Tuesday, December 29, 2009


If you're like me, you have been run over by information, and misinformation, about RtI - Response to Intervention. It seems I have been mucking around in all the little pieces - which seem overwhelming - and what I really need is to understand the big picture and to understand why this is a good thing. I understand, of course, there is a financial, political side to RtI which I really don't want to know about, but what I do need to understand - and believe - is how this is going to be better for children. If I am going to make all these thousands of graphs to prove what I am doing, then I want to know that it is really going to make a difference for my struggling readers and is not just jumping through a bunch of hoops that do no more than satisfy a bureaucracy.

In an effort to get the big picture I am reading Richard Allington's What Really Matters in Response to Intervention. I actually heard Allington when he was President at IRA give a keynote - in fact he talked about some of the same issues he discusses in this book - and he is someone that I really respect. I picked this particular book because of that respect and the belief that he could cut through all the goobly gook and give me the nitty gritty. I am not disappointed.

Allington suggests, for instance, that Kindergarten is the perfect place to start with interventions and that it is the kindergarten teacher that is the first line of defense. She should have daily small group focused lessons in her plan for those two or three lowest-performing children in her class. It is our job to provide our teachers with the professional development that they need to identify and teach these students to close the gap right there. This small group of students will be seen every day while students who have better developed skills and need less teacher-directed time will be seen less often. Research shows no negative impacts on assigning those student with better skills more student-directed work.

Up until this point I am jumping up and down because this is exactly the situation at Chets Creek. We do expect the kindergarten teacher to provide the interventions in a small group daily. However, it is the next part that frustrates me. In the best situation this very small group of students will be getting a second literacy period each day, which means after and before school interventions. Most of our struggling readers do get a second period of reading instruction in a small group BUT - and it is a big but - this is done by a paraprofessional and sometimes is during the literacy block to make the best use of the para's time. We don't have money for before and after school unless the child's parents are able to pay for Extended Day. Even though - in our very large school of 1200 students, we have almost 300 students considered at-risk - a small school of students within our large school - we don't qualify for that type of help. That will be my challenge for the new year...

Allington discusses the research on intervention and identifies principles that accelerate reading development:
  • Make sure that struggling readers have books that they can read all day long. Sounds so simple but Allington makes a very convincing argument for text books - one size fits all - being inaccessible to most struggling readers. He suggests that students need to spend most of their time reading books that they can read with 99% accuracy! He calls this high-success reading.
  • Practice makes perfect. Allington explains quite eloquently why students need to practice reading and going back to the first point, reminds us that students can't practice if they can't read the text. He calls this reading volume. In a 30-minute researched intervention design he explains that 20 minutes should be reading appropriate text, 5 minutes of word work and 5 minutes of comprehension and skills. He discusses how to design appropriate interventions which really goes back to having the quantity and quality books that students enjoy including a non-fiction library that matches the standards in Science and Social Studies. We have worked so hard on this at Chets Creek, but it's still not enough. We have a long way to go to make this a reality!
  • Group size for interventions should be no larger than 3! Yikes! He even suggest that if a child in a group of 3 is not developing satisfactorily that he be moved to a 1-on-1. Yikes!
  • Intervention must be coordinated with core classroom instruction. I have always felt that if a child was not learning in the core program then the intervention should be a different approach, but Allington says that this is confusing to the child and the intervention must instead reinforce the core - be coordinated with the core. This is one I will have to think about some more... Getting the type of coordination that he is talking about is difficult. It is difficult for the general education teacher and the interventionist to find the time to plan that type of intervention with real daily coordination, especially when he does not believe that standard protocol design -a specified box program - is the best. Instead he would suggest a responsive intervention design that is designed specifically for the child and reinforces what the child needs from the core classroom instruction each day. While this sounds ideal, the reality is most difficult.
  • Intervention should be delivered by an expert teacher. This seems so obvious. The best teachers have the largest toolboxes and when a lesson isn't producing the targeted results, they simply reach back into their toolbox and know how to present it in a different way. These teachers have flexibility because they are able to adapt their lessons to the needs of their students on the fly. At Chets Creek we have turned our teachers away from commercial programs and asked them to look instead at their students and their data and a pacing guide of the scope and sequence of the grade level expectations to teach tomorrow's lesson. I think we are preparing them to teach with this type of flexibility. It's so much harder and so much more time consuming than just teaching the next page of the teacher's manual, but Allington's research certainly confirms what we are seeing in our teachers. The effort does create teachers with a larger toolbox. Effective teachers improve their performance every year while less effective teachers achieve their best results after 5 years and nothing after that!
  • Focus instruction on meta-cognition and meaning. As I was reading this chapter and Allington was identifying sub-groups of children, I am jumping up and saying, "Yes, I have that group and that group and that group!" In one study of 4th graders 20% of the strugglers could word call but with no understanding. Another 20% had problems with decoding but could comprehend. Other clusters were slow steady readers who comprehended but read so slowly. Another cluster were deliberate, slow decoders who maintained comprehension, and a very small cluster who were low on everything. All of these describe MY kids!! According to Allington only a very few of these need intervention with an emphasis in decoding but instead could use lessons focused around getting the meaning (summarization, graphic organizers, question generating/ answering, prior knowledge/ predicting, and visualization) and lessons around mega-cognition which basically is knowing if the text you are reading is making sense as you read it (slowing down, pausing, looking back, reading aloud, strategies for figuring out unknown words, skipping a word and rereading).
  • Use text that are interesting to students. If we want struggling readers to accelerate their reading then they have to read. What better way to get them to read than to surround them with books about topics that they have an interest in or even an expertise. Seems so obvious but how often do teachers ask struggling readers what they would like to read about and then go out and find appropriate texts?
There is so much in this book that I find compelling. The back even has a guide to use as a book study and I hope that we will do that at Chets Creek. I want to reread this book and talk about its contents with my Leadership team, with my ESE peers and with my grade level teachers. I want to identify what we are doing right according to the research and how we can do things differently. I want to argue with some of Allington's finding and get a deeper understanding through conversations with my peers. This book has a lot to say - this book can make a difference.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kindergarten "Parties"

