IEP Writing 101

Just to give a little background on myself. I am a graduate of James Madison University (JMU; and former student of Dr. Jen Newton)! I remember after my first day of her class, I sat down with her one-on-one and we probably spent a good 90 minutes talking about educational assessments and problems with special education in America! I taught special education at the elementary level for three years, and have been working as an educational consultant at the Shenandoah Valley Child Development Clinic, located at JMU in Virginia, coming up on five years. One aspect of my current job is to review educational records, which definitely includes IEPs!

Unfortunately, more often than not, I run into a lot of poorly written IEPs, in the areas of the PLOP (Present Level of Performance), goal writing, identifying appropriate accommodations, and determining services. So let’s explore each section one at a time, but really focus on goals!

PLOP

Although the PLOP is the child’s current functioning, there is a section for history. Personally, I found the more information I put in the PLOP, the less I had to consult a child’s cumulative folder for past records. In addition, everything was in one place for the parents, the general education teacher, and most importantly myself; thus, I could consult a single document for the child’s full academic career. When you first do it, it is laborious, but once accomplished, all of your data is in one place, and it really helps for everyone to see a holistic history of the child you are supporting! Plus, once you have it in, it transfers over year to year (with online IEP programs), so you only have to type it up once!

I list all of the child’s cognitive and achievement scores from ALL eligibility assessments. You should at least have the most recent eligibility, but I find being able to see ALL previous helps me show progress across multiple years. I also include all historical Standards Of Learning (SOL; Virginia state assessment) scores for all years, and the most recent data from PALS as well as other intervention data, such as AIMSWeb. You should also include a history of other interventions (i.e., Title I, ESL, afterschool tutoring, etc.) the child has received throughout their career, including the names of any specific programs used (i.e., Wilson, LLI, etc.).

If you are a first year teacher, a lot of the information regarding previous interventions can be found in the cumulative file, but also asking previous teachers of the student as well as your school’s instructional coach or intervention specialist can be helpful. I find it very pertinent to know what the child has and has not been doing in terms of past interventions. You do not want to waste time doing something someone else has already done or is currently doing already! This is why documentation and communicating with other resource teachers is vital and necessary!

Your intervention should directly match the student’s needs! For example, if a child has a decoding issue and is struggling to sound out words, doing Leveled-Literacy Intervention (LLI) is not going to help. The child would need a structured literacy program, such as Wilson Reading or Orton-Gillingham. This seems like common sense, but I see this mismatch very often with many schools trying a “one size fits all” approach. Special education is specialized instruction for each individual.

Identifying effective interventions for your students’ needs will require some research on different strategies, so check out “What Works Clearinghouse” to get an overview on interventions you are considering, and the research behind their effectiveness.

GOALS

Let’s be honest, goal writing can be difficult, and laborious, I’ve experienced it myself! How many goals do I need? Do I need a goal for every single academic weakness? How will I track progress on the goal? Can I combine everything into one large goal?

The first step would be looking at the child’s most recent eligibility data. This is really helpful if the child has been tested for the first time, because looking at the scores, you would be able to know what areas are needed. Here’s some data (note: Average = 85-115; Below Average = 70-84; Low = 69 & Below):

– Reading Decoding = 69

– Reading Comprehension = 84

– Listening Comprehension = 100

– Spelling = 60

– Written Expression = 90

– Math Problem Solving = 95

– Math Calculation = 95

Clearly, I would need goals for decoding and spelling as they are the weakest areas. But what about reading comprehension, which fell one point into the Below Average range. I can see when the story is read to the child (listening comprehension), they are strong. In this specific case, I would focus my goals on decoding and spelling as of right now, because they are likely what is impacting this child’s understanding of what they are actually reading. In addition, the child is going to be getting comprehension work during guided reading with their general education teacher. I can always add in a comprehension goal later once decoding skills have improved.

So I have reading decoding and spelling at a 69 and 60 respectively, so I know the child is struggling and I need a goal. But what areas of decoding and spelling are needed? You can go look at the specific protocols to get a rough idea, but this is where other data sources are important. For example, PALS data (or a Ganske or Words their Way spelling inventory) would be able to give you more insight to a starting point (do they know sight words? CVC patterns? blends/digraphs? long vowels?). Never underestimate the value of informal data with helping you determine your starting point with goal writing. I have read records where reviewing the previous intervention assessments and progress monitoring data gave me enough knowledge prior to my own assessment that I was usually able to predict what I will see myself with that child. I have had three fourth graders recently, all of them similar to the data example I provided above. In all three cases, they all struggled with long vowel patterns (i.e. silent /e/, double vowels, ambiguous vowels, etc.), and in all three cases, when I reviewed historical informal data (in this case PALS data), this was a historically documented issue going back to first grade with each child struggling with long vowel patterns each year of the PALS spelling section. The school had the information, but were not matching it to the correct intervention! Interventions MUST match needs!

Let’s take our data and figure out a goal. We will use my fourth-graders as examples. Let’s say our 69 and 60 scores were the result of a deficit with all long vowel patterns. Should I write a goal for each type of long vowel pattern and for decoding and spelling?

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding of silent /e/ long vowel patterns.

Goal 2: Billy will improve his decoding of double vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 3: Billy will improve his decoding of ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 4: Billy will improve his spelling of silent /e/ long vowel patterns.

Goal 5: Billy will improve his spelling of double vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 6: Billy will improve his spelling of ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Yikes! You can see how goals add up quickly if we are not careful! So let’s try to be a bit more succinct.

Revision 1

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of silent /e/ long vowel patterns.

Goal 2: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of double vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 3: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

We cut it in half! Let’s try again!

