Friday, April 17, 2015

Officially shutting down this blog

For those of you who don't know I'm taking a year leave of absence from public ed to pursue other avenues of life.  If you're enjoying my writing and my blogs, feel free to visit me at COREChild.  That will be my new blog site.  It's been a good ride these last three years!  Thank you so much for following.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Waiting until they're ready

I follow a website that recently posted a meme with this quotation:

You can struggle for weeks to teach a child something before they are ready, or you can do it in a few moments when they are ready to learn.

This statement was so impactful to me as I reflected upon my own experiences as a teacher and a mother.  I immediately drew a connection with my own daughter - now eleven years old.  As a musician and piano instructor myself, I was convinced that my parents had the right idea starting me on piano when I was seven. Seven is about the earliest age I recommend for parents to start piano with their kiddos, so why would I NOT start my own daughter in piano at seven?

So we did.  And it failed.  So we tried again when she was eight.  And it failed again.  I felt kind of like a failure and took her inability to play very personally.  Of COURSE she will play.  All Lambert children will play.  But my husband just looked at me and said, "Maybe she's not ready."  I knew he was right.  So we stopped trying.

When she turned eleven we had an evaluation for vision therapy and made the decision to pay for the twenty sessions to see if it would help her academically. We had no idea, however, that the vision therapy would impact her in more ways than just academically.  What surprised us so much was the confidence that the therapy sessions instilled in her.  Her stamina in reading fluency and writing climbed, and she went from below the tenth percentile in many areas to over the eightieth percentiles in everything.  Her ability to absorb information visually increased so dramatically, we were all baffled.

As we neared the end of her sessions, she brought up piano lessons on her own, so we started immediately.  Would you believe that when she sat down at that keyboard it was like her fingers had finally come home!  She was ready, and she is moving steadily through her lessons with very little prodding or help from me!

I see this over and over at school.  A kiddo struggles and struggles with reading, no matter what type of interventions we serve her, and then one year - WHAMMO! She is healed.  It's like something just clicks - hormones click in and she settles down long enough to learn how, or she matures enough to be remotely interested, or she is just ready.

A girlfriend of mine was so determined to potty train her daughter at the age of two, and therefore it took her two years to fully potty train her.  The stories I can now recall of this same type of "pushing" are endless.

The moral of this story is to have patience.  Am I saying don't worry? No.  It is our nature as parents to worry when our children seem to "lag" or "fall behind".  We want to compete, and we feel judged when they can't keep up with their peers.  We know that other parents take full responsibility when their children are gifted - "Oh, well.  We have been reading to him since before he was born." or "We work math every summer."  Well, guess what?  So do we.

I'm a mother with two advanced degrees in education, and my daughter struggles with reading.  I can't take responsibility for that.  But I can take responsibility for knowing my daughter - who she is, how she learns, and what her strengths are.  I need to remember that who my daughter is is not the same thing as who I want her to be. Recently I had a father tell me, "I know what he is capable of, and he is not producing."  But we should remind ourselves regularly that what we want them to be able to handle may not be what they are capable at this time to handle.  Regardless as to why.  And pushing them will only beat them down.

I go back to my favorite psychology professor from Harvard who tells us that kids will produce if they have the skills to produce.  Figure out your children.  If you can't, then find somebody who can.  Approach your child with curiosity rather than as a detective looking for something wrong.  Barricades may show up in all forms, but without your parental eye those barriers may never be discovered.

Be mindful.  Be aware.

Monday, March 9, 2015

“We don’t need more data to tell us we need action.”  The concluding quotation in a March, 2014 article written by Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post.  The article, entitled “American Schools are STILL Racist, Government Report Finds,” is almost a year old, and yet it stabbed at me as if it had just come hot off the press.  In this report Resmovits rattles off statistics indicating that our education system is racist – the conclusion from a series of data surveys given by the US Department of Education and Civil Rights Data Collection.

