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Life Wisdom from a 10-year-old

February 10, 2010

A conversation from today’s math class:

“K., What would you do with $467.83?”

“I would buy a phone and then save the rest for my taxes.  You know, be smart with my money.  Some people who win the lottery spend too much and then don’t have enough to pay their taxes.”


First Week Back

January 8, 2010

This first week back from break was, well, interesting.  I got a new student, which was exciting.  I’m up to seven kids in my core group (one of these kiddos is only in my room for math, and then she goes to public school the rest of the day, leaving me with six).

It’s always tough to incorporate a new student into a well-established routine.  Things were wonky all week–between 2 1/2 weeks off and a novelty student, we accomplished far less than I anticipated.

I really like the new student.  She’s sweet, kind, and very motivated to work.  She also does a running commentary of everything that happens around her, and has a bit more than a touch of that learned-helplessness characteristic of some students to who are sent to the resource room for extended periods of time.

Yesterday at lunch, I declared, “I’m ready to pull out my hair!”  I was tired, and the constant chatter was starting to wear on my nerves.

After lunch, I found this on my desk:

Stress ball

My new stress ball

It’s great having supportive co-workers who share my sense of humor.


I have a post in the works about the place and prominence of homework.  Please share comments on any experiences, thoughts, or perspectives on homework, student responsibility, parental involvement, and any related topics.  Thanks!

Wacky Word Work

January 7, 2010

When I learned spelling in my school days, everyone had the same list and worked at the same pace out of the same book.  Every week, we got a new list of 10 to 20 words, even if we failed the most recent test.

These days, that just doesn’t fly.  My students are too diverse and have such varying abilities–it’s bad practice to make them all learn the same lists of words.  And it’s bad practice to move on without developing mastery on a list.  I have six students in my language arts class, and they are split up into four spelling groups.  Now that may sound like insanity, and maybe it is, but with the help of my para it happens every week.  I’m going to give you a glimpse into my classroom to see how we manage our spelling and work work time.

At the beginning of the year, my students and I build stamina for independent work.  I use the ideas and methods outlined in the book The Daily 5: Fostering Literacy Independence in the Elementary Grades by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser.  We build our stamina minute-by-minute during the first one to two weeks of school until we’ve reached 15 to 20 minutes of uninterrupted work time.  During this time, we use a list of last year’s sight words or words from one of my read-alouds so they can practice working with high success.

During this initial two-week period, I assess each student individually to determine their developmental level in spelling.  I use the resources found in Words Their Way by Donald R. Bear, et. al.  I group students who have similar needs into the same spelling group; however, my groups are fluid.  If students need extra time, or a greater challenge, I provide it.

Now it’s time to learn some words!  Here’s my weekly break-down:

Monday: Students get new lists featuring a specific pattern or rule (long-e patterns, adding s to words that end in y, etc.).  I take two spelling groups, and my para takes 2 groups.  We each have a fairly independent group and one that requires more assistance.  The students with good decoding skills ask for help if they are stuck; we guide the other students through their lists and model a word sort.  Students repeat the sort on their own, and copy the sorted word into their word study notebooks.

Tuesday and Wednesday: Students practice their spelling words using a method of their choice.  We have magnets, Play-Doh, wooden letters, individual white boards, and Wikki Stix.  Students may request an early test on Wednesdays.  If they make errors, the incorrect words are retested on Thursday.

Using Play-Doh

Using Play-Doh to practice words in a tactile way

Play-Doh words

Finished Play-Doh words

Word Sort

Doing a word sort with the wooden letters. Vowels are red, consonants are blue.

Thursday: Spelling tests.  Incorrect words are carried over to the next week.

That is a brief summary of the organized chaos which is my spelling rotation during language arts.  Questions, comments, scathing reprimands??  Leave a comment!

Watching Dexter

December 24, 2009

When I’m home in the Midwest, I can count on my sister-in-law to introduce me to great TV shows.  A while back, we watched almost an entire season of Weeds.  Yesterday, she introduced me to Showtime’s Dexter.

If you’ve never watched Dexter, here’s a brief rundown: by day, main character Dexter is a blood-spatter expert for the Miami police department.  By night, he’s a serial killer.  As an infant, he was found in a crate with his murdered mother and was adopted by a police officer.  His adopted father noticed that Dexter was odd–he was antisocial and enjoyed killing animals, among other things.  Realizing that Dexter had these tendencies, dad took to teaching Dexter how to be appropriately social, eventually teaching him how to channel his sociopathic, murderous urges into something more positive.

My favorite part of each episode is the use of flashback.  In the present time, Dexter’s dad is deceased, so the flashbacks offer us the only glimpse into their relationship.  During the flashbacks, we witness dad pointing out and explicitly teaching social skills to Dexter.  Some of the lessons included in the first-season episodes I watched:

  • Smile for pictures, even if you’re not happy.
  • Don’t be a bully.  Even if you’re trying to fit in with the other kids, it should never come at the expense of someone else.

It struck me how much raising Dexter was like working with my students.  Granted, my students are not sociopaths, and they don’t feel the urge to kill things.  But they don’t fit in.  They lack important social skills that other kids pick up on by eavesdropping.  I notice this even more with my student who has Asperger’s Syndrome–in all probabilty, even if he could eavesdrop on social cues, they wouldn’t be on his radar.

