Tuesday, May 31, 2016

He is MY Success Story

On Friday evening, I had the honor of being a special guest at a former student's high school graduation.  While that may seem mundane and an every day occurrence for many,  this invitation meant more to me than words could adequately express. While this student was not loved or liked more than the others, he definitely had a hand in making me the teacher I am today. So often, as a teacher, I focus on the success of my students, and rightly so, but this student completely transformed what I knew about teaching, shifted my mindset, and set me on a path that could not be ignored.

It was no surprise that this young man would be placed in my classroom that year.  At our little school,  students were placed into classrooms based on learning styles.   Some students found themselves placed in analytical classrooms where every detail was important, routines were well established, and there were clearly defined expectations for assignments, projects, and any other activities that took place throughout the year.  Some students found themselves in a global classroom where the teacher painted big picture ideas first, allowed things to occur organically, and looked quite a bit different from that analytic room.  And others may have found themselves placed in a flexible room that incorporated elements of both styles.  That also meant that teachers were assigned classes based on their learning style or teaching style as well.  I often fell on the analytical end of the spectrum, but was sometimes given a flexible classroom depending on need.  This particular year,  I believe I was the flexible teacher, but leaned toward analytical tendencies.  He needed routines, no surprises, clearly defined outcomes and boundaries.

Before school began, I met with mom and she came into my classroom with a giant binder that provided a very clear picture of this young man as a student.  We talked about strengths and weaknesses, areas of growth that were in progress, areas to push further, triggers that would result in shutting down, and strategies that had worked in the past.  At the end of our meeting we both agreed that he needed to be pushed to try new things and to offer no excuses.  I felt prepared and knowledgeable to enter the school year with success.  But, little did I know that this 5th grader would teach me what it truly meant to be a teacher.

Up until this point, I had approached teaching with creativity, but honestly with a binder full of lessons that I knew had been successful, but didn't really reflect the learning styles or needs of my classroom of students.  Differentiation was just starting to be the buzz word across schools and districts.  Books were being read on the topic, discussions being had, but the year this child was present was when I truly saw the value of tailoring my instruction for individual students and where they were on the learning continuum.

Early in the year, we developed a mantra so to speak that we used when he needed to consider an alternative.  That mantra was "I'm adaptable."  It was hokey and a catchphrase, but we wanted to get the full 5th grade experience - from tasting new foods, learning new social skills, and trying new things.

He came to me with very clear expectations of where he would sit and that he couldn't use a cubby that was near anyone.  So, we developed a plan.  His desk would be by mine to begin with, but the goal was to move it closer to a table in hopes that he would work with a group before the end of the year.  His chair had a yellow dot placed on it so it was easily identifiable to others.  They weren't allowed to touch it.  His books were kept in a cabinet instead of near others.  When I needed him to talk to a group, I prepared him  ahead of time and we role played the conversation and we chanted "I'm adaptable."

Each time I cooked for Social Studies, we checked the ingredients to make sure that they were within his dietary requirements and then tasted a spoonful - and he was allowed to spit it out if he wanted.  At recess time, he was allowed a certain amount of time talking to the teachers and then was sent to socialize with others with predetermined topics.

He questioned me, challenged me, gave me feedback.  It wasn't uncommon for him to ask  for my resources or ask why we were spending so much time on a topic when there was only going to be one question on the PASS test.  I became comfortable with saying, "I don't know." I began to ask for feedback not just from him, but from other students on lessons that I planned.  I shifted from being the one to create the expectations and requirements of a project to a teacher that created them with student input.  I began planning lessons with my students in mind, not me.

Fast forward 6 years and I find an email in my inbox asking if I would be his mentor on his senior project - not just any project, but a book that provided his perspective of life with autism.  Of course, I said yes.  We worked all year sharing drafts and feedback.  Reading stories of how autism affected him in different settings.  Discussing the challenges that were present, what successes and opportunities were there and what his path would be after graduation.

