our school problems can be solved without addressing issues of poverty don't want us to use poverty as an excuse to stop trying. I get that. But poverty continues to do it's damage whether the experts admit it or not.

And we good, caring teachers will continue to try and mitigate the damage as we seek to teach our charges to the highest of standards.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The importance of the back-up plan.....

Every since we started back after the new year, David has been a mess. A sprite of a boy, he walks around with his arms in flex, looking ready to bolt at any moment.

"I'm fast," he declares with pride. And he is.

The thing is, he tells us this at least five or six times a day, every day. Makes me wonder what he is running from.

He spent a good part of the month of January in crisis. Nearly every routine direction brought on tears or loud denunciations. His play has been more aggressive; his ability to settle himself fleeting. He's not very interested in playing with his classmates, and any thought of writing on paper sends him packing!

"I'm fast."

According to his mom, all is well at home, no major changes or challenges. No meds change-- no reason for any of this. She, too, sees a regression, though only slight, in his ability to sit and listen to her and work out his feelings.

She suggested we make sure he's not hungry when he is fussy, and keep concentrating on helping him talk about his concerns.

Good advise. Still, the concerns remained.

So we put into place a few changes:

We now start his day with breakfast, even if he ate at home. He is welcome to eat his snack if he feels hungry throughout the day.

He is encouraged to use as many self-referral passes to the counselor as he needs. We hope to stave off full blown tantrums by helping him identify when he is beginning to feel stressed. When you are five, dealing with the BIGNESS of your angry feelings can be just too much to bear. (A reminder card is taped to his desk showing a picture of a pass!)

We are using a gestural cue to gently remind him to do what the teacher says: You put a hand at each ear and pretend you are turning volume knobs on a radio. "Check your listening ears, big guy!!" we chirp! He likes this. He smiles, imitates us, tries to comply, and we praise liberally. This is what I did with my own children at home when they were two and three.

We are offering choices, choices, choices, all day long, to help him feel more in control of his day. Sit here with us or choose your desk. Pick a book from the library or draw in your journal. Put your toy on the shelf or place it in your save box.

He started his day today with the grumpiest face I have ever seen. I caught sight of him storming down the hall; it was almost comical in its exaggeration. I met him half way with a huge hug, and he mumbled into my stomach "I need a new school. I need a new day care. I need to go home."

Surprisingly, we made it through the day, and his last words as he headed out of the classroom at dismissal: "I love you."

Yep, I love my job.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Report Card Blues

Like the majority of public school teachers, I've been busying myself with report cards lately. Checking grades for 7 kids is not daunting, and because of the small number, I'm usually pretty sure, even before hand, how well the children have been learning.

Like many special education teachers, I find our report card forms completely inadequate. When my little kids are working below grade level (some significantly so), and their IEP goals outline the course I need to take with regard to academics, the ACHIEVEMENT and EFFORT blocks do not quite do the job. Is is achievement, based on the IEP, or achievement based on the standards set by the county/state?

And worse is the section on citizenship. Most of my ED kids NEED IMPROVEMENT in all these areas, and some even improve a bit over the course of a school year.... and yet, improvement is still necessary. The N in the report card box signifies a kind of failure, and still my student may have made significant improvement according to his IEP. Clearly, the report card form just doesn't work for all students.

So, I'll fill out all the N's as necessary, send home IEP update forms that speak more fully to the child's progress.... double the work for not double the information.

Here's the reality. The daily point sheet, sent home, well, daily, gives the parents the most clear indication of their child's day. The graded work I send home weekly lets them know what their child is learning and how well. That's the kind of assessment that provides information parents can use.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Targeting our hardest to reach students...

We had a... ahem... a rather productive professional development meeting this afternoon.

I know. A shocker.

I had been dreading it all day, the prospect of spending 2 hours after school (on our short day, thank goodness)with my equally cynical, distracted teaching colleagues. Let's face it, with so much planning to finish, so much differentiating of instruction and adapting to meet special needs required, I hate giving up my Monday afternoons to group meetings.

I even considered getting sick and going home to do my planning. Just for a fleeting minute. Really, I'm not a slacker.

