Thursday, December 29, 2011

Strengths Based Leadership and Special Education

 My brother is in town and while we were out and about he mentioned that he read this book first within a management program at work and then again within a service group at his church.  As he was talking about it, it seemed as if there were many things that would interest me that go along with the themes in the book.  Obviously, from the title you can see that the book focuses on finding your personal strengths as a leader.  I picked it up and read the meat of it very night.  (I haven't yet read all of the "additional resources.")   I found it to be an excellent investment of time! I have highlighter marks, post-its and pencil marks in the margins.

Right now, during our winter break, I have no other responsibilities pulling at me, so I could actually spend the time reading and thinking.  It affected me a few different ways and in in different applications, but all related to how I think about special education (since that is where I spend most of my leadership skills). 

First, a friend and I just finished running a "Christmas Camp" for girls with mild to moderate disabilities and their siblings.  If this actually turns into something that we continue with, the book would be a great discussion point for us to delineate responsibilities of running camps and activities.

Second, I'd love for my two assistants to read this book and then have the three of us talk about the classroom climate and goals.  While we typically think of teaching assistants in a "followers" role, the reality is, in the classroom to children, they are leaders.  The two ladies I work with are quite talented and compassionate so they no doubt have leadership qualities.

Third, I'd like to e-mail the author and have some discussions on creating a strengths finder for children.  The kids in my class are there based on their deficits.  At their ages, (8 and 9) they are starting to become very socially aware that they are in a "special" class.  I hate this aspect of my job.  I can tell them all of the strengths that I see, but they (much like adults and society) want "proof."  I think a strengths finder assessment for children would be beneficial! 

There is a quote in the book that struck me: "At a very basic level, it is hard to build self-confidence when we are focused on our weaknesses instead of our strengths."  When I think about this in terms of a child who is living with a learning disability or an intellectual disability, it frustrates me.  Our current special educational model is based upon what is impeding the child from learning rather than based upon building strengths of a child who is struggling.  There's another educational researcher, Torgenson (I think), who through his research has found that the single most influential factor in future reading success is prior positive reading experiences.  How do we know and understand the value of strengths based performance and positive experiences and yet we continue to operate on a deficit driven model and pounding away at weaknesses?  Crazy!

Perhaps my above rant clearly shows my own inclinations towards "includer" and "maximizer," but I do find the book to be generally valuable to people who have any type of leadership role within a family, community or work environment.  If you have a free night or weekend, be sure to check it out!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Reading Chapter Books

Yahooey!  Just before Winter Break, I introduced several of my students to reading chapter books independently.  Like anything else, we started small and built upon the skills that were already in place.

Since the beginning of the school year, we have spent 10-12 minutes each day with a chapter read aloud.  I don't test on it, we don't dissect the book, we don't go crazy if something happens and the chapter is put off until tomorrow.  My purpose in approaching it in this manner was to introduce books that were longer in length and to model reading a chapter book in small increments.  I wanted the kids to see enjoyment of reading a longer book.

When I felt a few kids were ready, I hand picked some beginning chapter books such as "The Fly Guy" and the "Frog and Toad" series.  This introduced the kids to the format of a chapter book but the length and the reading level was still relatively easy for them.

I finally then moved to books in series like "The Magic Treehouse" and "Cam Jansen."  In order to help the kids break up the book into manageable chunks and to also let them see their progress, I stole an idea from another teacher on my team. 

She shared that for some of her kids, she writes down which pages they have to read each night on a bookmark.  Since I am a big fan of post its and I have a lot of them, I used her idea on a post it.  I selected quite a few books and then asked the student to choose a book from my pre-selected group rather than the whole library.  After he/she selected the book, we went through the table of contents together to see how many chapters were in the book.  I then wrote each chapter number on the post it and gave it to them for their bookmark.  As they finished each chapter, they could cross of the chapter they had completed.