The post made for a good morning Facebook conversation with a psychology professor I’d never met. It’s currently eleven o’clock, and I’m still fired up about it. 

In the first few paragraphs Resmovits stuns readers with statistics about the percentage of black students versus the percentage of black students who have been suspended or referred to law enforcement.  She also continues by revealing that a higher percentage of students of color are exposed to teachers who “fail to meet license and certification requirements” AND that teachers in areas where there are higher numbers of black students get paid less than those in less diverse districts.

First off, putting unqualified teachers into classrooms of our most at-risk groups of students is the result of decisions made by people who are obviously not qualified to make those decisions.  It would be like sending in a surgeon who hadn’t finished med school to perform an intricate and delicate procedure that, if done poorly, would likely result in death.   Because, often, the result is death – is it not?  Maybe not physical death, but death of opportunity.  Death of self-esteem.  Death of future. 

Why are we not spending money on recruiting the thousands of highly qualified and caring educators who are currently jobless to move into these schools?  Why are we spending so much time and energy on assessing, when we already know what the assessments are going to tell us?  In the state of Illinois, property taxes, by county, indicate a significant portion of the income schools receive to run the schools.  I, myself, work in a district where, next door to us is a large district that doesn’t even have busses to bring kids to school!  On the other side of that same district is a district that has enough busses to take everybody to school at the same time.  This is a true picture of inequity.

Racism, according to several dictionaries I consulted this morning, means anywhere from a belief that a race is inferior to another to simply liking or disliking a race based on some judgment.  In all of the definitions I read, there was one commonality – a person (or collective group) who is racist must make some judgment about a race.  So basically what Resmovits is saying in the title of her article is that America’s schools are judging races and have made a decision that blacks are indeed inferior OR that America’s schools just don’t like blacks in general.  Call it picky.  Call is syntax.  That is what she’s saying.

But is that what she meant?

Resmovits continues in her report by bringing up Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights act that use ambiguous words such as “quality education for all children” and “equal access to education”.  Apparently these historical decisions were supposed to put away hundreds of years of judgment and hatred and learned behaviors.  But one person’s definition of quality education and equal access is not everybody’s.  Enter today’s education system.  A broken system with more holes than a honeycomb. 

The remainder of the article references a survey by the Education Department’s Office of Civil rights and continuously points to the fact that our system hangs minority students and students with disabilities (how being disabled got into the article about race, I have no idea) out to dry.  The entire article is so full of generalizations that it’s tough to grasp the point except that it keeps screaming racism.

One truth that Resmovits discusses is that change is needed.  She even talks about easing discipline and how that won’t help with the increase in school violence.  How the problem has such long roots, that we see these trends even in preschools!  Even the discipline/skill correlation surfaces toward the end of the article.

What would happen if we started treating our students more like people and less like numbers?  What if – and this is a big IF – we honored the gifts of each of our students and allowed them to be themselves rather than the people we think they should be?  What if we knew what our students’ strengths (and I’m not talking about academics) were as they walked into the door, and what if we could use that information to guide them to advocate for themselves?

Our problem is the fact that we have lost focus on what is really important.  Those children and adolescents who walk into our classrooms each day are singularly different – so much so that you could never carbon copy one of them.  To know each one’s strengths and preferences in learning is to empower ourselves as educators to teach the entire child.  More than half of them will not be academically talented, but academics is what we emphasize in school.  Some will have a gift for art, music, or sports – so why do we limit those times to once or twice a week while we pummel them with phonics and math facts?  Believe it or not – the gift of gab that some of them have will end up being their forte in life and may take them places we have never dreamed!  Is their curiosity or creativity not important?  The message we are giving them at school is that it is not.

Before we start pointing fingers at systems for being racist, what we ought to do is take a look at ourselves as a society and reflect on what is really important.  Perhaps it is us who have created a society that embraces a way of life – one in which certain populations of our children are still being treated as unequal.  I am in no way saying that any race behaves a specific way or has a particular strength, but if we step away from skin color and focus on our students as students – we might find that we can see a piece of them that we have never been allowed to see. 

