Category Archives: Master’s Project

When Students with Special Needs are in Trouble

The House with the Cracked Walls (1892-94) Paul Cezanne

Snippets of conversations I’ve had, in person and digitally, with students over the past seven days:

“Mrs. Lee, can I turn in my classwork handwritten because I’ve been sleeping in my car and I don’t have internet access.”

A comment on Google Classroom over the weekend:

A senior dropping out of high school with only three weeks remaining, “Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do because I have no motivation.”

The Call for Help

While working as a teacher in the Special Education department is extremely rewarding, it can alternately be devastating and depressing.  There are nights that I can’t sleep because I’m worried for my students. Not the typical English teacher concerns: Johny-Didn’t-Turn-In-His-Homework, but will my students have a safe, healthy and happy life?

A friend of mine recently blogged about sexual assaults on female students called “But Did We Teach Them to Self Advocate?”  This provides me with two reminders.  First, every teacher in every classroom USA deals with student tragedy.  Secondly, many of my students, even at the high school level, cannot self-advocate.  In fact, more than half of the IEPs I’ve read in my lifetime in this profession have some sort of goal related to self-advocacy.

Two weeks ago, a student with autism came to school early to talk to me about an argument he had with his mom. The student said, “She said I’d go to Hell if I don’t get over my anger.”  This is an example of an 11th grade student with autism, who is struggling to pass English, Geometry, US History, etc., who is simultaneously walking around the school maintaining the belief that he can go to Hell which, in his mind, is probably a fiery pit full of of demons.  While this example is not comparable to the student who sleeps in a car, this belief is debilitating for him and he is unable to emotionally handle this situation.

How to Respond

Over the years, I have learned that there are two basic, but vital steps involved in helping students who are in trouble.  If you do both of these steps, you will help the student, and sometimes be able to sleep at night.

Listen

The first step is to truly hear the specific student when s/he is revealing a problem to you.  For most kids, if they reported a family member said they might go to hell, I would acknowledge their emotional resilience and know this was not a true crisis.  For a student with autism, when words are taken literally, and when the student repeats the words over and over, this can cause a breakdown.

The most important part of this step is just that –listen and hear the student in front of you. Oftentimes, we want to give advice and suggestions. Don’t.  You are not an expert in handling student crisis, nor the student’s parent.

Connect the Student with an Expert

You have to know who the experts at your school are, so that you can connect the student with qualified assistance.  Does your school have DIS counseling? Does your school have a social worker, or someone who can connect the student with a social worker? All too often, we as teachers don’t know about a program or contact at our school until a situation arises and we need to find out that information.  If you are not sure what to do or whom to contact, speak to other teachers; speak to a special education teacher because we have resources and contacts on speed dial; speak to your supervisor.  Investigate what programs and contacts your school has available to you and your students.

At the same time, each school has what I call ‘hidden’ resources-  the person in the attendance office who collects backpacks and clothes for kids who need them, the person in the nurse’s office who collects funds to buy food for families going through a rough patch, etc. We are so lucky to work in schools where there are always an abundance of caring people who help out in ways we sometimes never know about until we need to know.

I love working as a Special Education teacher because I work to develop relationships of trust with students.  Due to this, many students will come and share their problems.  While I can’t solve their problems, or make them go away, I can always listen and connect them with someone that can truly help them.  By doing this, most nights anyway, I can go to sleep.

Share

#LABookFest Take-Aways

Luis J. Rodriguez 22 April 2017
Poetry is Magic

“Books saved my life” is the quote that stands with me after watching Luis J. Rodriguez read from his new poetry book, Borrowed Bones.  My students have always read books from Rodriguez. At first, it was kids from foster homes that gravitated to the Rodriguez biography, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L. A. But now, you could walk in and find any variety of students reading the first biography, or It Calls You Back.  As for myself, I’ve only read a couple of his poetry books: The Concrete River and My Nature is Hunger: New and Selected Poems 1989-2004.

Rodriguez is personable and he writes with a realism that can make you laugh, or feel the twist of a blade. Though I’ve had so many students read his books, though his book is so often stolen from libraries by kids who might also be able to say: A book saved my life, there were very few people out in the morning to see the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles share his work.  Regardless, he told stories as if he was among friends that he hadn’t seen in a long time.