It has been working pretty well.  Two "bonuses" of this visual support is that it is 1) cheap, and 2) easy.  As the kids finish the books and successfully pass AR tests, their confidence is growing!  Hopefully, this will help to scaffold their "reading endurance" and help them continue to read longer passages and books successfully.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reading Block

This past week I had a first year teacher and her mentor visit my classroom.  I've finally arrived at the point in my career where I actually enjoy this.  My assistants and I "do what we do" every day and to have some one come in to observe and ask questions often prompts further reflection on what we do and why we do it.  I had one of those moments with this observation.

I'm in a rather unique teaching situation within my district this year.  I have a self contained, varying exceptionalities (cross categorical) of all third graders.  Most of our self contained classes across the district are multi-grade.

The teacher observing teaches a class of students kindergarten to third grade.  She provides direct instruction during the reading block for the first through third graders.

Her question was "How do you expose the students to grade level content in reading but still provide direct instruction at their instructional levels?"  Great question!  We always talk about exposing kids to grade level curriculum, but the reality is that most students in self contained classes are significantly below grade level expectations in their skills.  So HOW do you do that?  How would you organize teaching them at their instructional level, but still provide them exposure to grade level materials?

For my class this year, it is actually quite easy.  All of my students are third graders, so we start reading block with a shared reading lesson from the grade level materials.  Within this time frame we introduce the listening comprehension selection, the focus skill and the robust vocabulary words.  After we complete this, we move into instructional level groups for direction instruction in strategies, phonics and comprehension skills.

However, most of the time, in a self contained class, I would need to expose the children to grade level material at three different grade levels.  For example, all of the third graders need exposure to third grade materials.  All of the second graders need exposure to second grade materials and all of the first graders need exposure to first grade materials.

After thinking and reflecting about it, the following is what I came up with as a structure for accomplishing the balance between grade level exposure and direct instruction at instructional levels for a multi-grade class.  Keep in mind, that this is where I would start.  It might need some tweaking based on student needs, assistant skill sets, school resources, etc.

I would use the two different methods (grade level, instructional level) of grouping during my reading block.

The first set of groups would be based on the child's instructional level.  So no matter what grade the child is in, all the kids that are functioning in a 1.5 grade level for reading would be in one instructional group, etc.  Within these groups we would work on decoding strategies, phonics, fluency, comprehension of passages the child reads himself, and focus skills that go with the INSTRUCTIONAL level rather than the grade level.

The second set of groups would be based on the child's grade level. Within these groups we would work on listening comprehension, robust vocabulary and exposure to grade level materials and focus skills.

I base my lessons on a two week schedule, so I typically have 10 instructional days. 

It is important to note: My district uses StoryTown Materials.  The StoryTown materials are organized into a selection lesson for one week.  They also have a focus skill that crosses over 2 selections and practiced over two weeks. The pace of one story every week (addressing the vocabulary, focus skill, grammar and phonics rule) was too fast for my students.  I have decided to align my lessons with the focus skills and a two week period.  In short, this year, my students are only completing the even numbered selections from StoryTown.  We are not using the odd numbered lessons at all.  I am attempting to systematically teach the focus skills and third grade curriculum, but do so at a pace that my students can handle and master!  I started the year at the pace the curriculum suggests and I had students failing left and right.  Clearly something needed to change.  I wanted the kids to be exposed to all of the focus skills, so I opted for using all of the even numbered lessons instead of using every lesson at a slower pace.

On Day 1 in my reading block, I would spend the time entirely within grade level groups rotating between the teacher, an assistant and an independent center (probably the listening center.)  This would give the students a good long and repeated exposure to the grade level shared reading selection.  As the teacher, I would want to spend this time so that I know I am introducing every child to their selection at the beginning of the unit.  This also tends to be fun for my students.  We act out the vocabulary words, think of pictures that help us remember the meaning and discuss the story.

Then on days 2-9, I would break my reading block into 3 time periods.

