Ambitious Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide

Are you preparing the next generation of early childhood educators and leaders? How long has it been since you critically examined your syllabi and teaching practices? Did you know you may be widening the research to practice gap by making higher education – a place of evidence-based professional development – a hostile and unwelcoming environment?

Existing literature suggests that power relations and issues of expertise limit the extent to which faculty engage students in the design of their own learning and listen or respond to their needs (e.g. Mihans, Long, & Felton, 2008). In your work, examine and challenge the culture of higher education and the role of student-faculty interactions within and beyond the classroom. These interactions are crucial to the development of higher education students’ self-concept, motivation, and achievement (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010).

You can engage in critical conversations about the expectations placed upon pre-service practitioners. Through ambitious teaching, taking risks pedagogically and reconceptualizing teaching and learning for teachers and learners, you can facilitate dialogue around the extent to which the traditional “status-quo” of educator preparation truly teaches the behaviors we want to see.

Presume competence, rethink relationships, and trust the students you are preparing for the workforce.

Let’s Get Started

  1.  Evaluate your beliefs.  I’m talking, back to the basics.   What do you believe about your learners themselves?  Do you believe they are generally committed and hard working or do you believe they are aloof, uncaring, lazy?  What do you know and believe about how people learn?  About how learning is assessed?  About how we can make learning visible?  This step takes work and time and reflection!  You can use this to get started.

If attendance and compliance count toward their grade, ask yourself what your grades reflect.  Do they reflect progress toward content mastery?  If students can demonstrate mastery on your assessments without attending class, what does that tell you about your course content, your assessments, your pedagogy?  These are just a few thoughts to get you started in unpacking your pedagogy

2.  Deconstruct your syllabus.  Take a good look at your policies, procedures,expectations, and language.  Does your syllabus invite and welcome learning?  Does it provide choice and flexibility?  What values does it communicate?  We compiled some tired and wired syllabus language for a poster presentation at the Division of Early Childhood conference.  The “wired” language prioritizes feedback and social learning theory.  Ask yourself if the beliefs you identified in Step 1 are reflected in your syllabus and if not, how can they be?  Jesse Stommel (jessestommel.com) has provided so much thought provoking content and syllabi language that helped us get started.  Also, we understand many universities and programs have required syllabus language.  We have both created an “official” syllabus for those purposes while providing a infographic syllabus to guide our work with students.

3.  Be transparent.  When I began on my journey toward a more ambitious and authentic pedagogy, I failed to include my students in my process.  Because I wasn’t as transparent with them about the how and the why of my approach, it was an unnecessarily difficult code switch for them.  I now introduce my expectations for participating in your own learning, for engaging in self and peer reflection, in revision and resubmission, etc on the first day of class.  We talk about it every course meeting.  I acknowledge it can be very uncomfortable as they’ve become so accustomed to working for points and providing work directly aligned with rubrics.  This kind of engagement requires trust and transparency.

4.  Trust your students.  Which leads us back to number 1.  We have to trust our students.  We have to encourage them to trust themselves.  They often feel so insecure in their own learning and their own knowledge, asking “is this what you want?”  We must consistently remind them that their work, their learning, isn’t for us, it’s for them!  And we trust them to learn it, know it, own it.

5.  Find your people.  This work is isolating, pushed back on, and quite honestly, harder.  Meaningful, intentional feedback, coming up with an individualized response including behavior and academic specific praise and constructive critique is exhausting.  So, find your people.  The ones that let you say, “I tried this new thing, here’s how it made me/my students feel, help me process this” and “I’m trying this and I’m getting this push back.”  It’s such deeply vulnerable work and we don’t know if it’s the right or best way.  But we do know that the traditional approaches do not work for us so we have to trust our gut and start here.  We have to talk about it, keep tabs on the evidence of what is effective, contribute to the research, and grow our practice.  That takes everyone working on it together.

This is a pedagogical journey.  We are on this journey together.  Each semester, we learn from our students and from each other.  We get just a little bit better, a little bit clearer, a little bit more trustworthy, a little bit more confident that what we’re doing is creating a community of lifelong learners, nurturing curiosity, and valuing knowing.

