Dawn of a Musical Family

Day is dawning at 4:30 am or so here in my neck of the woods as the summer solstice approaches.  I have beeen up for a bit watching the blackness that is trees and mountain become silhouetted againsts the slow brightening of the pre dawn sky and listening as the birds awake one by one.  Slowly the cacophany of birdsong, simultaneously repetitive and chaotic, builds in intensity as the day approaches, then fades off as day breaks.  Music on an almost summer morning.

I have always hoped my children would love music, whether from nature or manmade.  I tend to sing, a lot,  around the house.  For better or worse, I sing, because I want my kids to know it is ok to sing for the joy of it, even if you don't have the voice of Adele, Whitney, Emmy Lou, or the latest Idol stars.  I recall teaching first grade and feeling sad that each year a student or two refused to sing with the class.  I didn't pressure them, and I am glad, because now with children of my own I realize they don't all want to sing.  I just want to be sure they know that it is safe to try. 

I recently purchased a ukelele, half planned, half spontaneous, because my 3 yo is becoming so fond of playing at storytime at our local library.  The storyteller reads, and sings songs with our preschoolers and has brought in extra ukes for the kiddos to try.  They are perfect for little hands and with just on or two fingers little ones can play a few chords and practice strumming.  My middle son has been silently longing to play an instrument, he is a singer/noisemaker at heart, and this year at school has spent the year being told to be quiet.  I would love him to gain the confidence to let his music out for the rest of us to hear.  (Right now he sings when he thinks no one is listening)  My oldest doesn't sing much, so I was pleasantly surprised that he has already been reading the little booklet that came with the uke and is practicing several chords on his own. Perhaps my next classroom will have a uke or two for the non singers to play.

With three kids and no money for lessons right now, I was hoping the uke would fit the needs of my family, and I think it will do the trick.  Besides being the cutest instrument invented, I have easily been able to master several chords and the kids have at least one in less than a week. (not that it is a race, but the ease is motivating).  The uke is also a quiet alternative to the guitar or keyboard that always gets cranked to it's highest volume.  There are tons of online resources for songs, techniques, and advice for teaching kids and I am currently looking for a book that my oldest might use to soak up ukelele info and music, because that is how he enjoys learning.  I think we are all on our way to becoming a musical family.  


Eve of Summer

It is raining this morning while I write.  Drops tappity tapping on our metal roof and running off like an outdoor shower into the stones that surround our house.  Kids are cozied up in their beds snug under blankets.  One had his light on and was already reading when I tiptoed past their doors and down the stairs.  I put on some tea and sat in a comfy chair to look out at the morning, rain,  and life in this moment, and in a flash I am already on vacation, though the kids won't be out for another week.

Thoughts float in about summer as a dual edged sword of fun activities playing at the beach, looking for frogs, wind in our hair as we skirt across the lake, then of summer as an extendend transition time.  Summer, where too much of a good thing, not enough to do, too much togetherness, can bring down the house.  I reallize conciously my oldest will go to a summer program in July, first time ever, a mixed emotion rises in me.  My mind wanders to my middle child, he'll need lots of social time this year with friends.  Then there's the baby, ummm. . .3 and a half year old.  She is craving play with kids her age right now. Preschool on the horizon just past the summer morning sunrises over the lake.  

I briefly reflect on my need to seize the day, seize this season, this moment.   I am a firm believer in "Don't create problems in my mind that don't yet exist in my life."  I gently push away the thought, the idea of a summer overcast with change.  Instead I enjoy this rainy morning, and waking children on the eve of summer.  I listen to the raspberries and laughter as  the three land in the biggest bed to become fully wakeful creatures together.  I enjoy this fleeting feeling in a snip of time, summer. . family. . .life. . .


Social Emotional Education: Teacher's hold the Key

Social Emotional Education is a big buzz phrase in teaching these days and for good reasons. We have known for a while now that children learn better when they feel safe.  And now we know there are kids (people) who do not learn about social interactions and emotions through everyday  interactions the way most people do.  These folks need to be explicitly taught.  You probably know someone like this already.  Is there someone who rambles on as if they don't notice you are yawning and giving other signals you are bored of the conversation?  Well, they probably really don't notice.  How bout that one who interrupts a conversation to interject their ideas and are a bit off topic? In the classroom there is the child who shouts out answers in class despite being told repeatedly to raise his hand.  There are the children who don't seem to understand how their actions make others feel in some moments. Some are not always sure what they are feeling themselves.  