1) 60 minutes: rotation with instructional level groups
Instructional group station 1: Teacher led
guided reading and strategy work
To be perfectly honest, this is the station where I spend the bulk of my planning time.  I need to think about what the kids are doing, make changes as necessary, push when they are ready for a push and pull back when content is too frustrating.  I like to get a program in place for my other two stations so that I can spend the majority of my "thinking" time on my direct instruction group.
Instructional group station 2: Assistant led
If you have a scripted phonics program (i.e. SRA Reading Mastery) I would use that, if not, materials such as Explode the Code are a bit more affordable than purchasing an entire scripted program.  If that is not available, I would also look to leveled readers from Science materials, media centers professional library, Scholastic News.  I try to keep this station using materials that are familiar to my assistant.  That way, I can spend less time planning for her and explaining what I want the students to work on.  Just as kids like things to be familiar, adults like things to be familiar too!
Instructional group station 3: Independent
computer programs, independent worksheets, silent reading, TEACCH task baskets, etc.  Find something that you have available that your students can do WITHOUT your help.  This is critical!  If your students cannot independently complete what you assign them, you will never get through your reading instruction with other groups.  Even if you have to decrease the level of difficulty, this center MUST be independent or you will sacrifice your instructional time.

2) 5 minutes: Poem or Choral Read
Pull all of the kids back together at their desks or a carpet and do a poem or a choral read.  This works as an instructional method working towards improving fluency, but also as a management technique.  I find that transitions are easier if the students are moving to a designated place.  And then leaving that designated place to group work.  So the idea is to pull them all together annd then send them off again to different groups.

3) 20-25 minutes: Grade Level Groups
On days 2-9 I would probably only see one grade level group a day.  The grade level groups would move through a similar rotation: teacher group, assistant group, independent group, but would differ in how many times I see them.  I see every instructional group every day.  I would not see every grade level group every day.  Over the course of the 10 days, I would see each group 2 or 3 times, my assistant would see each group 2 or 3 times and they would be independent 2 or 3 times.
The three groups would be as follows:
Teacher led: Shared reading, critical thinking skills and grade level focus skills
Assistant led: Vocabulary bingo or other related games
Independent: Listening center with the targeted selection

On the 10th day, we would rest....oops, I mean test!  I would keep the same structure as days 2-9 and complete the instructional level tests in small groups first.  Then I would figure out how to fit in the listening comprehension and robust vocabulary for the grade level groups somewhere.  I would probably have to steal from another time in the day somewhere!

I would love to hear what others are doing to address this question!  Since I've just moved back into the elementary level this year, I haven't been in on these kinds of academic conversations and troubleshooting in a while.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Dolphin Tale" Ideas and Resources

My class is very excited about the new movie "Dolphin Tale."  In science, we've been discussing how scientists can use a model to help them investigate their questions and variables.

Here are a few resources I've either found or created that you can use to support reading, writing and science through ideas from the movie "Dolphin Tale."

Power Point that can be printed or shown on an Activeboard/SmartBoard

Science Worksheet to go with Scientific Method and Power Point

Writing Prompt to go with Power Point

Scholastic Resources

Winter's Tail

Hope you enjoy!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Memorable Moment # 11: Name Changes

My parents christened me with a first, middle and last name when I was born. When I got married, I took on my husband's last name. In spite of these facts, my student's want to bestow new names on me each year. In the past few years, I have been all of these:


"Ms. Yogurt"

"Mrs. Yo-yo"


And let's not forget, my personal favorite:

"Ms. Oder"

I really do shower. The last one was a result of a child's speech impairment, not my personal hygiene habits.

picture references:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Reading Throughout the Day

Some of you know I've recently switched teaching pre-schoolers with disabilities to teaching third grade students with disabilities.

In Florida, third grade is a "high stakes grade level." Children who do not pass the reading section of our achievement test face a mandatory retention.

My assistants and I are working diligently to help our students develop and improve their reading skills. We have a few systems and procedures that we have in place to help our students maximize reading opportunities throughout the day.

In this post I'll list our systems and procedures, and then in future posts, I'll explain in more detail how we specifically address each item.

1) Guided Reading Groups led by the teacher using district adopted curriculum materials (for my district this is Harcourt StoryTown)

2) Scripted Phonics lesson led by a classroom assistant using SRA Reading Mastery materials

3) "Book Buckets" that include individual leveled readers from ReadingA-Z and a reading log.  Update: In December of 2011, we added some chapter books to this time.  For more information, see this post.

4) Sight word practice. We store this in our book buckets and simply write targeted a sight word on an index card, hole punch it and collect them on a binder ring.