Revision 2

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding of silent /e/ long vowel patterns, double vowel long vowel patterns, and ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Goal 2: Billy will improve his spelling of silent /e/ long vowel patterns, double vowel long vowel patterns, and ambiguous vowel long vowel patterns.

Getting closer!

Revision 3

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels.

Look at how our one goal now incorporates everything with our original six goals without increasing all the extra time of goal writing. We could then put individual objectives for each pattern (silent /e/, double, and ambiguous) if you wanted to break it down more specifically, but consult your special education administrators on your individual school district’s policy on this. Personally, objectives would only be necessary for this goal if the percentage of mastery was going to be different between the three types of long vowel patterns. For example, if you wanted Billy to learn silent /e/ with 100% accuracy, double vowels with 95% accuracy, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy. If you want the same amount of accuracy achieved, then objectives would not be necessary in this case.

I see this “mistake” of too many goals a lot in all subject areas.

Goal 1: Billy will comprehend fiction texts at grade level.

Goal 2: Billy will comprehend non-fiction texts at grade level.

Revised: Billy will comprehend fiction and non-fiction texts at grade level.

Goal 1: Billy will improve mastery of addition facts.

Goal 2: Billy will improve mastery of subtraction facts.

Goal 3: Billy will improve mastery of multiplication facts.

Goal 4: Billy will improve mastery of division facts.

Revised: Billy will improve mastery of math facts for all operations (addition, subtraction multiplication, division).

However, this only takes care of trying to combine our goals, so we do not walk out of an IEP with 14 goals, (which yes I recently read in a child’s records, and it was due to these same mistakes!) Combining is fine, as long as when you instruct and track your own data you separate out each skill!

But our goal is not ready yet for our IEP. We need to make it measurable, this is the most crucial step in IEP goal writing. How is anyone supposed to know if the goal has been reached if there is no measure included to identify the outcome? Again, seems like common sense, but it does not always happen.

When talking about measurability of a goal, three pieces need to be included: the amount of accuracy that will be achieved, the frequency of which it will occur, and how we will collect data to demonstrate the achievement.

Let’s return to our decoding/spelling goal from earlier:

Goal 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels.

Three questions emerge:

1. How much will Billy improve?

2. How consistently (i.e. frequently) will Billy demonstrated his improvement? This should include number of trials as well as over what period of time.

3. In what way will we collect data to show Billy’s achievement?

Let’s revise this goal with each of the three questions:

Revised goal – Question 1: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy.

We know we want Billy to demonstrate 90% accuracy. I personally was taught your bare minimum percentage should be 75%, and that 80-85% is a better minimum. We need to establish high expectations for our students! However, with a child that may require more time for mastery, that is where we could include objectives where they reach 50% mastery, then 60% mastery, and slowly build their achievement over a long period of time if necessary. Some children need a more specific breakdown of mastery levels, but others do not. It depends on the individuality of each child.

Revised goal – Question 2: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy in four out of five observations each week over a six week period.

Let’s look at this one and think about it. If we had just put four out of five observations, and left out the rest, think about semantics. Once we see Billy achieve 90% in four out of five observations a single time, we could technically say the goal is mastered. But we know as teachers, just because a child demonstrates mastery a single time, does not mean it is solidly mastered consistently over a specific time frame. Imagine how quickly the goal would be achieved if we only did it one time! That’s why the rest is so vital. We are communicating the frequency to ensure mastery is generalized.

Revised goal – Question 3: Billy will improve his decoding/spelling of long vowel patterns including: silent /e/, double vowels, and ambiguous vowels with 90% accuracy in four out of five observations each week over a six week period as collected through a teacher checklist and informal reading/spelling inventories.

Now we have included how we are going to collect our data, let’s talk about it. You can choose whatever data collection method words best for you as well as the skill being taught. For example, an informal reading inventory is not appropriate for collecting data on a math goal!

It pays to be non-descriptive!  It ensures, that as the teacher, you can figure out which method of data collection is best for you, and appropriate for what you are measuring. For example, a teacher checklist could be an actual list of words we want Billy to read/spell accurately, or just tallying when he makes errors with each pattern with level reading passages. An informal inventory could be a running record, PALS quick check, or an updated Ganske. Keeping your methods non-descriptive allows you more autonomy for your data method collection. The most important aspect is not which specific tool you utilize, but that you are collecting data consistently and fairly to show that your instruction is effective, and the child is making progress towards his/her goal! There is no need to add extra measures of tracking data, if you already have some established in your current teaching. However, teacher observation alone should never be your only measure for recording data for two reasons: (1) observation is not tangible if you do not record anything and (2) multiple measures should be used for each goal to support achievement.

Note: You would also put a time frame for when the goal is achieved, likely one year from the IEP date (i.e., By August 2020, Billy will…); however, most online IEP programs already have that programmed in to save you time. Check with your district’s special education administrator if your IEP program does this or not.

When talking about measurability of a goal, three pieces need to be included: the amount of accuracy that will be achieved, the frequency of which it will occur, and how we will collect data to demonstrate the achievement. Think about the criteria for measurability, and look at some of these IEP goals below and consider what is missing to become a stronger goal.

Goal: Billy will interact and respond to peers appropriately in 75% of observations.

Not only are specific levels of measurability missing, but in this case, we should also define “appropriately” either by saying what it is or is not (not cursing, not hitting, etc.)

Goal: Billy will interact with peers within the instructional setting (small group and/or partner) five consecutive observations sessions within a nine week period as measured by teacher observation.

Another case of defining better for semantic purposes, if Billy only has to interact with peers one could interpret this as either positive or negative interactions. So, technically, Billy could hit another child and according to the above goal he is “interacting” with peers.