Continue reading #LABookFest Take-Aways

Share

Did I Just Say That? A Review of Triggers in the Classroom

“No one should be talking!” Have you ever heard these words come out of your mouth?  “Oooh! Ooooh! Pick me! Pick me!” teacher hand waving wildly in the air.  I call it: adopting the Teacher Tone and it’s something that tends to happen to me a bit more towards the end of the year. I turn into that crazy-manic teacher who says things that I’d never want said to me. But why, after all of these years, does it still happen?  Now seems like a perfect time to review triggers, and ask: How do you know you’re creating a culturally responsive and inclusive environment?

Continue reading Did I Just Say That? A Review of Triggers in the Classroom

Share

Self Reflection: How am I Creating a Student Centered Classroom?

Is it because I’m an SDC teacher that I have sweat-inducing, heart-stopping, nightmare-inspiring thoughts whenever I consider releasing control to the students in the classroom?  Or is this a common, yet-named teacher illness that should have its own label as defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?  Regardless of the answers to the above questions, it has always been my experience that when I release control (and dive into the abyss of unknown outcomes), the results are always better than anything I could have planned.  As I rewatched a Ted Talk from a few years ago (I’ll post it at the end of the blog), I wondered how I consistently try to create a student-centered classroom.

Continue reading Self Reflection: How am I Creating a Student Centered Classroom?

Share

CrossFit Teacher Planning and Grading

3 o’clock Teacher

Have you ever watched enviously while some teachers march to the parking lot shortly after the bell rings, but you have a metaphorical stack of internet paperwork to complete? Do you promise yourself every summer you’re not going to spend your weekends planning awesome lessons–that magically it will happen during the week? Do you promise yourself at the beginning of every school year that you are going to have a consistent fitness plan and healthy social life during the work week? Do you promise yourself every year you are going to read for pleasure EVERY night?

It doesn’t matter how many promises I make, I break them all and eventually I end up frustrated.  A couple of weeks ago I came up with a plan to help me maintain some of my committments.

Continue reading CrossFit Teacher Planning and Grading

Share

A Teacher’s Philosophy on Professional Writing: The Abstract for my Master’s Project

Using primary sources at the Folger’s Institute Research Library to develop lesson plans.

Teacher Blogs: The Next Generation of Collaboration

Establishing and maintaining a professional teacher blog enables teachers to publish, reflect, share, collaborate, and enrich their professional presence. While publishing has long been the standard for university professors, secondary teachers do not have the same expectations placed upon them. Primarily, this is due to time constraints, but the result is that secondary teachers do not always remain current in their field. To this point, a weekly writing practice can enable teachers to stay engaged and relevant in their particular field of study in regards to pedagogy and current research. Arguably, blogging may be a less time-consuming way to publish content and begin a professional conversation that extends beyond the walls of one school. At the same time, blogging enables teachers to understand writing for a purpose and for an audience, which increases credibility when insisting on the same from students. Since reflection is one of the most important aspects of improving one’s teaching practice, the blog seems like an essential tool for every teacher. Finally, in an environment of questionable evaluation procedures for teachers, a teacher blog enables the teacher to highlight successes in the classroom and demonstrate his/her teaching pedagogy instead of being limited to one or two observations a year. I plan to utilize my teacher blog in a number of ways:

Create a dialogue for secondary Special Day Teachers about issues that aren’t addressed anywhere else. For example, when I searched for a community of special education teacher blogs as resources, I found multiple detailed blogs for the primary grades, and moderate to severe classroom teachers. Lacking in representation is the voice of the SDC teachers at the high school level who teach common core standards to students with learning disabilities, or other eligibilities that impede progress in the general education classroom.

Share and reflect on teaching practices. While there are many issues that surround SDC teachers at the secondary level, in the end, what happens in the classroom – the experience and growth of the students – is of primary concern, just like any other teacher.

Read and write about current research in special education. Probably more than any other area of secondary education, the practices and pedagogy are researched and constantly changing. Due to the on-going paperwork involved with being a case-carrier (though I know the importance of being knowledgeable of current practices and research), this is probably the area of most potential growth in my on going development as a special educator. Therefore, my goal is to utilize the blog to create a mini annotated bibliography that is updated once a month with specific peer reviewed articles. While I should be reading more, this is a plan to begin the process.