5) Shared poetry using poems from curriculum materials and other supplements.

6) Shared reading focusing on robust vocabulary and focus skills such character, setting, recalling details, etc.

7) Accelerated Reader using individualized goals and reading levels.

8) Read aloud chapter books.

9) Read aloud grade level short stories led by a classroom assistant.

10) Reading "choice time" activities (popular songs with lyrics..karaoke style, Boggle, Boggle Jr, Spell It Puzzles, Bananagrams, Scrabble, Scrabble Jr, etc).

* For more details on how steps 1, 2, 6 and 9 look in the classroom, visit this post.

We've just started our third week of school and I feel as if we are really starting to move with our reading groups and instruction. It took us a bit of time to finish assessments, formulate groups, and teach our students procedures for each of the areas we've attacked.

Hopefully, by the end of the year, we'll be able to report some good growth in our students' reading skills. I say "we" and "our" with intent because it require a team effort between the students, their families, my assistants and me!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Math Facts: Free Interactive Game Online

I found a new-to-me website for practicing math facts. It's a basic "drill and kill" type of game, but it is simple and clearly presented. It also gives the user options of using different operations and different sum/difference totals. Check it out:

Harcourt Basic Facts

Monday, August 1, 2011

Big Changes.......

It has been a busy, busy summer.

In addition to all of the typical summer school and summer vacation activities, I decided to transfer schools and grade levels. I will actually be teaching at the neighborhood school that I attended myself as a kindergarten student!

In the fall I will start teaching a class for third grade students with varying exceptionalities. And, although, I will miss my pre-k students and assistant terribly, I'm looking forward to the change.

photo courtesy of Chris Campbell on Flicker CC, "Top Of Antique Bell"

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Including Samuel

This blog post recently came across one of my list serves. I found it worth sharing again.

Take a look:

Including Samuel

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Memorable Moment #10: "Embarrassing"

SCENE: There's an assembly in the cafeteria during my class's breakfast time and my assistant's hip has really been bothering her, so we ate breakfast in the classroom. (This involves getting breakfast and taking the meal roster back which is a lot if walking, so I told her I would do that.)

BUILD UP: We're potty training a little girl in my class, so before I took the meal roster back, I told her to go potty. She went in and I'm in the classroom. I hear her shout "Mrs. Y., I pee!" I hear several thumps of the roll of toilet paper and know that she is taking too much. I went in and see her with a mound of toilet paper by her on the floor. As we clean up, a piece gets stuck to her shoe. She tries to shake it off, but it doesn't come off. So we're giggling and she's trying to get the toilet paper off her shoe and I tell her "Oh Gosh, you don't want to have toilet paper on your shoe, that's so embarrassing." She giggles and tries again but it doesn't come off. So we talk again about getting the toilet paper off her shoe because we don't want bathroom germs in the classroom. She giggles and says "Embarrassing" and finally gets the toilet paper off her shoe. We wash up, she goes to the playground and I go to return the meal roster.

PUNCH LINE: I get to the cafeteria (which is about as far across campus from my classroom as you can get) and the cafeteria manager says, "Michelle, what do you have stuck to your shoe?"

Yep, that's right, I had toilet paper stuck to my shoe....

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Manuel de Los Santos video

My husband found this link in his wanderings online.

He thought it would be of interest to me....he was right!

I think this is an amazing story.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

National Geographic Website

My school is inundated with caterpillars right now. With so many natural, incidental learning experiences available, this is a perfect time to implement our life cycles unit.

National Geographic Kids has many great resources to also support this theme. Of course, in addition to bugs and butterflies National Geographic also has many other topics addressed too. Check them out!

Creature Feature: Monarch Butterflies

What in the World: Bugging Out!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

More Sea Life Resources

Since I live in South West Florida, a unit on sea life is particularly meaningful to my students and there are many opportunities to extend with real life experiences.

We have a field trip to Mote Marine Aquarium planned in March. I took my class on this particular field trip about 4 or 5 years ago. This year we are going to participate in the lesson about sea turtles and will actually get to make squid "popsicles" and then feed the turtles in the aquarium.

