Minneapolis has something called the My Great Idea grant for special education practitioners to apply for funds for new projects that will enhance and support the work we do with our students. I worked on one of these grants with a friend of mine, Paz, who is our OT to get Lego education kits for both setting 3 classrooms.

Our goal with getting this grant was to increase students’ on task time while learning and working together. Yesterday when we presented the kit for exploration we had 100% participation and no one left the room during a time of day that has seen an increased number of students leaving the area.

The students were assigned to a partner and shown how they would put their desks together. Each team of two was given a bin of Legos to open and explore. Each team member was given a job- to throw away the plastic wrapping and to carry the bin to the table. We taught them how to carry the bins and how to put the bin on both of their desks so that the availability of materials was fair.

We suggested the students work together to build something but all the students opted to build their own individual pieces.

Next week we will begin the lesson plans that Lego provides and our first task will be to make a working pinwheel.

just like riding a bike

I was not at my best today. I feel like I have been yelling a lot lately and feeling frustrated often. The number of students in my class has increased. It is not a totally unmanageable number-8, sometimes 9 students- I think it has more to do with the age of the students and all of the adults abilities to tolerate their behavior.

I think we forget they have a disability. We start to react when one student is endlessly talking as if they are the star of a show. Another decides they need…something I haven’t figured out yet…and jumps up on their desk or on the small group table. The one student who literally will not stop talking hisses like a cat at you or mockingly repeats your words when you ask them to stop talking. They also begin their litany of things and people they hate including school and you. When you move towards the one jumping on the table they run from you laughing so you decide ignoring them and reinforcing others may be the answer. No, they then begin to curse at their peers, flip them off and tell them they suck their mom’s pussy. Yup. That’s a six year old talking.

And that is only two of the 8 students in the room at that moment. One has decided to leave the room because you asked them to read a few leveled readers to themselves for 10 minutes. The other adult has to follow them so you are left alone with 7 students, two of whom clearly need 1:1 support right now. You can’t really call for support because you know every engagement dean is engaged with a school full of kids who need help at that moment. The behavior you can’t get under control begins to feel overwhelming to the point that you begin to raise your voice in frustration that no one will listen.

The other adult returns with the student who was protesting reading and by now it is time for recess. Students begin to get ready but the one who was climbing on tables (you finally have him seated at his desk fully supported by you) begins to tell other students that they suck pussy and your frustration grows.

You call their mother.

No answer but while you stand holding the student’s hand leaving a message another student stands by you waiting for help with some aspect of dressing themselves which escalates the student whose hand you are holding and they begin to fight. You hang up the phone to turn to the entire class and loudly announce that there are other adults in the classroom and that when you are on the phone or speaking to someone they can easily ask another adult for help, “It does NOT always need to be me!”

Yes, today was frustrating.

And I think I forgot that I was working with students who have a disability and are not going to all of a sudden start listening and doing their student jobs.

There was a video posted on Facebook this weekend that made me think of my students. The man in the video has this bike that is rigged so that when you turn the handlebars left the bike goes right. Turn the handlebars right and the bike goes left. He demonstrates how this bike is impossible to ride. He can’t do it and neither can any of the people around the world he challenges to ride it. He explains that his brain can’t switch to how this bike operates but he decides he will teach himself to ride this bike, he will rewire his brain. It takes him 8 months of riding a few minutes every day until one day all of a sudden, he can ride the backwards bike. He becomes an expert rider of this bike. On a trip to Holland he decides he will ride a regular bike. No problem, right? Just get back on and ride because he rode a regular bike most of his life.


He has completely lost the ability to ride a regular bike. He can not do it. His brain has been totally rewired for the backwards bike. He spends a while trying over and over to ride the regular bike as others look on in disbelief that a grown man can not ride a bike. The people watching think he has tricked them because all of a sudden, he can do it. Just like that there is a switch in his brain.

So, this guy spent the majority of his years riding a regular bike. His brain developed all the connections that made him able to ride a regular bike. Think of our students who have experienced trauma or high levels of stress and anxiety for the majority of their lives. Their brains, like the man’s become hard-wired for that experience. We then welcome them into our classrooms expecting them to exhibit behaviors opposite of what their brain is hard-wired for. When they stumble and fall socially and emotionally over and over again like the man does in Holland we look on just like those folks in Holland looked at this grown man who seemed unable to ride a bike- with disbelief. How is it possible that you can not do something so simple, so common, and something that seems to be common sense? Because their brain is wired for something else.

