If You Give A Student A Strategy

You know what is amazing? The fact that there are like literally a million ways to teach addition to second graders. Today’s students can pick and choose which way makes sense to them and run with it! Granted, it would have been nice to have been taught these strategies when I was a second grader- or better yet, in college where I thought I was learning how to be a teacher. But regardless of my saltiness, this multitude of addition strategies is great for my two math classes because of all of the different leveled learners that are in the mix.

Want to know what sucks? When students do not pick up on any of the millions of ways that you teach them to add. You cover one strategy one day, practice it for a day or two, move to the next strategy, practice it, and so on. By the end of a two-week period, your students have an abundance of ways to approach an addition problem and they have supposedly been practicing addition for two weeks. And then one graded worksheet proves you all wrong.

So you do what all good teachers do in this imaginary utopia school with scheduled RTI time, and you pull the student aside to work with him one-on-one to find where the missing piece of the puzzle is. And you work out problems using different strategies that you think would work well with the student: Base-10 Blocks. Make a Ten. Big Fat Head. Compensation… Nothing. You tell him, “try and work out a few problems on your own,” because you are frustrated and low on coffee. And that’s when that one student who thinks she’s actually a teacher steps in to take your place. You let her because you’re getting coffee.

Magic happens. You hear the struggling student start to comprehend. HE GETS IT. And although it sounds humanly impossible, you are simultaneously so proud to be their teacher and so pissed because you have no clue what that student/teacher girl just did to make it all click.

So once again, you do what all good teachers do and you check the worksheet right then and there because 1) students need immediate feedback and 2) administration is watching to see if you monitor and adjust. Sure enough, the previously struggling student understands.

It turns out that he did use a strategy. It just happens to be called “Hudsyn’s Way.” Not featured in any textbook, but still effective.

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Watering Flowers

Today was one of the days that I could have cried because my students are so incredibly precious.

Way back during week one of school, I showed off all of the plants in my classroom to my second graders, explaining to them that they will be able to water them when needed. More than that, I used this illustration with them:

These plants are all different and unique. My cacti do not need much water at all- I can water them on Mondays and they would be fine for the rest of the week! But some of the other flowers need more water. Different plants need more sunlight than others too! But no matter what the plants need, I give it to them because I want my plants to grow and be beautiful and to blossom.

The same is with you! All of you are like little flowers; some require a little bit of water, and others need all of the water you can get. I can give some students ten different math activities and they would be able to do all ten without ever asking for help- and that is great because it will help them grow. Others will need help getting through every math activity, and that is great too because you will be learning every step of the way! But no matter which type of student you are, it is my job to give you what you need. I will help you when you need help because I am you teacher, just like I water the flowers when they need water. And just like my plants, each of you will grow and grow and become more and more beautiful everyday.

Pretty clever right? I thought so… The best part is that when I am helping a student and the class starts to get out of control, I do not have to say “Please be quiet while I help this student…” Rather, I simply tell the class “Guys, I am watering a flower right now,” and they just know! They quiet down immediately!

So what is it about all this that nearly brought me to tears? Today I looked up to see one little second grade girl helping a boy who has been falling behind. It was not even class time, rather, it was time typically spent coding on our chromebooks. But my students know to make up any missed assignments or homework before logging into their computers, and one student VOLUNTEERED her laptop time to assist another student with his makeup work. I had no idea what was even happening until it was almost over! I heard a couple of students counting by tens, and looked up to see her hovering over his shoulder as he corrected problems that he previously had missed. She was not giving answers or doing the work for him, but she was the water and sunlight that he needed in that moment. I winked at her as she continued to help him through his math strategies.

After he turned in the assignment and logged into his laptop, she came to my desk and said “Ms. Simmons, I water a flower this morning!”

Yeah you did baby… You watered two.

“…but I AM doing my math.”

It’s a Tuesday. It’s not even 9am. It’s the day after the solar eclipse. I woke up late this morning for work, and my students left all memories of the classroom rules and procedures at their houses apparently.