 

Mental Health Awareness

We are consistently advocating for the mental health needs of our students.  We attempt to be as supportive as possible to the complex lived experiences of our students and to acknowledge that they have full lives outside of our course/program.  That’s not to diminish the value of the learning experiences we are providing but to develop self care skills in our learners now that they can carry with them into their work as educators.

We’re also often met with resistance.  “You can’t just call in sick over a break up when you’re an employed teacher.”  But, the thing is, you can.  And you should if that’s what you need to get yourself together.  This burnout culture is unhealthy and we all perpetuate it in one way or another.  Glorifying busy.  Shaming absence.  Self care isn’t always convenient or well scheduled.  Sometimes it must be addressed regardless of other obligations.

Which leads me to question why or how we came to dismiss the traumas invoked or perpetuated at school.  Why do we persist the myth that “middle school is the worst” instead of implementing the many evidence-based practices (intentional social skills curriculum, active preventative teaching, for example) with consistency and fidelity.  Middle school does not HAVE to be “the worst” – we allow it to be.

Tropes like “mean girls” persist because we allow them to persist.  Intervene.  Teach.  Relentlessly.  Kids need our guidance in learning how to navigate the world – socially, online, in all spaces.  We must take responsibility for teaching.

If kids are experiencing trauma at school or their trauma is exacerbated at school, that is on us. If we believe in self care for ourselves, we must model it and teach it to our learners.  Self care is for everyone.

Ambitious Teaching

Dr. Chelsea T. Morris and I presented a (what we thought was) cool poster at the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood’s annual conference.

The first panel asked the participants to indicate how they evaluate student learning, if participation should be included for a grade, if attendance should be included in a grade, if and which social media accounts they use in their teaching, and how they handle late work.  Overwhelmingly, participants indicated they do include “participation” in grades.  There was more variability in if the participants include attendance in student grades although the majority indicated that yes they do include attendance for a grade.

There was interesting conversation around the “How do you evaluate student learning” boxes as many said they’re required to use letter grades but they incorporate a lot of ongoing, formative feedback.

Our second panel was the first one layered over the next one with the doors cut open to show the examples of “tired” and “wired” syllabus language underneath.  The literature provided in the middle provides some evidence for instructors moving toward learner-centered syllabi and more humanized course design.  Many participants reflected on the “tired” syllabus language as similar to the language in their own syllabus and noted that they had not really considered what their syllabi were communicating to their learners.  Which makes sense!  We also heard from many faculty and instructors who said their syllabi are inflexible due to requirements by their department, college, and university.  We, of course, considered a syllabus with all the required components (aligned professional preparations standards, state standards, university policies, etc) posted to the learning management system and then a learner-centered and/or co-created learning plan to direct the specific content for the course itself.  It also raises questions of academic freedom – particularly for tenured faculty but that’s for another post.

 The final panel invited participants to make note of what Ambitious Teaching means to them.  The words on the left say:

Dear faculty,

Are you preparing the next generation of early childhood educators and leaders? How long has it been since you critically examined your syllabi and teaching practices? Did you know, in contradiction to DEC leadership recommendations (L1, L4, L6, L8, L11), you may be widening the research to practice gap by making higher education – a place of evidence-based professional development – a hostile and unwelcoming environment?

Existing literature suggests that power relations and issues of expertise limit the extent to which faculty engage students in the design of their own learning and listen or respond to their needs (e.g. Mihans, Long, & Felton, 2008). In your work, examine and challenge the culture of higher education and the role of student-faculty interactions within and beyond the classroom. These interactions are crucial to the development of higher education students’ self-concept, motivation, and achievement (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010).

You can engage in critical conversations about the expectations placed upon pre-service practitioners. Through ambitious teaching, taking risks pedagogically and reconceptualizing teaching and learning for teachers and learners, you can facilitate dialogue around the extent to which the traditional “status-quo” of educator preparation truly teaches the behaviors we want to see.

Presume competence, rethink relationships, and trust the students you are preparing for the workforce.

Constructing a Learner-Centered Syllabus: One Professor’s Journey

Can a Learner-Centered Syllabus Change Students’ Perceptions of Student–Professor Rapport and Master Teacher Behaviors?

