Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I can't find the right words...

Today is Wednesday, Dec. 28th, 2011. 

10 days ago, my dad died.

[no, that's not right. delete it.]

I am 30 years old.  My dad was 61 when he died last week.

[no, awful. delete.]

This blog is usually about education, but today's post will be something I just need to get out.

[no. delete.]

I can't find the words.  I can't find the right words to even begin this post.  It's about my dad.  My dad, who died 10 days ago, at the age of 61.  I can't find the right words to tell this story and so, if you don't already know the story, you may have no idea what I'm writing.  And that's okay. Because I am writing this one for me. 

My dad has been sick. He had two major strokes, liver damage, lung damage, heart disease, high blood pressure.  He mad some bad choices in his life.

And he also made some great ones.  He was a good man.

My dad was smart.  He was smarter than he knew and he taught me a lot of things, not by talking, talking, talking about them, but by showing us (my older sister and I) what was important.  I wonder what her list would look like... I am sure this list was different 11 days ago.  And it may even be different 11 days from now.

The Top 10 Things I Think My Dad Taught Me in somewhat random order... 

10. Pet the dog under his collar.  Everyone else forgets that the dog needs to be scratched there.  Rub his neck under his collar and he will be your dog. Forever.  (Dad, Pepper and Otis will always be your dogs.)

9. If you are holding the hand of someone you love, no matter who it is, squeeze their hand 3 times.  This means "I. Love. You."  (Dad, I even do this to my students. :) )

8. It's okay to cry. It's even okay for boys to cry. Or men.  Cry at commercials, cry at the movies, cry wherever you want. Just don't make a big scene and don't forget your hankie. (Dad, I'm crying now. Big surprise.)

7. Drink in moderation.  (Okay, let's be honest Dad, neither of us were very good at this.)

6. Do Your Best.  Every day.  In every thing.  DYB.  (Dad, I will. I promise.)

5.  Turn off the lights.  And recycle.  Funny, he wasn't all that eco-friendly, but these two things were so important to him.  I guess it was what he could do to help save the Earth. (Dad, I wonder if they ever made a building or a new book from all the aluminum and newspapers that you recycled.)

4. Be thoughtful.  Even this year, when my dad was ill and wearing pajamas 24/7, he managed to order us flowers and goodie baskets to be delivered for Sweetest Day.  And he always sent a card.  There's still a card on his night stand for his best friend/next door neighbor who would helped him.  I have to remember to send that card. (Dad, you didn't even know how thoughtful you could be, even if you told mom to buy all the cards and you just signed your name.)

3. Education comes first.  I really believe my dad's life goal included sending my sister and I to college and seeing us graduate.  Cool that he also got to see our diplomas when we each got a Master's Degree as well.  He never let us forget that school comes first. No wonder I'm a teacher and Sarah's a guidance counselor!  School comes first.  (Dad, Family comes first. Then School.)

2. Be generous.  There are a lot of people that don't have what we have.  Don't pity them.  Help them out.  My dad would take turkeys to St. Augustine.  He would take socks and new clothes there.  He would take school supplies to help "Stuff the Bus."  He helped my uncle start a business and my aunt buy a house.  He let his brother live in our house and gave him money even when he didn't deserve it.  He helped put the roof on our church.  He would give extra money, and time, to any one who needed it.  He loved my kids and wanted to hand me money or help every time I saw him. (Dad, this is one of the most important things in the world to me.  And so many people remember this about you and will never forget.)

1. Say "I love you."  Never stop saying it.  Say it 4 times in a half hour visit if you want to.  Call the answering machine just to say it. And show it.  But don't forget to say it. (Dad, now that you're gone, there is no question whether you loved us or not.  We know. And we love you.  A Lot.)

My dad died 10 days ago, and I didn't know it would feel this bad.

[This sucks.]

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Our Experience with the Global Read Aloud!

So, 4 weeks ago, we started the Global Read Aloud Project for 2011.


During the summer months, I sent the parents of my students a lengthy "Summer Newsletter" to describe some things that would be going on in our classroom ("Room 5," a resource room for students with moderate-intensive special needs) this year.  The newsletter contained information on the Global Read Aloud Project aka "The Flat Stanley Project."

I was unsure about participating in this project, but wanted to continue to find ways to teach my students some 21st Century Skills like collaboration, making global connections, and increased communication.  I saw this project on twitter, created by Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) and thought, "we could give that a try."

In the weeks leading up to the project, I checked the participant list and map repeatedly.  Would there be other special education classes participating?  Who would we "make connections" with?  Would our projects look small, less, or not up to par with those learning in a general education classroom?  Would we be able to create these projects, and how would I modify all these things to meet the individual needs of my students?

I'm not sure why I felt these uncertainties.  I should know by now that my kids ALWAYS stretch AND reach all expectations placed on them.  Why not raise the bar to have them stretch and even leap to meet it?

So, we dove in with Flat Stanley.  I wasn't sure, originally, about the book choice.  Would we understand this book seeing as though my students are so "literal" and do not relate well to "fantasy" stories?  But instead, I collected all the "Stanley" books around the elementaries in the district that I could find to show that Stanley is really quite a popular guy.  Then, I decided that we would do what we could in the interest of making this a fun and interesting project.  If the kids didn't like it, we would stop.  No harm, no foul.

On day 1, I introduced Flat Stanley and the "Flat Stanley Bag."   The "Flat Stanley Bag" contained a hard laminated "Stanley," Flat Stanley the chapter book, directions for parents, a digital camera (I bought at Target for only $40 for fear of losing/breaking it), and "Stanley's Adventure Notebook."  On Stanley's first day with us, we took lots of photos around the classroom and wrote our piece in the Adventure Notebook as an example of what the kids would do at home with Stanley.  Also on day 1, we looked through Stanley's original picture book and the chapter book.  We made some predictions and did some talking about real vs. make believe books.

On day 2, we gave the "Flat Stanley Bag" to our first of seven "Room 5 Friends" to take home for the week.  We also began to read chapter 1. 

