Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Morning Mentors" Before School

At Chets Creek we have almost a hundred patrols in fifth grade.  I know- who has 100 patrols?  But the philosophy has always been that we should have as many patrols as qualify.  The bigger question is - who volunteers to be the patrol sponsors!!?  Believe it or not, there always seem to be two people on staff that do volunteer... and take the job very seriously.  Often it's staff members that have a 5th grader of their own so they have a vested interest in the success of the program and the final trip to Washington, D.C... or they are "volun-told."  Anyway, this blog is not about the patrols (I am in total admiration of the patrol program at Chets!)  This blog is about the non-patrols.

Even with 100 patrols, that still leaves about 150 fifth graders that are not patrols.  Some, of course, don't qualify for the patrol program, but others have scheduling problems that make it difficult to come early or stay late every single day and some just aren't interested in the job.  In years past those students congregated in the Media Center or the Dining Room. But this year, Jane Szerba, 5th Grade lead teacher, wondered if these students might do something different - if they might live the idea of servant leaders?

Our K-4 students sit in the hallways in the morning and read quietly, so Jane's thought was to pair the 5th graders who are not patrols with kindergartners and have them read together.  This is not a totally new concept, of course, but one that we have never done successfully on so large a scale.  We have had younger and older classes that paired together as reading buddies and we have had teachers try to get smaller projects of paired reading going in the mornings but  nothing that involved this many students.

Jane has many of her fellow 5th grade teachers on board, so on the first day they spanned out and placed 5th graders with kindergartners.  In a large school, like ours, 5th grade teachers don't always know kindergarten teachers well so this was an uncommon, although mutually welcoming, collaboration. Oh, there have been plenty of glitches and details to work out (such as asking the Principal to move some of the adult morning coverage to make sure we had extra coverage where the kinders sit, making room in the halls for the additional 5th graders, getting the Media Center to agree to take the handful of students who might not be successful with this collaborative reading for some extra computer time and making sure that they too have positive role models...), but I think people just naturally understand the possible positive implications of the program, if we can make it work.

Jane even suggested that we pair some second language kinders with same language 5th grade partners.  We currently have about 14 different second languages spoken at our school and we seem to have more and more students that come with limited exposure to English every year.  How much better it would be for a second language kindergartner to start his/her day with a personal language interpreter who could answer questions and become an advocate... and what an empowering job for the fifth grader?

This program will require continued vigilance from the fifth grade teachers past this honeymoon period for monitoring.  Fifth grade students and their kindergartner partners will have to invest in relationships and see the value for the program to have a prolonged impact.

So... stay tuned to see how this initiative of  "morning mentors" works out!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Positive Postcards

Since Dr. Stahlman's first year at Chets Creek, positive postcards have been a part of our practice.  A postcard, "News from School," is placed in your school mailbox on Wednesday morning.  You choose something incredible that has happened during the week, write a short note to a student, and then drop the postcard in the Principal's box sometime during the day. I think the Principal has always enjoyed reading the cards (it keeps her up on things that are going on in the building)  and she adds the stamp.  Of course, recognizing that each of us has a different style and pace, I'm sure the Principal knew that all of the postcards wouldn't all appear in her box by the end of the day!  For those of us that were slow to get postcards written, at the mid-term she would usually send a friendly reminder that you owed her some postcards and that this would be a good time to catch up.  She sent another reminder at the end of the year and sometimes highlighted a list of teachers who were keeping up with their postcards or occasionally highlighted well-written postcards in her weekly Memo.  Although the expectation was that teachers would write the postcards, there has never really been a penalty for non-compliance.

The idea originally was that over the year you would send at least one positive postcard to every child in your class.  A few teachers made once-a-year labels for their entire class that were a "you're gonna do great on the big test" booster that they sent right before testing time that met the expectation but certainly not the spirit of the practice.  Over the years, teachers also began to send cards to parents and to their colleagues.  I know I was always delighted to get a postcard at home and both the children and parents at school would remark how excited they were for their child to get a postcard. It was just such a small, but effective way, to highlight individual successes and to promote positive communication.

