Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sight Word Writing

This sight word strategy is truly an example of how good ideas just keep getting passed along and how many children can benefit from one teacher's great idea.

I have two children who are in second grade and reading at an end of kindergarten level this year.  They need a lot of practice with phonemic awareness skills and sight word mastery.  At this point, they have been exposed to the district curriculum materials so many times; they really need something new.  I'm always keeping my eyes open for them.

A friend of mine who is a kindergarten teacher was telling me she uses this strategy in her classroom.  She got it from another teacher on her team, who in turn got it when she and a group of teachers were working on literacy centers.  Wow!  How many times has it been passed along?  How many kids are learning because of it?  I love that aspect of teachers sharing ideas!

It's very simple.  You take a piece of plastic window screen (can be purchased at Home Depot) and cut it approximately 10 x 13.  Then you use electrical tape to tape off the edges on both sides.  Finally, use a blank sheet of paper or a simple typed up sight word worksheet and some crayons so children can practice writing their sight words "bumpy style."

I have put this in some TEACCH task baskets for these two boys.  I'm also thinking of making some more and adding it to my Daily 5 Working with Words choices.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Differentiating....How do You Explain It?

I'm currently teaching a class for our local college that focuses on an introduction to the exceptional learner.  I love facilitating this class because the questions that are generated from my students often help me to clarify and articulate what I believe and what I practice in my classroom.  Sometimes it's nice to have to formally explain what you do and why you do it.

This week we have been focusing on strategies and differentiating.  There have been quite a few questions along the themes of how do you implement a strategy and not embarrass a child who has difficulty; or how do you do something different for one and not others; or how do you plan for a child with a speech impairment during read alouds.

Since these questions were addressed and clarified my for my class, I thought the information would be of interest for this blog, too. 

To me, these are brilliant questions.  They get to the heart of  "What does that look like in the classroom?" and I'm interested but I don't know how to do that yet.  "How do I do that with all of the other demands?"

The following is what I shared with my class:

".........Not every strategy is going to work with every child. That's why it's important to know how to research strategies and methods. You may come across a child who exhausts your "bag of tricks" and you need to find a new way to teach him/her a skill or concept.

HOWEVER, sometimes a strategy WILL work if you think through the challenges and set your classroom climate to be supportive. When your thinking starts with a problem solving and supportive approach, it will often help the child succeed.

So what does "a problem solving and supportive approach" look like? It can look differently in different classrooms. I'll share with you some of the methods I use.

When I think about a strategy and a specific child I think may have a challenge with it, I try to problem solve by thinking about questions like this:

1) What skill or concept do I want the child to master?
2) Is this strategy going to help him/her master that skill or concept?
3) What is the challenge I think he/she is going to face? Is there a way to adapt or modify the strategy to adress this challenge BUT still help the child master the skill? If so, this is usually the method I try first.

Here are a few things that I do to set a positive classroom climate at the begninning of the year:

1) We hold a class meeting and set our rules for the year. I pose them as "agreements" and explain to the kids that this is like a promise. This year the teachers agree to: be respectful to everyone, make sure everyone is safe, help everyone learn new things. This year the students agreed to: listen to the teachers, be kind to each other, keep hands and feet to ourselves.

Please note: If the students don't generate an idea for an agreement that I think is necessary, I usually try to guide them to it by posing questions and scenarios about if I let someone do something to them. For example, if they didn't generate an idea similar to being kind, I might ask them: What if someone kept calling you names? Would you like that? Would you want me to help you if you couldn't solve that problem by yourself? Is this important to us as a group? If it is,maybe we should come up with an agreement about that.

2) We talk about leaders. The United States has a leader, it's our president. Our school has a leader, it's our principal. Our classroom has a leader, it's the teacher. The leaders job is to make sure that everything works together smoothly. I remind them that I am the leader in our classroom and it's my job to make sure everyone is learning what they need to be learning.

3) We read lots of literature about differences. The books we revisited many times this year are: "It's Okay to Be Different" by Todd Parr; and "Little Louie the Baby Bloomer" by Jose Aruguelo.

These two books were chosen this year for specific reasons.   The first one addresses differences in general, not related to a disability. The second one addresses how a tiger can do things, it's just that the way he does things is a little bit different than how the other animals do things (which in a very indirect way teaches kids about accomodations).

4) We have a class discussion where I explain to them that not everyone is going to be doing the same thing or have the same work. That's okay! (Establishing the role of the leader and then talking about differences establishes a foundation of knowledge for my students to fall back on when I start differentiating lessons and assigning different children different work.) I hold up our books and remind them what we learned from each of those books. Then I simply tell them those are the things we need to remember when we do our work.

5) If you were ever to come into my classroom, you would hear me redirect somone by saying "Try again, please and remember we are a kind class." or "Oh gosh...try that one more time and remember, you are a kind person." I want them to internalize that we treat each other with respect and kindness. We support and encourage each other when we master something that was hard for us (even if it would have been an easy task for someone else).

When children have this kind of positive, supportive climate every day, it becomes a little bit easier to take an academic risk because you know that your classmates are not going to laugh at you and your teacher is going to help you. And when you can do it on your own, you will be proud of yourself and others will celebrate and encourage you.