As the days passed on, we read and reread chapters to make sure that we understood the main events.  Vocabulary in the story was changed so that I could ensure my students would understand the story (example, I changed the word "parcel" to "package.").  We spent the entire first week on chapter one and made the class book "Flat Stanley is as Flat as..."  Some students needed visual choices for this activity and others needed verbal choices.  Some students were able to generate an idea on their own and some needed to see examples of other students' work.  By the end of that week, Flat Stanley was as flat as a pancake, a hamburger, a mirror, an iPad, and an envelope.

Third graders with e-portfolios were blogging every other day about Stanley and his adventures.  They made predictions based on pictures and chapter titles and posted them on their Weebly sites.

By week 2, we were ready to see what would happen to Stanley next!  We read chapters 2 and 3, modified ideas we found online, and came up with a few original ideas.  We made some "life-size" paintings of Stanley, each child able to make color choices and paint choices on his/her own.  One third grader made his own "Flat Jaguar Stanley" and laughed and laughed at his own idea.  We also worked on another class book, "If I was Flat like Flat Stanley, I would..."  We had students helping others, being flat like an iPad, hiding in the gym with Flat Martin (our principal has his own flat life sized cut out), taking care of roosters, and riding on the school bus. 

At the end of week 2, we planned to Skype with two different classes.  I was fearful about "skyping" with general education kids for fear that they would not understand... Another silly uncertainty!

Our two first graders and two kindergarten students "skyped" to Ms. Wilson's class in Atlanta, Georgia.  They shared our two class books and our life sized paintings.  Then, Ms. Wilson's small group of first graders asked some questions about our town and our weather.  We found out that it was "getting cold in Georiga.  It was almost 70 degrees!"  We laughed and shared that it would get to 38* that night in the Cleveland area!

Our 3 third grade students "skyped" to Mrs. Bond's third graders in Michigan!  Our third graders again shared the two class books and life sized paintings.  We also got to experience the joys of technology and practice our "waiting skills" while our Skype connection was a little shaky.

The last activity we did during week 2 was coloring our paper Stanley's and getting them ready to be mailed to our family and friends.  Some students mailed Stanley to siblings, aunts and uncles, and grandparents.  One student mailed his to our special education aide's son in the Marines is Missouri.  Another went to the home of our speech therapist, Miss K, and still another went to our friends in Ms. Dunsinger's Room in Cananda!

During week 3, we read a very long and detailed chapter 4.  We read this chapter up to 3 times depending on grade level to make sure we understood the main events.  We posted on blogs and created flat characters of ourselves!  Check out the flat versions of my students!

During week 4, we finished reading chapter 5 and our third grade friends created a Photo Story of the work we had completed.

Wait, the project was supposed to be over after week 4... But we didn't share our Flat Stanley Bag and Adventure Notebook yet!  And we didn't get our Flat Stanley's back from our family and friends yet!  And we didn't get to check out Ms. Dunsinger's kiddos blogs about our very own Flat Stanley!

Now, as I sit at home on this cold and windy Saturday night, I'm thinking, can we even finish this up in FIVE weeks?  Will we push it to SIXSEVEN?

And I thought this might not go well????  We LOVE Flat Stanley!!!

Another cool thing about this project is that I managed to convince another teacher in our school to participate.  I was hoping to convince more than one, but even getting one is such an accomplishment!  Mrs. Pagel and her second graders also participated in the Global Read Aloud project, posted projects on the Global Read Aloud wiki, created Photo Stories, created a Voice Thread, AND Skyped!!!  Oh, AND made a Wall Wisher, AND made life sized "flat" characters of some teachers around the building AND came to Buddy Read with us during week 3!  Thanks Mrs. Pagel!


So, in essence, the point I am trying to get to with this blog- OUR KIDS CAN DO ANYTHING!

And, I'm still not sure if any other special education classes participated, but, next year, I am going to be sure to encourage them to!

We cannot wait until next year's GRA and look forward to making even more connections throughout the year!

(Note to skeptics: This project included reading comprehension, listening comprehension, reading fluency, problem solving, story elements, written expression, literary genres, making global connections, practicing social skills, addressing an envelope, writing a letter, blogging, fine motor skills, and communication!!!!)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Our 2011 Classroom Set Up!

Room 5 has a Pirate Theme this year!

Here is our classroom space as it was set up for the first day of school...

Although, we've already made some major changes...

This is the Circle time/ Play Area.

We've gotten rid of our ball chairs this year, for safety purposes.  We loaned them out to other classrooms until we can reintroduce them.  We have also covered the play area with chart paper and curtains.  This way, during circle time, students are not staring at toys.

 This is our computer area, where we have 4 desk tops that were purchased with grant money.

 This is the gross motor area.  We can change the platform swing into a net swing.

 This is the independent work station.

The Pirate House, used as a "safe space" for one of the students in Kindergarten.  It has since lost it's roof.  Also, the cute inflatable pirate next to the house has found a new home.  The little banner also has been removed as have the pictures of cartoon pirates that we Velcro'd to the door.

 SMART board and small group table.  Alphabet Chant above.  Visual schedule icon storage to the right.

Calendar and weather area.  iPad station in the right corner.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dear Superintendent... AND his Response...

Aug. 2011

Dear Superintendent,

I wanted to write you a quick email to let you know how much I enjoyed the meeting this morning.  I felt motivated and positive, after having laughed with you, to go back to school and get to work.  As you know, I love the students I work with and can't wait for them to get here on Wednesday.

I want to share something with you however, and it is, in NO WAY, meant to criticize or offend you.  I want to share something that I truly hope with you, my "dream" if you will...

Someday I hope that, at a district staff meeting, we will hear the true accomplishments of the students, teachers, and staff here. 

Here's what I mean...

Sure, I am proud of the kids who took AP classes and received scholarships.  I am proud to have been one of those students who learned and flourished at our High School and I am proud to say I had great teachers.  I am proud to say that most of our students are high achievers, have great families, get scholarships, and are part of the National Honor Society as I was.  I am proud to think that most of our students "pass the test." 

But someday, I hope that you will talk about the real accomplishments of the district.

I hope you will talk about the kids with "disabilities" who can be serviced by our Schools and who don't need to be sent to a "private school" to learn.

I hope you will talk about the Kindergartener with autism who came to school completely nonverbal and, in one short school year, learned how to communicate using an iPad.