How are making your teaching ambitious?  We want Teaching Is Intellectual to be a space for ambitious teacher education.  For rethinking, reimagining, and redoing traditional (and largely ineffective) teaching and learning paradigms.  Tell us.  Let’s revolutionize teacher education together.

Fonts

A quick browse Teachers Pay Teachers is all the evidence you need that fonts are very popular.  In doing a little digging into the literature on the use of fonts and literacy learning and accessibility, I found some interesting facts.  I’ll post some resources here.

Retrieval-induced forgetting: evidence for a recall-specific mechanism

 

Simultaneous Renewal: An Inclusive Approach to Collaboration and Teaming

We have a new article out today.  I hope you’ll check it out!

Abstract:  Collaboration goes beyond direct service provision. It is critical for effective personnel preparation and professional development as well as high-quality program implementation to close the gap between research and practice in early childhood contexts. Simultaneous renewal provides a framework for continuity from teacher preparation, inclusive teaching practices, and professional development to engage all stakeholders in teaming processes that promote child outcomes and improve teacher practice simultaneously.

Individualized Education Programs

We’re kicking off a new series on IEPs!

Starting with the basics to ensure we have a mutual understanding of what IEPs are and are not.

The IEP is a legal document and every component of special education (beginning with the fact that it exists at all) comes through litigation and advocacy. We are accountable for the things we agree to and despite the fact that oversight and accountability is severely lacking, we, as professionals, must enter into IEPs with integrity and good faith.

IEPs are specific to the child. The tendency is to write goals (more on goal writing later) that are specific to the person responsible for the goal. So we have a “speech goal,” two “OT goals,” and two “academic goals.” We get it . . . BUT is that functional? Does speech operate in isolation from academics? Does OT matter if it isn’t applied to a skill of independence or context? The objective would be for us to build collaborative, functional, shared goals supporting the child’s access to the general curriculum.

Remember, an IEP is not a curriculum. It’s a plan for the services and supports the child needs to be success accessing the general curriculum. Yes, we offer adapted curriculum to some kids but an IEP in and of itself is not an adapted curriculum.

It’s also not a behavior plan.

When I teach IEPs, I have the students work through writing one on themselves. On their present levels, current needs, what supports and services would help them be successful. It helps to personalize the language we use, to focus on strengths, to shut down the deficit framing, because when it’s time to write one on a child, we need to see ourselves and the IEP as a support, not a fixer.

What questions do you have about IEPs?

We can’t get into goal writing without working on our PLAAFP/PLOP/PLP writing. All good goals start as clearly written PLAAFPs.

The words “functional performance” are important here. Working together as a team (WITH families) to ensure we’re addressing functional needs rather than isolated skills is truly the heart of the IEP.

I get lots of messages about how, yes, that’s ideal but not practical or what happens in practice. And I know. However, when we know better, we can do better and advocate for best practices. Here’s to the ones shaking it up out there!!

Lots of requests for goal writing strategies so we are working on some resources for that but in the meantime, what are IEP goals? Are they written for specific academic skills based on assessment data and deficits? Or are they written for providing the missing foundational skills the individual child needs to gain access to the curriculum? This is exactly why general ed teachers need to know about goals, IEP specific data collection, and accommodations and modifications. Supporting learners is all of our work!

This gives the IDEA charge for goals. The words here are important.

IDEA has four purposes. 1) equality of opportunity 2) full participation 3) independent living, 4) economic self sufficiency

It helps to keep the big picture in mind when writing goals.

More on this to come but for now, what have you found helpful in writing meaningful goals?

 

IDEA Disability Categories

Remember, we talked about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the 6 principles of IDEA.  Now, we’re going to add the legal definitions of each of the 13 disability categories with a little info for each.

 

 

 

Autism is considered a clinical diagnosis. It is determined by a team of qualified professionals generally including a developmental pediatrician, psychologists, and/or neurologists.

If learners present with communication impairments, difficulties in making and sustaining relationships, sensory sensitivities, repetitive or nonproductive motor movements, they may meet the eligibility criteria for autism.