I forget this sometimes in the moment. It is easy to get wrapped up in my own needs for control that I overlook their needs. They need to be taught the basic skills of how to be with others in this space successfully. They will not just know it without hours, days, months…maybe years of practice. They will need to fall thousands of times and I need to be there with a smile and an encouraging word to help them back up and show them again. I only hope I am able to approach them with compassion more often than submit to my own frustration.

my own unconscious bias

The more I think about it, the more I am sure I made a mistake. At the interviews for our new behavior dean I believe my bias led me to advocate against hiring two women of color and resulted in the hiring of a white man.  

I am certain that the man we hired is extremely competent, caring, patient, calm and happy to be with us. I think what upsets me is how I felt when I sat through the two interviews with Black women and what I said afterwards. I felt like those two women were great candidates for the position but I worried because their answers lacked some concreteness as to what they would do in some situations. After most of the interviews were over I expressed that I wasn’t hearing anyone give the answers I would give to these questions. 

It is hard to come out of a year working with the best inclusion dean I have worked with so far and look for someone that could fill her shoes, someone who I could trust, someone who would work with me to figure out what we were doing in the moments of this very challenging job. Someone who would stay late and talk about what is going on in the world and how it affects our students. Someone who grew into a very good friend. 

I think part of me just wanted to hear her there in the interviews. But I also had bias that the answers I needed to hear should sound like mine.

And what made me really start thinking about this recently was listening to Jessica Byrd on the August 10th episode of the podcast, Politically Re-Active when she said the following:

“When you say that “The best person” for a job is always the same type of person, and in particular, the same profile of a person who’s always led before then … you’re protecting a gate of power and becoming a barrier for people who are underrepresented and who, really, the system really wasn’t built for. We don’t have an imagination around what’s possible because we are locked in these very clear silos that are both, systemically real as in parties…We have these two parties, and to think that we can fit the diversity of any of our communities into two distinct buckets is just also limiting. But then also we have all of the ways in which society tells us who gets to lead and who doesn’t, who has power who doesn’t, …We need to change the muscle memory of who people believe deserve to serve us.”

Byrd was discussing politics and the two parties but really her words fit with so many aspects of society. As we progress into a future that an increasing number of us believe should look and be more equitable we really need to examine when these biases arise within us. Hiring one person over another did not feel at the surface to be a biased action. What made me realize what I was saying when I said I wanted to hear answers I would give was when I stopped to listen to a person of color rather than arguing my innocence in the situation.  No, I was not trying to hurt someone or discriminate but I did do these very things. 

I strongly believe white people need to step back and examine our lives, our actions and the ways institutional racism rears its ugly head in our world. Many of us do not want to live in a world that does not demonstrate equity for all. It is on us then to listen and make change where we can. 

I can’t go back to those interviews in August. I can go forward though with new perspective and change my future interactions. It is exactly what I say to my students every day, “Sorry only means something when you work to change future behavior and try not to repeat the same hurtful action.” 

I know that as some read this post they may feel compelled to absolve me from “thinking ” I acted in a bias way. Please don’t do that. That will help no one. Instead I look forward to critical dialogue. Let’s grow and learn together.

letting our hearts lead

It has been about 5 weeks back and there is a definite difference in how this year feels as well as some familiar feelings of challenges which are now tempered with the knowledge that things change greatly within the first months of the school year. This year feels different for many reasons. Some basic things are that students can no longer climb over the cubbies and run out the second door in our room. They can no longer climb out the windows either which was pretty funny to watch them realize. Some were quite shocked that they couldn’t open the windows very far. One student stayed at it for a while, checking every window, pushing on them repeatedly and searching for the trick so that he could remove it. But the trick is so simple and has been there, out of our sight, all along and I am certain it will not be discovered by the students.

Another way this year feels different is that I am teaching an actual literacy curriculum from the district which is really exciting and a relief! I believe my students are going to grow in their reading skills this year and I want to keep that goal always at the front of my mind.

But there is still the hard stuff and the moments of chaos and frustration. Some of my students have these moments when all the pain of their lives overflows and I have to hold myself together as I try to be there for them only to let it all out alone in my classroom after they have all gone home. Yesterday was one of those days. A day where I wished I could change so much for one of my students but all I could do was tell him I love him.

Then today came and I watched my students play with Frisbees and jump ropes (our new favorite recess activities). I watched them share, support one another, give compliments and have fun…together. It was beautiful. 

I took them on a short hike in the woods and we listened to the sounds of nature and kept our eyes out for interesting creatures. We stopped for a while because they heard a sound. We all strained to listen to something only they could hear. One of the boys, a second grader, asked to take my hand and the two kindergarteners turned to one another and took each other’s hands. Another second grader assumed the lead, the expert since he was the only one who had embarked on this journey before. He told the others of the snake we saw last year and held them all back from getting too close as they examined a dragonfly.