Of course, we also support this unit with many classroom experiences. I have found a few new resources to share:

Fern Goes for a Dive (free, animated read aloud story)

Fern Goes to Hawaii (free, animated read aloud story)

Mermaid Lullaby

Seashore Tap and Type

You can find other Sea life resources that I have gathered at this post, this post, this post and this post.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Literacy and Art and a Gentle Reminder

Have you ever had one of those days when the stars and planets are aligning to make sure you "get the message?"

I had one today.

My class is in the middle of a camping theme. They have been having a grand time playing in tents, singing around our "campfire," pretending to roast marshmallows, pretending to grill hamburgers, reading by lantern light, etc.....all of the play based experiences you would expect to find in a preschool classroom.

The shared reading book we have been reading this week is called "The Camping Scare" by Terri Dougherty. It's a simple book with great picture-to-text relationships and good illustrations that show many of our targeted vocabulary words.

In our art center today, we had out large sheets of black construction paper, the scrap bin, scissors, markers and glue. The children were encouraged to make a camping picture as an extension of our other play experiences and the literature we have been reading.

One child took his turn at the art center and began snipping very small pieces of the scraps. I looked at what he was doing and asked him what he was planning on making. He tells me he's making a tent. (This is clearly NOT a my is tiny pieces of paper. In my head, we were going to have a great creative experience where the children could cut out shapes of their choice to create figures of tents, etc and then use the markers for the finer details.) Well, I let him continue with his art project and he continued snipping the tiny pieces of paper. Good thing!

It turns out, he used those tiny pieces of blue paper to glue an outline of a tent, then collaged the brown ones to make logs for a fire, the orange ones for the flames and cut a large purple rectangle and used the markers to draw a "friend sleeping in a sleeping bag." It was fantastic!

Clearly, we (as teachers and parents) need to remember that children (even young children) are individuals with their own creativity, thoughts and ideas. I'm so glad that this particular child gave me an experience that serves as a gentle reminder that there are times that children need to have the space and freedom to communicate their thoughts and ideas in the way that they determine rather than with what we impose.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Play based writing

I have found a lovely, photo based blog entry on supporting writing skills through a play based curriculum.

Check it out. Jenny's preschool classroom writing experiences (indoors and outdoors) are fantastic!

Let the Children Play

Visiting Kindergarten: Social Story

It's the time of year when, in pre-k special needs classes, we begin to think about the process of transitioning children to kindergarten.

This year, there is a little girl in my class with an interesting combination of strengths and challenges.

She has a good cognitive skills and a good ability to learn vocabulary and concepts through incidental learning. She has a solid base of kindergarten pre-academic skills (she knows all of the letters of the alphabet upper and lowercase, she can count to 15, she can identify 11 colors and 6 common shapes. She knows many beginning consonant sounds, has an awareness of rhyming words, can read all of the names of the students in class and reads approximately 10 sight words.)

She gets overwhelmed with new experiences and has difficulty transitioning to new activities (especially if it is in a different location on campus). She still needs staff support for potty training. Her fine motor skills are significantly delayed and she still needs staff support for many tasks that include visual motor planning.

We have decided to try to specifically address an area of strength with an area that is a significant challenge for her while she is still in pre-k. She is going to start going to a shared reading and phonics lesson with a kindergarten class for approximately 20 minutes a day. Since she has good cognitive skills and she does not need any staff support in our pre-k large group circle time, we are going to try to balance this with the challenge of accepting a new experience. We are hoping that she will become familiar with the kindergarten building, the kindergarten classroom and the larger group of kindergarten students. We are also hoping that our pre-k staff can go with her for a short period of time and then fade away so that we increase her independence and comfort in the kindergarten classroom.

To help her prepare for this, we have drafted a simple social story (you can download a generic copy here.) about going to the kindergarten classroom. She has a copy at home that her family has read with her for the past week and there is a copy at school that classroom staff have been reading with her too. We have also started walking past the kindergarten room and having conversations about visiting kindergarten on Monday.

We're hoping by layering in the staff support and also building on her strengths, she will begin to feel comfortable and be able to learn new skills in the kindergarten class.