Using terms like low functioning and high functioning communicate more about how the learner’s autism impacts those around them rather than how the learner with autism experiences their autism. Changing our language to reflect the amount of support learners need in specific areas is more beneficial in meeting the learner’s unique needs.

Some states/districts allow school assessment teams to make eligibility determinations of autism without a medical/clinical team assessment.

The needs of a learner with autism are unique to the child themselves. Presuming competence, using the child’s interests to provoke engagement, and putting the child’s strengths in the forefront are critical components of supporting and teaching kids with autism.

Deaf-blindness is considered a low incidence disability as about .03% of those served in special education are eligible under this category.

Approximately half of those .03% have Usher Syndrome. Each child has their own unique combination of hearing and vision loss. It’s not necessary to experience total vision and/or total hearing loss to be eligible in this category.

Strategies will utilize touch cues, assistive technology, Braille, screen readers, TDD with Braille, and more!

The American Association of the Deaf-Blind is an excellent resource!

Deafness is it’s own IDEA category – separate from hearing impairment because the strengths, needs, values, culture, interventions, and decisions of Deaf children are unique. Families engage in complex decision making when raising (D)deaf children and professionals must partner with families and honor their decisions and priorities in terms of language, medical interventions, and educational goals. 

 

Let’s take a look at this category carefully, shall we?

I know it’s wordy! It’s important to see the words included in the law’s definition – and those NOT included.

Emotional disturbance (ED) is an umbrella term. Many many medical and psychological diagnoses qualify for services and supports in this category. Anxiety disorders (🙋🏽‍♀️), eating disorders, depression, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, conduct disorders such as oppositional defiance disorder, and the rare childhood onset psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

This category is often overapplied in particular to black and brown children and to children living in poverty. The characteristics of children with ED (hoping this category is renamed very soon!) are characteristics exhibited by most children at points along the developmental continuum – the difference for learners with ED is the persistence over a long period of time.

We are challenged with considering the WHY before rushing to an ED determination. Highly qualified child psychologists and mental health experts are necessary partners in determining ED as a primary category.

This is an example of when educators wield great power over the lives of young children. We must be sure we are using that power for the good of the child focused on services and supports for the child’s success.

Why is hearing impairment its own category? Because hearing is COMPLEX!

There are a variety of ways in which hearing can be impaired – conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss, mixed, and central hearing disorders are all types of hearing loss.

And the extent to which a child’s education is impacted by their loss is complex and unique to the child!

Sound is measured by loudness (decibels) and frequency (hertz). Hearing impairment can occur in just one or both as well as in one or both ears. Do you know we have two ears to allow us to locate sound in space? Loss in one ear makes it very difficult to tell where sound is coming from!

Loss is described as slight, mild, moderate, severe, or profound based on how well a person can hear and differentiate sounds at intensities most common in speech.

Services and supports vary so never assume that one child with a hearing impairment who used an FM system means the next child with a hearing impairment will!

About 7% of kids receive services and supports under the category of intellectual disability. This (like all?!) category is also complicated because there are some genetic disorders, issues during pregnancy, birth complications, and health conditions that result in intellectual disabilities. Background information coupled with multiple means of assessment in cognitive and adaptive development provide the data necessary for eligibility in this category.

Developmental delay (or significant developmental delay in some states) provides an eligibility category to serve and support young kids before age 8-9. This gives time for loads of evidence based intervention before determination of an intellectual disability.

Due to the highly biased and problematic nature of intelligence testing (IQ tests), we have the responsibility to be aware of how kids may be underperforming on assessments for reasons unrelated to their cognitive abilities. Multiple means of assessment in a variety of modes and environments are critical. If we fail to provide a child with a highly qualified teacher and an evidence based curriculum, we cannot make a determination of ID.

Kids with intellectual disabilities can and want to contribute to and be a part of your classroom and school community. Meaningful inclusion is critical. Learn as much as you can about ID and about the individual learners in your classroom and school. Chunking, task analysis, and extended time for learning and engagement are just a few of the many strategies teachers use effectively with kids with ID. Partner with special educators to meaningfully support and include kids with intellectual disabilities in your classrooms and community. Everyone benefits when we do.

