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.