Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reflections of Summer Vacation 2010

It's the night before school and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a...

Well, that's a lie.

The washing machine is running on overtime as my sister (a HS guidance counselor) and I are trying to do loads of laundry.  The dishwasher is buzzing because, well, you can't start the school year with a dirty kitchen.  The dog is on edge because he knows something is about to change.  The fridge is full of healthy lunch choices (because I vowed to stay away from the school lunch line this year).  The toenail polish is freshly drying and the meditation DVD is set and ready for a few hours from now.

It's the night before a new school year; my 8th school year as a teacher.

And I'm excited.  Or anxious.  Or excited and anxious...

I've been trying to reflect on what I've actually done this summer; laying in the sun, cleaning out the garage, reading fiction novels, doing yard work, watching reality TV shows, attending the Reform Symposium from the comfort of my own bed, visiting friends in Marblehead, walking for the Easter Seals Zoo Walk in July, walking in the Buddy Walk sponsored by the Upside of Downs of Greater Cleveland, playing with the dog, eating ice cream, building my PLN, consistently writing blog posts, learning loads of new technology that will fit nicely into my classroom, reading blogs, articles, and books about technology, web 2.0 tools, and special needs, exploring new teaching and assessment strategies, and trying to relax.

Here are my top 5 highlights from the summer of 2010:

1. I started to build a PLN.  This personal learning network is helping me to learn new things every single day.  I read their blogs.  I read their tweets.  I participate in discussions with them on Nings like the "Educator's PLN."  They are from all over the country and even the world.  And they are bringing new ideas to education every single day.  This year, on the days when I feel like my ideas are ridiculous and my beliefs about education are in the minority, I can sign on to Twitter or read these blogs, and know that I am not alone.  I can share ideas, borrow ideas, think through new strategies, and be part of a group that helps me grow.  I am so thankful to have found this world, these people, these blogs, these ideas...

2. The class swim party I had at my house was awesome.  I invited some students from past years, along with my class for the 2010-2011 school year.  In all, 10 of my students, past and present came, along with 9 of their siblings and at least 10 parents.  Our key club helpers also came, along with two of our special education aides.  My sister could not believe how many people were here!  We had so much fun!  The kids were so happy to swim and thought it was exciting to be at the "teacher's" house.  The parents got to chat, meet one another again, network with each other, see the other students, and catch up.  The new parents got to see how our classroom works and how supportive everyone is.  The principal even showed up!  It was a great night!

3.  I read two fantastic books this summer (I actually read 3, but only 2 were fantastic.)  House Rules by Jodi Picoult is one of the best books I've ever had the privilege of reading.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson was also a great book, much different than my usual read, and I can't wait for the movie!  I also wrote a blog post about House Rules...

4. I taught my dog to swim. (Well, it couldn't all be school related or intellectual, could it?)

5.  Thanks to the PLN that I've been working on, I've found some awesome blogs to read that inspire me.  First, the blog written by "Teacher Tom" is just incredible.  This man has ideas that I couldn't even dream about.  Imagine how he empowers students!  Another blog, "Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning" has helped take my lesson plans for this school year to a whole new level.  While I've read hundreds of blogs this summer and added at least 20 to my Google Reader, two more worth mentioning here are "What Ed Said" and "Connected Principals."  I, finally, got my boss to read the "Connected Principals" and he even thanked me for it (although he did note that he reads only 1/10th of the blogs that I actually tell him about).

So, I didn't take any grand vacations or any wild road trips this year, but I did gain a whole lot of knowledge.

I did, indeed, spend a lot of the summer working... My plan was to keep learning and working all summer so that I won't feel so stressed during the school year...

And if this plan works, it will all be worth it.

Maybe it was all worth it anyways...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Setting Up Our Classroom- What Does Your Space Look Like?