As luck would have it, last year the Union negotiated a paperwork reduction and like lots of other good and bad practices, positive postcards came under fire.  Principals were no longer able to "require" teachers to write positive postcards.  So the idea came to our Shared Decision Making Group to decide if this was a practice that was worth continuing or one to let go.  I'd like to say that the group decided that it was such a worthwhile practice that we unanimously decided that we couldn't possibly live without it.  But...that's not what happened...  While some teachers hardily endorsed the practice and gave many examples of how postcards boosted self-esteem with individual students and positively affected communication, some teachers just didn't see the value added for the time they required.  The decision was made that the postcards would continue to be placed in every box and then put in the Principal's box to read and stamp but that she wouldn't hold teachers accountable.

The Principal has often remarked that the teachers that are diligent about postcards and communication in general, are the ones most likely NOT to have problems with parents!  But it's more than that.  Can you imagine the household pride when a postcard arrives in the mailbox?  I can just imagine the child's chest swelling with pride and parents who show off the card to each other and anyone else that will listen.  I have had parents come back years later and tell me that their child kept a postcard that I wrote for years tucked in the mirror in their bedroom or put it in a picture book to keep for always.  I know I have kept every single postcard that I have ever received in a bowl with other "feel good" notes from parents and children, and when I'm feeling particularly down, I go through and read every note and card. It's an immediate "pick me up" and reminds me why I do what I do.

I guess I'm writing this blog to the teachers who don't write post cards to their students and colleagues because I want them to carefully reconsider this practice as one of those "tried and true" activities that is well worth the effort. I know that not every teacher is a writer and they would argue that they do other things to boost self-esteem and to work on relationships, and I am sure that is true. But I would also like to think that there are many other teachers and administrators who have written notes and cards to their students and colleagues on a regular basis and see the immediate benefits and also see the benefit for years to come. Would love to know if you have ever tried this practice and if it's made a difference for you!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Third Week Noticings

It's the third week of school and I realize that as I think about the beginning of this year, there are scenes that I cannot shake from my conscious.

... As I was walking through the office, I noticed a line of parents and students registering.  It looked like a line you might see at the United Nations with its varying nationalities.  And there was Lori Linkous, our CRT,  with a Mom, Dad, and two little girls that looked scared to death, patiently answering their every question.  Their English was very broken as they searched for each word, but Lori so patiently was telling them how much they were going to love Chets Creek. I wonder how many times this scene has been repeated as Lori has welcomed new families to Chets Creek these first few weeks?  She counsels.  She consoles.  She walks each family to class and when the child closes the door to the classroom, she reassures the parents as she walks with them all the way back to the front.  How reassured they must be to have Lori's quiet smile and assurance on that first day.

..."Miss Julie" (Middleton) works the front desk and is our face to the community.  She is so kind, so welcoming. She also dispenses all the medicine.  I took one of my students down to get his medicine before lunch and while I was waiting he was in the Clinic talking to Julie.  He is new to Chets and he was telling her that his little brother had been cleared for free lunch for several days.  His dad had filled out the form the first day for free lunch but every day they told him when he walked through the lunch line that he needed money.  He is naturally very anxious and he was telling her that he was worried because he didn't have any money that day and he was afraid they were not going to let him eat lunch.  She could have just assured him that everything was going to be all right and sent him back to class. It's not her job to worry about his lunch money, but she recognized his anxieties and so she went to the Dining Room herself.  She checked and he was right.  He should have been eating free, but she was afraid it wouldn't be worked out before lunch.  She called the dad to make sure that he called to get it straightened out and then gave the child an envelope with money for lunch in case they asked him for it, so he wouldn't worry.

...The county decided that we need to level all the books in our classroom libraries.  In fifth grade this is a very big deal because their books are in baskets by genres and topics and authors.  They know their collections so well and are such master teachers that they have not needed levels in quite a while.  Not only is it something that they don't really think they need, it is a huge task.  As I was trying to find a way to get it done, I asked Lourdes Smith, our Dean and resident problem solver, if she had any volunteers.  The next day a volunteer showed up at my door.  We show her the app we wanted to use for leveling, requested labels from teachers in the building, had a teacher volunteer to do all the labels and before I knew it, the volunteer was sitting writing levels on books.