 When it’s not possible or reasonable to determine a primary eligibility criteria, IDEA gives us the “multiple disabilities” category. The key to this category is that the combination of two or more eligibility categories are causing the student to have significant educational needs.

Every single kid in this category is unique. This is an eligibility determination only. Now it’s time to learn about all the strengths and needs your learner has!

**story time**
When I was a first semester/first year faculty member in my very first tenure track position out of my doc program, I was teaching in an inclusive early childhood program. A colleague asked me to come in to her course and present on how to include “kids in wheelchairs and whatever.”

This is an extremely low incidence category for PK-12 because remember a couple of things. 1) the child’s education must be adversely affected by the disability. 2) we have ADA and Section 504 of the Rehab Act to cover environmental access issues and limitations 3) wheelchairs and walkers and standers and all the amazing accommodations we have available to give kids access to the curriculum, to their friends, and to their environment.
Less than 1% of kids receive services and supports under IDEA in this category. It is more frequently a concomitant category in the multiple disabilities category.

I asked the class how they would welcome and include a child who uses a wheelchair to access their world. They said the right things – ensure tables are the right height, adequate space between tables, accessible supplies, books, etc. Then I said physical inclusion is not meaningful inclusion and that disabilities that affect a child’s educational opportunities are rarely ones we can see. Ensuring every kid has access to their educational environment is only one of three critical components of inclusion (the other two are participation and supports).

It’s another umbrella term for a number of medical concerns and needs. This one is tricky because the diagnosis of one of the named disabilities or disorders does NOT ensure services and supports under IDEA (remember – it has to adversely affect the child’s education) AND a diagnosis other than the ones named within the law COULD result in services and supports under IDEA. Totally clear, right?

Let’s use ADHD as an example since we’re probably all familiar with it. Child is diagnosed with ADHD. Child is achieving as expected in school, on assessments, and showing adequate growth over time. Does the child qualify for services and supports under IDEA?

It’s usually not that easy but in this clean example, no. If the child needs more breaks, some environmental supports built in, a 504 plan is a better option. This child’s education is not adversely affected.

There are also medical diagnoses not stated that may fit under this category – mood disorders such as bipolar disorder. How do we determine if a mood disorder like bipolar disorder should be categorized under OHI or ED?

OHI allows us to serve and support kids who are experiencing a variety of health and medical needs. It does not mean we HAVE to qualify them under IDEA. Remember – adversely affects the child’s educational performance.

Say it again – adversely affects the child’s educational performance.

Speaking of umbrella terms . . .

First, specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

That last one is important.

There’s so much to say on SLD, more than we can say here, but know that the discrepancy model (significant difference between achievement and ability) is no longer used and that kids no longer need to fail in order to get support. Eligibility determination can be made through the RTI/MTSS process.

The lack of an appropriate evidence based curriculum or highly qualified teacher cannot be a determining factor in determining if a child has a SLD. Nor is learning English as a second language.

The word SPECIFIC is important too. When we say, “she has a learning disability” we are failing to communicate specific needs we can support. SLD is broad and encompassing category but kids served in this category have SPECIFIC learning and intervention needs.

Speech language impairment is the second most prevalent category under IDEA! (Do you know which is THE most prevalent?)

Communication is critical! No matter how kids do it – words, pictures, gestures, signs, apps, assistive technology, a mixture of all, communication is everything. Make your SLP your best friend and learn with them!

There is no right way to communicate. Whatever works for the child to get across their wants and needs, use it! Keep it always and readily available if it’s a device or a picture book. Not just for direct instruction or teaching time but always! Keep kids voices at their fingertips.

“Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma” (Sec 300.8(c)(12)

The key here is ACQUIRED. This category is specifically for kids who acquire brain injuries after birth. TBI range from mild to severe and the effects of the injury are unique to the individual.

Concussions are traumatic brain injuries.

Keep in mind that the emotional trauma of such an injury is also affecting the child. We can’t just focus on academic and behavioral supports but also emotional supports for navigating the world post-injury.

EVEN WITH CORRECTION

Kids served in this category account for less than 0.5% of kids receiving special education services and supports. It’s referred to as a “low incidence” disability because of how infrequently it occurs. This is important because if you are a teacher educator asking students to create modifications and/or accommodations for kids with specific disabilities and you use visual impairment, TBI, and a child who uses a wheelchair as your target children, you’re doing it wrong.