The way that I believe this relates to the questions my college students generated is that it creates a climate that allows a child to take a risk and not do well; but be able to take that risk again and do better; and finally take that risk again and master a skill. These steps attempt to support the child towards growth both academically and emotionally.

One teaching experience that I remember very vividly didn't happen in a classroom, but I think it illustrates this point.  It happened at a cooking party we had with a chef at my sister-in-law's house.  We were all laughing and socializing and having a great time.  The chef was guiding us in preparing the meal and taught us some basic knife skills.  When it was our turn to try, one of us was chopping and the chef prompted her by saying "That was very good.  Can I show you how to do it better?"  I don't know that anyone else in the room really heard her, but I did and I thought: GENIUS!  What a phenomenal phrase that was non-threatening and encouraging, but also prompted her to do better....I'm so going to steal that.  And of course I have.  

I try to recreate that type of climate.....well, there's not any wine in my classroom, but you get the idea!  :-)  .........  It's safe.  It's supportive.  It's encouraging.   It's okay to make a mistake or not do something perfectly....the people around you will help you do it better!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reading Interventions

While browsing on Pinterest, I found this incredible resource from Jen Jones on Teachers Pay Teachers.   (It's free!)  It is a table that pairs a reading problem a teacher may observe with several reading intervention ideas that can address it. 

The ideas are all tried and true strategies we have all probably already used at some point in our teaching careers.  I love this aspect of the document.  We are not reinventing the wheel, we are thinking critically and planning systematically to address a problem.

Click here to check out Jen's If / Then Reading Interventions Menu.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Smiles from kids.......

Two things have happened this week that have really made me smile.

The first happened with a little boy I tutor.  We are reading the book Cam Jansen and the Circus Clown.  He's recording one sentence for each chapter to show how his thinking changes throughout the book as he gathers more clues from the story.  In the second chapter, Aunt Molly finds out her wallet is missing.  Most kids take the clues from the title and an incident in the chapter and predict that the wallet was stolen.  This child took the evidence that "her purse was on the ground under the chair, so maybe her wallet fell out and the janitor picked it up for her."  I thought this was so sweet.  He's looking for the good in the characters and people!

Here's the other:

It's bag of crushed tortilla chips.  One of the boys in my class pulled it out of his pocket this morning and gave it to me.  I asked him what it was and he says "I saved this for you because I know you like nachos."  How sweet!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Re-visiting PreK Favorites

I've had a few comments recently about lessons for pre-schoolers.

If you've been reading for awhile, you know that when I started this blog I was teaching a self-contained class for preschoolers with varying exceptionalities.  You may want to explore some of the older posts where I posted a lot of what I was doing at the time.  Since I'm now thinking and problem solving for older students, I'm posting more about them!  But the oldies and goodies are still here.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Fall Festival

Hot Pumpkin

Post-It Graphs

I'm Thinking of a Word

Block Play

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

First Week of School

In many ways, the first week of school this year was just like any other.  We established classroom rules and procedures.  We talked about respect of teachers and peers.  We identified and practiced ways to solve common problems and conficts.  We read stories.  We went to recess.  We finished beginning of the year tests, etc, etc, etc.

However, this year was quite a bit different for me.  For the first time, I have a student who is blind.  She also has some other exceptionalities, but to be perfectly honest, it's her blindness that has caused so much thinking and reflecting on my part.

I've always known that I rely very heavily on visual supports.  For many children with learning disabilities and language impairments, adding a visual cue provides them another way to access concepts.  I do this deliberatley and systematically with Boardmaker, graphic organizers and simple line drawings on assignments, tests or the white board or Activeboard.  It's become an integral part of my planning and lesson delivery.

What I didn't fully recognize until this charming, engaging, delightful girl who happens to be blind was in my class was how heavily I use and rely on facial expressions and gestures.  Simple things like giving a thumbs up across the room to a child who is working on independent work while I have a group at my table.  Or using the sign language symbol for "stop" in an assembly for someone who is talking to a neighbor. Or smiling to welcome a child who is joining the group from speech therapy or OT without interrupting the flow of the group.  And of course, giving the "evil eye" when a child is doing something he/she knows is inappropriate.

I like this.......facial expressions and gestures give encouragement or redirection in a way that doesn't distract others. 

Not surprisingly, these strategies are completely ineffective for my student who is blind.  I'm in the process of re-thinking how to discretely give these types of cues to her in a way that helps her but doesnt distract the other students. 

She happens to be very affectionate, so we're practicing high fives, pinky hugs and "golf claps"  (quiet clapping that celebrates her successes).   Right now in large group settings, I'm also using a lot of proximity and whispered cues to let her know things that are happening.

In addition to this, I'm modeling talking about pictures and details of things as we pass to her and the class.  I'll have to let you know how this goes...this is one of those "gut" things.  I don't know of any educational theory to back this up.  But, my hope is that in modeling my description of pictures and things we pass, the other students will notice this and start to do it, too.  I hope that this will not only  increase their acceptance of others' with differences, but it will also increase their own skills at recognizing main ideas, important details, clues, descriptive words, feelings, etc.  That verbalizing all of these things for one child will also help the other to more fully understand the importance of them.