As I walk around my classroom, Starbucks in one hand and an Expo in the other, I try my hardest to act as if I know what I am supposed to be teaching today. My students are currently learning to code on their chromebooks, coloring their back-to-school packet, or finishing their assignments from days prior so I can finally take a grade. Beverly* is one of my girls in the latter group; she lost the work I needed to grade, so I am pressuring her to finish before she switches classes. It is basic addition facts, nothing too hard or fancy for second grade math.

With nineteen students all doing different morning work, it was hard at times to keep track of who needed a laptop, who was simply coloring, and who owed me assignments. After all, I woke up late and was therefore only on my first cup of coffee. But as a passed by Beverly, I noticed her playing with crayons under her desk rather than adding the numbers on the worksheet on her desk. “BEVERLY!” I tap on her desk with my Expo. “Beverly. Babe. You do not need your crayons for this. You do need to finish though!”

I thought I was being such a good teacher by redirecting. Teachers are always being taught to monitor and adjust, monitor and adjust. Boom- I saw Bev become distracted, so I redirected her. Go me. Only that’s not the case at all.

“…but I AM doing my math,” I hear from my precious seven year old.

One part of me knows it’s just another excuse. One part of me decides to listen.

I look over to Beverly to see her holding crayons in each hand. “Look. 8+6=14” She counts the eight crayons in one hand, and the six crayons in the other, making fourteen.

I immediately hate myself for being that teacher that scolds the students without knowing the story. Throughout the first week of school, all I talked about was how my classroom is a safe place and a community of different learners, yet here I am telling a student to put away the tools which she is using to learn. 

School is all about learning, and most people get that. What people don’t get is that learning doesn’t always look the same. And for Beverly, learning involved her crayons.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Autism

Annotated notes from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength- Based Strategies to Help Student with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Part 5: Chapter 4: Pages 70-91

“Some guy with high-functioning Asperger’s developed the first stone spear, it wasn’t developed by those social ones yakking around the campfire.” Temple Grandin

Autism holds a special place in my heart. Watching the self-named movie of Temple Grandin’s life was what made me 100% sure that I wanted to become a special education teacher. The spectrum is intriguing  and the gifts that some possess are so magnificent. I am privileged to work with a few children who are on the spectrum, so I have had the opportunity to learn hands-on. With that being said, know that this post is much different from the others: it is composed of information from Armstrong’s book, Grandin’s speech which I was able to recently attend in my hometown, textbook information from school, and experiences I have learned from and witnessed first- hand.

Autism affects more boys than girls (roughly 1:88 children, 1:54 boys). Ironically, autism is also characterized by traits that are primarily male. Women tend to be empathizers, whereas men tend to be systemizers: “individuals who may not relate well to people, but who love to engage with systems such as machines, computer programs, mathematical equations, drawings, or languages: (Armstrong p73). The thing that makes the autistic systemizing characteristic different from a typical male characteristic is that those affected take systemizing to the extreme: they obsess. I want to point out that although the word obsess/ obsession typically has negative connotations, it shouldn’t when discussing autism. These obsessions are what give us the savants– the ones you see and hear about doing crazy math problems, drawing cities from a short tour, and playing classical pieces after hearing them once.

There are many times when parents of those on the spectrum will try to take the child away from whatever he or she may be fixated on to expose them to something new. Or, teachers may not care or take into consideration what the student with autism is interested in. While exposure to new concepts and objects is great for any child, these guardians and other adults must realize that playing into the child’s obsession can bring great benefits: “The study found that students’ involvement in their special interest areas was correlated with improvements in their social, communication, emotional, sensory, and fine motor skills” (Armstrong p79).

Autism causes people to be more detail oriented rather than seeing the picture as a whole. This aids them in their systemizing.