Kindergarten classrooms look a lot like Santa's little workshop this time of year. Most classes host a holiday "party" which is really a morning of special holiday centers. The teacher chooses 4-6 centers and many parents join the fun to help out. It really is a special morning, with holiday music in the air, lots of laughter, and lots of FUN!

These last few days also include lots of holiday crafts. Some of them are so meaningful. One of the most popular is the snowmen keepsake that is made as a child wraps his white painted hand around a blue ball (left) and then snowmen details are added after the paint is dry. Or the cute little reindeer made from the kindergartner's fingerprint on a silver ball. These special ornaments will adorn trees all over our attendance area this holiday season and then will be such special reminders of that special kindergarten year for so many years to come. Each year as the family takes out the ornaments they will reminisce about this first special school year!

There are always cards and snowmen and Christmas trees to make and, of course, cookies to decorate and toy trains to make from candy. Each class works on their own designs, but the message is the same. This is such a special time of year - a time of joy!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It Takes a Village!

Chets Creek is made up of about 1200 students in grades K-5. Like many schools, our population is very diverse. Over 21 languages are spoken in our homes and our second language population continues to grow every year. Our free and reduced breakfast and lunch percentage also continues to creep up each year and currently is around 22%. That means that we have almost as many students on free and reduced breakfast and lunch (250+) as some of our urban schools! While our school is very close to a gated country club, our attendance area also includes a mobile home community of almost a 1000 homes.

Over the years, like most schools, as we have combed through our data, we have looked at many factors such as our Special Education and safety net services, Level 1-2 FCAT students, discipline referrals, free and reduced lunch, second language learners, and many of the other indicators that might be factored into our academic achievement. Because a third of our children as nestled together in that one mobile home community, that area often pops out as an area that includes many of our at-risk kids. Don't get me wrong. There are also many wonderful, hard-working families in that community - many retirees also live there. We have hard working PTA moms from that community and some of our school employees come from that same area, but when you have so many homes in a single area and the economy takes a plunge and times become so tight, it is not surprising that that area would continue to be singled out as a place where some of our neediest students reside.

As a Leadership Team we have often dreamed about on-site tutoring or summer camps or other services that we might give to this under served community in a meaningful way but because we do not qualify for some of the extra monies that are available to schools with majority poverty, we have never done more than dream and talk about it. This year, however, the Leadership Team decided to go over to the Community Center and talk to the resident manager about what he felt the needs in the community might be and how we, as educators, could have the families see us as active members of their community. We want our families to know that we really do care about them and we are willing to be there as neighbors. That's what this is really all about- turning to our neighbors next door and being there when there is a need in a meaningful way - showing our love in real, substantial ways.

At the same time that the Leadership Team was planning on loading up in a van to visit the community, Beach United Methodist Church, one of churches attended by many of our faculty, did a series of sermons about service. They declared Saturday, December 12 as an official day of service for its members. The idea was that each member would seek out a way to be of service to their neighbors on that specific day. Liz Duncan, both a member of BUMC and a Special Education teacher at Chets Creek who handles much of the discipline at school, stepped up to organize an event at our mobile home community on the specified day. The idea snowballed and even as it drizzled rain today, crews were all over the area offering a helping hand.
Bags of groceries were at the
Community Center for the taking and
some were even delivered

Volunteers circled in prayer
on this rainy Saturday of service
Bundles of baby blankets and clothes
Delivering groceries
Food offerings

Crews went out to decorate common areas with tinsel and ribbon and others pressured washed homes that were in violation of the community's ordinances. Teachers and teens along with small church groups went into homes stapling plastic to cover windows as the colder weather begins to fall upon us, leaving groceries and blankets at each stop. All of our faculty that are second language speakers themselves went to translate for second language families. Our Principal sat on the phone calling families from our school and reminding them to stop by the Community Center for the party activities and snacks but also to pick up anything they wanted. Teachers made holiday ornaments with the children and helped them decorate holiday cookies at the Center. Santa was there for pictures or just to chat. Bags and bags of groceries were given away along with blankets, clothes and toys. Families were encouraged to take anything they wanted.