This is one of the most exciting parts of teaching children with special needs.  I get a chance to think about problems and hopefully come up with solutions.  Then not only do I think about the potential solutions, but I get a chance to implement it and observe the results.  Whether or not the things that I'm trying right now will work, I don't know.  I do know that the process of thinking and reflecting on this and trying things out and observing the results, which then prompts more thinking is defintitely making me a better teacher.  It's making me more aware of some of the things I do without thinking and it's requiring me to think in new ways.....that can never be be bad. 

I hope by the end of this year I have a few more posts that tell you how excited I am over my students' successes!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Last Day of Summer

Tomorrow teachers report back to school (in my district.)

This morning it was raining.  The beach excursion that my sisters and mom and I had planned evolved into a shopping excursion.

This afternoon it was pleasant, breezy and sunny!  The shopping excursion evolved into an afternoon on the the deck of one of our favorite bay front spots!

This was our view:

We love it and thoroughly enjoyed the last afternoon of summer with some iced tea or adult beverage of our choice!

This evening it was time to head home.  My husband was already at the house when I arrived.  He greeted me with this song:

"Back to Life Back to Reality"

He's soooo mean!!!!

Although, in all honesty, I am ready to go back.

I've been reading The Daily Five this summer and I'm ready to start implementing some of the new procedures I've been thinking and reflecting about.

Thanks to my sister and sister-in-law, I've also recently become addicted to Pinterest.  I've found a lot of great ideas for supporting reading comprehension and understanding of complex passages, specifically as it supports the Common Core Standards.

However, this summer has primarily been a summer of relaxation!
  •  I've spent time with family visiting local attractions and playing games.  
  • I learned how to crochet and even completed 1 dishrag for the mere cost of $21 ($18 class, $1 crochet needle and $2 yarn). 
  • I've also enjoyed a number of books we term "beach reads"...not a lot of substance and not great literature but very enjoyable none-the-less.  
  • My husband and I have taken a few weekend get-away trips.  
  • And I have 1, yes 1, thing completed off of my "I'm taking summer off so I'll really have time to get some household projects completed list."   (How pathetic!....not that I'm worried about it...I had a great time playing instead!)

However, it is time to "get back to reality"  and I am eager to learn about my new students try out some new ideas and get back into a problem solving frame of mind.

Now I have to go set my alarm....ughhh!  if only I could start my reality at 9:30am instead of 6:30am......

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Word Verification

I'm sorry. I just can't take it anymore!

As I was reading through blogs a few weeks ago, I saw several posts about blog pet peeves. The one that topped almost everyone's list was having word verification on comments. I checked my blog to see if mine had that. Sure enough, it did! So I changed the settings and took it off.

Well, today I reinstated the word verification on my blog because I've learned MY top blog pet peeve! Opening up e-mail and seeing a number of anonymous comments that link to buying term papers, overseas stocks, adult toys,videos and medications, etc. Granted many of these went to my blog spam and didn't actually get published, but quite a few of them slipped through. I've deleted more comments in the last few weeks than I think I have on the whole blog!

So I'm sorry, I'll be annoying many of you by keeping the word verification active, but I just really don't want to continue deleting comments that I don't deem appropriate for this blog's purpose.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Daily 5 Linky Party, Chapter 2

I'm a little late with my chapter 2 post!  My sisters and I had a fun get-away weekend, so I was playing instead of reading and thinking.

Chapter 2 is all about the Foundations of the Daily Five.  As I was reading this chapter, I didn't find anything that was really "new" or "outstanding" to me as far as reading theory or tips on how to get started with the Daily Five.  What I DID, strongly appreciate about it is the compact overview explaining why I would implement the Daily Five and why some of the procedures are important.

As I think about this, it makes me reflect on how I will communicate some of these policies and procedures to my para professionals who work with me.  When I start working with a new para-professional, I usually give them simple "homework" during pre-planning week.  I ask them to tell me what is the classroom activity or thing the love to do most with the students.  Conversely, I also ask them to tell me what is the worst job I could ask them to do throughout the day.  Then I also share with them, my own personal answers to those two questions.  It helps us to build communication with each other and gives us a little bit of knowledge about things each of us like and don't like so that we can get all of our classroom tasks done.  It also helps me to plan who will lead specific activities or groups based on my para-pros interests and strengths (when possible.)

I think I would like to use chapter 2 as a communication tool for us next year, too.  I'd like to earmark some time during pre-planning so that they can read it and know the foundation of what we will be implementing.  I can't always explain every single instructional decision that I make.  Much of it is based on what I know about children from their individualized testing, what I learn from them through observation, what I learn about them from our STAR and SM reports, what I know from previous experience, what I learned through college and training, etc. etc.

I can't always take the time to explain everything, but chapter 2 does a great job of explaining the habits we want to develop and the ways in which we can go about doing that.  I think it would go a long way into ensuring that all of our classroom staff is on the same page.  After they read chapter 2, I'd like us to have some time to discuss it and explain how it will impact our reading block time and other reading and writing times during the day.

I think this is especially important in a self-contained classroom where I rely on my para-pros to help make our classroom more effective.  They are invaluable!  I think the ides of "trusting the students, building stamina and staying out of the way" are things that we will definitely have to have conversations about.  You'll remember from my previous post about chapter 1, I am trying to figure out in my head how I (personally) will release some of the control to students.  I also have to figure out how to ensure that my para-pros can also release that control. 

