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 analyze...summarize.....classify....design.... 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.