Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer School

I'm not really happy about teaching summer school, but my daughter is getting married next Spring and the money is good... Hmmmm.... The children I will be teaching this summer really deserve better than that. If I am going to commit to teaching summer school for 6 weeks - teaching children who are needy or they wouldn't be there - then they deserve my best. And so... as I closed out one year and begin summer teaching the very next day, I know it will have to be with an improved attitude.

On my first day I am assigned to third grade!!! Whoever thinks I can teach 3rd grade has more confidence in me than I might deserve! I have NEVER taught 3rd grade - the first year of high stakes testing - and haven't taught anything above 1st grade in over 25 years - but it is here that I find myself. As I look down my very short list of students I recognized one of the names on the list. The 3rd grader was a child that I heard lots about last year because she was a bright child, who really suffered from focus issues. The child had documented ADHD and the teacher had worked so very hard with her and with her family. I remember observing in the classroom and the child sat right in front of the teacher and all through the lesson the teacher gently touched the child to bring her back on task. The teacher's management system was constant redirection. Somehow the child eeked out a 2 on the FCAT but failed Reading for the year. She simply could not consistently pass the comprehension assessments in the classroom that mirrored the high stakes test. Now she sits in Summer School hoping to pass a final benchmark test at 70% so she can go on to 4th grade next year.

As I picked her up on that first day it was obvious she had been crying. I guess no one really enjoys the idea of coming to summer school. As I have had this child for the first few days I have learned that she reads well, even with expression, but when asked about what she has just read, cannot answer questions with any depth. Actually she even struggles with literal questions. Her writing is much the same. Her thoughts are jumbled and repetitive. It must be difficult for this child who has so much going on inside her busy head to organize her thoughts and to stay with any topic for any length of time. In thinking about different ways to help this youngster, I contacted her 3rd grade teacher and asked her if she would be willing to write back and forth through e-mail, thinking this might be an incentive. The child talked lovingly about her teacher. The teacher was delighted. The child mailed this first e-mail:

hey Mrs.T it's K, i'm in summer school and i made 2 new friends there names are Kaitlyn and Joe. My 2 friends and i met your friend our teacher.I am going to do so good in reading summer school i might go to 4th grade. since i am going to anew school next year but it's going to be to far away from my house and how can i stay in Chets Creek even when i am going to be rezoned to the new school since Chets Creek is not so far? please write back.

The teacher wrote back this delightful message.

Inside of a cool, dimly lit living room sits a relaxed teacher. Mrs. T is what most of her students call her, mommy is what she is called at home, and Randi is her name to her family and friends. Musical notes flow, dance, and swirl out of the radio on this special day as Mrs. T sits down at her computer. Ding, da, ding, da, ding... her computer wakes up from it's sleep and says hello in only the way a computer can. Light flashes from the screen as her computer stretches and yawns to prepare for a little work. A soft clicking sound can be heard as Mrs. T's fingers strike the keys, her email opens, signing in... hold one moment please... oh okay there we are. A puzzling look crosses over her face??? There is an email in her inbox that is from a teacher friend and it says K. K??? Mrs. T only knows one K. Questions popcorn around inside Mrs. T's brain. Is this my sweet, brilliant K? How does K know her teacher friend? What is going on? She is as curious as a newborn kitten. "Double click on the email and see for yourself," thinks Mrs. T. "Oh my goodness!!!" she exclaims. "IT IS MY K!" Mrs. T is so incredibly delighted to hear from K that she jumps up from her chair and does a leap and a twirl in the middle of that cool, dimly lit living room. Quickly she plops back down in front of the screen, pauses for a moment to think, and begins to type a story about a time she met the loveliest girl in all the land.

There was once a beautiful girl named Princess K...To be continued... your turn...

K was so excited to hear back from her teacher that she grinned all day long. Now I have to admit that the story K started as a response about Princess K needs lots of work, but I certainly had no trouble getting her to start writing! She couldn't wait to get started. Maybe this summer school thing might be fun after all!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Graduate