It's tough.  Sometimes, I think even more so in special education classrooms because you want to support the child.  Hopefully, we'll be able to come together and re-frame our concept of what it looks like when you are supporting a child.  It doesn't have to be with constant attention and prompting (In fact, I loved the story about how the authors trained they kids to rely on their praise and attention.  Then had to go back and work on it again.)  We can support children by helping them to build their stamina and become independent readers and writers.  I'm hoping our implementation of the Daily Five will help us get there next year.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Daily 5 Linky Party, Chapter 1

This is my first attempt to join a Linky Party, so Mel D. at Seusstastic Classroom Inspirations or Nicole at Teaching with Style, if I'm missing some piece of linky etiquette or rules, please correct me!  I take critical feedback well.  :-)

I am not teaching summer school this year!  This is the first time since my first year of teaching that I have not worked at a summer camp or taught summer school.  I'm into one week of summer without work and I have so many things checked off of my home "to do" list.  :-)

Anyway, since I'm not investing my time into setting up a summer school classroom, setting up a program and learning new children and families; I thought I would take the time to really get into and read the Daily Five.

If you've been to my blog before you know last year I taught a third grade, self-contained class for children with mild to moderate disabilities.  After completing the year, I felt pretty good about our reading gains, our reading procedures and our reading rotation.  However, there are always things that I want to revise and refine.  I thought the Daily Five would be a great book to offer new information and opportunities for reflection.

Daily Five Chapter 1: Reflection

On pages 4-6, the authors present two different pictures of their classroom.  In thinking about and reflecting on your own practice, how would you characterize your literacy block?  Does it look more like the first scenario or the second scenario or in between?  How would you change it?

I think, overall, the reading activities/lessons in my class are somewhere in between.  If you take a look at previous reading posts, you'll see that I have a lot of staff supported lessons in our rotations (between myself and my 2 assistants). Since my class is a self-contained class for children with special needs (and that includes children with behavioral disorders), I could never imagine myself sitting at a reading group with my back to the class.  I always situate my group in an area where my back is to the wall I and I can see the whole room.  I don't see that aspect changing.  These two aspects keep me in that "teacher controlled" part of the continuum.

In reading those previous posts, you'll also see we did a lot of work in building stamina, reading to self and reading to someone.  That puts a little bit closer to the other end of the continuum.  I also spent a lot of time working with the students and my assistants to let them know they DO NOT interrupt reading groups.  Kids do not ask questions about their independent tasks and teachers and aides do not give assistance to kids at the independent area.  This was huge and it took a lot of work to make sure this was a habit for both the students and my assistants. Not only did I have to make the expectation clear for the kids, I had to make sure my assistants knew I did not want them leaving their group to support kids at the independent area.

What I see as potential changes for my class for next year, is refining that stamina to include the writing and word work.  We had a journaling time period during the day and it was ok, we also embedded phonics and word work into the reading lessons and that was pretty good because it gave the kids the support the needed, but I think it could get better.

I also really liked the small group/independent time transition from whole group mini-lessons.  This structure gives a good opportunity for me to make sure that all students are introduced to grade level materials/focus skills.  It also provides a natural opportunity for movement.

The typical teacher is very busy having students do lots of different activities.  How is what you are doing in your classroom now creating quality readers and writers?

I actually don't have a lot of busy work during our reading block.  It's pretty structured between my station of guided reading work, my assistant's station of robust vocabulary and exposure to grade level materials; and my other assistant's station of SRA phonics work.  Our independent area was typically reading choices on the computer: Tumble Books, SuccessMaker,; Hear Builders, etc.  During my actual reading block, I didn't have much of the Daily 5 reflected at all.  I was pretty rigid.  It was during our Individual Instruction Time and our Sustained Silent Reading time that I started to use pieces and parts of the Daily 5.  I think these structures helped children to develop their reading skills.  I'm hoping to make it more cohesive next year and also improve my ability to develop writers!  I don't think I did such a good job with that this year.

I'd like to get better at fostering independence in authentic reading so that my students will view themselves as readers.  By this age they know they are in a "special" class.  They talk about it.  Since they talk about it, I feel like I need to address it with them too.  Most frequently, students are in my class because they were struggling with reading in the general education class.  They remember these struggles and it impacts how they view reading activities and their reading abilities.  I'm hoping that the Daily 5 structure will help me to foster that internal view of themselves as readers.

What sets the Daily 5 structure apart from what you are doing in your classroom?

Right now in my reading block time, I have 3 main stations (teacher, 2 aides) that are controlled by me.  I choose what each assistant will be doing (and consequently the kids at her table) and I choose what I am doing (and consequently the kids at my table).  Within the reading block, the students don't have a lot of control or choice in what they are doing.  

The Daily 5 requires a release of this control.  I'm going to have to think more about this.  There are things that I have to do to meet the direct, specialized instruction component of my students' IEPs.  This means they need specific, specialized instruction at their instructional levels.  I also have to expose them to grade level materials.  However, many of them don't have grade level skills.  This means they need support for this.  I am going to need to figure out how to do the things I'm required to do that require support, but still embed that student choice and independence components that I"m longing for to help them view themselves as readers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Last Month of School

School's out for summer!