How about the kids who come to school speaking another language only, who somehow, with the help of that preschool, kindergarten, or first grade teacher, learn and communicate in English in such a short time?

I hope you will talk about that kiddo with Down syndrome who came to school as a Kindergartener throwing shoes, but who left for Central being fully included in his Science and Social Studies class with his "neurotypical peers," the girl who used to jump off of tables in the hopes of reaching the candy on the highest shelf who can now sit and wait her turn to get her birthday treat, the boy who read an entire decodable reader on his own when some doctor told his parents he never would...

Someday I hope you will talk about the students who bring smiles to our faces just because they are alive and thriving in PUBLIC school.

I know that these are not the things the "public" wants to hear, but they are the things that keep many of us in our schools, working hard, every single day.

Just my two cents...

Here's his response... to the WHOLE district... :)  THANK YOU!

Congratulations on another great start! 
As I traveled from building to building this week I witnessed true professionals relay high expectations for learning in many, many ways.  Whether during Chippewa’s parent night, Hilton’s preschool transition efforts, individual kindergarten assessments being conducted at Highland, or through personal first day conversations about student needs with teachers at the middle school, it is all very impressive.  I observed high school class meetings and study halls facilitated with clarity of information and direction and I enjoyed standing in the halls at Central as teachers gently conducted fourth grade first day of school tours.
“You guys” don’t get the pleasure of watching “you guys” work.  It is truly inspiring.  PLC questions are posted in rooms throughout the district. “I Can” statements are visible on chalk boards and bulletin boards in easy to understand student terms.  Parents are buzzing around assisting with start-up needs, while cafeteria, maintenance, custodial, secretarial, and transportation personnel work diligently behind the scenes to adjust schedules and processes to accommodate students and staff.  And don’t forget the changes that BeeKeeper staff members are incorporating with half-day kindergarten schedule changes. 
We aren’t operating on all eight cylinders yet but; it’s just around the corner.  Thank you all for all that you contribute!
After convocation, I thought about a portion of our student population that I wish I would have more fully included in my remarks regarding academic performance.  It didn’t hit me until I received an email from a staff member followed by a visit to the middle school cafeteria. 
Special needs students in our district are part and parcel to our excellent rating.  Advances gained at our middle school last year as a result of an entire staff’s work to incorporate learning labs and to maintain laser-like focus on instruction and intervention necessary to increase capacity for success helped us regain our excellent status. 
Special education teachers, instructional aides, intervention specialists and regular education teachers working together district-wide are making a difference. Successes like the Kindergartener with autism who came to school completely nonverbal who, in one short school year, learned how to communicate using an iPad or the child with Down syndrome who came to school as a Kindergartener throwing shoes, but who left for Central being fully included in his Science and Social Studies classes with his "neurotypical peers," are examples of seldom heard accomplishments. 
High school students who earn scholarships to college and tearful IEP meetings where parents and teachers share personal, incremental success occur year after year in our district. These and countless other stories like them bring smiles to our faces just because special needs students are alive and thriving in our district.  Again, there is much to be done.  But, you can stand with pride knowing you are connected with this type of efficacy and excellence.
Our first three day weekend of the year is here.  Enjoy the reprieve.  You’ve earned it.  As stated earlier in this submission, we enjoyed a great start.  Please visit the District’s website and view the “First Day” video. I hope you find it entertaining.  It provides a three minute representation of the fun I enjoy when I take advantage of opportunities to be with you and students.  Have a WONDERFUL WEEKEND. 
Thanks again for all that you do!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reflections of This School Year

There were lots of things I did this school year that I LOVED!

Then, there were other things...

And it's important to reflect on what went well and what didn't go so well to be able to become better. A better teacher.  A better learner.  A better me.

First, I'll start by showing you this- My 2010-2011 School Year Goals. Yes, it's true, I sort of wrote an "IEP" for myself.  

I set goals for myself and hoped to accomplish them by the end of the school year.  I found myself opening this document, reading it, and closing it, opening, reading, and closing, etc., etc., etc. 

I found myself changing priorities over the school year. 

I found that, the only person who was accountable for this list, was me.  IS me.  

And the only person who can make me any better, or any worse, is me.

So, how did I do?

  1. Increase parent/family/community communication and engagement
Well, let's see.  I did update our classroom blog page weekly and you can see it at  This was good, but way too easy.  I did not manage to print the Weekly Newsletter for the one family who does not have a computer.  Honestly, I did not believe they would be interested in the newsletter, and that was probably just irresponsible of me. 

I did manage to get a Swim Party together at my house and 10 of my current and former students along with their parents and siblings attended.  This was a great move and really helped parents to get to know each other.  It was also something that the kids remembered all year long and asked about for this summer.  

I also sent group emails to parents and maintained "Friday Folders" that went home weekly with all of the papers, handouts, and extras from the classroom.  This is the best way for us to do this with all of the other folders and books that go home every day from the other classrooms.

I did not manage to plan monthly outings and I did not have a monthly door decorator.  I also did not schedule any "mystery readers" nor did we manage to have third grade e-portfolios ready for "student-led parent teacher conferences."

On the this goal, I would this "Not Yet Mastered."

    2.  Integrate more technology.

Thankfully, we have the resources here, and I have the passion for this goal to be possible.  But did we do it? 

My first objective was to check into to set up some e-portfolios for my 3 third grade students.  Done!  We set them up, chose our backgrounds, learned how to manage text, paragraphs, photos, icons, and took our spelling tests here weekly.  We added some of our best work and lots of photos.  And we'll pass these on to our fourth grade teachers to see our work!

These 3 e-portfolios were going so well that we added our second graders as well.  I set up 2 more sites on for my 2 second grade students.  We will get to continue working on them next school year.

I set up our BoardMaker activity pads and got good use out of them for the 2 quarters of school... until we discovered, wrote a grant for, and received our iPads... 

We learned and relearned all of the computer vocabulary that we had worked on last year and know the parts of a computer and now, an iPad.

We were also able to integrate web sites for literacy such as Wordle, Glogster, and VoiceThread this year with all of our students, K-3, in Room 5.

We used the Flip Camera all year and the end of the year video was a success!

Goal 2 was definitely successful!