As I've been setting up our classroom this past week, I've been trying to decipher what the most important aspects of a classroom for students with special needs are.  I suppose it depends on who you talk to.  If you run a strict ABA program, you probably have more one to one teacher table set ups in your classroom.  If you run a DIR Floortime program, you likely have much more space and place more of an emphasis on your play or leisure time area.  I run something called the "Blended Model Method" which includes some ABA aspects, some DIR Floortime aspects, mostly TEACCH based and Sensory Integration driven.  Plus, I throw in the curriculum (or the more appropriate, "standards"), some functional skill work, and social skills. (You can click here for some of the other programs we use.)

Mash all those things up and hope for...

...A student who is able to read, count coins, add, subtract, use the computer for more than just playing PBSKids, respond appropriately in social settings, share toys with friends, and monitor his/her own sensory needs in ANY setting.  Hope for generalization (before 4th grade).

So, what in the world should this classroom look like?

Well, we need a "one to one teacher table" and an "independent work station", of course.  One to one teacher table is where most of my instruction takes place.  I instruct the skills in the content standards at the one to one teacher table.  Then, once those skills are mastered, we move them to the independent work station.  We have one of each, for 7 students. In both one to one teacher table and independent work station, students master activities like shoebox tasks and file folder games.  Here is our shelf of homemade shoebox tasks (as you may be able to see, some are numbered, some aren't.  That was our first attempt at organization in the first year we opened this classroom).

Next, I've attempted to make 3 small group areas this year.  Because our students have been so inundated with one to one therapy, they are not used to working in small groups.  We can also do one to one teacher time on the carpet in a more unstructured space. I believe we need more small groups and more time for problem solving.  Here's one space for that.

We'll use this small group area daily for circle time and calendar skills.  This is the only "cutesy" bulletin board we have, but I believe it's useful as well.  I believe in making the room useful and meaningful to students, not just cluttered with cute.

We, then of course, have to merge my passion for technology with kids with special needs and throw in our computer area.  Because of a grant I wrote 2 years ago, and some foraging, we will have 7 computers in our classroom this year.  That's right, 7.  I will see 7 students, and we have 7 computers.  That, in a word, is awesomeness.  We'll be starting e-portfolios using this year! We also have a SMARTboard, Leap pads, Leapsters, a Touch Screen, BoardMaker Activity Pads, etc.
Think we've used up all our space yet?  No way.  We still need a gross motor area, right? 
We also have a ball pit back there, but the swing needs to be removed to use it.  A sand table completes that corner, only because there was no other area for it.  Then, there's our new sensory table.  We're starting off with bird seed on one side and feathers on the other.  I can't wait to see who will make the connection first.

Next, I needed to make sure I had space for each of the 7 students' visual schedules.  A visual schedule is set up for each student each day indicating what will come next.  A visual schedule might have picture icons (we use BoardMaker Plus v.6) to show Circle Time, computer, bathroom, wash hands, read book, Music Class. (In place of picture icons, you could also use an object schedule, photo schedule, or word schedule, depending on the students' level.) Students remove the icons as they finish and place them in the plastic envelope below the schedule.  At the end of the schedule, our day is done (depending on how many icons the student can handle).  Here is an example of an empty visual schedule.  This student's schedule has Legos because I know he loves to build with Lego blocks.
Lastly, I'm feeling a little guilty this year.  We have no play or leisure time area.  I just don't have the room.  We have the toys, we have the games and the puzzles and the strategies to teach kids how to play, but I will have to be really disciplined and structured when we have a leisure time.  We"ll have to give limited choices ("Please choose puzzles or Play-Doh today").  I'll have to make room in our small group areas.

Of course, we'll make it work.  I am thankful to have a classroom (and not a closet).  I am thankful to have a job.  I am thankful that we have the amount of materials and games and puzzles... I am thankful that not one of these students is "self-contained" because we have managed to get them each included at some point during the school day (because they can be, and because they can be successful).

Now, just in case I missed something...

Are there other areas that you would include?  What's your rationale?  What would you do with the other bulletin boards in the room?  Do you have questions about our space?  Your space?  Can I help?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How Do You Answer the Haters? Like This...

Today I was alerted to the fact that on our community has its own page.  The Brecksville page is actually pretty cool and boasts the happenings and goings on in Brecksville.

