June 5, 2014

Swimming with Rainbow Fish

Today is the last day of school.

For me, the first and last days are always bittersweet. Days full of excitement and trepidation, fun and uncertainty.

This spring I watched my son learn to scull, and as he practiced, I couldn't help but compare the experience with my daily life as a special education teacher. In August, we push off from shore with our brand new clothes and our brand new shoes and our brand new pencils ready for a new adventure. By November, we've got the rhythm down. We know our roles: cockswain who encourages and directs, stroke teams working together to keep the rhythm and move forward. We've learned how to work in unison.

By February, we hit the doldrums. Exhaustion sets in. The end feels so far away. Are the kids where they need to be at this point in the year? There's so much left to teach. Tests loom in front of us like storm clouds, so we open our umbrellas and remind ourselves of how unimportant they really are in the scheme of everything. Like a winter storm, they blow in gray and noisy and then fade away a quickly as a whisper.

But then, the last few weeks of school approach, first creeping up on us with quiet little feet that soon graduate to determined, flip-flop clad stompers that will trample you if you don't duck out of the way fast enough. Those sharp pencils are now nubs. The soles on our shiny new tennis shoes are worn thin. But the same feelings echo in me. Relief that a break is coming, worry about whether my students accomplished all we set out to accomplish.

As I stood in the entrance to school this morning waiting and watching for my students who might be confused by the change in morning routine, I realized that sadly there are so many children that I don't "see". Those kids for whom learning comes relatively easy, for whom social relationships are built with fewer bumps and bruises. It's not that they are less important. On the contrary, I work with students in extracurricular groups like Student Council and UIL specifically so that I can get to know these students and keep my finger on the pulse of "typical".

But what I realized, as I stood there in the foyer, was that those students swim past me like schools of fish, lovely silver, swimming in straight lines, attending to the world around them with ease. But mixed in the current are rainbow fish, with beautiful, sparkly scales. One may have an odd-sized fin and swim in more of a zig-zag than a straight line, but he leaves a wake of beauty. These are the students who mean so much to me.

I'm so fortunate to get to spend my days in the company of these interesting and lovely little humans, these rainbow fish.
~ Kelley

April 3, 2014

Talking to Students about Standardized Testing

It's that time of year with standardized tests looming on the horizon...

Many of my students are showing signs of stress and anxiety regarding the upcoming tests. We are working through a unit on stress and stress management in our social thinking groups and the topic of tests is top on the stress chart for most of my students.

I have definite feelings and opinions on the one-size-fits-all, high-stakes testing issue, but that is not a problem we're going to solve today, unfortunately. In the meantime, I thought I would share some strategies and a tool I am currently using with students to help de-mystify the whole testing routine and help them realize that they've got the tools they need to keep their stress levels low. 

First of all, I use the story of The Wizard of Oz with my students to help them understand the purpose for benchmark tests and state standardized tests. I tell them that at the beginning of the year, we start off walking down the Yellow Brick Road with our friends. Along the way, we will learn many things and the goal is to make it to the Emerald City to see the Wizard (representing the total learning for the year) by summer vacation.

I tell them that their job is to do the work to learn and practice new skills along the path. A few times a year, the teachers want to check to make sure they are moving father down the Yellow Brick Road and getting closer to Oz. We do those checks through benchmarks and (in our case) STAAR tests. I tell them that taking those tests is the same as when we use a ruler to measure distances. The tests measure the distance we've traveled down the Yellow Brick Road. My students seem to really understand this analogy and it has calmed down some of the anxiety.

Along with the Yellow Brick Road story, we do what we can to de-mystify the big, scary test. We look at examples of released tests so they can see that the questions don't look any harder than work they do successfully every single day at school. We make lists of things we know, want to know, and then have learned about what to expect.

Finally, we review the powerpoint below which can help answer nagging questions. Feel free to use this powerpoint with your students if it would be helpful for them.

One piece of advice is to not assume that your students know information that you think would be common sense. For example, after our last district benchmark test, I found out that the biggest source of stress for one of my students who was in an oral-administration group, was that the administrator didn't spell out for him how to indicate to her that he was ready to move on. He needed to be told explicitly what to do ("When you are finished answering the question, look at me. That will let me know you're ready to move on.")  Also, for kids on the Autism Spectrum, please take the time to show them the space where they will test (and the administrator if it is not going to be you) BEFORE the test. The more you can take the mystery out of it, the less anxiety they will have to deal with.