    3.  Integrate more functional skills.

This is a tricky one.  I always find it difficult to balance academic work, behavioral and social skills work, and functional skills (like hand washing, setting the table, pouring milk, becoming independent with daily tasks).  

There are only so many hours in the day.  And I STRONGLY believe that our kids with moderate/intensive special needs (or whatever you may call them), should be learning things that are "standards-based" just like all the other kids in the school.  They need to learn to read because they CAN read.  And what about addition, subtraction, telling time, counting coins, graphing, multiplication, etc.  But then, identifying feelings in yourself and others, sharing, turn-taking, self-calming, learning intrinsic motivation, making friends, sustaining play, playing cooperatively, etc., etc., etc. are all important too.  And then when do I teach setting the table, washing your hands, folding towels, sorting laundry by color, sorting silverware in the silverware tray, reading food labels, identifying safety signs, and all the other important stuff?

So, this year, I tried to find a better balance with some collaboration and help from the Speech and Language Pathologist too.  

Some of the functional skills that various students, or all 7 students, worked on were folding towels, setting the table, using calculators, telling time, using a computer, keyboarding, counting coins, passing food during holiday celebrations, taking turns, playing board games, playing outside games, frosting cupcakes, following recipes, identifying feelings in self and others, self-calming strategies, learning phone number and address, identifying emergencies, calling 911, and talking to police officers, firefighters, and paramedics.

I think we did well here, but would like to improve even more next year.  We are going to make our "Police Officers, Firefighters, Paramedics, and Emergencies" Unit even bigger and practice using a special phone from the Broadview Heights Fire Dept. to practice calling 911 in the event of an emergency.  This is a concern as our students get older and we want to begin helping to bridge the gap between emergency service personnel and kids with special needs.

    4.  Improve classroom structure and organization.

I only had a few objectives here and need to change them again for the next school year.  Our classroom has to change each year based on the needs of our students and changes year after year.  In an ideal world, we would get a bigger classroom.  We'd have various one to one teacher stations, independent stations, a play/leisure area, a gross motor area, a place for the OT, a place for the SLP to come in for therapy, a space for our computers, and more!  But, we work with what we have, so we'll need to make changes again.  This year, our room will have a "pirate ship" as a self-calming space for one of our incoming students.

    5.  Establish a better PLN to collaborate, contribute, LISTEN

Wow. What a year it has been for the "PLN" and "PLC" movement.  I didn't have to do much here other than read my twitter page, read blogs, write in my own blog, and listen to my own school district.  We are building PLCs for next year in our own district and thus, collaboration!  
Plus, #edchat and #spedchat whenever I can participate.

Plus, the Reform Symposium from last summer and the one coming up at the end of July.

Plus, my twitter friends, my blog readers, my favorite blog posters, those who comment and RT... 

This one was easy.  Mastered and Continuing.

So, in terms of "my own IEP," I think I did well.  

Another successful year.

Did you set goals for yourself this year?  Did you accomplish them?  Did you forget about them?  Did you have time to work on them?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reflections on 3 students over 4 years... Success!

Monday, June 6th will start the very last week I have as the teacher of the three most energetic, loving, gentle, funny, lovable, smart, and amazing little kids I have ever known.

Because I teach special education, I can't use their names.  But will refer to them as students M, H, and O. (A, B, and C or 1, 2, and 3 just seems too impersonal).  And please forgive me if I give too many details or not enough.  I am already crying while typing...

A little background first-  Four years ago this week, my principal (now retired), another special ed. teacher, and I were sitting at a table discussing the future of special education at our school.  A new "unit" would be started at our school and who would be teaching it?  It was for kids with more intense special needs, and I was running the resource room for kids with LD and other more mild/moderate disabilities.  The other teacher was doing more inclusion and a bit of resource room as well for mild/moderate kids too. 

Suddenly, like a lightning bolt from God, I blurted out, "What if I do it?"

The principal stared at me, and I have no idea what she was thinking at that moment, even to this day.  The other special ed. teacher looked pleased. 

"No, seriously, what if I do it?  Then, she could take my job now, and you could hire or move a 50% person to do the rest."

"Let's think on this," our principal said.  And we left it alone for the remainder of the day.

The next day I went to her.  "I want to take it.  I called the state to see if I could teach in this room.  I can."

I had no idea how these two conversations would change my life for the next four years... And how much I believe that this idea really did come right from God.

Enter today, June 4th.  I'm preparing for my last week with my first 3 students in this "unit."  Other kids have been in the "unit" which we refer to as only "Room 5," but none as long as these three.

They came to me as Kindergarteners, students M, H, and O, and they will leave for fourth grade as my greatest accomplishments in life, the people I am most proud of, the ones who've changed my life like no one else ever could.

Student M.  She came into Kindergarten and I had no idea what to expect.  She was a bubbly, bouncing, happy, angry, smart, sweet, little girl who had one thing on her mind- SUGAR.  My little Student M would run, sprint, push through students or adults, go into other classrooms, scale walls, jump from tables and chairs, or climb up cabinets to get to cupcakes, donuts, or candy.  We would chase after her and needed the help of a behavior/autism specialist who actually told us "I have never seen a student like this."  After we had exhausted her ideas, we did our own FBA with the help of our own school psychologist.

Today, in third grade, my beautiful little Student M still loves her chocolate.  She loves those cookies and ice cream.  But you know what, I have had a bowl of Hershey's Kisses on my desk for over two weeks, and she has not taken even one!  She has asked with full sentences if she could have one, maybe once a day, BUT she has NEVER taken one!


In Kindergarten, Student M would run from adults when they asked her to complete undesirable activities.  She would run to another room, she would run down the hallway, she might even run out the door.  The principal even had to make the difficult decision to put an inside lock on the gym door that led to the parking lot so that my precious little Student M would not run out and get hit by a car.  The lock would at least slow her down.

Today, in third grade, Student M is able to play outside, on the grass island in the middle of the parking lot with us with only the words "Stay on grass please."  No worries of running off, getting hit by car, going anywhere.


And today, in third grade, Student M is learning multiplication.  I never imagined... Four years ago, I never imagined... Comprehending chapter books, using the computer independently, typing, using the iPad, reading independently, following directions, participating in conversations...


These are just a SMALL, SMALL portion of the successes and progress that she's made.  She's amazing. A-mazing.