It's rare that a teacher gets to keep up with a young student throughout all of his school years, so I feel especially lucky to have watched Trevor bloom into such a strong young man. (That's his little inquisitive head poking up on the right of the picture!) Trevor actually entered my preschool class for children with disabilities as a two year old. It was a paper glitch because children could not come until their third birthday but once he was there, I just kept him. For ten years I taught a class for three and four year old children who were identified with learning disabilities, language difficulties, attention deficit disorder and children on the milder end of the autism spectrum. Often children were identified who were just delayed a bit, but it was a wonderful assembly of little ones who needed a strong educational start. Trevor was the cutest kid ever. I told his mom that his smile lit up the room... and it did. On the first day, his mom looked scared to death - more nervous than Trevor! I am sure she was questioning her decision. I am sure it was extremely difficult for her to hear that her handsome young son might have a problem, for her to trust him to someone she didn't know, and then for her to leave him in a class with children that all looked or acted just a little different. She knew Trevor was smart. It was evident from the first minute you met him, but he had difficulty making his needs known and that frustrated him. The frustration in this tiny two year old came out in the loudest tantrums ever! I'm sure his mom had been embarrassed on many occasions in the grocery store or at family outings by her son kicking and screaming. She probably stood her ground initially but his shrieks would wear anyone down and then when she finally gave in, it just meant that the next time, he would scream louder and longer (I told you he was smart!) By the time he entered my preschool class I'm sure he was pretty much running his household. His parents knew it had to stop and there was something wrong, but I'm also sure they really struggled with what to do. I so admire his mother for having the courage to do something to turn it all around. On that first day his mom's eyes pleaded with me for help. She wore her fear for her son like a cloak wrapped tightly around her heart.

Trevor was a challenge. Often other teachers and parents walking down the hall would peek their heads in to make sure everything was all right as Trevor's screams pierced the air. However, with time and consistency Trevor found ways to make his needs known and ways to ease his frustration. With speech and language infused into every moment of his day, he began to use his words. He was eventually identified with a learning disability in language but because it was identified so early - because his mother had chosen early intervention, we knew there was a good chance that he would learn to compensate for those early challenges. After two and half years in my class he left for a kindergarten class in another school. It was no surprise that he did well and learned to read on schedule. After a year I transferred to the school where he was so I ran into him and checked on him often. During those elementary years he tested out of the program (we all celebrated!) because he no longer needed the extra support. I ran into the family again as his younger sister entered school and was in an inclusion class where I had students. His family spoke out eloquently as I went through the Teacher of the Year process. I cherished their voice. Their words still bring tears to my eyes. Over the years, I would run into Trevor, his sister or his mom. This year I ran into Trev at a local fast food restaurant where he had an after school job and he reminded me that he was a Senior. Last night I had the thrill - the absolute thrill - of watching him receive his high school diploma. I was so proud! He will go on to college. His mom told me that he'd really like to work in theatre and had been bitten by the acting bug. I know that whatever he does, he will be successful. I have to credit his mom's courageous decision so many years ago, to do whatever she had to do to make a difference for her son, for his success now. Early intervention put him on the right road but it is his family's dedication and commitment along the way that has made the difference. Thanks, Trevor, for giving this teacher such an incredible gift! And yes, your smile still lights up the world!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Look out world!

Each year our first graders work on a unit of persuasive writing. As we work through the unit we ask each child to choose a topic that he is passionate about and then to write a letter stating his position and then trying to persuade the reader to come around to his Point of view. We actually mail the letter that is chosen as a final polished copy. The children often write to their parents asking for a pet or video game or some other "thing" that they desire. They promise to clean for weeks, to do chores and even not to hit their little brothers and sisters anymore if their parents will just consider their most earnest request. Often a few children will break our hearts. One child this year asked for a house with a backyard so he would have a place for his little brother to play and another child asked for more food because he is often hungry and his refrigerator is empty. A few children always write to the Dining Room manager to ask for a change in our Dining Room's food and many children write to the Principal asking for everything from a water park on the playground to shorter school days. They must think she is a Superhero with unlimited powers! Occasionally a child will want to write the President or the Humane Society or some other popular person or agency. We never discourage the children, even though we are often doubtful that the party will reply. Our little writers believe that they can change the world (and so do we!) I pray each year as we mail out the letters that the parents will listen and value what their children say, even if their response is "No!" I always hope that the Dining Room Manager will reply in some way although that hasn't happened yet and that the Principal and school personnel will value the childrens' words and will show them, by responding to them, that their words matter.

"This year the most remarkable thing happened. Jardale decided that he wanted to write the Mayor. He decided that we need to go to school for six days instead of five to keep children out of trouble. His "P.S." was that he would like to be Mayor one day. Much to our surprise, Jardale received a reply from Mayor Peyton. It included everything that we would ever want in a response. The Mayor valued Jardale's thoughts and ideas and then gave him some reasons why he didn't think six days of school a week was the best idea. He closed by acknowledging Jardale's dream of some day becoming Mayor. How does it get any better than that?

I am totally impressed with a Mayor or any public figure that would take the time to read and then thoughtfully respond to the ideas of anyone - much less a first grader. This is a powerful lesson in our little classroom. Our children realize that their words really do make a difference. Look out world!