...Angela Hopfe is a longtime para that works with my struggling students.  Today she was sitting by one of my students quietly urging him to write in his reading response notebook as the teacher read out loud. After a few urgings, he leaned close to her and whispered, "I don't know how to tell you this, but you are annoying!" I laughed out loud!  Angela has had a different schedule every day as we have worked to get her in the right place with the right students and teachers.  She is so flexible, so talented and so over qualified for the work that we have her doing.

...Lauren Werch is my ESE counterpart.  Today was the first day of her "girls lunch."  She teaches "social skills" each day during lunch sessions. She doesn't take a personal lunch, but uses the time to invite different students in to eat lunch with her.  The girls were so excited.  They were giddy.  As they settled down and began to eat, Lauren addressed one of the girls from last year that she had fought to retain in 5th grade.  She asked her how her year was going so far.  The young lady replied, "Last year I was just a shy little girl afraid to talk to anyone. I got left out a lot, but this year I am a social butterfly.  I have friends and I can talk to anyone."

...I had a visit  from a former student and his mom. He's now a 2nd grader and his mom said his grandma called him on the first day of school to ask how it went. "You're not going to believe this Grandma, but this girl in my class is named a cuss word." His mom leaned a little closer to listen in on the conversation. "Yeah, it's a cuss word all right... with an 'n' at the end... Helen!" I couldn't stop laughing.  In all the years I've heard the name Helen, I've never thought of it as a cuss word with an "n" at the end!

...Today we had a computer training for our new complex grade book system.  I  was lost after the first five minutes so I did what all good struggling students do when things get tough, I went to the bathroom.  It wasn't frustrating for everyone but certainly to a good percentage of us, but when I got home, Karen Morris, a second grade teacher, had posted a Facebook message that said something to the effect of "even though technology can be frustrating, I love my school."  She could post that because she knows that we are a school where those that "got it" will be helping those of us that didn't.  We'll never be left alone.

I'm just thankful.  Thankful to be at Chets Creek.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Tricks for Herding Cats

Our Principal, Susan Phillips, who was a Kindergarten teacher,  says that the first days of kindergarten are a lot like "herding cats."  It's a apt description of trying to get the class to work together when they are so used to doing their own thing.  While VPK has made a huge dent into the first days of kindergarten, there are still children that come to school on that first day who have never been away from mom. There are always anxious kids (and moms) and there is always at least one child that cries and another that you have to "peel off" the parent.  When you put all those children together, it really is like herding cats.

One of my favorite new kindergarten teachers asked me for my "tricks" for the first few days.  My first thought was, "I don't have any tricks!" but as I thought about that question I realized that what she called "tricks" were those little things that we have all learned from experience.  They are part of our tool box.  The trouble is that, with any list, the teacher using it has to have "with-it-ness." She has to be "reading her room" and know which "trick" is required in which situation and which "trick" might just work with which child. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to sit down and try to write a few hints that she (or any kindergarten teacher) might use, especially if they get "that" class.  As I was writing, I thought of all the really GREAT kindergarten teachers and behavior interventionists that are at my school.  So... I asked them to pen a few of their own "tricks." Not surprisingly, many of them were similar.  The following list is the result of many combined years of experience.  Thank you Susan Phillips, Elizabeth Conte, Melanie Holtsman, Maria Mallon. and Lourdes Smith.   

So... Kindergarten Teachers, these are just a few things that you might try if you happen to get that group of kids that makes you feel like you are really herding cats!

1. Give the "busy hands and body" child something important to hold and take care of as you transition around the school for lunch, recess and resource (aka- a job like clip board holder). It keeps his hands busy and most kids love to be a helper!

2. Put the  "busy" student is charge of something “very important” where she gets the opportunity to set a good example for others, like door holder, folder hander outer, flag holder for the pledge, etc.  - something she can take pride in doing.  Also, gives you something positive to write home about to start off with a positive interaction with the parents.