Kids with visual impairments, including blindness, have unique mobility and orientation needs and skills. Use your resources! Learn from mobility and orientation experts on how to set up your classroom routines in ways that include and support independence for your learner.

Additionally, visual impairments are widely variable – people experience vision in a variety of ways. So, again, teacher educators, stop using blindfold simulations and sighted guide simulations as that is ineffective and inaccurate in representing the experience of impaired vision.

Learn from the child and family! Ask! Ask more! Use color and shade and all the cool adaptations the mobility and orientation experts have available!

This is our 13th and final IDEA category. I know it hasn’t been super exciting but it’s critical we get this right. It’s the work of ALL educators to support and include kids with disabilities in our schools and communities.

What should we talk about next?

Make Parenting Great Again!

Parenting has changed, huh?

Let’s see . . . take me back . . . when was parenting “great”?  Was it in the early 1900s when kids were working, earning?  Was it before child labor laws and child welfare laws?  Was it when many kids didn’t persist past 8th grade?  When teachers were simply high school graduates themselves with no specialized training?  Was that the time we should aspire to return to?

Or was it post-WWII when families were adjusting to the industrialization of America and women in the workforce?  Or was parenting great when moms stayed at home in “traditional” gender roles with men coming home to dinner on the table and quiet children?  Is that your image of when parenting was great?  When we didn’t have compulsory education for all kids so many simply did not attend and no one cared?

Was parenting great in the 60s, 70s, 80s when kids like me were raised on TV, parents who smoked in the house and in the car, and largely ignored us?  We didn’t wear seat belts, no one read to us or played with us?  Yes, we left our house from sun up to sun down but do you have any idea what was happening to us when we were banned from our houses for that idyllic childhood you so romanticize?  Was that when parenting was great?

Remind me how parenting has changed for the worse?  Remind me when it was so great?  Families have ALWAYS struggled in this country.  Kids have long been neglected and abused.  Generational poverty and making ends meet is a struggle for far too many.

Now parents are TOO involved or not involved enough.  Very rarely just the right amount of involvement, apparently?  What motorized device are parents today?  Are they helicopters or lawnmowers?  Oh wait is it tiger?  It’s hard to keep all the categorizations of ways in which parents aren’t doing it right straight.  Maybe . . . just maybe . . . we could stop creating these flawed and insulting categories and start partnering with the families we have.

Don’t tell me parenting has changed.  It is incredibly hard to make it in this world and teachers, who are also working side hustles and second jobs to make ends meet, must be partners with families and communities.  We don’t make progress when we demonize each other.  Fight the systems.  Fight the policies.  Not each other.

Making Social/Emotional Education a Priority

The first year I taught kindergarten—my first year out of college—I had two classroom parents die.  Another child would barricade himself in the bathroom and refuse to leave when his parents arrived.  And I tried to restrain a five year old girl with a seated bear hug from behind only to have her drag me across the carpeted floor when she found out her father was being released from jail.  I started questioning my career choice.  Not because it was hard—it’s supposed to be hard.  I knew the hours they spent at school were the one constant in their lives. But what about the 22 year old who was standing in front of them?  Was I enough?  Could I be enough?

While the child who lost his mother chanted my name calling me an asshole from the office, I knew I couldn’t give up.  I didn’t have any answers. Heck, I didn’t even have a clue where to start.  All I knew was this:  these kids needed someone in their corner.  They needed someone to show up day after day and love them no matter what.

My own childhood was challenging.  Much like the kids I would teach years later, I was carrying secrets.  Big, emotional secrets.  Secrets and feelings that I couldn’t understand or share as an adult.  How could I expect the children in front of me put words to what was happening in their lives.

I wish I could say I changed things that day.  I wish I could say I made things better for the kids in my class.  I know I tried.  But I didn’t have the experience, the education, or the tools my first year.  Not the second year or the third year either.  Let’s be honest.  It’s been 20 years and I’m still finding my way.