Here are some others (and yes these are real IEP goals that I have read):

Goal: Billy will ask a teacher for a break prior to demonstrating negative behaviors in six out of 10 opportunities weekly.

Goal: Billy, when give a prompt, will construct a strong topic sentence and closing sentence.

Goal: Billy will master 80% of grade level SOLs by the end of the school year.

Goal: Billy will improve reading skills by engaging in sustained silent reading for 20 minutes in English class, measured by earning 10/10 points weekly for reading participation grade.

ACCOMMODATIONS

The biggest rule of thumb when it comes to accommodations is identifying the difference between a “need” and a “benefit.” Just because a child will benefit from a specific accommodation, does not necessarily mean they “need” it. We are trying to level the playing field, not provide an advantage!

In addition, certain accommodations are not necessary in an IEP since they are available to ALL students whether they have a disability or not. For example look at this document and scroll down to the final page.

How often have you seen “small group testing” as an accommodation in an IEP, yet ANY child can receive a small group testing environment?

Note: This applies to students in Virginia, contact your respective state’s Department of Education for information about standardized testing accommodations.

Another important aspect is that an accommodation should be connected to an IEP goal in some way.

For example, with Billy’s scores of 60 and 69 on decoding and spelling, then it would be beneficial for him to receive read aloud on assignments/assessments, because we also have a reading goal, and would not want his lack of reading decoding skills to impact his ability to demonstrate his knowledge of non-reading content (i.e., math, science, social studies, etc.).

However, I personally have read multiple IEPs where a child received a read aloud accommodation for assessments, but had no reading goal, no services related to reading, and their data showed they were reading on grade level. This would be an example of providing an advantage over leveling the playing field.

I often see children being given the accommodation “dictate to scribe” without a writing goal or fine motor goal in their IEP. If we are providing an accommodation, we need to include a goal to show how we are trying to improve this skill through a goal. By just handing out any accommodation to a student without providing them instruction to improve their skill deficit, we are creating learned helplessness.

SERVICE TIMES

Service times, like accommodations, need to be connected to a goal in some way. Inclusion service time is a little different, because we can choose any general classroom to serve in (i.e., a child with behavior goals can have those skills taught in any classroom whether it be reading, math, art, music, etc.); however, with resource service times, we need to be specific in which skills we are addressing during that time.

I recently came upon an IEP where a child was receiving 250 minutes weekly of resource services for reading, and receiving a read aloud accommodation. What was shocking was the child had no reading goal!!! So what was the child doing during this specific time with reading, since there was no goal to identify what skills were to be taught?

Let’s say Susie is a child eligible for the category of other health impairment (OHI) due to ADHD. She has two behavior goals related to her staying seated and staying on task as well as a writing goal to work on organization of thoughts and also giving her an accommodation of blank graphic organizer templates on writing tasks. We want to utilize a blend of inclusion and resource services. When identifying our service times, we need to make sure we are noting the specific goals we are addressing during those times. Here is what we are proposing:

Inclusion – 60 minutes weekly

Resource – 30 minutes weekly

A lot of questions come into play with what exactly is the special education teacher doing with Susie during these times frames. A better way would to state this:

Inclusion (staying seated/staying on-task) – 60 minutes weekly

Resource (writing) – 30 minutes weekly

Now we understand which skills are going to be addressed, where it will be, and for how long. By matching the goals with respective services times, transparency is increased. This allows the teacher to demonstrate accountability for Susie’s progress by communicating when and where Susie will be receiving her specialized instruction with her respective goals.

Important Items to Remember

1. Know your students’ academic history in terms of previous interventions implemented.

2. Organize your students’ formal and informal data all in one place to identify areas of need.

3. Match your intervention to each student’s area of need.

4. Combine relevant skills together to decrease the number of overall IEP goals.

5. Be sure your IEP goals are measurable in terms of level of accuracy achieved, frequency of how often this accuracy will be demonstrated, and the data collection tools necessary.

6. Accommodations should level the playing field, not provide an advantage.

7. Service times should state what goals are being addressed and in what setting.

8. A child’s data, IEP goals, accommodations, and service times should all connect together. If all four pieces are not present, then ask yourself what is missing or why including it is necessary!

Jared holds Virginia state licensure in Special Education General Curriculum, English as a Second Language, and History and Social Sciences.  He earned a Master of Arts degree in Teaching and Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, and is currently completing a Master of Education degree in Equity and Cultural Diversity, all from James Madison University.  Jared previous taught elementary special education in the Shenandoah Valley, and currently is an educational consultant conducting achievement assessments at the Shenandoah Valley Child Development Clinic.  His areas of interest include: educating parents on their rights, universal preschool, dyslexia, cultural competency in teacher education, and psycho-educational assessment for English Language Learners (ELLs).

The Real World

What is this “real world” you speak of?

Who defines it?

Is it the same “real world” for everyone?

I was recently in conversation with colleagues about class attendance.  Now, full disclosure, I do not have an attendance policy.  I know my class is not the only thing going on in the lives of my students.  I know they have to make choices with how they spend their time and I do not sit in judgment of those choices.  I encourage open communication, I want to know if you aren’t coming (if at all possible) because I’m a worrier and I care about you.  The ‘why’ you aren’t coming isn’t my business.  I do not attach points to attendance or the ever elusive but pervasive concept of “participation.”  If you’re missing a lot of class, I ask if we can talk.  I want you to get the content, the knowledge, the learning, the experiences, and I want to help remove any barriers I possibly can.  I want us to work together and I try to be a trustworthy and empathetic person who can serve as a resource.

So, that’s my approach.