3. Make the most disruptive kid your line leader so you can keep him close to you. Close proximity can be a key.

4. Use upperclassmen (or patrols) as partners, helping you get to the room in the morning or to dismissal in the afternoon.  Two upperclassmen for each "busy" kinder will make the upperclassmen feel good and will give the "busy" kid someone to engage.

5.  Use a hand held or a computer with earphones and have the "busy" child watch a video such as Leap Frog's "Letter Factory."  This needs to be kept mostly out of sight of the other kids as to not be too distracting to the rest of the class, but it will give you, the class, and the kid about a 15 minute break. 

6.  Find something the disruptive student knows a lot about or interests him and have that child “teach” the class or a small group all about it.  Finding specific books on that topic will help engage the student as you begin independent reading in those early days, "I bought this book especially for you because I know how much you LOVE Thomas the Train!"

7.  Do a morning and an afternoon recess.  Two short breaks instead of one longer break can provide just the break (you and) the students need.

18. Use lots and lots of verbal praise, using the child's name. "I like the way Johnny has his eyes on me."  "I love how Johnny is reading his book.  Look how he's sitting with his book open and his eyes on the book."

8. Calm the environment before dismissal.  Plan for a quiet activity at the end of the day because if you are in a frenzy, the students will be too. 

9. Use more songs  (If You're Happy and You Know It, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,  Wheels on the Bus...) and more motion games ( 1-2-3 Do what I Do) than usual - the ones most of your students know - especially between transitions to get the wiggles out or even during a mini-lesson if you see you are losing them. 

10. Send the "busy" child for a walk on a "pretend" errand, if you have an extra adult to walk with her.

11. To settle the class have them take deep breaths.  One favorite is to have the children take a deep breath and hold it... then put up 5 fingers and have them blow out their "pretend" candles.  Do this about 3 times to calm everything down.

12.  To calm an individual child have him/her think about hot soup.   Tell the child to think about the soup that is hot like he is hot right then.  Then tell him to close his eyes and smell the soup taking in a deep breath through the nose to sniff the soup to inhale. Then blow on the soup to exhale.  Sometimes the visual can be very helpful. 

13. When you choose a signal to get the class' attention, choose one with motions so they actually have to watch you, such as "silent P.E."  Tell the students that if you start doing "silent PE", they should follow.  Do about 8 counts of an action and then switch to another action for about 8 counts and then a 3rd, if needed, to get everyone's attention. Wait... and wait...  until you have everyone's attention.  Usually even the active kids will look around as the room gets quiet and they usually enjoy actions.  Then... follow the actions with a whisper voice of instructions. 

14. Choose an individual signal for the "busy" child that you can give her throughout the day without disrupting the class to let her know that she is doing a good job.  Make eye contact with the child and then give the signal such as a wink and nod, the "okay sign" or thumbs up sign.  Let the child know often that you are watching and noticing her good behavior.

15.  A silent signal can also be used to let a child know to stop a behavior.  Make eye contact and then give a frown and a stop sign with the hand.  You can give silent signals almost without missing a beat and interrupting the flow of your lesson.

16..  Try having your most disruptive child sit between two students that know just what to do.  Sometimes the good behavior just rubs off.

17.  Consider sitting on the floor with your students having the busy child sitting close to you.  Close proximity can do wonders.  A gentle hand on her knee if she gets too wiggly without even a hint of disruption of the lesson can sometimes quiet a wiggly child. 

18. If the child literally cannot sit still or keep his hands quiet for group time, give him an area on the edge of the group (make a square or circle with duct tape).  Tell the child that he just has to stay inside the shape.  Ignore whatever he does even if the child  stands on his head.  The point is that the child is not roaming the room and touching other students.

19.  Sometimes physical things help the "busy" child get some energy out,  like stacking and then unstacking chairs or moving chairs from one table to another.  For instance, have the child stack all the chairs before recess and lunch and then have her unstack them after.