As I reflect on the year, I've realized some of my favorite memories of the year happened in the last month of school.  Two of my favorite didn't even relate to all of the hard work we did on academics, but they are (in my opinion) important none-the-less:

Adam redirecting another student who said something that was rather mild, but not very nice.  "You know, you really shouldn't say that because it's not kind and we are a kind class."  (I didn't say a word.  Adam handled it beautifully and the other child stopped.)

A group of students making up a table hockey game on the last day of school.  On the last day of school I gave them some extended "choice time."  (It's similar to "free time" but I won't let them call it that because if they don't make a choice, then I make one for them.)  They made up the rules, figured out how to keep score, took turns playing and had fun playing.  It was great!  (If you teach a self-contained class, you know that some year's you need to work on cooperative skills all the way up to the last minute of the last day.  This group "got it" and it was wonderful to see and hear.

photos courtesy MicroSoft Office ClipArt

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tough Puzzle!

My class, my assistants and I have dubbed this the "hardest puzzle in the world."  It's not, of course.  But it IS a very challenging 750 piece puzzle.

I like to have a puzzle table with an ongoing puzzle set up in my room.  It's a nice anchor activity for my students when they finish work and it also lets me integrate some team building and cooperation conversations throughout the day.  It's also nice to hear the students start to compliment each other when they find pieces and the picture starts to come together.

This particular puzzle was intended to be finished by December.  We finished it the first of May!  There was a period of time when they students really weren't motivated or interested in going back to it because it was so hard.

I was stuck.  Do I take it down and start a new one or push through it?

Luckily, I have the most wonderful paraprofessionals in the world! One day one of them encouraged a student to go over and put one piece in "the hardest puzzle in the world."   He did and then was congratulated for helping us with the "hardest puzzle in the world."  That threw down the challenge and regained the kids' interest in the puzzle.  They started talking about finishing the "hardest puzzle in the world" and actually started to enjoy the challenge of it again.  The crazy thing had been up for so long in the classroom all kinds of pieces were now missing (which made it even harder!)

I'm glad we finished it (to the best of our ability with all those missing pieces.)  It gave them a sense of accomplishment and pride.  They even asked if I would take their picture by "the hardest puzzle in the world."  It also gave us some funny conversation and teasing....they asked me to "Please, never buy another puzzle from Goodwill."  :-)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My heart is breaking......

My heart is breaking for my students.  We received our FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) scores back today.  In my self-contained class of thirteen third grade students with special needs, one student participated in the alternate assessment, two students passed the FCAT (yay!) and the other ten failed the FCAT reading portion. 

My heart is breaking for them because they have worked so hard this year.  My assistants and I spent the entire year talking to them about their:
  • gains in our SuccessMaker Computer Lab
  • successes in being able to take AR tests independently
  • sight words they knew at the beginning of the year versus the number of sight words they know now
  • gains in their oral reading fluency probes and how many words correct per minute they can read
  • reading selection tests and how they have improved
  • robust vocabulary grades and how they have improved 
  • ability to read by themselves for twenty minutes without any help
I have all of this data that shows their growth and their progress towards IEP goals, but none of it is reflected or documented on FCAT.   In my heart I know it matters.  I know that data is important and it keeps my students and me going.  It gives us the proof that they are learning and moving forward.  But as it relates to FCAT, it feels as if it doesn't matter.

Tomorrow I have to sit down with ten students and tell them they failed. Six of those ten students now face a mandatory retention in third grade.  (Of course I won't use the word failed, keep reading to see how I plan to explain this to the kids.)  The other four who don't face mandatory retention had already been retained once and have intensive instruction in reading, so they meet the eligibility criteria to waive the mandatory retention and can move on to fourth grade.

This is such a frustration for me!  All of my students have been through a comprehensive, individualized series of standardized assessments to show their academic levels and their processing strengths and challenges.  Many of the students in my self-contained class are significantly below grade level norms.  If they were not, they would probably not need my setting.  Since I have a whole year of classroom data and a whole stack of individualized, standardized  assessments that document their current levels of performance, why do we continue to force them to take grade level standardized tests?

I do not have a problem with FCAT.  I think it gathers an important piece of information for us.  And to be perfectly honest, if I had a choice, I would have recommended six of my students take the FCAT because these students were systematically moving through and showing success on below level third grade materials.  I thought they deserved a shot at it (and of those six, two passed and the other four who failed, actually came pretty close to the cut score for passing.  They might be able to pass the Stanford 10 when they get a chance at that next week.)

However, I do have a problem repetitively administering a test that continues to document failure rather than success.  I had six other students who just do not yet have the skills to pass a third grade level skills test.  I don't have the answer to this problem.  If we never give them the opportunity to test in the actual testing situation, we seem to be tracking them for a special diploma. 

How would they be able to pass the high school test if they never experience it in elementary or middle school?  But, if all of a student's experiences with a test result in failure, how confident will s/he be going into the high school test?  What are those failing experiences teaching?  Are they really preparing a student to pass?

It just seems to me that we should be able to match the standardized testing environment, format and language to a test that is based on the skills a child was actually able to systematically learn and master throughout the year. 

By this I mean, I wish my third graders who are reading at a mid-first grade reading level could take a standardized test that is off-level normed.  I wish they could be assessed on the first grade reading skills.  Over time, this would actually show their growth, rather than continue to show that they have failed a grade level test.  I know, it's a big wish.