Towards the bottom of the page is a section called "The Brecksville Forum."  In this Forum, there are many postings from members of the community about our school district, school levy, and teachers.

The following is my response to all of the banter (even though I was asked to keep it short, factual, and calm).

"After reading much of this banter back and forth about school levies and teacher salaries, I'm sad. I'm a teacher, and I can't believe this is the conversation that is being had about our school district.

First, of all the people that I've heard against the school levy and in favor of cutting teacher salaries, do you know how many of those people have observed in our building? Zero. How many have observed in my classroom? None.

Do you know what school is like now?

It's surely not the same as when I was in gradeschool just 20 short years ago. How long has it been since you attended 3rd grade? I can assure you, it's different.

But you wouldn't know. Because you don't visit. You don't observe. You don't even speak to the teachers whom you denegrate on a regular basis in open forums such as these.

You make claims that we "only work 6 hours a day." We can be compared to "babysitters" and "day care workers." We do the job of "janitorial staff" and should get paid closer to "$15 an hour" than the salary that we make.

I can assure you, my B.A., M.A. and continuing education credits can support the fact that I am more than a babysitter. And if I made $15 and hour for the actual hours I worked, I might even make more than my actual salary.

6 hours a day? I'm laughing.

I teach kids with special needs. I need to know about each and every one of their needs, their allergies, their physical needs, their cognitive capabilities, their home lives, their social skills, their fine motor and gross motor capabilities, their speech and language abilities, and their interests and disinterests. I also need to know their behaviors, triggers, and motivators. I plan each day for 8 little bodies, 4 of whom are nonverbal. Two have augmentative assistive communication devices. Two are still eating pureed foods and are not toilet trained yet. All 8 of my students know how to use computers, can spell and are well on the road to becoming readers. 2 of my students also come from bi-lingual homes.

Every single one of my students is included in the school day. Though, I wouldn't expect our adversaries to know the difference between mainstreaming and inclusion.

Every single student gets math, reading, speaking, spelling, writing, math, fine motor, gross motor, speech and language, science, social studies, and social skills standards built into his/her day. That's 12 subjects for 8 different students.

We also work on feeding, manners, toileting, hand washing, and other functional skills AND whatever else the parents ask for.

We write individualized education plans (IEPs) and complete multi-factored evaluations (MFEs). We write Evaulation Team Reports (ETRs) and collaborate as Response to Intervention (RtI) teams.

I maintain two blogs, one for parents, and one professional, and a twitter account JUST to stay on top of the special education world and on top of my "game" professionally. I train myself on assistive technologies and spend the summer doing my own professional development, often working 6-7 hours daily on this time we supposedly all have "off" to be vacationing and sunning.

In the meantime, I also manage 6 special education aides in our building. I also lead our special education team of professionals. I also lead our school philanthropy team.

I make schedules, maintain technology, clean desks, wipe little behinds, plan snack time, integrate technology like SMARTboards, computers, e-portfolios, assistive tech. devices, give hugs, teach reading, teach 21st Century Skills like problem solving and critical thinking, count coins, celebrate birthdays, create learning materials, collaborate with other professionals (i.e. teachers and therapists), plan in occupational therapy, physical therapy, music therapy, and therapeutic horseback riding for my students, AND communicate with parents, community members, and home program coordinators.

And believe me. I am NOT complaining. I LOVE this job. I couldn't LOVE it more. I love these kids, I love their hugs, I love feeling their successes and celebrating with their parents.

And you measure our district's success by our National Merit Finalists?

But my students will never be National Merit Finalists.

And my worth can never be determined by how many honor students there are at the high school.

Maybe, just maybe, the next time you think about undervaluing a teacher, you'll think about a teacher who spends 14 hours in the building or at home, for the good of his/her students. You'll think about a teacher that wants nothing more than to see her students walk independently, read independently, speak OUT LOUD. You'll think about a teacher who is doing the best he can...

You'll think about a teacher who is not complaining about her salary.

So maybe you shouldn't be either."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Should an Elementary School have a Facebook Page?

Should an Elementary School have a Facebook Page?

This is a question I asked myself and quickly answered "YES!  Why wouldn't we?"

