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Category Archives: Inclusive education, school improvement, elementary education, teaching, urban education, English language learners, ELLs, ESL, best practice, English as a Second Language, English as a new language

Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

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“…when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.”

Geez … and what’s wrong with that picture? Isn’t that what we learned in our teacher training?

I just re-read a very interesting blog entry written by Principal Lori Cullen called http://www.attheprincipalsoffice.com/2012/02/13/are-those-kids-off-task-again-one-trick-to-change-off-task-behaviour/ and I can’t agree more with her words of wisdom. In these next months, as I plan August professional development for the teachers at my new school, I will be pondering this basic idea – that, when children are engaged they are learning and when they are “off task” they aren’t. This foundational fact, is not rocket science but it is one of most important and misconstrued tenets in teaching. As we continue to talk, as a nation, about teacher evaluations and standardized test scores and “failing schools” and unacceptable high rates of illiteracy and numbers of students who are not graduating from high school … it becomes more and more clearer how evaluating what is effective teaching becomes a game of high-stakes  educational roulette. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Teachers need tools and sometimes teachers need training. We didn’t learn everything we needed to know in teacher training – the world has changed.

Principal Lori asks, … should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement? Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  And she provides two visuals to explain the answer with a resounding, “YES, teachers are responsible!” And teachers need support in figuring out how be effective in designing lessons that engage students. But it can be done – to the benefit of all.

Principal Cullens gives a list of  the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement and tells us, task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.

In my own teaching career, I have observed many students who have been caught in this trap of shame and blame (for not engaging in their lessons) and who ultimately slid through the cracks of the educational system – with reprehensible negative life-changing consequence. In many cases, I believe, it didn’t have to end that way. And I believe we can learn from those mistakes.

Teachers can design lessons that engage children in behaviors that result in meaningful learning. Students can sit in the driver seat (rather than the passenger seat) of their own learning. This summer, I will be reading and thinking and rethinking about this basic foundational tenet as I work with my colleagues to figure out what tools the teachers and students need in their tool box to accomplish this important task of creating a school where all children can learn the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in school and in adult-life. My mantra is now, yes, we can! Together we can do it. And I am looking forward, with pleasure, to the new school year at Experiencia Preparatory Academy.

Reading is NOT optional

I just read a short blog post by Bill Feterriter entitled “A message from Myers: Reading is not optional.” Funny how this blog thing works … he said, he read, he wrote, I write, you read. So here it is, Myer‘s said.

“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct…We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war.

We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life.

If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

Myers is so right! And I agree with Feterriter, that Myers passion is making sure that EVERY kid — especially those living in the kinds of tough circumstances that he (Myers) grew up in — embraces reading.

That is my passion, too and I believe THIS is the failing of our school systems. We focus more and more on standardized testing … and collecting data … until there is LITERALLY no time left in the day, in the week, or  in the two week block – for teaching.

TRUE STORY: That’s what happened recently in our school district. Recently we were thrown (for a second time this school year) into TWO WEEKS OF TESTING. ALL TEACHING GOT SET ASIDE during these periods. We were mandated to administer the ELPA (State test for English Language Learners), The MAP (district test), The Middle of the Year DIBLES (district test which identifies who needs weekly or biweekly progress monitoring testing), The Middle of the Year Accelerated Reading and Math Test, and a paper and pencil district pre-test for Science and Social Studies! Our beautiful library (that I write about in another post called Building a Library with Joan) became the testing center for all the online assessments. Yes, you counted that right! There were eight different assessments being administered!

TRUE STORY: Just after this testing period, I arrived at the door of a first grade room, to pick up a student on my resource program caseload and another student who had been identified as needing intensive intervention.  I was taking them to do some multi-sensory small group reading instruction. I called the students names and they said, “Oh are you here to test us?” How sad is that … I don’t think anyone remembers that I am a teacher.

Something has got to change! The children are counting on us! Our priorities must shift … so I second the words of Feterriter,

Listen to those words, y’all.  Let them roll around in your mind for a few minutes.  Stew in them.  We ARE condemning kids to a lesser life when we turn the urgency of reading into an option. “

And to that I add my own post script … We are condemning our urban learners with diverse learning, language and behavioral needs to a lesser life when we use all their precious teaching time TESTING for skills and concepts that we don’t have the time (and sometimes the resources) to teach them. Research shows that most children don’t learn by osmosis! 

We must take back the teaching profession … and center it around teaching and learning to read, and reading to learn, and learning to read for pleasure! Reading is NOT an option!

Building a Library with Joan and Friends at BridgePointe

The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium. ~Norbet Platt

If we are to develop lifetime readers and writers we must connect what we do in classroom with real life outside the classroom!