Essentially, people with ASD are “Where’s Waldo” experts: They’re able to pick out seemingly irrelevant details that others miss. This ability has led to some researchers to suggest that individuals with autism experience what has been termed “weak central coherence”- that is, they fail to grasp the whole situation and perceive mainly the constituent parts. But that is a deficit- oriented way of putting things. A more positive way of saying the same thing is that individuals with autism possess “strong local analysis”- or what some researchers refer to as enhanced perceptual functioning. Armstrong p72

Because those on the spectrum are so detail oriented, many professionals, including Grandin, suggest a highly visual classroom and curriculum rather than teaching everything orally. Small shifts in teaching styles such as the use of visual aids can make a tremendous difference.

Autism affects more than just the way people see details or whether or not they systemize; it also affects their social skills. This is why many with autism relate better to robots, machinery, and animals rather than other people. Thankfully, social media has been an aid in this area because there are less nonverbal cues. However, educators need to keep in mind that communication is difficult for those on the spectrum, and therefore integrating interactions and group work into the classroom can be challenging but also a blessing. If social interaction do not come naturally, group work may be one of the only forms of communication that those with autism receive on a daily basis. Teachers must also remember to model verbal and nonverbal cues and gestures, since these too may not come naturally to those on the spectrum.

While attending the conference in which Grandin spoke, I remember conversing with others who had listened to hear in years prior. They mentioned how much more advanced her speeches and demeanor had become. In the past, Grandin would be speaking and say something that the audience found humorous without even realizing it. The audience would laugh and she would not know why. Now, she tells jokes and funny incidents or life experiences and expects a laugh from the audience.

The thing that sets Temple Grandin apart from others on the spectrum is of course her success; but she would not have been near as successful had it not been for her support system. The adults around Grandin throughout her life saw potential in her. Armstrong quotes on page 81 of his book “‘We can see in the autistic person, far more clearly than with any other normal child, a predestination for a particular profession from the earliest of youth’ (quoted in Frith, 1991, p45).” Your students with autism will be different. They will think differently and process senses differently. They will communicate in their own unique way. They will want schedules, want to be alone, and want to rock, swing, hum, or even flap their arms. But if you work with the student, you can set them up for the same amount of success that Grandin had. And what good teacher wouldn’t want that for their student?

Thanks for reading. Much love

AléMae

ADHD: Teacher vs Student

Annotated Notes from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength- Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Part 4: Chapter 3: Pages 48-69

ADHD: a liability or an asset? That will depend on 1) who you ask, and 2) the type of environment. Did you know that having the characteristics of ADHD may have actually been a benefit in prehistoric times?

An individual out in the wild needed to have relatively quick motor activity (hyperactivity) in order to forage for food, find shelter quickly, and attend to other important tasks. He also needed to rapidly shift his attention from one stimulus to another (distractibility), so that he could scan the environment for signs of predators and other potential threats. Finally, he had to be able to respond quickly to his instincts (impulsivity) in order to meet whatever threats he encountered from animals, humans, weather, or other dangers. Armstrong, p50

Yet, any student with ADHD in the public school system today could tell you endless stories of how a teacher (if not multiple teachers) has scolded them for being distracted themselves, distracting to others, or for not paying attention. Some teachers go as far as to publicly ask of they have medicine, or if they have taken their medicine. They have been punished for their ADHD, often times having to sit out of recess or other activities.

Can I take a moment to talk about that last point? WHO. THE. HECK. IS. THAT. HELPING? Students with ADHD are hyperactive; hence the “H” in ADHD. Therefore, by making them sit out of recess, you are having that student miss out on valuable time to work out that built up energy. That is only going to punish YOU- the teacher!!! This student is going to return to class- you are going to think that he “learned his lesson” for not paying attention because he sat out of recess- and then you both will have a very frustrating afternoon. He will have tons of energy, and you will be repeatedly asking him to focus and follow along during your lesson.

Returning back to Armstrong, he continues on page 50 to relate the ADHD’s “hunter” instincts to school.

…kids with ADHD are actually hunters in a farmer’s world (Hartmann, 1997). In many ways, the conventional classroom caters to the “farmers” of the world. The behaviors necessary for being a successful farmer- staying in one place, being patient, and focusing on the job at hand- are also associated with successful learning in a traditional classroom setting. The task for educators, then, is to figure out how to create environments for children with ADHD that make the use of the talents of the “hunter” without turning the classroom into a jungle!