But this meeting was different. The goals were directly tied to the areas of instruction we as a school need to focus on (based on last year's state testing scores). We divided into smaller, more workable, intimate groups. Teachers who have the same issues and concerns that we do led the groups (not out-of-touch administrators). We practiced as a group the very planning strategies we are now asked to implement as we remediate our toughest students. All in all, a very good use of my time. In fact, I have already made a change to my daily plan for tomorrow based on the suggestions gleened today.

And the most important aspect of all: as we considered the various activities we can plan in order to meet the state objectives while concentrating on the higher order thinking skills necessary for success on the state test, we challenged ourselves to consider the most unavailable of our students. Ms. Mary the kindergarten teacher played Devil's Advocate and helped us "keep it real". She was quick to point out that we had to keep refocusing on how the hardest to reach can be reached.

Our solution: committ to organizing our classrooms for small group instruction that tailors instructional methods to the strengths and weaknesses of that particular group of kids. Differentiate. Differentiate. Differentiate.

My "take away moment": the various verbs listed under the objectives that remind us to teach kids to create..... explain ... order.... formulate... compose.... modify... substitute... compare...
instead of merely identify and recall. I will be keeping this list of verbs handy to remind myself to reach, reach, reach.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Obstacles to success....

We face all kinds of obstacles as we seek to move our students through the established curriculum: gaps in knowledge that stop a kid dead in his tracks ("What is this tens and ones stuff?"), severe attention issues, deeply ingrained oppostitional behavior, the distractions provided by the other kids ("Use your ignoring skills, honey; he's eating his boogers on purpose to bug you.") poor nutrition and sleep patterns.... and then the most destructive obstracle--- non-availability for learning due to their pervasive emotional and mental health problems.

And then, the most frustrating obstacle of all---non-responsive or over reactive parent response.

Now, this is where my general education colleagues really share my pain. Parent problems impact all of our teaching lives.

Here's my story of the week:

Sweetie-pie arrives at school, and immediately invited to walk to the counselor's room to settle. He's volatile, throwing his body around impulsively, yelling out both silly and combative things at students and staff, knocking the counselor's stuff off the desk, kicking desks and the wall.... obviously, not ready to be at school. When, 30 minutes later he is still in this frenzied state, he says that he has not had his meds. ("Uncle Johnny forgot to give them to me. Mom was at work and Grandma was gone too.")

The principal called all the contact numbers, but no one answered. She left messages, fully aware that, based on previous experience, a call back was unlikely. We were on our own.

Thank God for our crisis counselor. Because of her (and the staffing formula that allows for the use of one teaching position as a behavior support resource), I was able to teach the children who remained in class. I checked in on Sweetie-Pie and the counselor every 10-20 minutes or so, provided verbal support, and prayed we'd get a call back from the family.

Halfway through the morning, S-Pie's aunt arrived with a baggie of meds. The second S-Pie saw the pills in auntie's hand, he asked pointedly "Where's the blue one?"
"Don't got that one. Here, take these."

My heart sank. I swear, she gave him a generic brown ibruprophin tablet and a white aspirin caplet. I've seen this child's meds before, and these weren't it. And the Grandma once told me the blue one was for his explosiveness.

We were screwed.

I prayed for the placebo effect.

We set up the conference room with books, crayons and paper, a stuffed animal, a bean bag chair and his coat. He snuggled under the long wooden table for 45 minutes, slept on and off, paced around a bit, and tried very very hard to settle himself. He joined our class for lunch, indoor recess and DEAR time, all the while closely watched by me and the IA's. A mid-afternoon meltdown sent him back to the counselor's; he remained there til the last half hour of the day.

It was miserable for him AND for us.

It didn't have to be this way.

But I'd bet a month's salary it'll happen again at least once before the end of this school year.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sing.... sing a song..... sing it loud......

One of my favorite, syrupy sweet, amazing moments of each day:

As the children gather on the carpet, in a circle around the rocker in which I sit, they usually smile up at me or at each other. Because the kids know they have the option to move to their desk rather than participate, the ones who choose to remain often have a great attitude! I break into song-- me and my craggy, unpolished voice- and the kids don't mind. They welcome the comfort of the routine, even if I sound more like an American Idol reject.