What we perceive as negative behaviors may only surface because the whole child is not embraced.  Excessive talking in a kid who is interpersonal becomes a way to cope when math is hard.  Doodling helps visual students get through a tough literature class.  Physical aggression allows kinesthetics a release when a student has been cooped up in school for ninety minute blocks of testing. Once we view our students through these new lenses, we can then begin the task of building them up so that they feel like they want to succeed.

If they have the skills and want to succeed, they will.  Dr. Ross Greene of Harvard University says very pointedly – Kids do well if they can.  It is our responsibility as a society to find out why they are not producing.   Generally speaking – it’s not because they’re black.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Using the visual strength to compensate for lack of linguistic

I couldn't not write about this, as it was such an amazing revelation today, but I'm stumped and thought I'd put it on "paper" to see what my colleagues and friends say about it.

One of my eighth graders is really struggling to read.  His fluency scores tipped me off that there might be some phonics issues underlying, so I gave him a screening test for phonics.  It was a quick and simple one that tested nonsense, single-syllable words, and he passed it with flying colors!  He also passed the next section of it, which was real multisyllabic words.  In the past, I would have stopped there.  He passed.  No deficits.  But something was telling me to dig a little more, so I gave him a multisyllabic nonsense word screening.  What I found on this assessment stunned me.  

He couldn't put two syllables together to create a multisyllabic word!

Now I was confused by this because he can clearly read multisyllabic words, as was demonstrated by the first screening.  So what happened?  I couldn't figure it out.  Until today.

We were sitting together at a table working on silent-e syllables.  He was flying through reading the single syllable nonsense words.  And then he got one wrong.  He stopped, and I tried to talk him through it, but he couldn't do it.  

"Miss," he said.  "I can't think of a word that looks like it."

"What do you mean?" I asked.  

"I mean, I usually just look at it and think of a word that looks like it and then change the first letter or whatever."

Oh my goodness, I thought.  He's using his visual strength to cope for his lack in linguistic.  I almost fell out of my chair.  How do you teach a child who has come up with such an amazing coping mechanism to forget it??   He's fourteen.  Is it possible to fix this?  

I'm considering working a phonics program with him that starts with phonemic awareness using color tiles instead of letters to appeal to his visual side in hopes to strengthen his linguistic, but . . . . he is fourteen and he leaves me in four months for the high school.  Time is not on my side.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Taking a breather

If you've been checking back looking for more, just know I'm taking a breather from blogging professionally.  I've made a decision to take a leave of absence from my job in public ed beginning at the end of this school year, and I'm trying to focus on "What's next?"

Stay tuned, as I will undoubtedly have more to say as the year closes this year!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Using strengths, not discipline, in your classroom management

You're sitting with a student looking over her work for the last week.  The rest of the class is supposed to be working on the vocabulary for the current unit.  Quietly.  Independently.  It's the only way you can be certain they're all working while you conference with individual students.  It's the only way you can keep them all accountable.

But who is throwing a wrench into your plan because he just cannot stop talking?  Enrique.  You've moved him three times and put him in a corner.  You're tired of moving him.  You've given him incentive tickets for times when he can sit quietly and work.  You've kept him in for lunch detentions for not shutting up.  You have called home because there is no end to his chatting with his peers.  Honestly, you're frustrated with his incessant talking, and you're about ready to lose your cool!

The way I see it, you've got a few choices.  You can lose your temper and unleash your teacher dragon on him, which will feel better initially but only to you and not for long.  You can kick him out to sit in the hallway.  This will "drive home the message", "teach him a lesson", and make and example of him.  Again, this might make you feel better for teaching him a lesson and using him as an example, but will it really stop the behavior?  It also removes him from under your watchful eye and gives him more room to mess around.  The likelihood he will get much done out there just went down about fifty percent . . . . or more.  You could write him a discipline referral - again driving home your message of "too much talking".  But will this eliminate the problematic behavior?