The act of reading and writing can’t be viewed as something separate and outside of what is important and vital to everyday living, just as good nutrition and final presentation is not outside of the act of cooking. I enjoy the process of cooking when I have chosen the recipe based on what I know about good taste and good nutrition and have the freedom to create something special for someone else and the pleasure of eating and talking and enjoying the meal together.

So often the assignments we give children with the objectives of learning to read or write in the early grades or reading and writing to learn in the older grades are so dry and colorless, there is no connection or with our students as unique and developing individuals and life its self and no lasting value in an of its self. Rather than being reading and writing experiences, which help us gain our equilibrium – they are so compartmentalized activities that they go nowhere beyond the “learning” objective of the assignment it’s self. How many pages of the basal workbook are worthy of bulletin boards and scrapbooks and other places of lasting enjoyment in our classrooms and homes? In this day and age of HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTING, we must think about the nutritional value (versus empty calories) that we bring to the students seated at our table everyday.

One of the first things I noticed when I came to our school six years ago, what that there was no school lending library. There was a room filled shelves stuffed with 30 year old books and dittos and papers and miscellaneous things that upon being expelled from teacher classrooms found its home on the shelves in this room.

The room its self was being used as a content area classroom. Children were not allowed to browse or borrow the books and teachers rarely bothered with them as well. I knew in those first moments that one of my personal and professional accomplishments must be to help the school build a school library. For five years, my men’s shower-room turned resource room classroom had become the underground library. Children came before school and during lunch and on their way to and from the bathroom to borrow the books I had collected from garage sales, friend’s children’s discarded libraries, and the bargain rack at the bookstores.

Two summers ago, a volunteer from BridgePointe, named Joan, who loved books and reading as much as I did came to my co-taught dual-language inclusive education classroom. It was a room full of soon-to-be third graders (some with IEPs and some without) that were such reluctant readers and writers they hadn’t even yet decided to embark on the journey. We read TO them and WITH them, we co-created poems and email letters to my 80-years old mother and wrote stories and book reviews and thank you notes and letters to the principal and each other and even postcards home. We make charts and graphs about the wide genre we read, we created an author corner, class books, and PowerPoint presentations and for a few minutes each day we relaxed in the patch of green grass in front of the school and we read to each other. One time, we walked 1.6 miles to the local public library and signed up for library cards. We had no workbooks or textbooks just plastic milk crates stacked like makeshift shelves in one corner of the room filled with stories and articles that entertained and informed us and a make-shift writing center filled with sundry items you might need to write. The children were welcome and encouraged to borrow and take home and share with their families. And they did.

By the end of the summer children were signing out armfuls of books for themselves, their little brother or sister and their cousin who lives with them. That summer we learned many things together and independently and those children – right before our eyes – became readers and writers.

Joan and I decided that summer we needed a school lending library. She sent out an email to her friends at BridgePoint who sent emails out to her friends that a sleepy little elementary school in in the city needed a library. And two months later – we had one. Thousands of books and cast off shelves from a public library in a northern suburb came to our school in boxes, in bags, in the arms of boy scouts and girl scouts and mom’s and their children, and young adult youth church groups. Two professional painters volunteered time to paint, people cleaned and organized and labeled books and one month after the first day of school  … my used-to-be second grade bibliophilics were the first in line to sign out books to take home and share with their families.

Joan is now living in Ireland with her husband because he recently was hired to a new job there. But we think about her everyday as we read-read-read with great pleasure in our beautiful school library.

The Star Fish Thower

When my friend, Sara told me about her work with InsideOut Literary Arts Project, I was really interested. I am always interested in the work that she does with her high school aged students. It is work that I can’t do. I have been heard to say, on many occasions, that I prefer to teach students that are shorter than me  and her students are are way taller than me (and taller than Sara, for that matter). But she has way of connecting and affirming and positively directing their energy without flinching. It’s a blend of innate talent, professional experience and a cup-over-floweth with passion. She honors the inherent worth of every individual. She sees past the cultural vibrato and adolescent attitude and multiple layers of armadillo-like protective coatings. She sees a diamond in the rough in every student. She is an everyday-shero (although she would never admit it).

In case you don’t know, InsideOut engages children in the pleasure and power of reading and writing. They explain on their website (http://www.insideoutdetroit.org) that they place professional writers in schools to help students develop their self-expression and give them opportunities to publish and perform their work.

The other day, Sara gave me a copy of her students’ work – 80 pages of writing and a few drawings bound in a thin shinny brown book entitled Dream Keepers Volume 12, Spring 2011. On the cover is a student pastel drawing of a youth – mouth wide open – screaming – which actually accurately sums up the contents of the book. These students (who have perhaps for the first time found voice AND a listening audience) are screaming-out feelings about the world that they have inherited. I was deeply touched by their words. I want to share one poem in particular.