My colleague said a student emailed saying they were going through a traumatic breakup and wouldn’t be in class.  The colleague said nope.  Another colleague said, when you’re a teacher, you can’t just stay home when your heart is broken.  The real world doesn’t stop for your break up.

Why not?

We get personal days and sick leave and we can and should use them in ways that support our overall well-being, right?  We need to learn how to engage in self care and boundary setting and mental health awareness and care.  Teachers are not martyrs or superheroes or angels.  They are humans with the wide range of human emotions and experiences.

I wonder about things like perfect attendance awards (why?) and the “in the real world, you’ll be expected to . . . ” framing that builds and reinforces anxiety and this run yourself into the ground, work 24/7 mentality that is literally killing us.

What if we modeled self care?  What if we respected boundaries?  What if we taught students to ask for what they need?

This week, I had a number of long, stressful days.  So, on Thursday, I cancelled a few things and worked from home, caught up on emails, scheduling, feedback, some writing.  In all day meetings on Friday, I talked with a colleague who had done the same the day before, took a “mental health day.”  We both said “GOOD FOR YOU!” to each other.  Where did we learn this was okay?

We didn’t.  We both expressed guilt and shame and a feeling of embarrassment about it.

In the words of the perfect Jonathan Van Ness, “who gave you permission to be so amazing?”  I’m giving you permission to set boundaries and to teach students to do the same.  And here’s the tricky part – respect the boundaries they and others set.  We must take care of each other.

How have you learned to care for your own mental health and well being?  How do you extend that grace to others?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Dream vs. Reality: The First Day of School

I have dreamed of this moment for seven years. A fantasy from 11th grade still replays itself in my mind with crystalline clarity: My first day of school as a teacher. I’m wearing all professional black clothes with my hair slicked back in a bun. I’m stricter than I need to be because I want my students to take me seriously. I’m cool and aloof and ooze authority and respect. I talk about learning and brain growth and the value of hard work until we suddenly have an inspirational “Dead Poets Society” moment. The students leave, backpacks slung over one shoulder, talking about how they can’t wait for tomorrow. They jump, fist in the air – and freeze frame!

My real first day was nothing like that.

When I realized that baseline data must be collected before I could implement any learning community activities as per my goal and research this year, I immediately accepted the fact that my students’ first day of class with me would be… unorthodox. I stood at the door as they walked in, asking each student to say their name as they wrote it down so that the first time I heard it would be the correct way to pronounce it. The first thing they saw upon entering the room was a sign saying, “Welcome to Physics! Grab a baseline survey from the Pick Up station (near the door) then take a seat and begin the survey.” Once the bell rang, they had seven more minutes to complete the survey before I gave my two minute introduction to myself and to the course. The rest of the class was spent doing a Group Juggle with squishy bird shaped toys in order to start getting the students comfortable and familiar with each other.

Collecting Baseline Data: An Abrupt Start

Norms and expectations are easiest to establish at the beginning of a group’s existence. That means that the best time for me to introduce the notion of a learning community was the first day of school. So, as unorthodox and abrupt as it sounds to have the students silently submit a ten-question survey about learning communities as soon as they walked in on the first day, it was a necessary action in order to get the least biased baseline data that I could. Well, if I had been more zealous in my quest for unbiased data, I probably could have covered up our giant community calendar and “Welcome to Our Physics Fiesta!” decorations but I put a lot of trust in the students being slightly too overwhelmed by their first day of school to be so analytical of the wall decor.

The baseline survey consisted of two free response prompts and eight Likert scaled prompts that asked students to circle a number between one and eight where one implied that they “strongly disagree” and eight meant that they “strongly agree”. Heather had given me some advice and information about the benefits of using more versus fewer and even versus odd numbers on the Likert scale. I decided upon a scale of eight quantitative points because an even number denies the students an opportunity to respond with a true neutral. I also chose eight points on my Likert scale because it would allow me more clarity into the differences in the students’ choices than a smaller number would while still remaining mangable for me to record by hand. With the prompts, I tried to tease out what students knew about community oriented learning and how they felt about it.

The Part With The Numbers

To record the data, I created a Google Sheet in which the columns represented each survey prompt and the rows represented each student’s responses. I included their name or initial in my Google Sheet so that I would have the opportunity to compare a student’s responses throughout the year. I made a separate page for each class period as well as one total group page. Google Sheets was helpful in that I was able to include a cell for each prompt that calculated the class averages and the grand total averages for that prompt. The prompts and their all-class averages are as follows:

  • What the phrase “sense of community” means to me: (free response)
  • I have experienced a sense of community in previous classes. (4.78)
  • I like feeling a sense of community in my classes. (5.5)
  • I learn better when I feel like I am a member of my classroom community. (5.48)
  • I am familiar with the term “learning community”. (4.62)
  • What “learning community” means to me: (free response)
  • I feel confident in my ability to learn physics this year. (5.50)
  • I feel confident in my ability to pass the physics course this year. (6.04)
  • I believe that having a sense of community will help me succeed in the physics course. (5.88)
  • I believe that participating in a learning community will help me succeed in the physics course. (6.09)
  • I feel a sense of community with the people in this class. (4.71)
  • People in (our school district) have a shared sense of community. (5.41)

Reflections and Analogies

I’m still processing the information. I’m still figuring out what the data implies and how the averages compare across the class periods. I’m still interpreting data and sorting through rumours of remarkably high failure rates last year and re-takers this year. I’m still hearing and reading comments from students who are terrified of physics and have a wide range of confidence in their abilities. While I’m chewing on my data like a cow on its cud, life in our classroom has moved forward at lightning speed. In the last two weeks, we’ve discussed the traits of a learning community; we have drafted, finalized, and displayed our top five community agreements; we have learned each other’s names; we have developed routines with daily greetings and exit tickets; we have helped each other review mathematics concepts; we have run through the halls in a particularly fun pursuit of problem solving; and yesterday, we decided to believe in the power of “yet” by turning around each sentiment in which we express doubt in our abilities. Gone are the days of “I can’t do math”, there is only room today for “I’m not good at physics yet.”