Sound familiar?  You're about ready to get into a struggle with a thirteen-year-old kid who likely doesn't care whether he is in your classroom or in the office.  Guess who else has had enough too.

Let me tell you a little bit about this boy.  After taking a multiple intelligences test and test of learning styles, Enrique's scores show that he is highly interpersonal and prefers to take in information by listening (aural).  He's people smart.  He watches body language and listens to tone of voice and is able to interact with you the way he should to get just the response he wants.  And now if you look at him, you can see this is very true.  No matter who he engages in conversation - his peers, the principal, even the school resource officer -  his body language shows high sense of self.  As long as he is talking and listening, one has to wonder even if he isn't eighteen or nineteen years old and not thirteen.  He carries himself in a conversation beautifully, and he even has a tendency to bluff his way through things you're certain he doesn't know.

Unfortunately, since he was five, his teachers have made it clear that the constant talking is inconvenient, inappropriate, and unwanted.  Upon his entrance to kindergarten, Enrique's strength in his interpersonal has gotten him into more trouble than not, but no matter what his teachers did, they just couldn't squash this boy's gift for gab.  By the age of thirteen, his weakness in math and reading has gotten so out of control, and his teachers blame most of it on his inability to stay focused on anything but his peers, that Enrique can't wait to turn sixteen and drop out of school.  He has no qualms with sharing his goals and puts little focus on anything academic.

Enrique doesn't feel comfortable doing much academically.  Neither does his friend Dalia, who is also in this same class.  But instead of talking nonstop, Dalia spends most of her time drawing.  During whole class activities Dalia keeps a sheet of paper on her desk and doodles or draws while she tries to listen and/or participate.  Dalia's strength is . . . ?  You guessed it - visual/spacial.  And maybe a touch of kinesthetic since it seems like her hands have to be moving often.  

Reading is difficult for both of these kiddos.  They both struggle with linguistic activities, and when they feel unsuccessful in an area, they tend to feel bad about themselves.  Being the still-very- egotistical beings that they are, they try to salvage what little self esteem they have by doing something that makes them feel good.  What better way to do this than by doing something in which they excel?  For Enrique, his answer is to talk. For Dalia - drawing and doodling soothes her.  What we find to be blatant disobedient or disrespectful acts might actually be mechanisms they are using to save the little bit of academic self esteem they have left.  Will dishing out punishments stop the behaviors that are being conceived as disrespectful?  Absolutely not.

So what do we do with these two and others like them?

Honor their strengths.  We all have had the drummer.  You know, the one who taps her pen or pencil to rhythm without even realizing she's doing it.  Musical strength?  That's likely.  Barking orders to stop tapping is probably going to chop her down a little and make her feel bad.  She may stop.  She may not.  But nothing beneficial comes out of calling her out in class and making her stop.

Point it out.  For example - Gabby, I see that you're tapping again.  That musical strength of yours could be put to some good use if you could find out a way to fit those definitions into a rhythm.  Can you work on the first one for me for a minute and I'll come help you with it after I'm done here with Dylan?  or Enrique, you're talking again.  Your interpersonal strength is distracting Charise from getting her work done.  How about you and George go into the back corner and work on the vocabulary together?  Make sure that you both talk about the answer before you choose the correct one.

Sometimes you can't let them showcase their strengths, but just bringing the strength into focus and honoring it - maybe even asking your kiddo to tone the strength down a bit will help a lot more than a disciplinary action or being called out in front of peers.

