Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Not So Dandy: Slice of Life

A friend who lives north of me called to talk about her son. My friend's son has been diagnosed with Dandy-Walker variance. His specific brain variance results in poor motor control, slower processing and some quirky behaviors. He does not have the actual syndrome--he does not haveobservable or drainable fluid in his brain. Though developmentally delayed, he saw physical, occupational and speech therapists as a toddler and young child. He entered elementary school as a regular student, mainstreamed K-4. He is  smaller than children his own age. He is differernt. Richard Allington once said during a keynote presentation that 100 years of educational research taught us just that: kids are different.

Image search results cropped.

When I started researching and looking at images of Dandy-Walker brains, I noticed difference. They don't look alike. The malformations have similarities but  the brains (as in real life) look differnt, differently formed or differently affected.

His elementary school recently told the Mom that he could not be in a regular class. The teachers couldn't give him enough support. The Mom was told that her son was distracting or pulling too many instructional resources from the rest of the students in the class. The school's solution was to put the child in a sheltered exceptional education classroom. The only problem there is that this particular child is high functioning (congnitively) in comparison to the other children in the sheltered room. He scored less than five points below a level three on the reading and math sections of our state assessment test as a forth grader. Level three is considered passing for fourth graders.

So what do you do about that?

What do you do as a parent? What recourse, aside from hiring an advocate, do parents have?
As a teacher-parent my defaults are: talk to the teacher, talk to the principal, and or  talk to a district representative. I've never had to go to a school board member or government representative. My friend has talked to the teachers and to the principal and even to the school board. She has been told that the diagnosis she recieved from Shands Neurosurgeons is not valid in the county and that the school board only recognizes assessments performed by school-based or district psychologists. She has been told that funding has been cut and that there are no resources to provide para-professionals for students like hers to be mainstreamed. She has been told that the teachers don't know what to do or how to support this child.

I am amazed by this. I know that one year I taught a boy who had a para-professional accompany him to each of his classes; one year I taught a girl who also was accompanied by a para-professional every day. Both were differently abled and I modified my instruction and the curriculum in order to meet their needs and help them grow as a person. One of the student's parent journaled with all of the high school teachers several times a week, sometimes daily. We wrote notes about the student's activities, progress and homework and had a place to share or address concerns in the journal. My friend said that teachers did not follow through with journaling for her son. I am astounded on several levels.

One, I'm a teacher. Like many of you, I am a passionate teacher who believes in doing right by the students in my class.  Penny Kittle says it better than I can. She echoes my heart when she says, " “I believe you’ve got to do what’s right, every single day of your life, even if the rest of the crowd isn’t. Teaching is about honor and goodness and mercy. You either live up to the calling of this profession or you don’t, and most likely no one will ever know but you.”  Before I had my own child and saw teaching through the eyes of a parent, I thought all teachers operated by those principles. Unfortunately they don't.

So what can a parent of an exceptional child do? What should they do? Do you have to become an activist or threaten legal action in order to secure an education for your child? Is it common for parents of such children to do that? This is beyond my realm of experience.

One solution we talked about is tutoring at home. Certainly, I've read plenty of teacher-parents' blogs who talk about providing rich educational enrichment for their children. I feed my own child books and encourage him to write and develop passions. But my son is not a Dandy-Walker child. My friend needs resources that fit or work for children with Dandy-Walker. Do you know of any?

This parent wants what any parent wants for her child. She wants him to be able to grow up and have a life, to be self-suficient, to be happy, to be thoughtful and  productive. She feels as if he has the ability, but she doesn't know how to get him there. She's at a stuck point with his school.  As she pulled in to pick her son up from school, we said our goodbyes. I haven't seen her in some time, but we've known each other more than half our lives now. She took a deep breath and tried to say goodbye. Her voice broke. I teared up. We were both trying not to cry.  Our voices were whispers. Parenting is hard. Sometimes scary.