And she's changed my world. Forever.

Student H.  Wow. 

Student H came to me in Kindergarten with limited interests and lots of self-stims.  He'd trialed lots of "programs" and had lots of tutors and his mom told us then "He hates balls.  He hates sports."  During Kindergarten, when his class did the "Alphabet Chant" and hand movements, Student H would stand and flap his hands and vocalize.  He rarely used any expressive words.  He rarely did anything independently.  He didn't play anything reciprocally and would've preferred to flip cards all day long.  He never protested anything.  He didn't appear to attend to much, and I wasn't quite sure if he was learning anything I was trying to teach him.

Today, in third grade, Student H can give expressive answers that are understood!  He can use his talker to give his responses too!  He can complete up to 20 minutes of work independently that includes using a calculator to solve addition and subtraction problems.  He can read independently and answer comprehension questions.  He can comprehend chapter books on a third grade reading level when read aloud to him.  He can laugh at the funny parts.  He LOVES sports.  He plays basketball and could spend hours throwing and catching a ball outside.  He plays with Play-Doh, Moon Sand, and in the sand table. He uses the iPad and selects the games he likes. He pushes things away that he doesn't like.  He types, spells, labels objects, uses an e-portfolio, counts coins, tells time to the hour and half hour...

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Success!  Success!  Success!

There is no limit to what my Student H is going to be able to do.  He has become my inspiration.  Just when I question a kid... I'll remember Student H... and BELIEVE... because they can ALL learn and they are ALL learning, even if it doesn't always appear that way.

And last, but never least-

Student O.

This kiddo and I had a rare connection from the day he walked into my world.  He was "my guy" and I was "his best teacher" and he would spend every day for the next four years telling me so.  "You my best teacher," he would say, my heart melting.

In Kindergarten, this guy was a little angry.  Writing was hard so he would throw his pencil across the room.  He didn't like his aide so he would throw his shoes at her.  Reading was unnecessary to him unless the cards had pictures of Winnie the Pooh or Dora the Explorer on them.  Math was out of the question.  Playing outside was not a choice.  Sharing toys was an outlandish request.  Student O did what he wanted when he wanted, and then he turned on the charm.  "I so sorry Kolis.  I not do it again.  You my best teacher."

In first grade, my guy refused to use the bathroom at school to have bowel movements.  He would get stomach aches and refuse to go into the bathroom.  "It dirty Kolis."  "I no use the bathroom."  "I no sick."

In second grade, we had to do extensive lessons on personal space vs. social space, touching other kids, asking for hugs, and being more socially appropriate.  "I hug you Kolis."

Today, in third grade, my guy, Student O, is adding, subtracting, counting coins, writing complete sentences, typing, maintaining his own e-portfolio, telling time to the hour, half hour, and quarter hours, measuring, using measurement tools, giving oral presentations to the class, and is still included with general ed. peers for science and social studies.  He reads, he practices sight words, he comprehends chapter books.  HE USES SARCASM and tells jokes!  He maintains friendships with other kids with disabilities AND general ed. peers.  He plays outside and runs outside and even uses bubbles! 

He is "my best guy" and I am "his best Kolis."

Success, Success, Success, Success....

I'm not sure how, at the end of this week, I will be able to pass them on to the fourth grade, to the next district building, to the Central School.  I'm not sure how I will be able to pass their materials on to another teacher, another IEP team, another "case manager." 

I'm not sure that I will be able to say "goodbye."

I know that change is good, and I know that Student M, Student H, and Student O are ready...

But I'm not sure that I am...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Way to Express It All... May 15th, 2011

It's been awhile since I've written a blog post because I have been such a mix of emotions this school year.  There have been issues that I would love to write about, but so many are confidential or just plain unprofessional to post publicly.  Some are just frustrating and can't be expressed in any sort of words that would appear as anything more than complaints.  And I can't complain about my life, my job, my work.  I love this work, but there is so much more work to be done...

So today, I have just created a word cloud of what I am thinking and feeling in an effort to express myself this May 15th, 2011.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Autism Awareness. What does that even mean?

April is Autism Awareness Month.

But what does that really mean?

Because, if your life is not affected by kids or adults with autism, are you aware?  Do you need to be aware?  What do you need awareness of?  Are you even interested in being aware?

Instead of quoting the facts from a book or web site (which, if you're reading my blog, you could probably quote word for word anyway), I plan to give some personal autism awareness facts...

1. Kids with autism are lovable.  Daily, I see a little girl with autism who smiles, giggles, and hugs me. Sure, a handful of her hugs are meant to cause "deep pressure," but the other handful, pure affection.  She calls school "Miss Kolis school" to differentiate it from "summer school" or "dance school."  When given the sentence "My best friend is... " she says "Miss Kolis."  She is the most lovable little girl I have ever known.

2. People with autism can communicate.  Just because someone cannot use their vocal chords to speak to you does not mean they don't communicate.  Gestures, facial expressions, body language, and hand movements have never been so powerful!  And the day that one of my students used both a Dynavox Xpress and an iPad to tell me that using the Dynavox Xpress made him "sad' and using the iPad made him "happy," language had never meant so much. (No disrespect to Dynavox, another one of our students loves his Xpress!)

3. People with autism are ALL different.  In the 8 years I have been a special ed. teacher, I have spent nearly 4 years working with students with moderate-intensive special needs.  And in those 4 years, I've worked with 6 kids with autism.  NOT ONE of them is similar.  NOT ONE of them learns the same way.  NOT ONE of them uses the same ways to communicate, nor has the same sensory needs.  EVERY PERSON with autism is so unique.  And we value their individuality every day.

4. People with autism are true to themselves. I have never known a person with autism to feel embarrassed or really to give a hoot what other people think of them. One student with autism loves to eat raw onions.  He doesn't worry about his breath or the fact that other people think its a little unappetizing to see him eat raw red onions.  One of my students with autism needs to see the pictures in the book or the icons on the schedule. And when he can't see, he gets up and gets closer, takes a look, and then returns to his seat.  He helps himself without caring what the others may think.  And, while I understand that we work on social skills and therapies, etc., etc., I admire the sense of self that I believe my students with autism have.