I received my signed copy this week and cried like a baby when I read it again in its final form.  While he has had extreme success as a student, my success has been linked to his in so many ways. If I would not have had him as a student, I wouldn't have made a shift in my teaching.  

As I sat in the audience of his graduation Friday night, I could not have been more proud of him and the journey he has traveled.  As I stood to celebrate his accomplishments, I was so thankful for the opportunity I had as his teacher.  He helped me to learn what was best for students, to be comfortable with letting my students be the teacher once in awhile,  and to never settle for what has always been done, even if it has been successful.

Thank you, EC, for being MY success story.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Unlocking the Magic

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Katie Stover, literacy guru, speak at Furman University.  Normally, at events that have a Keynote speaker, especially over dinner, I have found that I have a difficult time focusing on the content of the message.  Nothing against the speaker, but it is rare that I ever find myself sitting down much during the day, and when I do, it doesn't take much for me to get so relaxed that I want to doze.  It's strange, I know, but I'm on the go so much that I really only stop to sleep or veg out for a few minutes before moving onto the next thing.  That is why movies are never a good idea at the end of a long school week.  I can't tell you how many times I've been to the movies with my husband and I've fallen asleep during them. Any way, Katie's talk was refreshing.  She spoke about her own journey as a reader and the moments that the magic was unlocked for her.  I found myself drifting in my thoughts, not out of distraction, but reflection.  I began to trace the words of my reading journey and how the simplicity of books at a young age stimulated my passion for reading and writing with my students.

I guess my journey starts way before I was ever in existence - with my mother.  She was a writer, not so much a reader, but a writer of journals and scrapbooks that documented her thoughts and highlights.  She tucked these items away into a cedar chest that would become a treasure chest to me in my childhood.  In it,she carefully hid away her 16 year old thoughts, love letters, and a pregnancy journal.  When I arrived in her arms when she was just 18 years old, she probably didn't know how powerful those tucked away items would be to me and she surely hadn't read the current research on how to instill a love for reading.

In her young, new Momma self, she purchased Little Golden Books like The Pokey Little Puppy to show me.  We would climb on her bed multiple times a day.  The giant king-sized bed with puffy pillows and settle in for what ultimately would become an afternoon nap.  We would start with the pictures, looking at the cover and pointing out little details that if you read too fast you may miss.  As she turned each page, she asked questions about what I saw on the page, what did I think would happen next, and so on and so forth.

My first memory of reading isn't necessarily the act of reading, but a memory about a book that scared the wits out of me.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a text I owned, but wouldn't dare go to sleep with it in the room.  The wicked witch frightened me, yet, I still read it, as long as when it was time for lights out, it was locked safely away in mom and dad's room.  As I grew older, a little brother came along and with it brought the first book that I distinctly remember reading.  P.D. Eastman's The Best Nest can even now be recited from memory.  My brother wanted to read it EVERY night.  Despite the simplicity of the text and how many times my mom had already read it, she crafted a unique rhythm and cadence to the familiar song of Mr. Bird, "I love my house, I love my nest.  In all the world, my nest is best."  I remember vividly the night that we read it one too many times and I declared that, "If we read that book one more time...I'm leaving."  And that was the end of reading aloud to me.  I packed my stack of books up and went to my bedroom, climbed in the bed and picked up a book and have been doing so most nights for the last 35 years.

As time progressed from Momma's bed and through Richard Scarry's Best Ever Word Book, reading came alive for me.  Summers were spent with the Sweet Pickle's Gang and Amelia Bedelia.  Visits to the library were just as good as a summer vacation to me.  The teensy one room house that had shelves and shelves of books always smelled like a new adventure.  Momma always helped pick out books and she read every one that I did.  We logged our books on a tracker from the public library and turned it in at the end of the summer to get a prize.  It  wasn't an iPad or an electronic device, usually, it was a book.  My parents never denied me a book when I asked.  They may have denied a new toy, but never a book.