20. Get the parents involved as soon as possible. This will help you decide how much help they can be.  Sometimes that is all it takes, and, sometimes, you will decide that the behavior plan will be all on you, because the parents cannot or are not able to help.  It helps if you have already called the parent on the first day to make general contact and to say hello so that your first contact with them is not negative. Remember that no matter what the student has done, she is still their most precious child.

21. With a particularly difficult kid, pick your battles.  You can't change everything all at once.  Pick the most important behavior to work on first.  For instance, "keeping hands to self" is more important that "staying in seat." 

22. Start a behavior program quickly when you see a behavior that needs to be molded and needs extra intervention.  Fold three pieces of copy paper in half, staple as a booklet and invite the child to decorate the front.  Choose one focus to work on at a time, such as walking directly to the table after the mini-lesson, coming in the morning and putting backpack away and getting backpack in the afternoon, raising hand to speak, keeping hands to self...  When the child has 5/10 stickers on a page, she gets to pick a prize from the treasure box.  Then start a new page. Keep the plan out for the child to constantly see and let the student put on the reinforcer (sticker, smiley face...).  Have the child remind you why he is getting the reinforcer each time.

23. If stickers or stars aren't enough to motivate the child, figure out what that student's "currency" is.  What motivates her?  If you can't figure it out, ask the parents for hints about what she really likes to do or receive.  Make a personalized behavior plan to earn toward that currency.  The key is no matter what has happened before,  there is always an opportunity to earn.

24. Counting down (from 5) can be helpful.  Make sure the child can actually count down from 5! But this gives the child something to  concentrate on instead of how angry he is and the child can actually picture the anger coming down.  You can use this and teach the child to count down when he gets angry before he reacts and you can also use it when you want to give the child a minute to comply, "I need for you to sit in your chair now - 5...4...3...2...1...  If you count down and the child, doesn't comply, then there has to be a consequence so think about what you are going to do BEFORE you start the count down!  This is not a "gotcha!"  You want the child to comply.

25.  Have little talks during the day with the targeted child, such as "You are trying so hard.  I saw you get right in line when I called your table and I really admire that."  " I was watching you during the mini-lesson and I noticed that you really tried to follow every direction. Wow!" High five!

26. Enlist the help of another teacher as a "check in" teacher.  The child reports to that teacher at the beginning and end of the day.  In the morning, the teacher goes over the goal of the day and let's the child know she will be checking.  She then checks again during any free time during the day.  Finally the child checks in again with the teacher at the end of the day.  Sometimes this helps a child know that other people care about him.  At our school this is often the Media Specialist, "Miss KK" or the "Miss Julie" in the front office. 

27.  Read books about behavior.  No David is a great series.  Collect specialty books about cooperation, respect, bullying... to read at the beginning of a new year.

28. If a child is grumpy, show him how he looks in a mirror or take a picture on your phone to show how the grumpy face looks.  

29. If a child is really having a "fit,"  just ignore it until it is over.  In the heat of the moment the child is not rational and cannot reason, so trying to talk to him in the midst of the anger is a waste.  Stay very calm (even if your heart is racing) and reinforce the other children for ignoring the tantrum.  When the child is calm, go over how the child will handle the situation differently if it happens again (and it probably will!)

30. Sometimes you just need a break (or the child does).  Develop a relationship with another teacher.  Work out a plan with another teacher on your grade level or a completely different grade to either switch one student for 30 minutes to give each other a break or as a "reward" visit to the other class.

Hope this helps!  I am sure you have your own "tricks."  Please feel free to share them in the comments!

Monday, August 24, 2015

WOW em!

So the first day of a new year is all about students having a great day and wanting to come back tomorrow! What better way to start the year than with a circus!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A New Year Begins - 2015!

The circus is in town! This is just a sampling of the "big top" atmosphere as you walk through the downstairs hall. Free admission to all who dare to dream. It really is the greatest show on earth!