5.  People with autism can learn!  In the four years I've been privileged to work with kids with autism, every single one of them has been able to learn and grow more than I could have ever imagined! And when people ask "Can that kid really learn?"  I can respond with "Yes, he learns. And he's had to learn about 3 times more than the typical kids have.  He's learned what numbers are, how to count with them, and how to add.  He's learned every step to wash his hands when other kids just knew how.  He's learned to control his impulses when a teacher asks him to sit in his chair.  He's learned to read your facial expressions. And he's learned to walk in the hall with his class.  And on top of all that, he's also understanding chapter books and learning to type."  OF COURSE HE LEARNS!

6. Our classroom loves kids with autism AND kids with all types of abilities and disabilities!  Whether it's Autism Awareness Month, World Down Syndrome Day, or the celebration of any diversity, ALL kids are welcome in our classroom.  If you need to stand to do your work, come on in.  If you need to run 8 feet every 20 minutes, come in.  If you need to vocalize in the middle of a picture book being read aloud, come in.  If you like to eat only the chocolate chips out of a chocolate chip cookie, or only eat yogurt at school, or eat only white foods, come in.  If you need to swing in between subject areas, or jump on a trampoline, come in.  If you use an augmentative assistive communication device, you are welcome.  If you like to color the tree purple and black instead of green and brown, we want you.  If you say "5 school" instead of Friday, come in.  If you smile and clap over your head every time you are able to feed yourself with a spoon, big claps to you, come in!  If you can comprehend a chapter book given additional visuals, learn to add using touch points, and love Dora, Clifford, Barney, Mr. Rogers, Piggie and Elephant, Winnie the Pooh, Diego, Word World, Arthur, the Princesses, Thomas the Tank Engine, or Elmo, our room is the place for you.

So, April is Autism Awareness Month.  And in Room 5 at Hilton School, we want you to be aware that, if you don't know and love someone with autism, you are really missing out!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

More on Differentiation... Real Strategies.

Back in July of 2010, I wrote a post called Differentiation: Stop Rolling Your Eyes...and I was reminded this week why I so strongly believe in the concept of "differentiation" even if it is a "buzz word" or a "passing fad."

I don't believe it's a passing fad because it can never get old to teach ALL kids.

Nonetheless, this week, our district provided us with some professional development on "differentiation" by bringing in speaker and author Dr. Michael Optiz.  Dr. Optiz has written many books such as Do-able Differentiation and Literacy Lessons to Help Kids Get Fit and Healthy.  Dr. Opitz gave some great ideas, shared some great children's literature, and was a generally nice and knowledgeable man.

While I found Dr. Optiz and his suggestions worthwhile and meaningful, I also believe its important to remember that meeting the needs of all learners does not have to be some elaborate plan or something you've planned weeks in advance.  Differentiation is good teaching.

Because I believe that differentiation is something I do well (because I have to do it every single day because of my job!), I would like to share some more ideas for easily differentiating in the classroom (for more ideas, please see the post from July 2010, "Differentiation: Stop rolling your eyes...").

1. In an elementary school science class, students often work on concrete concepts such as categorizing animals or the digestive system.  Make a few extra visuals for your visual learners.  Put a copy of the visuals on the students' desks who might need an extra visual or two to understand the concept.  Reference the visuals by walking by and tapping the correct visual when you are speaking about a topic.  Where to find the extra visuals?  Try Google Images.  It's free!

2.  In addition to extra visuals, maybe some students need to move items during instruction (tactile learners). Try to make some file folder tasks that the students might be able to manipulate during the lesson.  File Folder Tasks are easy to make and can be used year after year.  You might need to invest in some Velcro, but often you can find it cheap if you look in craft stores for "hook and loop" tape or straps.  You can also think about writing to Velcro and asking for any "scraps" that they can share.  They've sent our school two big boxes of Velcro!

Here are some sites for file folder tasks that you can print out and use:
- File Folder Heaven
- Enchanted Learning File Folders
- The Virtual Vine
- File Folder Fun
- My File Folder Games

3. Graphic Organizers.  Sure, it's good practice to use graphic organizers with everyone, right?  But some kids may need graphic organizers to organize their thoughts about a story they just read, about the social studies content that was delivered, about the writing they plan on doing... Graphic organizers are an easy way to make reading, writing, and learning more visual and organized.

Where to get pre-made graphic organizers?
- Reading A-Z. If you are lucky enough to subscribe, there is a HUGE library of graphic organizers.  If you don't get Reading A-Z, wait for their Open House in May and check out their resources!
- : Free Printable Graphic Organizers
- Education Oasis: Graphic Organizers
- Teacher Vision: Graphic Organizers
- Super Teacher Worksheets: Graphic Organizers

4.  Leveled Readers.  Find different books on different levels on the SAME TOPIC.  If you are reading about dinosaurs, find a picture book, an I CAN READ book like Danny the Dinosaur, and a nonfiction reader about dinosaurs.  Flexible groups can read different books and then the whole class can have a discussion on dinosaurs.  Do the same with other concepts.

5. Do all of the kids need to take the dreaded "timed test" for math facts?  How about having different ways to assess math facts?  I haven't seen a content standard that says "Student must complete 5000 addition facts in 5.2 seconds," have you?  Why do we even give those timed tests anymore?  I thought we were looking to create thinkers who use different strategies to get to the same answer.  What if some kids took the timed test while others played an addition game on the computer like "Adding Bricks" and others played an addition game on the iPad like "Math Magic" and others used the Touch Math strategies to be able to answer the facts?

Now, how can you apply these SIMPLE strategies in your classroom? 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Verbal De-Escalation- "Exactly As I Planned It?"

Verbal De-Escalation.

If I could have a dollar for each time this has been said in our district in the last several months, I might have a check for equal my bi-weekly pay check.

Regardless, I haven't had to use my powers of persuasion in some time.

Sure, daily, there are small occurrences where I have to use these skills on the surface, but I haven't had to verbally de-escalate a child before he hit me with a chair or spit on me in almost 3 years.

You might be thinking, WOW, you are spoiled.  Yes, yes I am.  I have great kids.  I have great kids who have great parents.

I also have great special education aides.

I also choose to believe that I make good behavior plans for kids with special needs and also maintain great rapport with my kids.