So how do you do that? I am sorry to say that there is simply not a “do this and things will work” solution. As educators, you know that every student is different, every classroom is different, and every teaching style is different. But here are my suggestions:

  1. Give the student a job. Don’t do that typical teacher act where you assign a student as the designated pencil sharpener and then keep a cup full of sharpened pencils ready to use. That will do you nothing. If you give a student with ADHD a classroom job, you better make sure that this student will be able to do his job nearly every day, if not multiple times a day. This gives him controlled opportunities to stand up, walk around, and feel important. Have him pass out papers, collect papers, sharpen pencils, water plants, or anything else that allows him to move.
  2. Assign the student a mentor or partner. Once again, this is much more effective when the student is actually able to work with and talk with the partner frequently. As with suggestion #1, it allows the student to have opportunities to work collaboratively and talk some, but still be controlled.

What I wish teachers knew about ADHD is that it affects how students think. If you tell them to open their textbooks to read about the Mississippi River, students with ADHD are there. They see the river. They are putting their feet in the water to see how cold it is. They are looking for fish, checking out the surroundings, placing themselves in the midst of everything. Then the student looks up at you and asks “Wait, what do you want us marked in the passage?” and you fuss that he is not listening, instead of simply answering the question and moving on. Why become angry when you can simply say “highlight this” and keep teaching? By allowing frustration to take control of your response, you are not only embarrassing the student with ADHD, but also allowing the incident to interrupt your class period and teaching. If there is one thing common amongst all teachers, it is that they hate having their time interrupted by nonsense; so wouldn’t the teacher herself interrupting her own class be nonsense?

Embarrassing and calling out the students is truly where we lose them. Teachers do not realize how vital it is for students, all students, to have a network of human relationships. Now take into account that students with ADHD deal with social difficulties. Yet many times, teachers want nothing to do with these students. If teachers took time to learn about ADHD, they would be able to advocate for these students, make classroom accommodations and modifications, and in turn begin the creation of the student’s network of relationships.

Thanks for reading; I hope this helps someone!

AléMae

Dyslexia as a Talent

Annotated notes from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength- Based Strategies to Help Student with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Part 3: Chapter 2: Pages 28-47

Armstrong begins this chapter on a very positive note that I wish more teachers would take into consideration: the talents and strengths of students with special needs. Yes, these students are identified because of their weakness in a certain scholastic field. And yes, it is the teachers’ job to assist the students in these areas. But as Armstrong points out, shouldn’t part of the job also be to help the students recognize their strengths as well?

“Of all students with specific learning disabilities, up to 80 percent have deficits in reading…, the most common form is developmental dyslexia” (p29). Because of this, Armstrong discussed the neurodiversity of those affected with dyslexia throughout chapter two, one of which being artistic capabilities. He quotes psychologist Beverly Steffert on page 30, saying the research “so far seems to show that there does seem to be a ‘trade- off’ between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing” (Appleyard, 1997). In fact, Armstrong shows so much research between reading weaknesses and artistic strengths, that he believes dyslexia “should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent” (p31).

What sucks about the reading/art trade-off in brains affected by dyslexia is that, unless the student is placed in an arts-based school, schools around the nation are cutting funds in the arts to place the money in other areas. Or, if art courses are offered, dyslexic students are often times pulled to be placed in intervention courses to remediate reading. And although these students are great in art, art is not one of the tested subjects that teachers are concerned about. Additionally, too many teachers are unaware of their students’ strengths and talents, which means the teachers are unlikely to use these artistic abilities to enrich their classroom. Nor are they likely to develop a lesson, unit, or curriculum around the interests of their students.