Maintain a focus on potential interventions for both reading and writing at the secondary level. One of the struggles for English SDC teachers is trying to teach content and skills that lead to a high school diploma to students who read and write significantly below grade-level. For those who are not special education teachers, “significantly below grade level” is realistically defined as students who do not read above the primary grades. While all teachers have students who struggle with reading and writing, there is a spotlight on SDC teachers who have to teach content, but also miraculously and simultaneously increase the Lexile levels of all students.

Increase my professional online presence. The majority of my shifts in teaching practices have occurred through participating in online mediums and engaging with other teachers. This ability and opportunity has benefitted my students and me and allowed the English teacher part of me to flourish. Eventually, I would love for the special education side of me to likewise be inspired and cultivated through a sense of community and support.

While there may not be current research on the importance of blogging for secondary teachers, I will use this blog to argue that writing professionally in your field is essential to maintain relevancy in current teaching methodologies.

 

Share

Use CLASSROOM as an Acronym to Think About Student Environment

 

Reading Culture

This is my husband’s favorite story from last week:

Two students are working on their fairy tale research project.

K. says, “How do you spell your name?”

M spells it out.

K responds, “I thought your name was Student M.”

And M says, “It is. In every other class.  In here, my name is M.”

My husband likes this story because he says I’ve created a comfortable space for students to be themselves.

Creating the classroom environment is arguably one of the most important tasks a teacher must do before any students can engage in learning outcomes. As teachers, we spend a large portion of the day in this room and students come to love walking through the door (or hopefully, not the reverse).  Over time, one’s ideas shift and this is mirrored in the classroom. Here are my current thoughts on how to create an effective and safe learning environment in the SDC English classroom.

C-Cultivate a Routine

Over the years, I have found that the best classroom management strategy is to have a routine that the students understand.  This is comforting.  Obviously, I change how things are done, but it is in a structure that the students can then tackle.

L-Look for Moments to Connect

I know, I just said that routine is the most important strategy, but now I’m saying that connecting to students is your number one job in the classroom; otherwise, why teach? Initially, I thought this would be challenging because each year the students seem to get younger, and I light one more candle on that vegan cake.  But the secret is: be present and see who is in front of you.

One student comes to mind as the perfect exemplar.  A fashion diva, he reminds me of Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote at a New York soiree.  When I commented on his Guns ‘N Roses t-shirt one day, he ever-so-patiently explained, “Mrs. Lee, it’s fashion.” Now I’ll tell him stories about Axl Rose and he’ll sigh-in-dramatic-fashion, “I thought he was dead.” This is a very small moment, but in the day of a student, I’ve read that sometimes a teacher, throughout the ENTIRE day, may never say the student’s name.

A-Anticipate Problems with Assignments and Technology

Almost every time I’ve planned to show a video–there has been some technical problem.   Either the internet is down at that moment and it won’t stream, or I can’t get the subtitles to work for my students who are deaf and hard of hearing, or the bulb in the Smart board goes out; there’s always something.  If students have in their mind that they are watching a video, you can’t simply turn around and say,”Well, it looks like it’s time to write our three-paragraph-in-class-timed-writing-response to August Wilson.  If there is a chance that something can go wrong, have a back-up plan that is EQUALLY engaging to the students!

S-Supply Engaging Content that Allows Students Control

I think this is one of those Giant Hairy Scary rules that teachers may not actually do for a couple of years.  It takes time to learn HOW to give the students control of their learning, but a prerequisite goes back to Looking for Moments to Connect and knowing your students.

S-Supplement Student Interest by Allowing Choice

At first glance, this may look like a repeat of the above, or that I have become lazy with my acronym.  However, not all students understand content in the same manner; therefore, it only makes sense to restate that not all students should produce the same end product.

R-Reward Desired Behavior

As a teacher of students with special needs, I constantly have to remind myself that positive behavior support is the best prescription to keep classroom management as close to the only-in-my-head “dream classroom” that I want for myself and my students.