I, too, am taking on the power of yet. I’m on a steep, but manageable, learning curve when it comes to my lesson plans and preparing materials. While each day of class so far has left me in love with my new job and with the communities we’re building, I’m not quite at the level of preparation that I’d like to be… yet. I will get there, I know it. With practice and experience, I will leave behind twelve hour (or more) days at school. There will come a day when I have nearly everything for the next week planned and printed the Friday before. So too will the day come when I will write these blog posts when I mean to write them instead of a week later like I did with this one. I’m not too worried and I’m not letting any of these current slips or shortcomings overwhelm me with personal disappointment. Heather and I have talked about this project being my “lizard’s tail”- the thing you never want to drop, but can lose if necessary to survive. I’m nowhere near needing to drop my “lizard’s tail” but I’m glad to feel secure in my plans and priorities.

New teachers and veterans, what is your “lizard’s tail” this year?

What is your yet?

First year teacher – passionate about community and equity

I’m Here To Learn

A little about me in the month before my first year begins

To be perfectly honest, I’m nervous about my first year of teaching. I’ve spent the summer
reviewing learning theory and teaching strategies, reading radical books about equity and power dynamics in the classroom, building an elaborate teacher emergency kit filled with everything from pepto to a tiny hair straightener, and trying to find the courage to refresh my memory of physics. Yes, physics – the subject that sends shivers down the spines of rising high school juniors and, for many others who have taken the course, flashbacks of nightly fifty-problem homeworks straight from the textbook.  Physics has a bad reputation of being isolating and difficult. As someone who struggled through physics courses in both high school and college, I know first hand how true that can be.

Early in my college career, I was determined to become a math teacher through the more common route of majoring in physics with a minor in education but I quickly became overwhelmed by the independent lecture/homework structure of learning in college level math classes. In hindsight, it seems like fate that I took my first education course during my second attempt at Calculus II; the more I suffered in math, the more I ached for a learning environment that used research-based strategies and theories to ensure the understanding of its students. I was introduced to the idea of learning communities, classroom structures that encourage students to learn collaboratively towards shared goals, and I constantly imagined how such communities could improve my
experience in math. I continued taking Calc II until I passed it on the fourth try, having changed my major to Philosophy and taken on a fifth year of private university to do so. By then, I was hell-bent on teaching math with learning theory in mind so I pursued a Master of Arts in Teaching.

I took a long, difficult, and less travelled road to becoming a teacher and I believe that I’m
personally the better for it. I’ve learned how to work hard and recover from failure, I’ve met a network of creative and intelligent people through talking about my own passions, and I’ve been given many exciting opportunities like this one by being willing to take risks with people I trust.

How I’m going to make my teaching intellectual my first year

My experiences in education and philosophy over the last six years have instilled in me a love of research and self-reflective learning. It seems that the natural progression of this would be to participate in some scholarly exploration in my first year of teaching. Similarly, it seems natural that I should continue to be mentored by a faculty member who guided me through academic and professional quandaries in the past. With Heather’s encouragement and knowledge of the process, I’ll be improving my teaching this year through action research.

I believe that the best way to become good at anything is to study it. I don’t want to just keep my head above water this year; conducting action research will allow me to hone my craft and provide my students with a thoughtful and intentional academic experience that considers their social, emotional, and academic needs through community-based learning. I’m still nervous but I know exactly where to channel that excited energy: becoming the best teacher I can be.

Now some things I want to know from you!

How are other first year teachers reflecting on their practice?
What are other first year teachers reflecting on? (parent communication, reading instruction, etc.)
Can action research help me be a better teacher?

First year teacher – passionate about community and equity

Recess Is A Right

I posted a picture on our social media of a tweet from the 2006 MN Teacher of the Year Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens that read:  Advice to a new elementary school teacher:  never, every withhold recess from your students for any reason.  They need the activity and you need them to have the activity.  It shouldn’t be viewed as a privilege, but a part of your daily curriculum.

The post generated conversation which is awesome.  In this post, I hope to provide some context for recess as a right, not a privilege and some alternative strategies.

First, remember, behavior is communication and it always always always serves a purpose.  You can read a bit more about that here.  Once we determine the function of the behavior, we can find more appropriate ways to meet that function for/with the learner.  Okay, so let’s play this out with recess.

Basic scenario:  Learner is off task in class, out of seat, what have you.  Teacher subscribes to the “you waste my time, I’ll take your time” philosophy and responds with taking away 5-10-half-all of recess.

Behavior is communication.

  • What is the function of the off task behavior?  Is the learner avoiding the work?  Is the learner unsure what to do?  Is the learner “bored”?  Is the learner seeking attention from the teacher or from friends?
  • Are any of these functions met by reducing/eliminating recess?

Nope.

(Side question:  have you ever taken recess from a child one time and never ever again?  Does it every work to change the behavior, teach the behavior we want to see, or is it a punishment we invoke because we’re frustrated?)

Why do we offer time in the school day for free movement?  Is recess really “their” time?  What is the role of recess in teaching and learning?  Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control endorse recess with policy statements outlining the cognitive, social emotional, physical, and academic benefits of regular unstructured play time for elementary age learners.  The slow whittling down/removal of recess has never been rooted in the evidence of development, teaching and learning, or best practice.  It has always been about increasing instructional time.  But, recess actually HELPS learners attend to task, focus, learn.