Each year Chets Creek transforms itself yet again into something new and exciting!  Teachers work so hard to make the outside and inside of their rooms inviting.  They wouldn't have to go to so much trouble.  Many of them come in during the summer and lots of them work the entire week before teachers return.  It would be much easier to just spruce up last year's décor a little and bounce in the week that you are actually paid to be there.  So why do teachers do it?  I think they do it because they care so much.  At Chets Creek, it's really not a competitive thing.  It's more like you are lifting up each other and the new décor just says, this group of children is so special.  I love what I am doing and I want the children to be as excited as I am.  Whatever the reasons, it really does put a smile on your face as you walk down the hall!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

SBBB... or not?

Recently our Union bargained for a "paperwork reduction."  A long list of things was eliminated and a few were replaced by new, more concise forms.  However, some things that had become a part of our school culture were on the list of things that schools could no longer require of teachers.  In order to continue to require anything on the reduction list, a school had to come to consensus through the shared decision making group.  So... even though something was not required by the district, it was possible for a school to continue with a certain form or practice if the teachers decided that it was worthwhile.  So... we began the very tedious process of going through the list and deciding what things we wanted to keep and what things could go.  It was a good, although sometimes difficult, conversation.  What is it that we, as teachers, feel is non -negotiable at our school?

About twelve years ago we were taught to do a new type of bulletin board, called a Standard-based bulletin board, SBBB.  That meant that instead of doing my traditional killer bulletin board at Thanksgiving with my turkey made out of neckties or instead of doing my adorable hippo with a tulle skirt and pink silk toe shoes entitled "Dancing into...", I was to concentrate instead on student work!  Cute "foo-foo" was out and rigor was in.  We were taught to use somewhat of a formula.

SBBB  = 
a title +  description of  task + standard(s) + 4 pieces of student work with commentary 

There were always variations on the formula. Teachers were taught to think and to showcase what made sense to explain the work on a board.  Sometimes you could really only fit three pieces of work with the commentary, because the board simply wasn't large enough.  Sometimes the commentary was by the teacher, sometimes by a peer and sometimes by the student.  The board might also include a rubric or other artifact.  Teachers were free to take that basic formula and stretch and create a board that was a "window into their instruction."  

This certainly is not an easier board to create and I think, in the beginning, a teacher really labors, especially over the commentary, because basically you have to really understand what you are teaching and the work that students do.  And you have to be able to explain it.  In other words, we were asking teachers to do the same type of work we were asking the students to do - to explain their thinking!  There are times when I hated those boards, because it seemed like I was always the one still there at 6:00 trying to get mine just right, but there is no question that doing the boards created a layer of depth of understanding that I got nowhere else. I really spent time looking at the standard, taking it apart, seeing if my instruction was really aligned with the standard and the student work, and explaining my thinking and the student's thinking.  And then of course, it took time to display the work in a way that made other people look twice and want to read it.

As the years have passed we have made it easier for teachers.  Instead of putting up a board every month, now we only ask for five boards a year and we give a 2-4 week "window" for getting the board up, so that a teacher can put a board up in her own time.  We have tried to use the boards for teaching by doing "board walks" during teacher meetings.  We actually walk from board to board so that each teacher has a chance to actually explain her thinking to other teachers. We have looked at the boards in the grade level ahead to help us see where our students are going.  We want teachers to ask questions of each other and learn through the collaboration.  We have tried to honor teachers who really  do extraordinary things by giving a "Board of the Month Award" or by mentioning exceptional work in the Weekly Memorandum from the Principal.  We also take pictures of the children who have their work featured and add them to our weekly Newsletters and blogs.  If a teacher takes the time to really work on her board, she wants to know that someone is reading it!

So. as we come to the question, as a group of teachers, of continuing to do this type of board or not, we really have to think through how important the boards are to us.  Is it just a compliance piece that we are made to do that has no value?  Or is it something that we believe represents who we are individually and as a school and what we want for our students?  Do we see it as a window into the instruction in our classrooms?  This was easy for me because I know how much I have learned from writing commentary and from reading commentary by other teachers, but will the entire school be willing to take the road less traveled? In this time of paperwork overload, will they take the more difficult path, just for the sake of learning and sharing?  The conversation has just begun and the verdict is still out.  The conversation continues... 

NOTE:  At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year the Chets Creek PIC (our shared decision making group) came to consensus and decided to continue with standard-based bulletin boards.