I am not trying to toot my own horn (yes, I said toot), but this is something I feel I excel at, and there shouldn't be shame in knowing your strengths.


There isn't often a time in special education, or in education at all, when you can say that something went "exactly as you had planned."  In fact, I can't remember the last time I planned ANYTHING in my life that worked out exactly the way it was supposed to.  Not my personal life, not my professional life, and certainly not in my classroom, where flexibility is the law of the land.

I try to live by the rule "God laughs at people who make plans," and although I always have a plan, that doesn't mean I ever use it.

This is the reason I have to write a blog about the perfect "verbal de-escalation."

Let's start with some background.

Student with special needs.  Age 9.  Good comprehension level, verbal.  Needed to be verbally de-escalated once in second grade, few times in first grade, more than a handful of times in Kindergarten.  Has had several behavior plans over the years starting with positively reinforcing with extrinsic rewards, moving towards doing nothing more than a simple count of 3 before completing a desired behavior.


When I say desired behavior, what do I mean?  Do I want this student to be nothing more than a little soldier completing tasks and activities that have no meaning and rewarding him with treats like you would with a dog?  NO.

I take issue with the blogs and statements going around stating "rewards don't work."  I think, as is everything related to education, it should be individualized.

Regardless, desired behavior means participating in a small reading group, typing into an e-portfolio, problem solving, measuring, adding and subtracting, telling time. 

This student loves the computer.  He is motivated mainly by the computer and is also ruled by a routine.  He has been my student for over 3 years.

It's been cold, we've had indoor recess.

During indoor recess, my students choose from a "Choice Board."  There are 5 choices on the Choice Board and the students need to find their picture and place it under the visual icon of their choice.  Typically choices include "blocks," "puzzles," "sand table," "play area," "computer," "Play-Doh," "Moon Sand," "iPad," or "books."  Choices are changed weekly and some items are removed.

On this day, we had had indoor recess for at least 5-6 straight days.  I had not changed the choice board in 5 days and most of the students (5 of the 6) had made the same choice on all 5 days.  On this day, I changed the choices.  I took OFF computer.

This sent my 9 year old into a rage.  He saw this during a different activity in the morning and knew immediately what it meant.  He saw it and looked at me like I had shot someone.  How could I?

I anticipated this.  Change to the routine makes for frustration and behaviors.  We know this, and we plan for it.  It's the reason I changed the board.  We have to learn to deal with these frustrations.  We have to learn to use the strategies we've learned over and over and over again.  We know what anger looks like, what an angry face looks like, what anger feels like.  We know some strategies to use when we feel mad.  But if we never practice, why bother? 

So, my 9 year old started to cry.  And then he started to yell at me. 

"Calm down.  Computer is off the choice board for lunch recess only.  It will be back on for afternoon recess, " I said calmly.

"No!" he said. "I play computer!" 

"I'm sorry, but we'll have to make another choice for lunch recess, " I said.  In my own head, I was talking to myself, using my own verbal de-escalation.  Remember to stay calm.  Remember to use a calm voice. 

"No!" He shouted.  He climbed under the table.

"We'll have to finish our work now, please come out from under the table or we can go to time out." I said.

Our Time-Out chair is in the middle of our circle carpet, not in a restraining area.  In the time-out chair, the student would be asked to sit in a chair, for 2 minutes only, with a visual timer.

"I not sitting in the chair!" He shouted.

"Okay, please sit down in the chair or I will write on your daily report.  I will count to 3, you can make the choice.... 1... 2..."

I was still being calm.  I kept talking to myself inside my head (stay calm, stay calm, he's getting madder).

He walked over the chair, sat down backwards, and began to slam the chair legs into the ground, rocking backwards in the chair.  Fortunately this did not look unsafe, so I sat down in a chair next to him.

Luckily, my special education aides are amazing.  At this time, rather than have other 6-9 year olds watch this small scene, they asked the other students to take a walk and help get mail from the office.  The other students went for a walk and I was left with the student and one aide.

I began to talk to the student calmly about the indoor recess.  He was still really mad.  He stood up and began to lift his chair.

"I know you don't plan on throwing that chair.  That would not be a good choice."  I said.

He put it down.

He walked over to me.

Spit started to form at his lips.

"Don't you even think about it." I said.

He stopped.

He walked over to the shelf full of shoebox tasks.  He looked up.  He appeared to think about climbing the plastic shelves.  He appeared to think about pulling the boxes from the shelves.  He stopped himself before doing either of these things.  I was silent.

He walked over to the movable wall in our classroom.  He put his hands out as if he was going to push it over.  He stopped himself.  I was silent.

He walked over to the window sill.  He began to lift a leg like he was going to climb.  He stopped himself.  I said nothing. 

He walked back over to me, turn his back, and put his hands on his hips.

HE HAD STOPPED HIMSELF 3 TIMES!  He was internalizing!  He was thinking.  He was making choices!  Good Choices!  In the midst of his angry "rage."

"Did you hear when I told you that computer would be back on the choice board for the afternoon recess?  I only took it off for lunch recess.  And look at the other choices.  We could play a game, do a puzzle, play Toy Story 3 Memory, or play with Play-Doh.  You like all those things, remember?"

"Oh." He said.

He looked back over at the Choice Board.

He looked back at me.

He looked over at the board again.

"Okay Miss Kolis.  We play a game."

He reached out to hug me.

It was over.  We did it!

He managed himself!  He did it! 

And the whole thing worked out exactly as planned!  And how often does that happen? 

Um, next to never?  Never?  Yep. Never.

Which is why I had to write about it.

That's a good day. Stressful. But good.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Our Love Affair with iPads Continues...

"Shake it like a salt shaker."
We continue to be happy, excited, and amazed at the uses of the iPad in our classroom.  The iPads have not lost their luster for us and we're continuing to find more educational uses every day!

1. We're examining using the iPad as an augmentative communication device.  We're working with our county communication specialist and trialing other devices, but we're particularly in love with the iPad for one student.  And, the student is in love with the iPad as well!