Cause and Effect
By Que Macklin
 
‘Cause I have a learning disability
They thought I was dumb
 
‘Cause they thought I was dumb
They always call me names
 
‘Cause they called me names
I’d get really upset and angry
 
‘Cause I got upset and angry
I started fighting
 
‘Cause I started fighting
I got kicked out of school
 
‘Cause I got kicked out of school
I couldn’t learn
 
‘Cause I couldn’t learn
My skills weren’t up to date
 
‘Cause my skills weren’t up to date
I didn’t graduate
 
‘Cause I didn’t graduate
I couldn’t get a job
 
And I was broke and poor
 
‘Cause I didn’t graduate
‘Cause my skills weren’t up to date
‘Cause I couldn’t learn
‘Cause I got kicked out of school
‘Cause I started fighting
‘Cause I was upset and angry
‘Cause they called me names
‘Cause they thought I was dumb
‘Cause I have a learning disability
 
As a teacher of students with learning disabilities, these words hit home. The issue? Amid new school accountability policies and stiffer promotion and graduation requirements … students with learning disabilities have an unacceptably high dropout rate.
 
Sara said this student wrote this poem and never came back to school … She told me that she was going to follow-up on what happened to him. Sara is a star fish thrower. Do you know the story … the Starfish Story adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)? It’s worth repeating here!

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up. As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean. He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?” The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.” “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man. To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.” Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”

Thanks, Sara – keep on throwing,

 

In My Book, Writing a School Improvement Plan IS NOT Busy Work

After a full-week of coming home and staying up past midnight (including two weekends) working on the state mandated School Improvement Plan, we submitted a hard copy to our school district where it will undergo an approval process before it is electronically submitted to the state – 82 days from today.

I have been a member of the School Improvement Plan committee for three years now. At my school, (up until this year) completing it has always been a collaborative labor of love (because at my school, teachers LOVE teaching and WANT to improve their teaching practice and UNDERSTAND the way we are doing school is NOT working). But this year, writing the school improvement plan was more like busy work due to the highly pre-scripted format we followed and the directives we were given.

The plan’s mandated components: our school vision and mission statement, statement of our educational gaps in each academic area, reasons for the educational gap, four goals (reading and writing as one goal, plus math, science and social studies), one objective each goal, four strategies with four activities, the research that supports it, the resources needed to complete the activities, the cost and the staff who are responsible for completing the activities.

We were told that we needed to reduce our 160 page document to 25 pages (or less) as there are only four readers to read 120 plans.

It sounds like a story problem I might give my students: District A has four workers that have 82 days to read 120 plans that total no more than 25 pages. How many pages will each worker read per day? The answer … each worker will read 9.14 pages per day. In the book Around the World in Eighty Days, they travel (at the turn of the century) around the world, by various methods of transportation – including elephants. In 2011, public school readers should be able to read more than 9.14 pages a day, shouldn’t they?

There are loud policy voices calling for international academic standards and assessments bench-marked against other countries’ educational systems with a constant outcry of how far behind US students perform against their global peers. Most current and planned state/federal education initiatives promote academic choice options such as charter schools, international baccalaureate programs, and increased testing/assessment. These efforts, the public is told, will put American students in high paying/high performing professional occupations.

OK, we WANT to improve our teaching practice to address exactly that … and according to the district mandate OUR school’s unique improvement plan NEEDS to be written in 25 words or less … how does that make any real sense?

The good news, we were able to edit our plan from the 160 pages to 82 pages. The bad news is that we were not able to reduce our plan to 25 pages or less (and I am told that some schools have been able to do it, although I can’t comprehend how that is possible).

I am sorry that some reader is now at risk of staying up until midnight to read eighty-two pages that are the fruits of our labor of love – but we are teachers desiring meaningful change and we believe that a school improvement plan should be comprehensible and comprehensive and should include everything our school feels we need to do to ensure that we are leaving no child behind. After all, aren’t we really writing it for the intended audience – ourselves – with the intention of  improving our instruction and assessment practices to better serve our neighborhood children ?

Next year, perhaps “they” will contract someone to write everyone’s plan, you know in the one-plan, one-nation standardization way of “doing school” … then everyone can be on the same page at the same time!  But, to me, standardized school improvement plans just seem to be an oxymoron.

We are raising neighborhood children not corn crops in the Mansanto style of standardizing each kernel! And in my corner of the world, writing about we need to do our job well, can’t be said in 25 pages (or less) or even written in one stone-document because teaching is a blend of art and science and is absolutely a work-in-progress. There is nothing standardized or abbreviated about growing children.

Tomorrow is a new day that brings new problems that will require new solutions and resources that I didn’t imagine (or write down) today. And that is the both the blessing and the curse.

Hello world!

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Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope blogging will be not only my new “hobby” and creative outlet – but a place where ideas about excellent teaching for all students will take seed and grow. For THAT, I need YOU! Please feel free to comment, share your ideas and responses or ask questions and come back and visit! With children in mind, Maestra Sasha