However, these students are beating out their competitors when it comes to finding jobs (in the arts or not). “Because dyslexics faced difficulty navigating their way through school, they had to develop soft-skills such as problem-solving, perseverance, the capability to delegate, and excellent oral communication… People with dyslexia also demonstrate superior intuitive or ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, which can be invaluable in starting and maintaining a new business” (p38). So why are we not teaching students this?! Students with learning disabilities, dyslexic or otherwise, are going to school daily feeling defeated before they ever reach the door. And it is in part because teachers are only pointing out student weaknesses, not strengths- taking us back to the very reason Armstrong began this chapter.

So go out this week and find a strength- even if it is one little strength. Give a student a reason to not feel defeated. Inform students of all the job possibilities that are open to them- even if they do have weaknesses- because you know they have strengths too.

AléMae

Beautiful Neurodiverse Flowers

Annotated notes from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength- Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Part 2: Chapter 1: Pages 7-27

“If we truly want to help [special education students] succeed in school and in life, it seems to me that we need to make a comprehensive, all-out inventory of their strengths, interests, and capabilities.” This is a quote from page nine of the book, a section where Armstrong persuades his audience to shift from a disability mindset to a neurodiverse mindset.

Neurodiversity: the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.

We do not think of diversity in the “normal” world as a bad thing, criticizing those with a different skin color, gender, age, or lifestyle. Why then do we think so much lower of those with different brains? If the workforce is so concerned with having diversity and meeting quotas, wouldn’t being neurodiverse be counted as a good thing?

Please note that Armstrong, as well as myself, is not making the argument that the neurodiverse population does not encounter daily struggles. Yes, these students are labeled as such because they are unable to learn certain skills at the same rate as their peers. However, I believe that too many people only see the disabilities, and choose not to see what these students are capable of. Remember that these students bring diversity into the classroom- if you make the decision to look at it that way. “Teachers are far more likely to want a ‘rare and beautiful’ flower in their classroom than a ‘broken,’ ‘damaged,’ or ‘problem’ child” (p12). We do not criticize certain flower types for needing more or less water or sunlight- we accept the plant into the ecosystem just as it is. Why then are humans being treated differently? Can we not accept the fact that different people need different things to blossom?

Take a moment to relate this to Least Restrictive Environment. Is pulling out struggling students from the general education classroom and plugging them into a room where they work on their weaknesses truly LRE? If you know that ADHD students perform better in green environments, then wouldn’t that be the child’s LRE? In finding the students’ strengths, talents, and interests, you can often find what environment the student can blossom in. THAT is the LRE. “Finding or creating environments where students’ cognitive, emotional. social, or physical strengths have the best chance of being reinforced is what matters most here” (p23).

So find your flowers. Identify the neurodiverse. But do not see them for what they cannot do. I would hate for someone to know me by my weaknesses, wouldn’t you? Find where your students blossom and grow within throughout the school year.

Much love,

AléMae

 

Disability vs Diversity

Annotated notes from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength- Based Strategies to help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. Part 2: Introduction, pages 1-6.

Unlike most books, this book was able to move me by page two. Here, we read a quote from a former student of Armstrong’s: ‘They thought I was bad at something, so they tested me to find exactly how bad I was at it, and then spent the next years of my life making me do what I was bad at as much as possible.’

About 5 percent of student populations in public schools are labeled has having a learning disability. If there are 50 million students enrolled in public schools, then are we as educators really making 2,500,000 of them feel like they are stuck doing the thing they are worse at? What kind of a future is that preparing them for? Surely we must know that they will find job opportunities doing something other than their disability, so shouldn’t we prepare them for that instead? We should be finding their strengths and their talents and expanding upon those! That way, when they do find a job doing something they are good at- and they will one day- they will be better prepared for it. They would have spent their years in school building on their strengths rather than working on a weakness out of their control.

That is what I think a many educators do not understand- their disability is many times out of their control. It is proven that the dyslexic brain functions so much differently than that of the neurotypical brain; the student does not chose that. Yet we are steadily “punishing” these 2,500,000 students by making them go to special classes that focus on their uncontrollable weakness. Why not instead find a way to tap into their strengths? Special education is great for identifying certain children based on what they can’t do rather than what they can do.