Good morning to you!
Good morning to you!
Good morning dear children!
Good morning to you!

Part of the success of this activity is the idea that children themselves choose if they will participate. They have a viable substitute activity ("Read or draw at your desk."), and their choice is generally honored. This respect for kids' preferences lays the foundation for a respectful classroom climate. Class meeting itself is a respectful, thoughtful activity; it just feels right to listen to and act on children's ideas about their own ability to join in.

This morning four of the five children were present at circle time. As I sang my little ditty, I patted each of them on the arm or the head, and was so tickled with the eye contact and bright smiles with which I was rewarded. At moments like these, I feel like the luckiest teacher in the world.

Monday, January 16, 2006

We can only guess what it means....

She keeps all her certificates and happy notes in a folder in her desk. Her brand new BRAT dolls sit, unplayed with but safe, in a clear container ontop of the coat closet. All the treats and sweets (well, most of them) she earns throughout the week are bagged and placed on a high shelf in the classroom ("Here Mrs. Ris, add this to my bag.") The ceramic pig she got from the reading teacher sits on a bookcase behind my workspace, and aside from an infrequent comment about it to her classmates--"See my cute piggy?"--, it remains partially hidden behind a basket of post-its and stickers.

"Make sure it's okay. Okay, Mrs. Ris?"

It's obvious my student can't bring herself to bring her goodies home.

LuLu describes her home as bug-infested, noisy, and chaotic (at least 2, maybe 3 younger cousins live there on and off, as well as other extended family and Mom's boyfriend). She says she hates where she lives ("It's dirty and small."), and wishes outloud for those of us at school to take her home and be her mother. She is beautifully attired each day, scrubbed clean, and one day this year, she tantrumed most of the day because she hated the slightly tight pants her mother made her wear. Even when we loosened the waist for her, she was beside herself in near grief that she was made to wear something that she hated.

In the fall of this year, I was celebrating her great math work.
"Here's your math test, LuLu! It's awesome. Take it home and show your mom!"

I found it a week later scrunched up in the bottom of her bookbag.

So I allow for LuLu's eccentric need to sort and store her valuables here. It's part of her survival skillset, no doubt. We continue to try to fill her up each day with love and appreciation, and encourage her to value learning and school success.

Sometimes it feels like we're on the right path. Mostly, though, it feels completely inadequate.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Can't explain it.... Don't especially regret it....

Since my last post (DEC 22 for goodness sake!!), I have had my share of naps, including many hours asleep in the car as we traveled to the Florida and the Gator Bowl. I am a terrible copilot, prefer sleeping the miles away, even snoring loud enough to disrupt the listening of the radio. My daughter and hub love to drive, so I lucked out!!

My return back to blogging has been slowed by only one thing: I was feeling too lazy. Just unmotivated to jump back in. Can't explain it. Don't especially regret it. Just felt like crawling away for awhile. It was a good choice. I am back, feeling better than ever and ready to take on the new year.

The return of my students to school has been very smooth, made more so by the absence of one of our most challenging kids. He is interviewing at various private schools around the area, and his mom is a darling. She sees the process of moving to a new school is agitating for him, the interviews are torture for this autistic kid, so she keeps him home each afternoon after the interview. So very caring of her to meet his need for home and nurturing during this difficult time.... when most parents would be likely to dump their kid off with no worries.

I am reminded of the recent news story about a woman who had the cops come to her house when her child was acting up, and then had them drop the still agitated and violent student at her school that same afternoon. The details are sketchy, but I remember fully understanding the impact of this mother's decision to meet her own needs rather than the critical, emergency needs of her child. So sad.

Back on topic: I will miss this fellow when he is gone, but my window of opportunity for smoother teaching will be widened considerably. My other students will benefit in many ways from his exit, but he is well liked by most of the class and they will feel his loss, of that I am sure. I will always remember the genius of his sense of humor, so unexpected in an 8 year old with autism. I will not miss the chair throwing and threats of running away.

The memory of his bright smile will outlast any of my bruises.