And finally, encourage parents to keep it all in perspective. Kids only stress when they pick up on stress from the adults in their lives. In the long run, remember that these tests are NOT good indicators of successful learning, job readiness skills, or how successful they will be in life. They only indicate how well they've learned to answer multiple choice questions and bubble in answer sheets. I reinforce to parents that the most important thing to me is how well kids make progress toward IEP goals and how they show their learning in everyday and authentic learning tasks.
Click here to download the powerpoint to your computer.

September 21, 2013

Check Out Our Sensory Break Space!

I'm doing my happy special ed teacher dance! You know....the one that goes like this?

Elaine Dance photo ElaineDance.gif
Yes, I'm a Seinfeld fan. I mean, seriously, how many moments in our lives are identified with Seinfeld references?! Low talkers, close talkers, fat free yogurt, "No soup for you!", Mulva, puffy shirt, Festivus for the rest of us, Junior Mints. In fact, when I searched for this image I started laughing so hard my TA thought I had lost my mind! I know, I know...Topic Twister invaded my brain for a minute. Sorry about that! Back to the topic ~ Our New Sensory Break Room!

This year our school had a classroom that was being used for other purposes. My brilliant and fantastic principal gave us permission to expand our sensory break space into this room since our space was so limited in our tiny little classroom. I'm counting my lucky stars to have it for as long as I get it. I know it is HIGHLY unlikely we will have it next year. So, we are enjoying it while we do!

Check out our Gross Motor Center (complete with racetrack!)....

Our Fine Motor Center....

And our Calm Body Center...

I change out the activity offerings in each center (except the gross motor center which remains the same) on a weekly basis so it can stay interesting to the kids.

The kids check in at the Learning Zone poster when they enter the room.

They then choose a center that will help get their bodies into the green learning zone.

We are also working with Leah Kuyper's Zones of Regulation curriculum to help us identify "tools" for our ready to learn toolbox.

This week, we will be working to identify the effect various "tools" have on our emotions. Each child will have his own "toolbox" available.  Click here to download a copy of the toolbox.

This space has been such a blessing! We are able to start our days feeling good, conduct periodic sensory breaks as needed (or as scheduled!) during the day, and end our day in the room while we wait out the noisy chaos of dismissal. This has helped us start and end our days feeling calm!

I know that it is unlikely that we will have this space every year, but even if we don't I can use the same centers model with smaller and easier to store activities.

Thanks for checking our our Sensory Break Space!

September 4, 2013

Wow Us Wednesday ~ Lesson Plan Link Party!

We have a brilliant idea if we do say so ourselves....

Well, it will only be brilliant if YOU join in! There are so may smart therapists and teachers out there that work so hard to create purposeful and engaging lesson plans for students. I know I am guilty of re-inventing the wheel too many times instead of reaching out to ask for and share ideas with my fellow teachers.

So, let's change that!

On the first Wednesday of each month, we will open up our Wow Us Wednesday Lesson Plan Link Party. We will keep the links open from Wednesday-Tuesday, so check back several times over the course of the week to catch all the great ideas. Feel free to link up any great lesson plans that you would like to share and make sure to "like" the ideas that you really enjoy. We will feature the top three "liked" lessons in a follow-up post.

What's a link party you say? It is a great way to be linked up to other blogs and share information in one easy stop. But Kelley & Orlanda, what if I want to share and I don't have a blog? Never fear ~ the Dynamic Duo is here! There is a way you can share your idea. Just follow the instructions here.

I'll start the party off with a lesson plan that I find to be incredibly useful with my 5th grade social groups. I think it would be a fantastic lesson to use with middle and high school as well.

One of my tried-and-true activities that I do yearly with my 5th grade social group students is designing our own vision boards. A vision board is a tool that helps students identify what they want various aspects of their life to "look like" in the future.

If we already have rapport established in a group that has been together for a while, then we do this activity at the beginning of the school year. If the group is composed of students who do not know each other well, then we do this activity after we've had time to do some team building.

The first step is to create a web that describes the important components of a balanced life. Here is an example of our web.

The kids then cut out pictures of magazines or find images on the computer to represent their short term and long term goals for each of the areas on the web. This really opens up a lot of discussion and even helps some members find commonalities between each other.

They create their own vision boards and present it to the group. Here are a couple of examples of finished vision boards by 5th graders.

We use these vision boards all year as anchors for discussions about how our social behavioral choices either support or harm our ability to reach our goals.