I don't have many memories of reading in school and that breaks this teacher's heart.  I do remember being in a reading group in 2nd grade in Mrs. LeDoux's class.  Our reading book was entitled Moonbeams and we met at the picnic table at the back of the room.  Other than that...I don't remember learning how to read.  I know the class next door was fully immersed in phonics and had a phonics book and workbook, but we didn't.  I went home crying one day because I so wanted to learn phonics and my Momma said, "But you already know them." In elementary school, there were times where the treasured hope chest was opened and the beloved scrapbooks came out for me to touch and feel and read.  The movie ticket stubs, the notes, the cards that my Momma collected to document a life.  This was the reading I most enjoyed.  I can still see the pages and pages of memories that helped me to know her more as a person, not just a Momma.

In 5th grade, I remember Mrs. Thomas reading The Cajun Night Before Christmas to the class in her heavy South Louisiana accent - something that I still do each year with my own class.  Mrs. Foster assigning us our first novel to read at school, but there weren't many memories of true reading and stepping into a world beyond myself.  Not until I To Kill A Mockingbird was given to me my junior year of high school.  This book, along with Of Mice and Men changed reading for me.  Now, instead of reading fluff, I was reading deep themes that crossed controversial subjects.  I witnessed how authors made sense of the worlds around them by writing about the things that terrified them, the things that they didn't understand, the things that broke their heart and their psyche.  My eyes were unveiled to reveal a world where I could visibly see how writing and reading helped someone make sense of the insensible.  These books became late night reading that kept me up because I just had to know what was going to happen next.  They are the books that fostered in a magical place that I could escape and learn more about the world beyond Denham Springs, Louisiana.  There are so many more books that transported me from my little bedroom to New York City at the turn of the century or the English countryside, but there isn't time to document my reading history.

Now as a teacher, I want those same experiences for my students, but the reality is that many of them don't have the same opportunities to curl up with a book that I did.  I want them to experience the unlocking of the magical worlds that exist beyond the pages and into the depths of their imaginations. I want them to read what scares them, what inspires them, what angers them.  I want them to move beyond the author they love and the genre that is familiar.   Some years, it has been easy, and others difficult.  But, it can be done as a teacher and a parent.  It is never too late.

1. Turn the technology off for a time.  Even as a 40 year old, I've found that when I am reading in a room with a television, computer, or my phone on, I'm  less likely to be focused on what I'm reading.  There is nothing that cannot wait for 30 minutes.  More often than not, I find myself reading for much longer than 30 minutes.  In order to develop readers, there must be space in the schedule to do so.

2. Give Choice.  One of the things my Momma did was let me choose the books - all the books.  She never made a suggestion that I can remember, but allowed me to be in complete control of what I was reading.  If it was all Dr. Seuss, then it was all Dr. Seuss.  Reading was reading in her eyes.

3.  Visit the library.  I truly think this is one of the lost pleasures of a world so inundated with technology.  I still visit once a week and check out a stack of books.  If you have younger children, take them often and stay for story hour.  This is where I discovered many of my favorites.

4.  Ask questions.  I'm not saying to give a student a worksheet with comprehension questions listed on them, but what I am saying is to have a conversation about a book.  Ask questions like, "What is your favorite part so far?  Who is your favorite character and why?  Have you experienced anything similar?"  Having an open dialogue about a book just for enjoyment is something many students haven't experienced.  Too often, the tasks in a classroom are all graded and there isn't room to just talk books.

5. Notice the illustrations. In picture books especially, spend time studying the images, pointing out details, playing I Spy.  Not only will this help to hone observational skills, but it will help a young reader begin to make connections between the illustrations and the text. If reading a novel with a young child, stop and talk about the images that were created when you read specific sections.  This helps students to visualize the story as it is unfolding.

Reading is the door to unlocking a lifetime of magic whether it be fictional stories or informational facts.  Donalyn Miller says it way better than I could ever when she states, "Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters - the saints and the sinners, real or imagined, reading shows you how to be a better human being."