So now I'm gearing up for tomorrow.  It's our Reading Celebration Day at school (how ironic!) and at one point during the day, I need to have individual conferences with all of my students to discuss their FCAT results. 

My plan is to show them their developmental score and explain this to them. 
  • I'll remind them that tests give teachers more information about what we need to teach.  
  • I'll remind them that this was their first time taking FCAT and now next year we will really be able to see how their developmental score improves.  Just like we saw how their SM score improved throughout the year and their mastered sight words improved throughout the year.  
  • I'll remind them how proud I am of their hard work and all of the goals they have mastered this year.  
  • I'll remind them that they are readers!  
But, my heart will be breaking just a little bit with each student conference.........

photo courtesy of MicroSoft Clip Art

Monday, May 14, 2012

Silent Reading Procedures

I like having my students practice sustained silent reading.  So often in special education classes we are so focused on providing direct instruction and therapies, managing interventions or collecting data; it seems like we forget that students need to be able to choose their own literature and read on their own!

My goal for my students this year was for them to be able to choose their own book and read silently (or at least quietly in a whisper) and independently for 20 minutes.  Since three of my third grade students started the school year with reading levels below beginning first grade, we obviously had to provide some structure and scaffolding to help them reach this goal.

The first thing you see labeled in this picture is the "book bucket."  It is a simple plastic box purchased at Big Lots for about $2.  Each student in my room has their own personal book bucket.  Within this book bucket we store the child's whisper phone, their sight word rings and Reading A-Z books at their individual levels.

I chose to start our sustained silent reading with book buckets because it was an organizational system that we had previously taught the students in my class.  They all had their book buckets and had spent individual reading time with my assistants and me reading the material within.  I knew that every child could independently read more than 90% of the material in their book bucket.

The first day I introduced silent reading time, I didn't give them many choices.  I asked them all to get their book buckets out on their desks.  They were allowed to read anything that was in their book bucket.  I then set a screen timer for 5 minutes on the Active Board.  We use a free download like this.  I challenged them to see if the entire class could read silently until the timer beeped and cut this grid so that it showed only 10 squares and glued it to a piece of green construction paper with the phrase "We can read silently for 5 minutes."  They were all required to read for 5 minutes out of their book buckets.  When they successfully read for 5 minutes, we put a sticker towards the class goal.  After they reached that goal of reading silently for 5 minutes on ten different opportunities, we congratulated them and told them how proud we were of them and that they were ready for a new goal.

After we met that goal, I made another simple grid and set the screen timer for 7 minutes.  When we met that goal, I bumped them progressively to 10 minutes, 12 minutes, 15 minutes and then finally 20 minutes.

As they showed they could manage the silent reading, I loosened up on the control a little bit.  I would let them choose three books from our classroom library or their library books.  (Remember while some of my students are reading chapter books, I still have a group reading first grade level books.  I needed them to have enough material that would keep them reading for the full 20 minutes.)

A little bit after that, I loosened up the control even more and allowed them to find personal space in the classroom with a laundry basket, a throw pillow or a throw blanket.

Through each little step, I wanted them to maintain their sustained reading but gradually have it become something that they enjoyed and got to choose rather than something I imposed on them.  I'm hoping that this will help them to view themselves as readers and ultimately read for leisure rather than just for work.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How to Eat Fried Worms

My class is currently reading the book, "How to Eat Fried Worms" by Thomas Rockwell.  This is such a fun book that captures the students' interest and imagination.  My students are really connecting to the interactions the four main characters have throughout the book.  Tomorrow, we will be wrapping up our lessons focusing on the book.

I've decided that I and the children who choose to, will get a chance to eat a "fried worm."  While I could probably be convinced to try most anything; and I have eaten snails and haggis, I don't think I could be convinced to eat a real fried worm.  We will be dining on hot dogs with ketchup and mustard!

I took a package of hot dogs and sliced each hot dog in sixths.  I found it easiest to cut them in half first and then cut each half into three parts.  Then I put them in a non-stick skillet for a few minutes to fry them up.  Tomorrow I will heat them up in the microwave I have in the classroom.  My husband and I were laughing tonight at the pile on the cutting board.  I think it really does look like a pile of worms!  :-)

This will be a choice activity.  I have some students who absolutely will not want to eat one of our "fried worms."  However, I suspect those kids will be groaning, giggling and laughing right along with the others who do.  I plan on bringing in some paper plates, ketchup and mustard to serve with our "fried worms."   One of the main characters, Tom, chants a poem to his friend Billy as he eats the worms.  I am going to post that poem on our ActiveBoard.  We can chant it and throw in a little bit of fluency reading work while we are having fun.

As always, whenever we do a choice activity like this, we will vote about whether or not we liked the worms.  I still like to vote with post-it notes (even though I have older students now).  It keeps the students actively engaged and it ensures that they only vote once.  Since we have also had ongoing lessons about graphs and data collection, we will also create a graph of our results.

I have a few more sites and lesson resources that we have done that correlate with this book.  Look for them in a future post!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Place Value Games

My class continues to need lots of practice with place value.  We're trying to hit it in small bits and pieces several times a week.  Here are a few free interactive games we are using to keep them motivated to practice the same skill!

Tank Game:

Haunted House:

Base Ten Blocks:

Seashell Rounding:

Catch Ten:

(You can find all of these games and a few more at  I've separated out the ones that my class is using just so my students can find them easier!)