Each time I take them on these journeys I wonder why I don’t do this more often. It is a time that they are often at their best and a time when I am clearly a better teacher because I see their off or challenging behavior as mistakes and teach from that perspective, something I should always be doing. So, tonight my plan is to look at my lesson plan and work more nature exploration in with more intentionality.

the most me

Here we are. Four days in. I am not doing everything I had wanted to do but I am putting many of my ideas into action. So far I have three 2nd graders who I have had since they were in kindergarten, one new second grader and just today I had a kindergarten student start. 

I am using the new literacy curriculum and so far that is going pretty well. It will take me some time to figure out how I will differentiate with it but I will get there. I need to create all of my Google forms-one for each student-to collect their behavior and academic data this year. My goal is to get that done over the weekend. 

Tomorrow is our first Brag Tag Ceremony and I am actually really excited for it. Brag tags are little cards with a hole punched in them so they can strung on a necklace. Each cards celebrates something about the student such as, I can count to 10 or I can tie my shoes or Great Friend! The necklaces stay at school but I want to make certificates to send home every so often. I am also starting an end of the month brief re-cap for families each month. I am hoping I can keep up with it. On one side is a calendar with the days colored in based on a color code behavior scale. On the back I will hand write a brief note to update families.

The more I do this the more I realize that I love teaching. Yes I agonize almost all the time about lesson plans, trying to be organized, collecting data and assessing progress but in the moment when I find my flow…that is when the rest all falls away and I feel the most me. 

it’s august 

Summer is almost over. I feel the pressure of the coming year. At times I am excited and so ready to get in there and start setting things up and organizing. Other times I am reminded that these lazy hazy days of hanging out with the cats, reading, biking, staying up as late as we want…all of it will end soon and my time will be controlled by work. At least I will be done with my own classes. This last class I have had to take this summer, while very interesting and useful, is killing me. I am hating having any of my time controlled by reading and writing papers for class. But I am in week 5 of an 8 week class. Almost there. 

I have been working on my schedule for the year going on the little bit of information I have. So far it is an ok schedule. I have also been trying to get a head start on lesson planning so that when the school year comes I might not have to stay so late all the time or spend my entire weekend writing lessons. 

I am excited to go back. See my kids. Meet the new ones. Start the year in a familiar room with so much more knowledge under my belt. But I am not counting down the days as I did to summer. Instead I occasionally glance at the calendar and see that the time is getting shorter. For the next few weeks it will be a fight between my driven self who wants to prepare and have everything start perfectly and my summer self who wants to do whatever whenever and not be held to a schedule.

Yay for August.

appropriate education 

I just read an article entitled, “Am I providing ‘appropriate’ special education” * and this is something I have been thinking about often lately. As I worked with my mentor and team of mentors my work with my students improved and I moved away from struggling with behavior all of the time and moved towards teaching. For the first time in my two years teaching students with EBD I started to actually teach, to follow units of study and observe growth and learning in my students. I was most successful in the area of math. I found units that focused around first grade standards, bought the units and taught them. I began to create my own units on the Civil Rights Movement and its ties to what is happening in our communities today. But literacy, what I feel may well be THE most important thing I should be teaching, was something I continued to feel completely lost with. 
I had many of the same students for two years and hardly focused on developing their reading skills. This feels shameful to me. I try to comfort myself in realizing that you can not teach something that you have very little skill in teaching but sometimes I feel that is a very weak excuse. 

Last week I was trained in the districts new literacy curriculum. It felt like such a relief to me to see a curriculum that walks through reading instruction, phonics and writing and has it all laid out so clearly. I learned that I will receive all three grade levels of the curriculum that I will be teaching next year which was also very exciting. This will be the first full curriculum I will receive that I have been trained in for elementary school teaching. Part of what was so hard about teaching literacy over the last two years was that I had a ton of (what felt like random) books to access to teach various aspects of literacy but none of them seemed to walk me through exactly how to teach the scope and sequence of learning to read and write. This new curriculum makes me feel like I have a path to follow and one that it is safe for me to stray off of a bit here and there, including things of importance to my specific students while still progressing us through. I have started getting excited and telling myself that my goal will be to progress ALL of my students AT LEAST two reading levels on the F&P (Fountas and Pinnell) next year. Perhaps this does not sound very challenging to some or rigorous to others but if I move my students at least two F&P levels up next year I will have taught more literacy in one year than I have my entire time teaching elementary school students. That will feel miraculous to me!