Let’s look at it another way.

Think about a time you’ve been in a long faculty meeting, professional development day, webinar, or something similar.  Even if the content is engaging, you may find yourself getting restless.  You may get up to go to the bathroom, get a drink, stand by the wall for a bit.  You may stretch in your seat, check your phone, or pick at your nail polish.  You can do what you need to do in order to get your attention back to the topic at hand – you can take self regulated brain breaks because you’re an adult.  If your admin or PD provider told you that getting out of your chair to stretch your legs would mean you do not get the scheduled break time everyone else gets, you would probably have strong feelings about that.  Because we all need breaks – whether we’ve “earned” them or not.

Taking away recess is a power move, not a teaching move.  Reframing all of our actions and reactions through a teaching lens means recess is not a bonus or a reward, but a critical and non negotiable part of a learner’s work.

Now that we know taking away bits, pieces, all of recess does not support our end goal of teaching and learning, what can/should we do instead?

Tackle the function.  Meet the need in an appropriate way.

So, if it’s escape, build in break cards, mindful moments, a quick “errand” that incorporates a little movement.

If it’s attention getting, what is driving it?  Is it teacher attention or peer attention that’s desired?  Use proximity, room arrangement, teacher talk cards or, if you can, take just a moment, get on the child’s level, and ask them what they need.  That very well may be enough.

They’re communicating with you.  Let’s be listeners, teachers, learners about our learners.  Restricting their movement and limiting their freedom creates barriers in our relationships and does not teach the behavior we want to see.

Make recess a right, not a privilege.  What are some other learner rights you feel are non-negotiable?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

Embracing Failure

I am a big fan of mistake making.  Well, not the making of the mistakes part so much but of the learning from mistakes, expecting mistakes, embracing mistakes.  What if we flip the narrative on failure and, since we know mistakes happen, we anticipate them and respond to them with enthusiasm?

Okay, stick with me here.  Enthusiasm may be a little . . . enthusiastic?

Looking back on a 20 year career in education, I see so many mistakes, of course, and some outright fails.  I’ll never ever forget the time I, with four other teachers, took 32 4-year-olds on a bus field trip.  Left the school, counted everyone multiple times, went to find my seat with my buddy, only to realize he was still sitting in the exact spot – AT THE SCHOOL – where I asked him to wait for me.  We turned the bus around, of course, and raced back to him (he was still waiting patiently) but I could not shake that off.  Even now it haunts me.

Some mistakes are bigger than others. Every last one is a learning opportunity.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues and friends who embrace my failures with me, who lift me up, who help me see the learning opportunities presented in my failures.  I’m currently in the midst of my biggest professional failure yet.  In that failure, though, so many opportunities have developed.  Opportunities for growth, for challenge, for learning, for teaching, for building resilience, for growing my network, for failing out loud so maybe others can do the same.  Failure also, of course, invites self doubt, shame, embarrassment, to name a few.  So, as I reflect on my own mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, and failures, I often consider how our interactions with learners shape their relationship with failure.  How did I learn how to fail and how am I teaching others about failure?

Well, it’s a delicate balance, right?

We want to embrace failure as a part of learning.  Einstein said, (according to the internet) “You never fail until you stop trying.”  We want to build resiliency in learners.  We want our learners to always be willing and ready to try try again.  We know perfectionism puts limitations on learners’ willingness to take chances, ask questions, seek creativity. However, we also don’t want to embrace mistakes to the point where we accept failure.  Failure has to sting a little in order for it to motivate us, right?

I teach and learn with college students.  Say what you will about this generation of young people but I will defend their work ethic, their creativity, and their dedication to my last breath.  I see a fear of failure in them, a fear of risk taking, a fear of creative problem solving, though. Not because, they want their hands held, but because the consequences of any mistake have been so so steep.  My coursework is ungraded, due dates are flexible, engagement and iterative feedback is essential.  Students find this terrifying.  They struggle to trust that I won’t come with a guillotine on the last day.  Mistake making and embracing failure requires trust.

Teaching and learning depends on trusting relationships.  Full stop.

How do you build learning communities with high expectations, meaningful and trusting relationships, and a willingness to fail out loud?

We must be someone students can trust to launch them from failures into learning.  In what ways do you fail out loud with your learners and help them do the same?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

When Social Media & Professionalism Mash Up

Scrolling through social media, as I often mindlessly do, I am repeatedly reminded of the powerful educators with whom I am in community. It is not my community. It is a community in which I am a learning, growing, contributing member. These educators inspire me, motivate me, encourage me, and remind me of the change we can be in the world. This community is fiercely inclusive and we challenge ourselves to better understand what that means in the “real world” — a world that is fiercely exclusive. We know how hard we have to work to meaningfully and intentionally include each child who struggles to meet adult expectations and each adult with whom we disagree. But we actively try. We try to make each other better today than we were yesterday, we call each other out when it’s necessary, and we celebrate the smallest victories because we know this work is so hard.

This is the community I choose. The community I grow. The community I champion.

So when, during that mindless social media scrolling, I see teachers complaining about the challenges of their job, the antics of a particular learner that day, or the ridiculousness of some new accountability measure, I am disheartened. Not because I can’t relate to the need to vent, or because I don’t understand just how hard it is, or because I can’t take a joke. But because when teachers mock kids or diminish kids on social media, I wonder how they make that same child feel in their classroom. And I wonder how the kid’s loved ones would feel if they saw their child’s bad day or bad moment posted for all the teacher’s friends, family, and followers to laugh, shame, tsk tsk, or sympathize.

I think about how I would react if I saw my own children referred to on their teachers’ social media.