Football Place Value:

Interactive Worm Sites

Last week and this week we are reading the chapter book "How to Eat Fried Worms" by Thomas Rockwell.

Here are two interactive sites that students can navigate through independently for more information about worms.

Vermi the Worm

Herman the Worm

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sight Word Strategy

I love strategies that are "quick and dirty" and cheap!  This is a simple strategy to have children practice one or two sight words that are giving them trouble.

Simply get a washable marker and write the word on the child's hand.  Make sure to write it so that the word faces the child when the child looks down at her hand. Now remind the child that every time she looks at her hand, she needs to read the word. 

This simple strategy gives the child numerous opportunities to target that word throughout the day.  She can practice it on her own.  She can read it in line to specials, she can read it in line from specials, she can read it in line to lunch, etc., etc., etc.  The beauty of it is that it not only prompts the child to remember her sight word, but it also quickly prompts staff to ask her to read the word.   It offers lots and lots of repetition within just one day!

And I have to tell you, it works.  For the life of me, I could not remember my PIN to check out books from the library and our school librarian forever had to look up my number.  The little girl whose hands are pictured here heard us go through it one day and she told me "If you can't remember it, you need to write it on your hand!"  Since I do it for my students, I figured, I'd better be willing to do it for myself, especially since she called me out and it was a situation that mirrored when I use the strategy for them!  Do you know, since then, I have remembered that crazy PIN?

If you are going to use this strategy, you will want to check with parents first to make sure they are okay with you writing on their child's hand.  You also want to make sure to ask the child's permission.  After all, you are writing on THEIR body and it IS pretty blatant. I would never want to use a  strategy that embarrasses a child.  Most of my students this year are okay with it, however, I have 2 students who tell me "no" they don't want me to write on their hands and I respect that.  For those students we don't use this strategy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Individual Instruction

Do you ever have a chance for individual instruction with your students?  I've always tried to "fit" it in somewhere, but was more worried about systematically scheduling my groups and seeing every instructional group every day.

This year a block of time for individual instruction evolved during the time that our speech pathologist comes in to do "push in" language therapy groups.  I started off trying to have a group opposite her group, but for a variety of reasons that just didn't work out.  Over the first month of school, we tried a few different things during this time and finally settled into a pattern.

We have 4 adults in the room during this time: the SLP, my two assistants and me.  Here's how we organize the time now:

11:45-12:30 Speech/Language Therapy and Individual Instruction

The students come back into the room from specials, get drinks, go to the bathroom and then get their journals out. 

If the students are not working with one of the adults in the room, they are expected to be writing in their journals.  At the beginning of the month, I create a journal prompt menu.  The students tape this to the inside of their journals and "x" out the prompts as they write about them.  I use the word walls from and an individual word bank to help them with their writing too.  I do this so that the students who are at their desks writing have the support of materials when they don't have the support of the classroom staff.  This helps them to be more independent.  (In fact, if one the students calls my name while I am working with another student during this time, you'll probably hear a peer saying "You know she's going to ignore you because it's not your turn."  It took us a long time to get to this point, but they know what they are supposed to do and they know that they have strategies to be able to do it on their own.)

At the beginning of this time, one assistant takes a student to the clinic for meds and the other assistant takes her break.  I get the students transitioned and started on their journals and the SLP calls the students she needs for the day.  Once we get going here's how we are organized:

1) Students not with an adult write in journals at desks.

2) Students scheduled for speech/language go to group work.

3) Assistant #1: Helps students with AR tests.  I have 7 students who can read and take AR tests independently.  However, that leaves 6 who still need support.  This assistant pulls students 1:1.  They read her an AR book and then she helps them log on and complete the test.  We have a laminated folder for each student and tape a quarterly AR goal inside.  With the AR goal is a sticker chart so they can record their progress towards the goal.  I've also included guidelines for the adult helping (so that it's clear to the person not to help too much!)

4) Assistant #2: Has students read individually to her from their book buckets or chapter books.  In the "book buckets" students have a reading log with leveled readers from  Some of my students have started chapter books, but still need some support with them.  This is a perfect time for them to read  a chapter to my assistant.

5: Teacher: Students read their sight words to me and I record data towards mastery. (I'm fussy about the data recording so I don't like others to do this.)  This is also a time for me to read their journals and have a mini-writer's conference.  On some days I have also used this time to record Oral Reading Fluency scores.  If someone is stuck on a particular skill, I can pull that child during this time and work on it too.  (Again, just like with the reading block organization, I like to have systems set for my assistants and the students, so that I can think about how my time is best spent during this block of time.  My activities change the most, but I always fall back to sight word practice and mastery when there is not something else that needs to be addressed.)

I've enjoyed this individual time this year and I think the students have too (except for the journal writing, most of them still don't like that.)  They enjoy seeing their progress and their skills improve.  Each station has a progress monitoring piece embedded into it.  At the AR station, they see their stickers tracking progress towards their quarterly goal.  At the book buckets station, they see their reading log fill up and the level of their leveled readers go up too.  At my station the see their mastery of the sight words turning into "star words" and then speed words.  At the SLP's station she always tells them how many they got correct in their previous session and encourages them to go for more correct this time.