Returning to the article though, I think about the words ‘appropriate’ and ‘rigor’ and I feel overwhelmed. In the article as in every place special education and differentiation are discussed it is stressed that we teach first to the grade level of the students and then differentiate during our small group instruction. Okay. Well, what if you have 2 kindergarten students, 3 second grade students and 2 first grade students and that is your entire class. Which grade level do you teach when you stand up in front of them and teach to the whole class? And don’t tell me that I should only teach to small groups all day because it was amazing to see my class work together and learn together when we finally got to that point last year and I see way too much value in that to give it up. 

So, seriously, how do others who have a self-contained classroom with multiple grade levels within the class teach to EVERY grade level? Perhaps I am missing some magic answer. 

Yes, inclusion can be a very helpful way to have this happen. Ideally each student would attend their mainstream class for the large group instruction time and then return to my room to learn their differentiated material in small groups. Yes, that seems to be the perfect picture of how this should work. But then you are faced with reality: students who can not handle their mainstream classrooms and a lack of enough adult support to go with all students into their mainstream classrooms and support them while also supporting those who may be having a crisis back in the self-contained classroom. OH and one of the big ones, different grade levels teach academic content at very different times that NEVER match up to my students’ schedule.

So, unless someone comes up with the magic answer, my plan for next year is to teach the kindergarten literacy curriculum to my entire class. I chose this grade level because the students I know I will have next year all read at a pre-A level. Why not start from the ground up? And then as my students make progress I will look at each one’s grade level material and begin to weave that into our daily small group lessons. But I just can’t fathom sitting down with my second grade students who I have taught the last two years and presenting them with work that is far beyond their ability level and have them run out of the room or tear it up because they know they are unable to do it. I would much rather build their confidence so that I can present that work eventually. So, will I be providing appropriate and rigorous lessons? I really hope so. But like Dr. Pamela Hill says at the end of the article, 

“We must also ask questions of ourselves. Are we challenging our students? How much growth are they exhibiting? Are we providing the most appropriate program for each of our students? 

Be vulnerable and be willing to change. This is what we ask of our students. We need to model that we are willing to do the same.”

At least I know that I have got that part down.

* I am not sure why I can not get the link to the article inserted above but here it is: 

another year gone by

Another school year under my belt. Another summer break to relax, rejuvenate and prepare for the coming year. 

My mentor sent me an end of the year email and reminded me just how far I have come this year. When I responded to him I thanked him for all he has done for me. I know that without the experience of working with a mentor team and without him leading the group I very well could have walked away from teaching. Because that is what I was close to doing back in the fall. 

My last meeting with the mentor team was an opportunity to reflect on the growth I made this year as a teacher. I am proud of how far I have come. I am starting to feel like a competent teacher, the way I felt when I taught early childhood ASD. 

The last couple of days with students had their ups and downs but I tried to stay positive and remember I wanted to enjoy my students. We had some dance parties, cleaned the room, played math games, took a nature hike (and saw a snake!), watched movies and enjoyed one another. 

Yesterday I packed up Room 262, where I had started the year, and moved things down to my current room, 130. Next year, for the first time in two years I will start in the same classroom I’m ending in. 

singing test

The end of the year is crazy and hard. We are all tired. Students want to be done but at the same time worry about summer and its lack of structure and sometimes lack of consistent meals. 

For me its been a bit of a roller coaster these last few days. A couple of my students regressed and have decided that climbing out the windows is something we do again. One of my students went out into the woods instead of transitioning back to my room. When found he told the adult he was “looking for a creature to hit in the mouth.”

Its frustrating to have fun things planned such as making memory books and watching movies and to still have students running from your classroom or getting angry and tearing things up. But I know that its really because of all their mixed feelings about the end of the year that they can’t just sit and enjoy things. 

Today one of my students was particularly angry. Pretty much everything he said was hurtful or just plain negative. He threw his fidget spinner (those damn things!) across the room at one point, tipped his chair over a few times and got in a fight with almost everyone. I even tried having him talk to his mom but he also yelled at her. 

At the beginning of the day though he asked if we could have a “singing test” today. I have no idea what he is thinking about. But he talked about having a singing test all day. At the end of the day I told him it was time for him to sing. He got a marker from his desk held it like a microphone and told me what song he wanted. I found the instrumental version and he lit up. He danced and rapped, full of happiness. Then all of the students requested 7 Years. I put on the clean version and they all sang the whole song (mumbling through the parts they didn’t know). 

I love these kids. I might need a break but I do love them and I am going to miss them!

the moment that made today worth it

Or the two moments…

The best thing that happened today was while we were watching the Odd Squad movie. My kindergarten student came back from his mainstream class and after about 10 minutes new characters came on the screen. “They’re from Odd Squad!!”, he said repeatedly. Finally I said, “This is Odd Squad!” and he said,”I thought it was Spiderman!”.

Second best thing…?

Watching my kids dance ❤️❤️ I wish I could share the video.