The educational powers that be have felt it necessary to push curriculum standards on our youngest learners.  I have a notebook of standards my littles are expected to learn.  None of them have to do with the social/emotional learning they need most.

If we are going to make school a safe place for our students, we have to start with making it a place where they and talk and explore freely.  Children don’t come to school knowing how to do this.  These skills have to be taught.  These skills have to be modeled.  Time has to be given to our students to practice these skills.

Social/emotional understanding and education has always been important to me, but it became the focus of my classroom two years ago.  There has been a tremendous difference in my kids.  Below are some of the changes I made in my classroom.

–Classroom Meetings Daily.  Classroom meetings have been a part of our school-wide anti-bullying program for years.  The requirement was once a week.  My class has a meeting daily.  It’s a chance for us to check in on the day.  Was there something I missed?  We also role play situations they may encounter, learning to put words with what we are feeling and what we can do to control feelings, yell and tell, putting a lid on feelings while we get help,–the list goes on and on.

–Worry Jar.  I tell my kids it is my job to worry, their job to be kids.  If they have a worry, let’s work it out together.  I introduce the worry jar early.  We each add our fingerprints to the jar as does the principal.  The worry jar stays on the shelf with a stack of post-it notes.  If a kiddo has a worry, they put their name in the jar and I meet with them privately.  There are a lot of “my dog is home alone” kind of worries to test the jar, but I take them all seriously.  The goal is for them to feel like someone is there to listen.

–Good Bye Morning Meeting/Calendar Time.  I am not a morning person.  It takes a lot for me to get to school and be ready.  How can I expect all my little learners to be ready just because the schedule says they should be?  The kids come in, put their things away, and go do their own thing for 15 minutes.  Some chose to play with toys.  Some color or look at a book.  Some chat with a friend.  And some sit by their cubbies trying to wake up.  In that time, I get to greet them all individually, look in their eyes, and observe them for behavior that may be out of the ordinary for each individual child.  It is also another opportunity for the kids to tell me all the things important to them.

–Cubby Décor.  Most of my littles spend the majority of their waking hours at school.  At back to school open house or the first day of school, I give my kids a picture frame.  Their “homework” is to take it home and put a photo or a picture they draw in it.  That is how we identify their cubby for the rest of the year.  I get pictures of families, pets, favorite things, etc.  They are also allowed to bring a small stuffed animal to keep at school.  Having a little bit of home means a lot to the kids.  It is also another tool I can use to monitor the kids’ emotions.  If they are spending more time at their cubbies looking at their family photo or cuddling their stuffy, I know I need to check in with them.

–Open Door Time.  We team teach kindergarten at my school. The two kindergarten classrooms have a connecting door.  Each day for 15-20 minutes, we have open door time.  The kids get to choose which room they want to be in and what activities they want to explore.  So much of school is what we as teachers plan.  Open door time is the kids’ time to explore, experiment, and let us know what their interests are.

–“I Love You and Think You Are Wonderful!”  One day, completely out of the blue, I told my kids I had a very important announcement.  They stopped what they were doing.  The words “I love you and think you are wonderful!” came out of my mouth.  From that day forward, I have made sure I have said it every day.  It’s become my tagline.  The kids act like they are embarrassed or annoyed.  They tell me they already know that or that I say it every day.  But every single face has a smile on it at that moment.  I also say these words to them individuals when they need to hear it the most.  After they have gotten in trouble, if they are having a rough day, or just missing mom.

–End of the Day Meeting.  At the end of the day, we all come together as a kindergarten community.  I check in with them about their days.  This is another opportunity for the kids to tell me about concerns or problems I may have missed.  We look for solutions as a group.  Then we talk about the best parts of our day and write it on the calendar.  Some days, this meeting goes quickly.  Some days it takes time.  Either way, the kids have come to depend on this part of the day.

–End of the Day Homework.  It’s a very simple reminder to all of us (including me) that kindness matters.  Their homework is to “Smile a lot.  Laugh a lot.  Give lots of hugs. And share your joy with the world.”  While this simple phrase is one that I blurted out over five year ago when a little boy was begging me for homework, it is one that has stuck.