When I was in college one of our textbooks was Teaching Children To Care, by Ruth Sydney Charney.  It was a pivotal book that led to many schools, including the one I worked at, to acquire staff training in the Responsive Classroom Method.  Responsive Classroom addressed classroom management, community building, and social emotional education.  The pieces were all there:
  1. Create a safe, nurturing classroom environment
  2. teach skills explicitly.
  3. Provide time to practice- particularly using role play.
We did this with everything from procedures for handwashing and using new classroom tools or supplies to how to ask someone to play at recess or handle sharing with a friend.

Nowadays, with 8-10% of kids with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders on a steep rise over the last 10 years, it is becomming more common knowledge that some children need explicit instruction in recognizing emotions in themselves and in others, and in handling social situations many people take for granted.  How do you know if people are interested in what you have to say?  How do you  know how another person is feeling at a given moment? 

More and more schools are adopting social curriculums and asking for teachers who have experience with Social Emotional Education.  I know that I myself have continued to build my skills in this area, not because it is a trend, but because it is essential in helping all kids have the skills they need in life.  I am a little leary of SE Curriculums that are in a box, "We are going to do SEcurriculum now children".  What about the rest of the day or the specific needs of the class?  Making time for explicit instruction and practice of new skills is truly important, yes, I won't argue that ever.  But I am concerned about a prescribed approach.  Integrating the "practice", the "positive",  for the visual, auditory, or tactile learner in a way that doesn't single out one or two children is also a vital piece of the puzzle.  A piece that can be addressed through focus on one skill classwide, with some form of visual/tactile reminder as a stoplight card on a desk or as a necklace.  Green, good; yellow, warning,slow down or change direction; red, Stop!  This system can be used all day for all the kids, just with eyecontact and a pointed finger.  Love it. 

The other component, is to create a safe, nurturing classroom environment all day, every day, for every child.  In order to ensure that the classroom environment is that nurturing, teachers need to be in firm possession of a positive discipline style, that capitalizes on positive moments, and does not overemphasize the mistakes or problems.  The kids who have the most difficulties in the area of Social Emotional Learning can be some of the most frustrating for some teachers.  These are the kids for whom ordinary discipline strategies don't work well if at all.  Sometimes these kids can come across as unlikeable to peers and teachers alike. 

This is where the teacher truly holds the key.  For these kids it is my experience that they will only succeed or thrive with a teacher that can love them anyway, despite what others may percieve as rude, disruptive, or uncaring nature.  A teacher who can see the sweet child through the spectrum of odd and or unlikeable behaviors, will do more good for the child's success and attitude at school than any mandated curriculum.  Love alone is the basis for the tone in the classroom and the foundation for building positive peer and teacher relationships within the class.


Rhythm of Life: It's a radio

Rhythm is one of those things that I crave.  I think it may be a part of human nature to seek it out, or maybe just Amy Nature.  When I hear a beat on the radio, or let's say "Your the one that I want. . ." from the Grease soundtrack, I tap my toe or beebop around in my seat like some crazy girl, then the next song John Travolta is crooning, "Stranded at the Drive in, branded a fool, what will they say?  Monday at school...Saaaaaanndyyyy"  arghhhh. . .blahhh. . .hummbuuuug.  Always have hated that song!  (no offense if you loved it, just my little opinion in a big world)  A rhythm can be a pickup or a let down, but of course it is all relative and sometimes the slow is good and calm and ahhhh. ..Whatever the rhythm, I feel it, so when it is a jolting change from what I want, or expect or need,  well. ..insert John Travolta crooning.

So, it is not really new to me, mom of three, that the rhythm of parenting can sometimes be too fast, too slow, too monotonous.  This week, it is like the song "Sandy" on repeat. . .My three year old who has been potty potty trained for over a year now, but lately accidents, accidents, accidents, and Hannnnnging from my shirt saying "Mommmmmeeeeeeee, I neeeeeed you!"  Don't get me wrong, this little girl is one of the most precious little peeps in my life.  I love her snuggles, her nose kisses and her wildly addictive laugh.  I love when she stands with her hip jutted out and tell one of her big brothers what is what.  I adore when she says, "I will call him George." in reference to the little toad she spotted and captured all by her three year old self, with pudgy three year old fingers, and sharp three year old eyes. 