I think every teacher has that ONE class that makes her challenge everything she knows to be true about teaching in high school.  I have one almost every year.  This year, the students were piling in just as the bell rang and there was this playful bantering bouncing around the room.  I knew if I tried to start the independent reading, it would be unsuccessful and I would only end up frustrated.  As I stood in front of the class, I said, “It looks like everyone needs 5 minutes talk-time.” A student responded, “For real? Yes, I kind of do.” So I set a timer for five minutes and the students talked.  When the timer went off, we started class and everyone got what they needed that day.

O-Omit Negative Comments!!!
O-Observe Behavior and Make a Plan

I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching, there will always be one or two students who find ways to get to you.  I have one of those quick minds that instantly thinks of five things to blurt out when a student engages in whatever the behavior is that I don’t like in the classroom.  Instead, I don’t say anything.  I talk to friends and other teachers the student has–or maybe a counselor.  I make a plan.  I stick to the plan.  If the plan doesn’t work, I make a new one.  Behavior specialists always say that all behaviors serve a purpose and I have found this to be true.  The only way to understand why a behavior is happening, is to observe it and understand it.

M-Make Learning Fun

Finally, the end result, if you can create the ideal classroom environment, learning will be fun and it will (look) effortless!

Writing Desk

Running a PD? Think of using the CLASSROOM acronym and have teachers pair-up and create their own classroom culture.  Sometimes we get so bogged down with testing, grading, and implementing new curriculum, that we forget the most important aspects of the job!

What’s important to you when creating a classroom environment?

 

Share

Writing for the Sake of Writing

Vincent van Gogh: Corridor in the Asylum
Writing for the Sake of Writing

As I get lost in Corridor in the Asylum, by Vincent van Gogh, knowing that the artist sent this drawing to his brother, Theo, as a record of his surroundings, I can’t help but connect the image as a personal mind-mirror, as a realistic representation of what it feels like to be a new blogger. I’ve read on various blogs that it can take one-to-two years for you to build an audience.  One-to-two years!!!  In a world where social media brings instant likes, comments, smiley-faces, and a feeling of-hey, someone-is-paying-attention-to-you, time becomes a labyrinth, an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole of self-doubt that resurrects the five-headed-inner-editor-monster that hibernates in us all.

Despite the expert knowledge of all of those who’ve blogged before me, knowing that people are not ready to consume every hyphenated description I write, some other creature inside of me is excited and aspires to write.  Yesterday morning, as I did my Twitter scroll, @KellyGtoGo tweets:

In an argument for teachers to resist prescriptive writing and allow for and encourage personal reflection as part of the classroom experience,  Cindy O’Donnell-Allen begins her thoughtful article by writing, “I was a closet writer from an early age. In the second grade I wrote a poem for my classmate Patrick O’Neal, who sat alone everyday on the playground, but I didn’t give it to him” (The Atlantic).  Similarly, in my early elementary school years, I was a professional Cat Detective who, with a notebook, tracked the neighborhood cats, and wrote avidly about my adventures.  Writing was something fun, something I chose to do, without an assignment.

What does this mean and how does it impact me?
  1. Teachers need a chance to develop a new writing pedagogy.  O’Donnell-Allen wrote her article in part to promote the benefits of the National Writing Project as a life-long opportunity of professional development for teachers, by teachers, to create meaningful writing experiences for teachers.  I’ve participated in the Cal State Northridge Writing Project with @KathleeRowlands, and since the training I’ve had countless opportunities to write, collaborate, and commune with teachers from a variety of grades, contents, and locations.
  2. Sometimes we have to write for ourselves, first.  I had planned to write a more ‘academic’ post, since this blog is my Master’s Project, but I sat for nearly an hour at a coffee shop, neither drinking my soy-white-mocha-burn-my-tongue-off-hot, nor writing.  My planned blog title, “Blogging as PD? TBD” might still appear one day, I just couldn’t do it today.
  3. Writing is joyful!  I started this blog talking about how long it takes to build an audience, and yet, that is not what motivates me to write consistently.  I write because I’ve always written.  I write because I love to create.  And who knows, it may be time to bring back the Cat Detective!

    Cat Detective takes on the case of Ophelia and Desdemona
Share