These ideas are nothing new.  They are simple things teachers have been doing for years.  But for me, putting them altogether has caused me to slow down and focus on the kids in front of me in ways I wasn’t before.  Academics are still important.  Standards are still being met.  But now we are building a community in my classroom.  One where everyone is accepted, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone gets to learn from those mistakes.  Above everything else, it is a community where everyone is loved.

Tagging Parents for Summer

First, it is super to debut a guest post on TII. This work matters and is changing conversations for education and ambitious teachers.

“Tag Parents, You’re It.”

It is probably already, or otherwise soon approaching, summer for your students. While the hugs and tears and genuine statements of pride and hope are all present at this time of year, we must talk about something that is innocently NOT compassionate: “Tag! Parents, you’re it.” (also seen as “Tag, parents – Your turn.” or, on t-shirts, as “Dear Parents, Tag…You’re it. Love, Teachers.”).

T-shirt

I get it. You’re tired and ready for a margarita by the pool (because that is what teachers do during the summer, right?) but when you use/retweet/say this phrase you perpetuate a normative family, a lack of empathy, the de-professionalization of teaching, and that children are burdens in educator’s lives. Let us take a look closer at each of these messages.

  1. The normative family.

Embedded in the phrase is the loaded assumption that children go home to parents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 69% of children live with two parents, 27% with one (23% are single mothers, the others fathers). That means that about 4% of our students have other household arrangements – grandparents, aunts/uncles, neighbors, foster parents, etc. Note here, also, that this doesn’t even scratch the surface of family diversity in terms of what “both parents” looks like (e.g. adoptive parents, same-sex parents, emerging families) or the actual presence of adults in the household (e.g. working multiple jobs, health, homelessness, vulnerabilities).

  1. Lack of empathy.

Summer is tough for many children and families. About 21% of children live below the federal poverty threshold with 41% of those under 18 considered living in “low income families” (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2018). It is a great privilege if students can attend camps, go on vacation, or, more simply, have an available caretaker at home. At a bare minimum, we have to consider the implications of summer and added stress on parents to provide breakfast and lunch that was being provided by school: the number of children living in food insecure households (due to cost, proximity, and/or other resources) ranges from 8.5% to 20.8% in states across America (Household Food Security in the United States, 2015; Map the Meal Gap, 2016).

  1. The de-professionalization of teaching.

With teacher strikes and BAT groups rising, it is clear that it makes educators mad when others don’t take teaching seriously. It angers many of us when the “Those who can’t, teach.” statements are seen or heard. At the same time, though, there are so many versions of “anybody can teach” that get promoted all the time, like this. Families aren’t always equipped with the knowledge and resources to simply continue “school” throughout the summer. They can’t just be “tagged” for the job. That takes dedication and hard work on the part of educators to partner with families and support them in efforts to continue academic and social development at home. The phrase basically says, “Poof! My job is your job now.” without supplementing it with suggestions to families for active learning, continued practice, and reading and educational opportunities overs summer (although, return to #1 about the assumption about families to determine whether they have the time and resources to do this even when suggested).

  1. Children are burdens.

This one seems fairly self-explanatory, but I will partially flesh it out anyway. Tagging families because you are ready to wash your hands clean from the year suggests that you are tired of your students and ready for them to leave. Aren’t you sad? Aren’t you going to miss them? Does all the joy and learning they brought to you throughout the year get outweighed by your desire to kick them out of your classroom door? And while we’re at it, the phrase also indicates that the 6.5 hours that teachers are spending with children is equivalent to 24 hours a day they spend at home. Remember during the school year, families guard, care for, and exchange with them the other 17 hours and weekends: teachers are not parenting, they are not your children

At this point, I wonder how many have said, “Sheesh, it’s just a joke, of course I love and will miss my group of students and value families.” But, we have to mean it and we have to follow it in every facet of our teaching and in every post and comment we make. Deleting these phrases is akin to banding together to say that calling people “gay” or “retarded” is reprehensible.

So, next time you feel compelled to chuckle at or post “Tag parents, you’re it!” as your students are on their way into June, replace it by checking in with those without available adults, acknowledging the challenges summer presents, providing support for continued learning, and remembering how lucky you have been to share the lives of 17 (or 20, or 25, or 35, or 150) children all year.