But. . .when I spend every waking hour with said three year old and she tugs on my shirt, climbs the chair I am sitting in and says those words. . ."I neeeed Youuuuu!" or "I had a accident."  I have to admit, I forget to be greatful for her presence.  It is the mournful truth.  But, I will not beat myself up over it, because sometimes being a parent is downright frustrating.  It is "Sandy" all over again.  We just need to wait it out, rock with it let it flow on till the next song picks us up again.  Raising kids is like that.  You feel the rhythm, get on a roll, and just like that. . . the song changes.  Sometimes you get a few good songs in a row, and then Bam! Commercial break, soiled clothes, and then "Sandy".  Sorry kids life is not an iPod.  You can't program what comes next.  Parenting is. . . Life is . . . a radio.  


Puzzling the Big Picture: SAHM returning to Teaching

Teacher turned stay at home mom, turned teacher?. . .hopefully.  I have been dedicating my designated writing time to deciphering what I have learned about current trends and issues in education, experiences I have had as a parent, and the localized and individual focus of the various area school systems and schools.  I feel like I have been working on a puzzle for the last few weeks, the kind with no picture to go by and no directions. 

Last year I attended a summer teaching workshop on Assessment, because I wanted to know if things in education have really changed that much since I became a SAHM.  I felt bolstered by what I learned in the workshop.  The practice they were emphasising, using the core academic standards as a basis for creating lessons and assessments, is not unfamiliar to me.  The idea was introduced to  me years ago in my post grad studies where I created interdisciplinary multimodal curriculum with rubrics for assessment and to then guide my teaching. The theory was to use this type of curriculum model, organized around a Universal Theme, to make learning accessible and engaging, increase connections to higher level thinking, and to more easily cover the core curriculum standards in time and reasonably engaging fashion.  I left the workshop feeling like "I know this. I have done this."  I know I can design my curriculum to encompass the many learning standards and I can map them out for all to see and be aware of.  The main difference I gleaned was teachers were not required to do this in the past where now they are.

The next puzzle for me was "What is RTI-Response to Intervention all about?",  "What is the hubbub about it?"  I understand the 3 tiered system for intervention.  Tier 1 solid classroom instruction.  Tier 2, small group interventions for those found unsuccessful at Tier 1.  Tier 3, Special Education for children who are not successfull at Tier 2.  It seems to make sense, yet there is controversy.  Why?  So I keep reading, I read books about teaching reading particularly about teaching children with LD's, I read RTI newsletters, and I read the International Dyslexia Association articles about  Brain Research and Research Based teaching practices.  IDA specifically recommends particular programs for teaching, and particular Colleges for training new teachers, that have all the components for meeting a dyslexics learning needs. 

I find it curious though that there isn't more teacher training opportunity available in Research Based instruction.  Are schools aquiring training for teachers on their own?  Where are they getting the training? Is it through different Research based school program models that are available for schools to purchase?  I went directly to the Mother of Research based, multisensory literacy instruction, Orton-Gillingham and have started their online intro course at an affordable fee.  I am curious to see how my training in Guided Reading and Reading Recovery fit in (as RR is not considered Research Based by IDA)  I acknowledge that RR was not intended as a long term solution, but as a short term acceleration and diagnostic tool which should be helpful in diagnosing dyslexia early on.  If a child finishes the program and is unsuccessful or only moderately successful, it gives you information and lets you know that child needs more, but the 'what next' was always a bit wishy washy.  I am curious to discover the key differences to the OG methodology to what I already know and understand about teaching children to read.