Not only do the students like to see their progress towards their learning, I think they really enjoy the one on one time they get with an adult.  I have lots of data to show how their academic skills have improved but not very much about how this time impacts the climate of our classroom.  However, I really do believe that it makes a positive difference in the relationships that are developed between the adults and the students too.

Rube Goldberg Machine

My husband found this video on You Tube and sent it along to me.  It shows a 7 year old boy, Audri, and the Rube Goldberg Machine he created.

I think this is awesome!  It shows so much planning, creativity and problem solving.

My class (self contained third graders) have been participating in science lessons all year with a general education third grade class.  I would love to organize our classes into cooperative groups and have them create their own Rube Goldberg Machines.  We have 3 more science units that we have to complete for our instructional focus calendar, but perhaps we could do this at the end of the year during the last week.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Einstein's Definition of Insanity

Einstein's definition of insanity is one of my all time favorite quotes.  He says simply: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

How many times, as teachers or parents, do we do the same thing we have always done and end up with the same conflict, problem or lack of learning on the child's part.  I agree with Einstein.  That's insane.

We are the adults who are in the lead role.  It's up to us to change something first.  If I continue doing everything exactly as I have done it before, shouldn't expect the same thing that happened before to happen again?  And yet, what happens?  The child typically gets blamed.  We say things like "You need to listen harder." (quote from Rick Lavoie and FAT City).  Seriously??  Listen harder?  How do you do that?  Or we say you're lazy or just not trying.  Or we say you need to apply yourself.

I think Einstein's quote on insanity speaks to one of my favorite aspects of teaching students with special needs.  The kids can, in fact, learn.  We have centuries of data to prove that going all the way back to Itard, Seguin and Montessori. 

It's up to me to figure out what to change.

Perhaps I change the way the material is presented.  Some children can learn complex concepts with the support of visual cues or kinesthetic modes of processing the information.  Perhaps I change how the student has to respond.  Perhaps instead of writing his/her response, I have them orally tell it.  Perhaps I change the way the student is engaged.

I find Einstein's quote to be a challenge for me to figure how to help the students in my class learn the skills and concepts they need to learn.

photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons; the Smithsonian Institution

States of Matter: Interactive Games and Videos

My class has started a science unit focuses on the states of matter and the physical properties of matter.  After searching online for some resources to support our classroom materials, I've found quite a bit.  Have fun exploring!

Interactive Sites for Students:

Solids Liquids and Gases

Changing States of Matter 

Material Properties 

Changes in Materials

The Mixtures Lab

Short Video Clips on States of Matter

States of Matter and Physical Properties

Resources for Teachers:

Standards by grade level with links to appropriate activities.

States of Matter Unit Packet

States of Matter Article and Questions

What's the Matter: Sorting into matter categories

States of Matter Worksheets

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Valentine's Activity: Hearts Everywhere

If you are in any way similar to me in how you plan lessons for activities you've seen online, you need some time to read about the idea, think about how you would use it with your group, prepare your materials and then implement it.  One of the teacher's on my team this year says he likes to let concepts have a chance to "marinate."  We've all adopted his lingo.  We like to let kids have the chance to have repeated exposure to concepts, but sometimes we also need some marinating time for ourselves. 

In an effort to give everyone some time to "marinate" the following ideas, I'm sending them out early (or really late considering I took the pictures last February!)

For my pre-schoolers that I've had in the past, this lesson focused on the positional concept "on" as well as identification of common objects.

I started with the interactive book, "Hearts Everywhere",  from the Jefferson Parish AAC link.  I would read the book to my class using the felt board and laminated hearts.  On each page, the students would take turns placing the heart "on" the object identified in the book.

After introducing the book and the vocabulary, the next day before the children came in the classroom, my assistant and I placed construction paper hearts all over the classroom.  During circle time, I would call a few students at a time to go "look for a red heart" and bring it back to the carpet.  When they brought their heart back, I would ask them where they found their heart.  Once they answered the question, we would place it on our chart and I would call the next group of children to go look. 

TIP:  If you are working with pre-school age children, be sure to write on the heart the location that you placed it.  For example, "on the fish tank."  When you have several children looking at the same time, it's easy to miss who picked one up from specific locations.  If you don't have several children looking at the same time, the waiting period gets to be too long for little ones.  And if you have students at levels similar to the students I have taught, when you ask the question, "Where was your heart?" you will inevitable get the answer "over there" a few times.  You want to be sure you can accurately prompt them to answer the question using the positional word "on" and the correct common object where it was.

I love activities that get students actively engaged.  These types of scavenger hunts always produce smiles, laughter and excitement.

Because of that I'm trying to think of a way I can adapt the activity to be appropriate for my current third graders.

I think I will connect it to our writer's workshop lessons.  We have been working on using more descriptive phrases in our paragraphs.  I am going to  place many hearts all over the room with their labels.  Have the students put their heads down with their eyes closed and give each student 10 or 15 seconds (one at a time) to go get a heart from somewhere in the room.  After they collect their hearts, they will describe where they found the heart, but they are not allowed to name the object.  Then they will read their paragraphs to their classmates who will need to guess where the heart was originally.

I'll have to let you know how it goes!  I'd love to see other ideas on how to use a scavenger hunt type activity to support academic goals for older students.  Please post your ideas in the comments section.