Your students want to be respected, honored, and understood.  Being aware of each of them, how they interact with others, and why they behave certain ways will most certainly benefit you in more than just a few ways.  This is truly the key to building their confidence and creating learners who take control of themselves as learners.  And then maybe - just maybe - Enrique's talking will no longer be a nuisance to you, but a message that he needs something a little different than what you're offering today.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The most important lesson ever

It's been a few weeks.  In fact, I was almost of the mindset not to blog again this week until my husband and I sat and chatted this morning about  how things were going this year.  After I rambled on and on for about ten minutes straight, he encouraged me to blog about it.  Either he thinks what I said is worth the read or he was tired of listening and thought maybe if I wrote about it I would shut up.  Or a combination of both.  :)

I have to tell you all, this year has been a ride so far.  Going back into the classroom was a challenge that I knew I could handle, but it wasn't something I wanted to handle.  I liked what I had been doing - supporting our students in their content areas and working with them in their intervention classes, going through school-wide data and making program change recommendations, and being a resource for our teachers who needed support in reaching their resistant readers.  But once I got back in front of a group of my own kiddos, life got amazing.  And it reminded me why I went into this business in the first place.  As a colleague of mine keeps gritting her teeth and saying, "It's all for the kids."  Any educator worth her salt today has to keep reminding herself of this because nobody is making this job easy.  Nobody.

My plan at the beginning of the year was to instill a sense of self-worth in all of our kiddos who either were performing out of fear or who weren't performing at all.  I wanted them to feel free to take risks and reach for success.  I knew it would be a challenge.  I knew I would have to work at it and tweak my approaches along the way.  I prayed it would just happen.  Well, to say it's been a challenge has been an understatement.  To say I've had to tweak my approaches is putting it mildly.  And I've needed a lot of prayer this year.  And a lot of Kleenex.

But what I'm seeing is kind of blowing my mind.

After spending a month at the beginning of the year learning about ourselves as learners - our learning styles, intelligences, learning types, interests, and even love languages, these kiddos now had the tools to advocate for themselves.  They have been given the gift of self-knowledge and have been helped to understand why they struggle with things and excel at others.  Why they can't shut up or sit still for forty minutes.  Why they hate PE or art or language arts.  When their high energy or chatterbox-ness is getting on my last nerve, instead of getting exasperated and directing frustration at them, I point out how one's interpersonal or kinesthetic intelligence is getting in the way of their learning and ask them how they can bring that strength into their learning.  I point it out as much as I can, we joke about how things are hard when we don't get served to our strengths and what we can do to communicate our needs to others.

What happens?  My kiddos work.  Not for a grade or for a ticket to buy things at the school store.  They don't get a "good job" at the end of the period, and I don't give them candy.  Heck, I don't even email home or send home postcards to tell mom and dad how proud I am.  But I do talk to each student as much as possible.  I give them the gift of my attention, and I point out what I see them doing.  And when it comes time for them to measure their growth, they get nervous about it and celebrate when they see the quantitative proof that they've worked and grown.  I'm proud of them.

It's funny that I didn't notice this growth until my husband and I started talking about it today.  But now that I'm reflecting, I wish there was a quantitative way I could "prove" that my approaches are creating more confident, happier kiddos.  I see it, and I hope their teachers and parents are seeing it too.

It says something when I have kiddos who "graduate out" of my class and choose to stay.  When I have students who ask if they can work on the eighth grade vocabulary rather than the seventh grade.  When, even while I'm working with a small group, I look over and see heads bent over interactive notebooks working or hands flying over desks of vocabulary matching activities - all by just saying, "Okay, go ahead to your first activity today.  You've got fourteen minutes until we switch."  There's no participation points or names on the board.  No way to keep track of who is working and who isn't.  I have students who come in to get their notebooks so they can take them to the library to check out a book on their list or to take it home and study their vocabulary.  We don't have homework, nor do I expect students to take their work home - and yet they're choosing to do this on their own.

So - go ahead - ask me. How is my year going?  It's a tough change, and I DO mourn the loss of what I was able to accomplish the last three years.  But I'd never ask for it to be different this year.  What I'm learning this year is going to be invaluable as I continue my research and work with students on intrinsic motivation.  And by the end of the year, I forsee dozens of my babies walking out of my classroom with their heads held higher and a lighter step because they were able to learn.  Not phonics or fluency or reading skills.  The most important thing in the world ever to learn.  About themselves.