When my son gets upset about some unfairness at school or on the basketball court I tell him it's okay to feel upset, but that feeling upset will not change things. Change follows action. Writing is one way I act to make changes in my classroom, in my thinking and in my world.

If you have ideas, we're listening and we would appreciate any helpful advice you can offer. Thank you for acting by sharing your thinking with us in comments.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book High

My son, Collin, and I  returned from NCTE and ALAN yesterday. We spent Wednesday in a nest of books and blankets, reading and resting. I can think of no better way to usher in the holidays.We brought home some great titles! I'm in the process of using Booksource's Classroom Organizer to scan (with my webcam) titles in order to add them to my classroom library. Donalyn Miller (a.k.a. The Book Whisperer) recommended Classroom Organizer on the back channel at ALAN, so I thought I'd give it a go. The teachers behind me were using Delicious Library on a Mac Laptop, but I wanted something that would cross platforms and devices. So far, it's intuitive and easy to use. We'll see how I fit it into our classroom reading routines and community.

1 of 4 suitcases
We hauled home some books. Our luggage (4 bags total) weighed in at 154 pounds. Collin and I each carried on 2 bags filled with books. I have to think we hauled at least 50 pounds each bringing our book haul  total to over 200 pounds of print. The loot is spread out on the dining room table, waiting to be scanned and carted off to school. In the meantime we're reading fiends.

Collin read The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney (the seventh book in the Diary of the Wimpy Kid series) while we were still in Las Vegas. He's since finished Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel, and Scott Westerfeld's  Levithan. Next up on his to-read list is Kill Order by James Dashner. On our way home I read My Friend Dahmer by Backderf, The Shadow Collector's Apprentic by Amy Gordon and Almost Home by Joan Bauer (on homelessness and hope). I loved the Backderf and Bauer's books, the other was over-done, the language seemed stilted or forced somehow.

Backderf's commentary on adult indifference strikes home. I see teenagers in my classrooms everyday that long for connection:  with parents, with teachers, with adults who care about them. How tragic that Dahmer--as horrible as his life of crime turned out-- never found that. How could the adults around him have ignored his drinking? Why didn't anyone stand up and say, "something is wrong" and find him some help?  Questions that haunted the author, I'm sure, after listening to his ALAN panel presentation. Well done, the book tells a tragic story--the art and the blackness that seeps into and around Dahmer adds layers to the telling.

Instead of gathering books for the Project for Awesome auction, this year Colllin attend at the behest of a middle-school teacher. Joan Kaywell introduced us to Mr. Pauling at FCTE. He and Collin worked out an ALAN deal, so the books Collin received as part of his registration were signed for his students and classroom library. We mailed them off with a letter yesterday. You can read Collin's letter to the class at his blog here.