This is a question I asked my principal, and he answered "Let me think about it."

I can certainly understand that there is much to think about here.  We live in a relatively conservative suburb where the community is growing in its dissent for what we do as educators in a time of economic instability.  Could this social media tool be used against us in ANY way?

My principal is certainly PRO Facebook for the school, yet he said that he needs to "think about any possible ramifications and then brainstorm solutions to any problems BEFORE we go ahead with the page creation."

Note: The Facebook page in question would be for the use of the parents, grandparents, teachers, staff, and community.  Our students are currently below the age limit restriction set by Facebook.

I'd like to help with a list of PROs and CONs (with help from members of my PLN- @Grade1, @tgwynn, @TJGoertz, @budtheteacher- Thank you very much!).

Why an Elementary School SHOULD Have a Facebook Page:


1. Better Communication.  Yes, we have a website, but a Facebook page would be another tool to sharing our resources with our parents, grandparents, teachers, staff, supporters, and community.  This blog post from "The Pursuit of Technology Integration Happiness" certainly supports this improvement in communication.

2.  Why Facebook?  Because many people are already on Facebook, it makes this tool our most effective option.  Why click onto yet another Ning or website when you can click right from your FB page to check the date and time of your child's Meet the Teacher night?

3.  Engage with parents, families, and the community- Check out this blog titled "Parents, Social Media, and School Messaging."

4.  Here's a short list of some other elementary schools that I've found on Facebook:

Samson Elementary School in Samson, Alabama. (Most recent posts include supply lists for next school year, photos from field day from June, notes of Thanks to organizations)

Hilton Head International Baccalaureate Elementary on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (Most recent posts include notes to encourage summer reading, pictures from end of school year, reminders for events)

Eastside Elementary School in Dalton, Georgia (most recent posts include congrats to a teacher on a new baby, postings about the new common core standards, posted articles about technology in education, photos from end of school year)

Eastern Elementary School in Greentown, Indiana (most recent posts include news about the upcoming school year, summer cam reminders, and photos)

J.P. Miller Elementary in Bradenton, FL.

St. Linus Catholic Elementary School in Norwalk, CA

Bluffton Elementary School in Muskegon, MI

Dodge Elementary School in Mobile, AL

Floranada Elementary School in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Arapahoe Elementary School in Arapahoe, NC

West Hartsville Elementary School in Hartsville, SC

Cummings Elementary School in Grand Rapids, MI

Oakland Heights Elementary School in Russelville, AL

Wacousta Elementary School in Eagle, MI

Legacy Elementary School in Bossier City, LA

Fern Persons Elementary in Olivet, MI

Alexander Hamilton Elementary School in Chicago, IL

I only went through the search results from 1-60 of over 500..

6. It's 2010 and we are going to be promoting 21st Century Skills and Web 2.0 skills in the classroom.  Shouldn't we lead with our walk instead of just with the talk?

CONs (and solutions to the problems):

1. If we don't make our own page and take control, a student may take it upon themselves to create a page. (Solution: We take the control as proactively as possibly.)

2.  Students may be more attracted to Facebook if they know the school has a page.  (Solution: Teach students to properly use social media.  Use as a learning tool.)

3.  We cannot moderate Facebook from school because our computers have blocked Facebook. (Solution: Moderator can moderate from mobile phone during planning and lunch times.)

4. Facebook is blocked at school.  Why would we use it as a tool?  (Solution: Many social media tools are blocked in our school system because of the Acceptable User Policy for STUDENTS.  This Facebook page would be maintained for the parents of elementary school students to make, maintain, and improve connections.)

5. Some people might not want photos of their child posted on the Facebook page.  (Solution: On the Photo Permission Form that goes home in the beginning of the school year about the yearbook, we could add one sentence giving permission for NAMELESS photos to appear on Facebook.  Parents could sign off -or not- there.)

6.  Couldn't you use a Ning or instead to ensure safety of information? (Answer:  Sure, but then we'd be missing the point that MANY people are on Facebook making our PUBLIC information that much more accessible. We'd have to invite and allow members to join which would require much more moderation than time allows.)