A bit of background- "Student" started trialing the BoardMaker Activity Pad as a communication device.  This is a low tech device that is not commonly used for communication, but it was the best we could do to start.  He has formerly tried the Tech Speak.  Then, we tried the Dynavox Xpress, my personal favorite.  Another student in our class uses this and I am a big fan.  It's easy to program, easy to use, easy to learn, small, light, easy to carry, etc., etc.  Next, we tried the FRC ComLink.  We were happy with this, but it had more disadvantages for our student than the Dynavox Xpress.  Then, while we were waiting to try the iPod Touch from the county, we received a grant from the BBH Schools Foundation for 2 iPads for our classroom (THANK YOU!).   At that time, we decided to have "student" use the iPad and see how it went.

We thought "Proloquo2Go" would be best, but couldn't put out the $189 it cost.  We also discovered that "student" loved to type and is a great speller, so we decided on "Speakit!" instead.  $1.99 or less is right up our alley!

To make a long story short, we went back to the Dynavox Xpress to see if "student" would access the keypad.

Then, after two days with the Dynavox Xpress, "student" used the device to say he felt "mad."  I thought for a minute and asked him "Do you feel mad because I gave you this talker?"  He typed "yes."

I asked "student,"  "Would you be happy if I gave you the iPad back?"  He typed, "happy."

I handed him the iPad.  He turned it on, swiped to unlock it, found the Speakit! App, and typed "i am happy."

Could it be more perfect?  He advocated for himself.  Done.

2. We've started to "microblog" on Students are now typing sentences, with reminders for correct capitalization and punctuation, on twitter!  We attempt to "tweet" regularly, and we enjoy when people tweet us back.  We are also hoping to attract more of our parents to twitter this way as well.  You can follow us @Room5Friends.

3. The iPad is one more tool in our toolbox for SHARING!  Because one "student" often takes one iPad with him to specials classes as his augmentative communication device, we sometimes only have one iPad left in the classroom.  This can only mean one thing- we will need to share!  And what a great tool to learn on!

Here's our action research:  Two students wanting to use the iPad during "choice time," and only one iPad available.  Both students have "engaging in parallel or cooperative play with other students" written in their IEP objectives.  Let's see what they can do.  We placed the iPad in front of them as a type of authentic assessment.  We said, "Now boys, we need to share.  Johnny can play one game, and then pass to Jack for one game."  We proceeded to walk away.

The special education aide and I watched from 4 feet away.  Johnny started with Thomas the Tank Engine Game pack and played one game of Thomas memory.  He slid the iPad to Jack.  Jack played one puzzle on the game pack.  He slid the iPad back to John.  John clicked out and went to the 5 Little Monkeys App.  Both boys delighted in the songs.  When it was over, John slid the iPad back to Jack.  Jack did another Thomas puzzle.  Then, luckily, it was lunch time.  How awesome!

4. We're going to begin reading a chapter book solely on the iPad.  Beezus and Ramona, here we come!  Although we'll supplement this chapter book with many visuals and other activities, we will be reading this book in class on two iPads and a Kindle.  Reading books in more than one medium?  Who would've ever thought that a ten year old with autism would have these opportunities in the year 2011?  Amazing!

5. Motivational Tools.  Honestly, I hope these iPads aren't a phase.  And if they are a phase, they are certainly worthwhile.  Because we are surely getting a TON of learning done while using the iPads as motivational tools.  And, I know some people may say they are expensive motivational tools, but I believe they are worth every penny.

Checking out the iPad while waiting our turn at Therapeutic Horseback Riding
6. The educational apps are limitless.  My student who loves to play "Cookie Doodle" is working on following directions and measuring.  She sees measuring cups, measuring spoons, ingredients, recipes, etc. and must follow directions like "pour the vanilla" and "shake the salt shaker" and "mix the batter."  It's multi-sensory because we do the same thing with the real items in the classroom!  It's a built-in follow up lesson!

7. And did I mention the kids LOVE them?  We love the iPad.  LOVE. And we still play with Play-Doh, Moon Sand, blocks, the sand table, other sensory activities.  We still follow real recipes; we still read real books, complete file folder tasks, and shoebox tasks.  We still swing and play outside.  But now, we have more technology to integrate and use.  We have one more tool in the toolbox. 

And we'll keep sharing.  BECAUSE WE ARE IN LOVE.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Challenge Me with Chapter Books!

After reading the book Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, I couldn't help but wonder...

What are my students thinking that they can't express to me?

Is our content watered down?  Are they wondering why we are learning similar concepts year after year, sometimes with the same trade book, the same Brain Pop Jr. video, the same SMARTboard lesson?

What have my third graders been trying to show me, or tell me, that I haven't been listening to?  Have I challenged them enough?

And so...

We started a new adventure.

Chapter books.

Chapter Book #1- Freckle Juice by Judy Blume. 

I wasn't fully prepared, but I was ready to learn as we went along.  I figured the kids would show me what they needed and I would adjust as we went along.  We started with predictions, a picture walk, an explanation of what a chapter book is, a reminder of what authors do, and how famous an author Judy Blume really is.  Homework included "Googling" Judy Blume and writing down other book titles and also rereading the chapters we read during the school day.

We also began to fill out a graphic organizer on EDU Glogster which can be found here-

Then, as we read the first chapter and I prompted my friends to have "listening ears," to "keep listening," and to "listen for two more pages," I realized that perhaps we needed more visuals.  Why didn't this occur to me earlier?  I know my students are visual learners, they need visuals, right?  Yep.

This prompted us to create "notebooks."  We added pictures as we read each chapter to make the reading come to life, visually.  We also visually defined the characters, the setting, and some vocabulary.

We also decided that, after reading these short chapters, we should take smaller comprehension quizzes, rather than a summative quiz at the end of the book.  The quizzes were also visually based, using most of the same visuals created for our "notebooks."

Then, we started adding to our e-portfolios.

We added "Wordles" and some "Thinking Stems" that we wrote together in class, then typed individually.

As a final project, we created simple "portraits" of the main character, Andrew.

Lastly, we created a file folder to put in our "Independent Work" area to be able to maintain the vocabulary words we learned with this chapter book.

All in all, I think I learned some valuable lessons from my third graders with autism and Down syndrome here. 




Fourth, THEY CAN DO IT!!!

Hooooooray for us!  We'll next be venturing into reading a chapter book on the Kindle for iPad App.  Wish us luck:?