It is our hope that this day will be just the beginning of a real relationship with this community. Wouldn't it be nice if this relationship made a difference in the academic achievement of the children that we serve? Sure, it would... but today was about getting to know each other better - letting our families know that helping means more than offering a few hours of tutoring at school - it was about showing our families, and ourselves, that we are really ready to walk the talk.

People often ask me what makes Chets Creek different than other schools. Today is what makes it different. I work with people who say they care and then turn that into action. I work with people who believe they can make a difference and then do something about it. I work with people who see teaching as their life's work and then make that real in their daily life. May every day this holiday season be a living testimony to our beliefs...

Update: We could never have known it at the time, but this day was the beginning of the school's commitment that led to opening the ARC (which was a tutoring center in the community) which led to the MARC when the Mckenzie Wilson Foundation decided to lend the name of their beautiful daughter and their resources to this community.  This was the beginning of a dream that became a reality.

Friday, December 11, 2009

It's a Holiday Present!

From the "Mall-ards" comes this delightful repost of their holiday art and writing activity. What an excellent idea to take an art project and combine it with writing. Our little ones are so excited as the days tick away and have so much to share about the holidays!

In this activity the children began with an art project of making four different sized wrapped boxes and then were asked to write about what might be inside!

Josey wrote:
"On Christmas, I would give the blue box gift to Chase. It would be a spy tank. The green box gift would be for Lily. It would be a rose. The red box would be for Lexie. It would be a crown. The yellow box would be for Lauren. It would be a new puppy."
Jack wrote:
"On Christmas, the big blue present is for Chatfield and it is going to be a Hess plane and a Hess train. The little green box is for Emmy's stuff - and a My Little Pony house. The yellow present is for my dad. My dad's present is a new Lo book. The red present is for my (mom) Coach Hall - a new pair of earrings."
Madison wrote:
"On Christmas, the red gift would be for Megan. The green gift is for my dogs, In the box was balls. The yellow box is for the Humane Society. The blue box is for Miss Karen."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Differentiated Professional Development

One of the professional development sessions that won rave reviews last year was one of our technology afternoons when we offered eight different technology sessions and invited teachers to sign up for the session that peaked their interest. Each session was run by a teacher at Chets Creek that was using the technology. Once again this year we offered seven new sessions this afternoon: Making graphs from an Excel spreadsheet; Using igoogle and Google calendar; Voicethread; Review of Geeks from the Creek; imovie and Photobooth; windows Movie Maker and Classroom wikis.

I attended the session for making graphs from an Excel spreadsheet with Tracy and Tom Ruark (2nd ELA and fifth grade Math/ Science teachers). This is of interest to me because, as a special education teacher, I often have to present behavioral and academic data in graph form to the Target Team (our intervention team) or to parents or to behavior specialists. I usually spend hours doing this by hand. Today I figured out how I can take much of the data directly on the computer while it is happening and then automatically turn it into a graph! What a time saver. This is something I've always wanted to learn how to do, but just haven't found the time to stop and figure out. Today was the day! Like most learners, I really enjoy getting to choose what I want to learn! What a fun afternoon... and how time flies when you are engaged!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Santa Claustophobia: Fun Theory for Book of the Month December 2009

Today's December Book-of-the-month was Santa Claustophobia by Mike Reiss (the "Simpsons" writer) and David Catrow. It's a funny, irreverent story in rhyme. Principal Susan Phillips was in rare form this morning, giddy with holiday cheer, but all for a good reason. The message today was about putting the fun back into the classroom. She stood on the theory that behavior is easiest changed when it involves fun! For more information on this month's book-of-the-month, keep an eye on the Chets Creek Book-of-the-Month wiki.

Haley Alvarado went right back to her room and put the theory of having fun right into practice. She reads several holiday books every day as read-alouds. To put a little more "fun" into the activity she wrapped each book and will let a different child pick a wrapped book to read each day. Such a simple little detail that absolutely engages every single little kindergartner! Here's to more fun this holiday season!

Humane Society Visits

Today Meagan from the Jacksonville Humane Society visited Chets Creek kindergartners. The children learned about what dogs need, about the Humane Society in general and about how to approach a dog that they do not know. Many of the kindergarten classes are collecting cat and dog food, animal bowls, brushes and blankets to donate to the Humane Society as part of their holiday service project. Many of the children returned to class and wrote about what they had learned today from this shared experience.

I pet the dog.
He was soft.
I learned that he
did tricks.
The dog was happy.
I was eager to see
the dog do tricks.

Abigail's picture matches her words as it shows the children in line waiting to pet Noodles, the Humane Society dog, at the end of the assembly. You will notice that Abigail also got a sticker for using the word "eager" which is a vocabulary word from our "Star Vocabulary" curriculum!