7.  It takes TIME to moderate a Facebook page or Ning or or any other social media tool.  Who is going to take the time?  (Solution:  Luckily, you have a volunteer.  Otherwise, we could ask for other volunteers.  We could also ask for more ideas of things to place on the FB page, although we want to keep the information factual.)

8. Someone could be offended by some content on the page. (Solution: The moderator can remove the content.  We're not trying to change the world here.  We're trying to make our communication with parents and the community more efficient and friendly.)

9.  Parents or Students could see that Teachers or other staff members have personal Facebook accounts.  Parents or Students could try to "friend" Teachers or other staff members.  (Solution: If Teachers do not feel comfortable "friending" Parents or Students, they can simply click "Ignore" or explain that they do not "friend" Parents or Students on their personal FB account.  If a Teacher or staff member needed more guidance in this area, I might point them to this blog post "Social Networking Guidelines for School Employees.")

10.  Some people don't have Facebook.  (Solution:  We still have a school website.  We still have Hilton Hi-Lights.  We still have a PSO folder going home weekly.  There are plenty of other sources of information.)

11.  Facebook has a 13 year old age limit.  (Solution:  Our target audience for this page is parents, grandparents, teachers, staff members, and the community, NOT the students.)

Please leave your comments and opinions on this topic to help us decide what to do! :)

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Reflections from the Reform Symposium 2010

I seem to be having some trouble starting my reflections of the RSCON10 in written form, though it seems like the only thing my mind has been focused on since the conference ended at 5pm EDT yesterday, is the wealth of information that I gained over the two days that I was able to participate.  

I originally thought I was going to go through each session I attended, summarize, and tell what I learned.

I seem to be laughing at myself now.

All of the presentations are running together, but my ideas are also moving and shaking inside my head.

Instead, what I think I'll do is, first, make a list of the presentations that I attended with links to their archives (or I will link them as they become available) so that you can view them too.  Then, I will make a list of things I learned/ Ideas I've had as a result of the sessions.  This way, I have some things in writing, instead of just swimming around inside my skull.

Presentations I attended on July 31st and Aug. 1st of the Reform Symposium 2010 while still in pajamas in the comfort of my own home, for FREE:

1. What the Heck is a 21st Century Skill Anyway? presented by Angela Maiers

2. Backchannel in the Classroom presented by Richard Byrnes

3. New Teacher Survival Kit presented by Lisa Dabbs and Joan Young

4. HOTTS (Higher Order Thinking Technology Skills) presented by Kevin Creutz

5. Playing to Learn presented by Maria Anderson

6. Students Redefine School presented by Monika Hardy and Students

7. Abolishing and Replacing Grading presented by Joe Bower

8. Innovative Practices in Education- The Power of Students Producing for Authentic Audiences for Authentic Assessments presented by Paula White

9. This Ain't Your Mother's Classroom: Why You Need to Use Social Media In Your Classroom presented by Tim Gwynn

10. Education: Timeless and Priceless presented by Steve Anderson

Things I Learned/ Ideas I Want to Try/ Ideas I've Had as a Result of RSCON10:

1. Hello Wolfram Alpha.  Why have I never heard of this math site before?  And why do none of the teachers I work with know about it?  And if I get to school and someone already knew about it and didn't share, I am going to be pretty upset... Wolfram Alpha.  I'm not exactly sure of all the ways I can use you yet, but I know you'll be valuable.

2.  I am not alone.  Although I feel alone in my school building many many days, I am not alone.  With at least 105 or so people in every session that I attended, and people keeping up with the backchannels during the sessions, and then following up on twitter and writing blogs about ALL OF THIS LEARNING, I can clearly see (or read) that I am not alone.  This gives me hope.  Hope keeps me going.