What I did find lots of teacher training in is how teach children on the autism spectrum and ADHD, but mostly lots of behavior management around children with these disorders.  It makes me chuckle when I think about it, because not only is there so much information now about how these kids learn and how to teach them, but I believe that there is incredible overlap between the dyslexia/dysgraphia group and the autism/adhd group.  I will stop short only of claiming they are one and the same group of kids.  My point is that if we focus on teaching these kids the way they need to be taught, training teachers to recognize the issues early, and provide the right kind of early intervention, these kids often are able to work past their initial difficulties with literacy skills.  Unfortunately IDA believes that RTI is not functioning to get appropriate early diagnosis, though the means to do so do exist, and often kids with dysgraphia/dyslexia don't get the help they need till 3rd or 4th grade.  My son is a prime example, and I have been trying to get the school to look at that piece since 1st grade!  All the school seemed to want to focus on was the behavior/emotional stuff, for which they are not really qualified to deal with effectively.  IDA states that schools need to realize that emotional/behavioral issues arise when the dyslexic/dysgraphic child's learning needs are not being met, not the other way around.  I firmly agree.

I can also see while some schools seem to be getting bogged down in RTI as a means to an end, other schools are looking at good teaching practices as a way to create more success among students.  One school system is looking for teachers who can differentiate and compact curriculum, create a successful inclusion environment, and inform teaching with use of assessment data.  I think that curriculum compacting is key to students who don't need practice or reteaching, so they do not lose interest in school.  I personally am looking at creating concept based, interdisciplinary, multimodal curriculum based on Universal Concepts that will encompass many learning standars and increase higher level thinking and real world connections to learning.  This will raise the bar for all children because the kids struggling to read and write are not less intelligent by any means, they have lots to offer, and require opportunities to show what they know and use their area of strength to motivate and connect learning in areas of weakness.  We don't want them to become the dropout statistics that schools are trying to prevent, whatever their tactics. 


Teaching and Concepts

It occurred to me this morning, that a teacher reading my blog might get the idea that I am a nay-sayer who points out the problems and offers no solutions.  They may conclude that I am critical, but not constructive.  So in thinking practically about how I would organize curriculum and instruction upon return to the classroom, whenever that may be, I printed out the tiny printed lists of State Standards that each student is supposed to be able to know.  We are talking tiny font here and the lists covered half my dining table.  And this is a year when so much of the time in class is devoted to the fundamental reading, writing and arithmetic, and RTI requiring close observation of children's progress.  The RTI doesn't scare me, I am familiar with frequently assessing my readers and writers and guaging instruction appropriately, moving children to more appropriate reading groups and so on, and doing so often and based on children's needs rather than an arbitrary schedule.  What did make me pause was the extent of factual knowledge that is required of first graders, not all that different from when I first taught, but definitely created the perverbial "box" in my mind that I have been basically communicating in my blog that teachers ought to think outside of.  

I know every teacher in elementary school uses theme based instruction (ie.:  fall, butterflies, gardens, animals) to leap the hurdle of too much information to cover in one short period.  My solution, (which isn't mine at all, I learned it in grad school), is to try to organize the curriculum by Universal Concepts, timeless and abstract,  as a starting point for organizing the big picture of what I will teach and hope for my students to learn.  In this way, themes, subjects and areas of study will present themselves, but always will be connected to the Universal Concept and thus create a path for concrete understanding and higher level thinking about the abstract Concept.  By creating a map of standards to be learned within this concept framework, I will be able to communicate with parents and importantly the students, what we will be learning and why. A clear framework for what is being taught, and what problem is being solved provides the mental framework for children who need to "see" the big picture in order to file new information in their brains appropriately, this is particularly a challenge for the children with attention and executive function difficulties.

 By creating interdisciplinary lessons I will not only be able to teach more compactly, but also the children will be able to learn more authentically.  In real life, we don't "do math", we make a list or some type of plan, we navigate to the appropriate store, we keep track of how much we are spending as we go, and we make decisions based on needs and wants in order to stay within a budget.  Authentic learning with a purpose and meaningful problems to solve are the key to being sure that every child walks away from school with an education.  A variety of assessment tools and methods to accomodate different output styles in students, and importantly the use of rubrics to clarify expectations and determine who needs reteaching and who's got it, will streamline the reteaching and allow time for those who are clear on the standard to enrich their learning.

Right now I am enjoying puzzling over the best Concept or Concepts to use in a cross disciplinary first grade curriculum.  It is challenging but fun to think about how to organize a comprehensive year of learning and develop organizing questions to guide learning.  I began this process in my previous teaching role, and I continue to evolve my thinking to be more comprehensive than before.  I continue to strive to provide connections between the classroom and the world where children live and learn.