Armstrong makes the statement on page four, “Instead of spending all of our efforts in trying to make students with special needs more like ‘normal’ students, I propose we devote more attention to accepting and celebrating their differences.” Think of all the ways this can enrich our classroom! How many students are on the spectrum that can bring unbelievable math skills or musical abilities into your general education classroom? Studies have shown that many with dyslexia have outstanding artistic abilities- how can you channel that into your classroom? Stop thinking of special needs as a disability and realize that it brings diversity!

AléMae

 

Fundamentals of Teaching: “You are a marvel.”

Annotated noted from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength- Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life.

“And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you… You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.” -Pablo Casals

This quote from Casals is the opening for Armstrong’s book and is something all educators need to hear. Teaching a student how to read,  write, and perform arithmetic equations can be futile if one does not first teach the student to be aware of his or her own strengths and talents. What good is teaching a student skills to use in life if the child believes his life is worthless? that he will never amount to anything? Will he really take hold of i before e except after c? Nothing taught will be grasped by students who feel insignificant.

The empowered student- the one who knows his worth- however, will feel more empowered with every bit of knowledge that you the teacher pour into the class. This student will understand that the class is fundamental to his or her future, for he knows that this new information, combined with his prior knowledge, experiences, skills, and talents, can lead to great things- for he is unique and has the “capacity for anything.”

Let us observe Casals’ quote once more and break it down. “Do you know what you are? You are a marvel.” What is a marvel? A marvel is a wonder or astonishing person or thing. Would that not be one of the best compliments you have ever received? How many times have you been told that you are a wonder? that you are astonishing? Imagine filling students with that great feeling every morning to begin the school day! How would it impact your students? I for one would certainly feel more important knowing that I am a marvel.

“In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you.” This can absolutely blow a child’s mind. Ask them to think of how many children there are in the city, in your state, and in the entire world. Then ask them to think about all of the adults, and how they were once children. Then think of everyone who has lived before us, and how they all began as children. And of all these children, there has NEVER been one like the ones in the class. Your students are original and unique. Now, you have students who feel important from the first part of the statement, and significant from this portion.

“You have the capacity for anything.” Capacity is the ability or power to do, experience, or understand something- in this case, anything. Imagine teaching a class full of students who have been told that they have the capacity for anything! That they can learn anything and do anything. How much easier would teaching be if your students were told this on a daily basis, rather than them hearing which disability they are struggling with, or which classroom they have to go to for intervention, or which accommodations they will be using today. The first builds up the student, while the latter tears them down. How successful have you been teaching students who are torn apart and depressed? It is similar to teaching a student who is sick or hungry.

Do students need to know that two and two make four and that Paris is the capital of France? Of course. But in order to teach, the student has to want to learn, and they will much more open to learning knowing how important, unique, and capable they are. You may be the only person to tell a student how unique they are, so you must believe it for yourself.

Take this to heart,

AléMae

 

Annotating Life: the importance of blogging

Hey everyone,

Full of excuses, I return back to the world of blogging. It happens to everyone: life becomes crazy busy with priorities, or things you would like to think are priorities anyways. And then one day it rains, and you would rather nap than blog. Suddenly, it has been so long since you have written anything, that you do not even know what to write about anymore. You miss blogging so much, but you “don’t have time and will do it later.”

I was at Starbucks last night working on school work, when I looked up a YouTube video about how to annotate a book. One of the reasons both my professor and the YouTuber mentioned why annotating is so crucial is that it enables you to digest the important parts of the book and to make notes to return to at a later time. It dawned on me that this is what blogging does to my life; it allows me to sit back and look at what has happened in life and think about the importance of it. Did I grow and learn from this experience? Is there a habit or practice that I need to continue in doing, or stop altogether? Is this relationship beneficial or toxic?

And just like that, I am back to blogging after an unplanned nine month leave. A four minute video about annotating an English book suddenly made me notice that I do in fact have time to sit down and write out my thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, I am choosing to do this rather than read the book that I need to annotate… But as long as I am annotating something, right?

Much love,

AléMae