Actual posts:

improvement for the day: student pees on the bathroom floor instead of in my lap #itsthelittlethings

Well, buddy, I wouldn’t give you the death stare if you were doing what I told you to do. #teacherproblems

One day I’m going to slip and tell a parent their kid is the reason I drink so much.

My sped babies loved it too! (PSA:  Sped is the past tense verb of speed; sped is NOT an adjective that describes a person. And children in elementary school are not babies.  Our language reflects our values.)

These are the things you say to your partner, to your best friend, to your cat. I definitely get it.  I have very stressful, difficult days, too.  But these are not the things you put out into the cyber. If you have a social media profile to showcase your work, it should highlight your ability to see students in their full complexity and to honor their humanity, illustrate the dynamic and complex environments of education, elevate the knowledge and skills the best teachers possess.

Part of my responsibility to the field is to support future teachers  in preparing their social media world for their professional life. That means removing pictures of beer pong and spring break. It may even mean setting up new “adult” accounts. It always means many serious conversations about never ever posting about children they interact with professionally. The children you teach are not your children, despite your love and commitment to them. You do not have the right to post about them. Their faces, their bathroom issues, their annoying habits. Not. For. Social. Media. You are a teacher. It’s an awesome responsibility. A position of power. One of great influence, the potential to build a child up or tear that same child to shreds. Use your powers for good.

As we build teachingisintellectual’s profile on social media and within the education community, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the integrity of learners.  Every learner has value, all behavior is communicating a child’s feelings or needs, and all educators are adults in these spaces.  Let’s lift learners up, see and celebrate their strengths, and promote education as a profession.

How have your social media habits changed since you became a teacher?  How do you use social media to promote your work and your profession?  Have you had any really positive or really negative experiences from using social media professionally that you can share?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

What Teachers Want: Are You Serious?

In the wake of yet another school shooting, the government and members of the media are beating a familiar drum: more guns, not less, will  put a stop to our decades-long national epidemic of mass shootings in schools. The President of the United States has been aggressively putting forward the idea that our nation needs armed teachers to  prevent school shootings. The notion of transforming our educators into a paramilitary strike-force of academic achievement is completely absurd for many reasons. Chief among these is that it is simply impractical to expect a teacher to become a trained marksman and learn to adequately respond in an active shooter situation.  Then there’s the funding required for such a proposal. Not to mention that putting more guns in schools creates a culture and environment that does nothing to address the struggles of children at risk.

Not My Job!

Being a teacher requires us to wear many hats: nurse, counselor, social worker, caretaker, parent… nowhere in our training or toolbox of skills does that ever include shooter.

There are many field experiences, trainings, and degrees required to become a teacher. Those most powerful and effective learning experiences are on the job, hands on learning.  Soldiers and police officers undergo intense training as well. According to an FBI study done of active school shooter situations from the years 2000-2013, “law enforcement suffered casualties in 21 of the 45 incidents where they engaged the shooter to end the threat.” So this means that almost 50% of professionally trained law enforcement died!  HALF. Even with all of their training.

So we want to consider that a teacher who takes a one day gun safety class is now qualified to react and protect themselves and students from an intruder intent on doing the most damage?  How would teachers stand a reasonable chance of survival, when half of our trained law enforcement perishes while attempting the same task?

There is not a lesson plan that can adequately prepare teachers for an active shooter.  Can you imagine the consequences, the outrage if a teacher accidently shot and killed a student in the process? Is this a risk that our society is willing to accept?

Who is Paying?

Incentivizing teachers to become trained to carry weapons requires funding. Where would that money come from? If money is available for schools and to give to teachers, how about a higher salary or incentives for more logical things like additional endorsements and social emotional trainings?

The federal government just cut taxes and passed a budget resolution to increase spending, creating a large spending gap.

How does arming teachers fit in to this proposal?  You would need guns, training, liability insurance.  Just for starters.

In 2016, in Fairfax County, Virginia, a meal tax was proposed to raise money for the county. This proposal was defeated. The tax would have generated roughly 99 million dollars of tax revenue for the county, 70% of which was designated to go to Fairfax County Public Schools, primarily as an increase in teacher salaries.

Funding for public school resources, universal PreK, and teacher salaries is not a priority, but guns are. It is hard to take the call to arms seriously when those asking for it are against investing in our children and the things that they need to thrive.

Environment

The biggest need in our schools is for a more positive, empathetic, and proactive mindset that focuses on strengths and solutions. Children that come from difficult home lives and who are predisposed to risk factors need to mentored, loved, and seen. This can only happen when we all get on board and take action. Children who need help and support are not difficult to pick out, so why do they continue to slip through the cracks?

What Now?

Research has shown that early intervention is critical for children exposed to adverse conditions. Harvard University conducted a study about The Toxic Stress of Early Childhood Adversity fining that toxic stress affects children’s metal and physical health for a lifetime. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and gave an ACE score based on the answers to questions relating to trauma. “There are 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, or abandonment.” The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional struggles. Is this not where we should focus the conversation, resources, and outrage? What can we do to PREVENT, ANTICIPATE, and CHANGE the inevitable struggle of at risk children?

Since we know the consequences of adverse childhood experiences are inevitable, let’s invest in what we need to support children! How will guns in schools help with any of these things?

 

https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/

https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-the-impact-of-early-adversity-on-childrens-development/

https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/september/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents/pdfs/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-between-2000-and-2013

 

 

Early Childhood Inclusion Teacher

What Does It Mean To Be Kindergarten Ready?

When it comes to young children going to school, we talk a lot about “readiness.” But what does that even mean?

I’ll just get down to it.