3. I've always been strongly against grading, but I need to do my homework and research.  As a special education teacher, I spend so much time assessing and all of my assessments are formative.  I am constantly assessing throughout each and every month, constantly recording data, constantly making notes, doing informal observations, having to remember to write data down from the playground, the hallway, the gym, the cafeteria, the lunch line, etc.  I report data quarterly to parents, produce a narrative 3 times a year, produce an entire IEP with present levels of performance data, and do 4 report cards.  I hate the report cards because so many of my students don't meet the proper criterion for their grade levels.  They get "adjusted grades," but what does that even mean?  They get an adjusted curriculum with adjusted expectations and take an Alternate Assessment in the state of Ohio.  Grades are... useless.  But, I need the information and the opinions and the research to back up the statements I make... Joe Bower inspired me to do that homework. And when I do, I will join his Moratorium on Grading.  But I want to have a definitive stance.

4. One of my goals for the year is to show another teacher how to backchannel.  My thought is that I would like to teach our computer lab aide how to backchannel and see if she can get it moving in the computer lab.  I am still brainstorming all of this, but I think third graders would be able to do this.  I think they could be discussing the story they read each week, the social studies topics, the science topics, questions about math topics, etc., etc., etc.  

5.  I also think that backchannelling is a great way to differentiate.  If all of the students have "pen names" or code names (think Justin Beiber or Miley Cyrus), and the teacher has a list of all the code names, then students are able to share their opinions or questions freely.  As the teacher lectures, the students can ask questions anonymously (though the teacher would know who is asking).  I also believe that backchannelling could be used for formative assessment.

6.  I attended the New Teacher Survival Kit session although I am not a new teacher.  In 3 weeks, I'll begin my 8th year as a teacher.  But, I think the things discussed in this session were worth hearing again.  Plus, it reminded me of the positive attitude that I need to start the school year with.  Sure, we might be in the middle of negotiations.  We might be facing some difficult editorials written by community members.  We might even be facing over 35 RIFs in the last 2 years.  And yet, I need to start the year with a positive attitude in the interest of my students.  I want the best year for my students.  Start positively (and stay out of the teachers' lounge).

7.  I loved the reminders about Bloom's Taxonomy from the HOTTS presentation.  I think that I don't think about this enough.  I think about developmental milestones and Ohio Content Standards and functional skills and components of an autism program and all of the needs of all of the students with special needs, and I don't think often enough about incorporating higher order thinking skills.  I want to incorporate these skills more for our students.

8.  Although this quote was attributed to Cel Foster, a teacher from Fremont, Ohio, she says that is was not her quote, but someone else's (no matter whose quote it is, I LOVE it), "We need to stand in front of students, NOT as master teacher, but as a MASTER LEARNER."

9.  Awesome quote by Monika Hardy - "Learning is the New Teaching."

While there were certainly more than 9 things that I can take away from this weekend's Reform Symposium, I need even more time to process it all.  I need to read others' blogs, revisit the things I saved, revisit everything I tagged in delicious, and start the school year to see what challenges lie ahead.

What I do know?

This weekend's Reform Symposium was well worth the time I spent laying in pajamas in front of my laptop.

I learned more this weekend than I have in the last  year's worth of PD at my school AND in the 2 years of my Ed. Tech. Masters Program.

Thanks to those who presented, organized, participated, moderated, and listened. Thank you. Thank you!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Autistic Students OR Students WITH Autism???

Today I saw a tweet about the Educator's PLN group "Autism", I'm assuming in the hopes of getting more people to join the group and engage in discussion about students with autism.

But something bothered me immensely.

And, although I LOVE the shout out and am glad that this group is being supported, we were called...

"Educators of Autistic Students."


I KNOW they are only words.  But the words matter.

Why not refer to our students as students WITH autism?

I would rather teach a boy.

I would rather teach a girl.

I would rather teach a child.

I would rather teach a person.

Instead of "that Downs boy" or "those autistic kids" or "you know, that little flapping autistic girl," couldn't we say "the boy with the big smile and huge heart that happens to have Down syndrome?

OR the girl with the beautiful brown curls that has autism?

OR the tall boy with the freckles in your class?

Because they are people FIRST.

They are children FIRST.

And maybe they are just words.

But words matter.

Labels, Be Gone...

Spread the Word to End the Word-

People First Language-

And here's another opinion from the Washington Times-