From Dexter’s father, I can see many years of my job laid out in front of me.  There is always something more to teach.  And if I approach it like the father character–with patience, compassion, and as the situations present themselves–my students will turn out just fine.

Teaching Empathy

November 19, 2009

I think that empathy is one of the most important qualities I can bestow upon my students.  It isn’t a skill, really, so much as a slowly-developed state of being.  And I can’t teach it the same way I teach math.  And I can’t evaluate it the same way I assess reading.

Today, I got a glimpse of my one student’s empathetic heart.

My dad went into the hospital on Monday.  I’ve been stressed and concerned about him, especially because no one knew what was wrong.  It was the cause of some distraction for me this week.  Now, I think it is important to use my life experiences as a model for how I hope my students handle themselves.  So I told them that I was worried, but that I still wanted to be a good teacher for them.  I asked them to be patient with me.

Today, my dad got to go home.  And when I told my kiddos, one of the immediately got a piece of paper and a pencil.  This is what he wrote:

Dear Dan,

I hope you are ok.  I don’t want you to get hrt.  Your doter is werd but she miss you and she sengs werd and a dorke.  I think your cool.  All of my teachers are crazy but thay all sengs werd.  Happy thanksgefing.

Love, [student name]

I cried a little.  It was amazing.


November 2, 2009

My students have a lot of diagnoses.  In my class of 6, one can find the labels of Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, learning disability, and ADHD (again)–not to mention deaf and hard-of-hearing and limited English proficient.

Come to think of it, their teacher has a lot of “labels,” too.  I’m a lactose-intolerant vegetarian afflicted with acid reflux.  I have clinical depression and anxiety.  My list of allergies is insanely long (so long, in fact, that the joke in the elementary hallway is that if I had a piece of medical-alert jewelry with a full listing, it would need to be a Flava Flav-sized locket with an accordion folded list).

This weekend’s daylight savings time-change brought to mind another of my diagnoses: Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder “in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter.” For me it boils down to this: if it’s dark, I sleep.  And by sleep, I mean hibernate.  For up to 12 hours a day.  As I struggled to stay awake last night at 7:00, I realized: 100 years ago, SAD didn’t exist.  One hundred years ago, I would not have struggled to keep going after the sun went down.  When my ancestors were settling their homesteads in North Dakota, the bulk of the work occurred between the months of May and October.  There were still animals to feed and chores to do during the winter months, but the grueling field work of planting, weeding, and harvesting occurred when there was substantial daylight.  There was less work to do during the winter.  Plus, there was no artificial lighting.  So when it was dark, they listened to their bodies and slept.  Light=awake.  Dark=asleep.  Our brains are designed that way.

Now, artificial means of lighting are just a part of life, both indoors and outdoors.  North Dakota and states at similar latitudes have the highest per-capita diagnoses of depression and seasonal mood disorders.  One hundred years ago, I would have been expected to listen to my body as it slowed down during the winter months and to my brain as it cried out for more sleep.  Now, because I live in a culture that “burns the midnight oil,” my brain is labeled defective.  My ailment is not one of brain or body dysfunction, but of unrealistic cultural expectations.

How many of my students’ labels signify a similar cultural disease?  Boys are more likely than girls to be labeled with ADHD.  Why?  Boys are generally more physical and need time to run around and be boys.  I will grant that there are cases of legitimate ADHD that warrants medication—one such kiddo is in my class, and it’s like electricity runs through his skin.  He even described it once by saying, “My brain is on fire.”  But for many of our overly-medicated kids, all they need is recess and physical education.  The problem is not that they cannot sit still, but that a diseased school culture expects them to do so for inordinate amounts of time.  I have heard of schools eliminating recess to make room for more class time.  I can tell you that the best decision I made for my schedule was to have 3 recesses.  The kids come back awake, refreshed, and ready to learn.  I may not have as much class time, but my class time is more productive.

I am not throwing out the legitimacy of my students’ diagnoses.  But instead of looking at the label and seeing a “defective” student, I need to look at the expectations of my classroom culture.  Are my expectations reasonable to facilitate student success?

Red Ribbon Week

October 19, 2009


It is Red Ribbon Week, and we are celebrating being drug-free.  Today’s theme is “Sock it to drugs,” and we all wore kuh-razy socks!  I’m the one with the zebra and gray argyle.  My para has the purple argyle.  The others are my students.

This morning, I gave my little shpeil about Red Ribbon Week.  It went something along the lines of, “When Red Ribbon Week is over, I don’t shoot up my veins and say ‘Drugs, baby!'”  (I actually said that).  “It’s a decision I make every day, that I’m not going to smoke or do drugs.  It’s good if you decide today.  But tomorrow, you need to decide again.  And when you’re 14, again.  And when you’re 24 like me, you will still be deciding every day that you want to make healthy choices.”

As you can maybe tell, I’m more of a fan of integrating drug awareness into the year, rather than focusing on it for a week.  I feel like one week every October is not enough time to teach my students how to make healthy choices.  It’s the same with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  My students will not develop an appreciation for Civil Rights or a respect for people of all origins if we only talk about it for a week in January.

Yeah, this week will be fun.  Will my students get much out of it?  I hope so, but it’s up to me to help them make healthy choices all year long, not just during Red Ribbon Week.