Of the books we brough back (in what seems the biggest book heist of NCTE history), Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught is my favorite so far. I finished it yesterday before Collin woke up, so he didn't catch me clutching tissues and crying on the couch. It's about students in a special education program--they are the "alphabets" (ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, SCHIZO). When Sunshine, one of a trio of best friends goes missing, Jason must wade through the voices in his head to aid the FBI in their search. He suffers from Schizophrenia and divorce, his "colonel" Mom brings a lawyer to the search headquarters knowing Jason will be an easy target as law enforcement creates early "persons of interst" lists and demands DNA samples. Most of the novel captures the first (critical) 24 hours of Sunshines disappearance. Well crafted, Vaught hones language until it rings true to each character and "alphabet" she portrays. Move it to the top of your to-read pile, or set aside what you've already started and jump into this one. It made me grateful for my family, my son, recovery, and so much that I take for granted. It's a good reminder and a great read.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I am thinking about placemats this morning: not quilted placements from my kitchen table, not vinyl placements from the high chair, not paper placements from fast food tray liners, but Marzano's placement. A teacher placement that maps out our implementation route of Marzano's teacher evaluation model. This year my school is also piloting the growth plan, deliberate practice. Though our implementation has been clunky and sometimes frustrating, there is much good to both pieces: teacher reflection, professional conversation, administrative accountability are but a few. 
Our deliberate practice plans were due last Friday. To complete them, teachers had to self-assess across design question one. We had to use scales to rate our teaching and professional practice for each element across several design questions. As I self assessed using the scales (pictured below) I was torn between ratings. I could imagine several scenarios where I would rate myself at one end of the scale, the other or in the middle. Eventually, I started writing down evidence for several scale points meaning if I rated myself developing or applying the administrator could expect to see this happening in class and if I rated myself innovating then this would have (has) or might happen on any given day. I was torn between marker words on the scale. I ended up rating myself as applying. I learned a little late that I hadn't played the game well. 
 A teacher friend made the point that a master teacher such as herself should not rate below applying. She has the same years of experience as I do, advanced degrees, an adjunct position at a local college and she's a fierce reader and learner. She has a point. Her opinions aligned with the evidence I'd scrawled in comments on my self-assessment. I brought it up with my principal who pointed out a key issue I'd taken for granted: learning. 

Like my friend, I learn. I read professional books, journals, blogs. I connect to teachers online and in person. I go to conferences. I set learning goals each year and then adventure to make what I'm trying to learn part of my professional repertoire. My principal reminded me that not everyone is like that. Not all teachers read. Nor do all teachers attend conferences. I knew that. I've worked as an instructional coach, but I guess the reality of that type of teacher has not been part of my daily work life for some time. I learn. I read. I go. I do. Even if I have to pay for it myself (which is the case more years than not). It's one way I invest in my teaching life and in my students.

Many of my teacher friends are flying to Nevada today for the National Council of Teachers of English convention. I'm going! The theme for this year's conference is "dream, connect and ignite." Attending a national conference is a learning dream--part inspiration, part validation. I am going. I am going  to connect with colleagues and ignite my own passions for teaching and learning. How is it that some teachers do not take the time to read and learn? I'm going to grab my share of the joy of learning with and in such a rich community.

I'm preparing for NCTE's annual convention. I travel tomorrow. In anticipation, I'm using the convention app on my iPad to plan sessions to see. I'm reading teacher friends' blogs to see what sessions they might be presenting or bookmarking. Glenda Funk's discussion session is one I'd added to my schedule, so I enjoyed reading about it on her blog this morning. Like Katherine Sokolowski writes in yesterday's Slice of Life post, getting ready to leave the classroom is sometimes difficult. It's not my favorite thing, but I, too, delight in my students and love sharing books with them. This week former students stopped by my classroom and asked about "that conference where you get all the books." 

This is it and I'm going. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Watching the Vote

Hank Green: Don't Forget to Vote America Live Stream
Can you imagine being fined if you didn't vote? I learned that in Australia there is mandatory voting and if citizens don't vote they risk being fined. There is also universal healthcare. This picked up from young adult author, Justine Larbalestier's Twitter stream during the VlogBrothers "Don't Forget to Vote America" live stream. I am grateful for how much John and Hank Green teach and talk about issues of import.

I love learning online. I love learning from former students and from teachers in places far, far away . I can dip into the learning stream any time, at any place or from any device with an Internet connection. During the last election I stayed up and watched the elections returns until early in the morning. I geeked out: monitoring the returns on the New York Times Electoral Map and following the #election hashtag up (down? through?) the Twitter stream.

The last election connected me to Twitter. There was an amazing feeling of participating in something larger than my city or my state it was as if America was united or if not united exactly at least connected and talking to each other. Which is  more than I can say about some branches of our government.

Fellow East Coasters, I hope you voted. I hope you stayed in line if you were in line before the polls closed at seven. Citizens of the future (or past depending on your direction) those living in time zones to the west of me, happy voting. Take care. Be safe.Choose wisely.