Very broadly speaking, “readiness” refers to skills and factors that contribute to a child’s success upon school entry. These skills reflect individual development across the following domains: health and physical development; social/emotional development; cognition, knowledge, and approaches to learning; and communication and language skills.

I want to make one thing crystal clear:

 Children are not innately “ready” or “not ready” for school.

 “Readiness” is a complex subject, influenced by many interrelated factors:

  1. Early life experiences: exposure to early education, home literacy environment, economic security, attention to health needs.
  2. The child’s individual differences: cultural and linguistic variation, developmental differences and the understanding of such differences, presence of a disability
  3. Expectations placed on the child by the school: the only legal requirement is reaching the correct chronological age, but the National Goals Panel suggests 10 critical keys to ensure that schools are ready for young children:
    1. Smooth transition between home and school
    2. Continuity of care between early care and education and elementary schools
    3. Help children learn and make sense of their complex world
    4. Be committed to the success of every child
    5. Be committed to the success of every teacher and every adult who interacts with children during the school day
    6. Introduce/expand approaches that have been shown to raise achievement
    7. Be a learning organization that alter practices if they do not benefit children
    8. Serve children in their communities
    9. Take responsibility for results
    10. Exhibit strong leadership

As you can see, in order to improve “readiness” we have a lot of collective work to do. Children and families need improved economic conditions, better health care for children and families, a commitment to understanding of individual differences, and environments that are responsive to the needs of children and families within their own community (just to name a few).

Hopefully you noticed that “readiness” is much greater and more complex than a checklist of skills and developmental milestones. The burden of readiness should not rest upon the frail shoulders of our nation’s preschoolers.  Idealistic? Maybe. Utopian? Maybe. But….

As adults we should carry the load and create the necessary changes- to ensure our youngest can have the greatest opportunity for success as they develop at their own pace.

  •  What can you do to improve factors for readiness in your classroom, school, or community?
  • How can you push the conversation about readiness towards a more comprehensive view?
  • How can you release young children from the burden of fitting in to a certain predetermined mold?
  • How responsive is your teaching? Do you take responsibility for results? Do you alter teaching practices when needed?
  • Do you seek out learning opportunities?
  • How can you exhibit leadership?

Tracy McElhattan is the Director of Early Childhood Ministries at a church in the Kansas City area. She also writes and edits faith-based materials for children with special needs so that all young children have full access to faith communities. She loves teaching teachers and challenging the norm.

Every Classroom, Every Day: Rethinking Inclusion

 What is Special Education?

When I began my undergraduate studies in Elementary and Special Education, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of how to support students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) within the general education classroom. I viewed the work of special education as a fund of knowledge that I would utilize as a teacher within the general education classroom in order to best meet the learning needs of all my students. However, as I began my field experiences, I realized that to many, special education was not a series of supports or a teaching methodology, but rather a room where students could be placed and sent. Special education was often thought of as the room at the end of hall, designed so that general education teachers could avoid “challenges” and “additional work” in their classroom.

As a result of these experiences, I believe we need to rethink how we define special education and inclusion. The implementation of special education services does not fall on one teacher, in one classroom; rather it is the work of every teacher, in every classroom, every day, for every child. Special education is individualized services and supports. It is a collaborative effort by educators, parents and guardians, administration, and specialists  to provide each student with necessary services, such as speech and language services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. It is the implementation of supports, such as academic differentiation, assistive technology, and universal design, which allow all students access to academic and social opportunities in a variety of settings. When we consider special education as a set of supports, instead of a room or profession, we can begin to truly teach our students and create inclusive environments.

Resource Rooms, Self-Contained Classrooms, & Inclusion

As stated in IDEA, students with IEPs are to be taught in the least restrictive environment, the setting in which their academic and social needs are best met. Therefore, schools have created resource rooms and self-contained classrooms as a place for students with IEPs to receive instruction. However, I find these rooms are often overused or resorted to simply because they exist. This is not to say that these classrooms do not benefit some children, and for a very few students these rooms may provide the best and least restrictive learning environment. However, these settings are not what define special education. These settings cannot be the only place in which a student receives individualized accommodations.

I am a firm believer in meaningful inclusion. Conversely to how resource rooms provide students with additional supports in an alternative environment, inclusion works to provide students with support and accommodations within the general education classroom. Benefits to promoting inclusion are the social opportunities students have to collaborate with peers and access to general education curriculum.

However, right now, we are not doing our best work. In my field experiences, I have often seen “inclusion” as students with IEPs sitting on their own, not being accommodated to participate in whole group instruction or collaborative work, not being supported as a member of the classroom community. General education teachers either do not feel it is their responsibility to teach these children, or they simply do not know how to teach them. However, if we want to see students grow in academic and social skills, we need to shift our thinking to all teachers becoming special educators.

Teachers who have focused on and studied special education are essential to our school community.  They maintain a deep knowledge of how to accommodate learners, but their work should not be done alone. General education teachers must embrace that we are here to teach all children. Just as we differentiate and enrich learning for students in the general education classroom, we, too, should be implementing accommodations and providing differentiation to students with different needs.

Implementing Inclusion

As we go forth in our movement for inclusion, it is imperative that we begin to redefine and deepen our understanding of what special education is. Special education is not the room at the end of the hall, where we can send children with IEPs when we do not know how to support them. Additionally, those with titles and degrees in special education are not the only ones who teach students with differing needs. The work of special education must occur in every classroom, every day. If we are truly working to build students up as lifelong learners and active community members, we all must be willing to collaborate to implement a continuum of services across our school community, so that all students have equitable access to both academic and social opportunities for personal growth.

 

Abby is a senior at Saint Louis University, studying Elementary Education with a minor in Special Education. She enjoys knitting, baking, and making school a better experience for all students.