I hope this activity will be good to add for your beginning of the year planning!   ~Kelley

Here are the friendly guidelines for our get-together:
  • When you link up, please grab our button and include it somewhere in your post. You can find it on the sidebar. Or you can simply link to this post on your blog. Thanks!
  • Please visit the other great bloggers that link up to check out their ideas and leave some comment love.
  • Please consider joining the Dynamic Duo as a blog friend. Follow us by email (on the sidebar) or through your blog reader. That way you can make sure to get the most up-to-date posts.
So, get an awesome lesson plan ready to post and join the party!

August 28, 2013

Wow Us Wednesday ~ Classroom Organization Link Party!

It's that time of year! We're recharged from summer break and ready to get our classrooms and therapy rooms set up and organized for the new year. I'm always tweaking my organizational and storage systems to try to make the best use I can of my small space and it is so much easier to do when unpacking after summer break.

I love cruising Pinterest and blog hopping to check out classroom organizational ideas. Here are a few of my recent faves.

I took a couple of weekends last spring and converted all my files to binders. Totally worth the time!

Space Saving Game Storage

Using photos to cue clean-up.
This blog has tons of great ideas!

Orlanda and I want to see YOUR space! We thought it would be great to start a Classroom Tour Linky Party right here at the Dynamic Duo so that we can have a one-stop bounty of classroom tour goodness.

So, snap some pics of your classroom or therapy room and post them here. The link party will be open from now until Wednesday, September 4. If you don't have a blog to link to and still want to share your photos, follow the directions here. And make sure to "like" your faves. We will feature the top 3 "liked" entries in a follow-up post.

We will start the party off with a quick tour of our rooms.

Here's Kelley's SCORES (Social Communication & Resource Program) room. My room was designed to be a physical therapy/occupational therapy room. It is divided into two parts with a glass wall in the center. I have placed the sensory area on the larger half of the room and the academic area on the smaller half. It is definitely cozy, so we have to be very diligent about keeping it clutter-free and using space wisely. For storage, I have brought in a few bookshelves and melamine cabinets from home and am able to stash them in a little alcove right outside of my classroom. I'm so lucky that my administration lets me do this. Otherwise, I would be a crazy person!

My room is set off down a short hallway right off the front entrance from our school. 

We have a welcome sign to let folks know where to find me and my TA (Mrs. McBride ~ who is BRILLIANT and I couldn't live without her!)

My make-it-work-in-the-hallway storage system for social thinking/behavior tools and all the literacy materials...

Shelves for math materials...

Our awesome Playmobil school for role playing and wire drawers with stress balls, puppets, & carpet spots. Under the blue tablecloth is our makeshift kitchen (mini fridge, microwave, and rubbermaid drawers full of snacks).

Our sensory area.... we LOVE the cocoon swing from IKEA - it is so much cheaper than specialty catalogs and so great for those calm down moments we all need sometimes! I do need to pump the seat back up - a student told me yesterday that it was hurting his "leg pits". So funny! The shelves contain books, fine motor activities, visual and auditory activities, and a "cloud sand" tray.

Our yummy calm down tent & hippity hop ball. The tent is filled with a blanket, pillow, beanbag chair, and a handful of stuffed animals. The big stuffed animals are filled with beans to serve as a calming weighted item.

A computer for my Teaching Assistant and the students to share. You can see through the little doorway our academic learning area.

On the academic side of the room I have my work nook. I try hard to keep down the clutter and visual noise, but it is hard! A big goal of mine this year is to TRY to keep my desk clean. It's day 3 of school and I'm not being very successful thus far. :(

As you can see, we keep our florescent lights off and have lamps scattered around both sides of the room. It is so much more calming! Here is the work area and storage for currently-being-used materials for academics and social thinking groups. On the side of the cabinet we are trying a stamp card this year instead of a sticker chart for showing whole body listening during groups.

Here's Orlanda's Speech/Language Therapy room...

Here are the friendly guidelines for our get-together:

·  When you link up, please grab our button and include it somewhere in your post. You can find it on the sidebar. Thanks!
·  Please check out other great bloggers and leave them some comment love!
·  Please make sure that your link is directly related to a classroom tour, organizational tip, or organizational product.
·  Please join the Dynamic Duo as a blog friend. Follow us by email (on the sidebar) or through your blog reader. That way you can make sure to get the most up-to-date posts.
So, get your classroom tour ready and join the party!