Saturday, February 23, 2013

Zen and the Art of Getting Them to Read

I can't help it. When I see children reading, I have to say, "It's a beautiful thing."  This young one, so intent on his decodable reader is wearing a finger beam. They are an inexpensive gadget that I used to encourage kids to track as they are reading. Earlier this week, my little Kindergarten kiddos squealed with delight as I turned off the lights and announced we'd be reading with magic lights. These beginning readers are fun! Besides foundational reading skills we have practiced complimenting each other's efforts. "Excellent reading!" this little guy told his peer partner after reading the adventures of Pam and her fat hat.

When it comes to reading, I do what it takes to get kids to read, short of rewarding them with trinkets that are unrelated to reading. I never have seen the value of rewarding kids with a yo-yo, pizza, or extra recess for reading. It seems it sends a message to kids that reading in and of itself isn't valuable, therefore we have to create an artificial reinforcer. You can't fool all of the kids even some of the time. Why would we need to reward something if WE feel it is valuable in and of itself?

When it comes to reluctant readers, I suggest that we make reading the reward, the journey is the thing, not the destination. Zen and the Art of Getting Them to Read, if you will.  So, the finger beams were a way to add novelty and some joy on the journey. We all donned them and had a campfire kind of experience around the table. Growing up, as previously mentioned, I didn't need much encouragement to read. My parents surrounded me with books and I ate them for dinner. I still do. However, at least one of my daughters and many of my students don't have that same natural instinct to pick up a book. Not to mention the fact that  there are oh-so-many more distractions in their world.

Each summer  I would get my daughter the books on her school required summer reading list and ceremoniously present them her. "Wow!" I'd say, "These look GREAT!" She'd thank me and set them down. Around July 10, I'd notice they hadn't been touched. So, I'd tell her that I was happy to help her find time to read them. And, I told her, I would read it with her and we'd discuss it. Thus began the forced mother/daughter summer book club. We'd both read a chapter or two and then we'd discuss it. It was great for both of us and I tried not to notice when she was rolling her eyes at me. I think the lofty themes of  Orwell's Animal Farm escaped us both but we did our best to understand the farmyard revolution as it could relate to a family or classroom system.

One summer, this same daughter was assigned, Her Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. She picked it up, read the first page,set it down in exasperation saying, "I can't read this." "Why not?" I asked? " Look at the words, it doesn't make sense!" The book is heavy in dialect with "Ah" meaning" I" and" lak" meaning" like," etc. "Okay," I said, " I've got an idea" and we made a quick reference list of the dialect and their standard English equivalent. It helped. Halfway through, we rented the movie to aid our understanding of the book. We reached the finish line about 24 hours before the first day of school and developed a love for a beautiful story.

I have come to the conclusion that if we want kids to read (and I desperately do) we have to surround them with great books, prepare quiet space and time for them to read and flop down on our stomachs and read right with them. Shine a light on the words you love.  It's a double bonus for kids. They get great books and they get your attention. We can't go wrong. 

Here are some great books that helped me greatly in this endeavor:

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Read-Aloud Handbook by Kim Trelease

I Read It but I don't get it by Chris Tovani

Reading Magic by Mem Fox

For 1st and 2nd graders and their parents, I wholeheartedly recommend any of the books in the You Read to me, I'll Read to You series. They are written for partner reading and so much fun to snuggle up with and discover together.

From one of my students who read Wind in the Willows with me.
 One of my most favorite experiences ever!

Blessed is the reluctant reader of any age who has an adult who shares the experience of reading.
Enjoy the journey,

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Clear Pools of Hope

Every now and then God and the universe grants a clear view of our calling. I was given such a moment recently....

My work is loving the child who
  • would rather be playing
  •  longs to learn but hates to be told
  •  usually does the wrong thing before she gets the right thing
  •  needs to be parallel before she really gets what it means
  • needs a new chance every morning
  •  is surrounded by people who believe in him even though he is determined not to believe in himself
  •  yearns to discover in this own time, however fast or slow that may be
  •  has reverent respect for simple beauty because so much of life is too complicated
  •  when asked to use the word with in a sentence says, "Peace be with you"
  •  hugs you because she got an 80% on her test
  •  doesn't laugh when someone reads "of"  as "for" because he does it all the time himself
  •  gets the wonders of life but doesn't always grasp the logic
  •  grasps the logic but doesn't get all the unwritten rules of human interactions
  • needs to hop, jump, shake and stir
  •  loves the teacher who shows his humanity
  • lives with injustice and therefore understands it
  •  longs to be asked a question that isn't in the book

My work is to be in love, in love's purest form, with this child and to see in him the budding of a flower. To look in her eyes and see clear pools of hope.

My work, thank God, is to love this child.

Thanks to my children and my students who inspire me. Thanks to my big brother Phil for the lovely picture of the budding flower.

Monday, February 11, 2013

AD/HD for Dinner

There's a plethora of information regarding Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Many people know some basic information- such as the three types of AD/HD: inattentive, hyperactive and combined type. Combined type is the most common. Information abounds, as do opinions regarding this diagnosis. For those who say AD/HD is overdiagnosed and overmedicated, I say, "I tend to agree." For those who say there is no such thing as AD/HD, I say, "You must not have it."  At mi casa, we are well acquainted with AD/HD. We set a place for it at dinner and delight in its company. We buy it extra pencils, calculators, and scissors because, alas, those items can never be found when we need them. We have sticky notes, tools, and gadgets to aid it  and specially designed quiet spaces for its retreat. Not to mention a prescription or two in the cupboard.

So, the information I share is from my perspective as someone who knows AD/HD personally and who loves many children and adults who have it. AD/HD in its most severe form isn't just different, it's hard. It can make life so very difficult at times. It can also make life exciting and unpredictable. I'm  sharing some of my own experiences either lived or observed.  There are people far more learned than I with their own valuable insights. Fact is, we all know something about attention. In this world, so full of digital distractions, the average attention span has decreased considerably. Diagnosis or not, we all have to work to be mindful, present and fully attentive. It is really quite tempting to scratch every itch, to answer every text, and to try to be in three places at once. But school and work require us to focus, focus, focus.

So.. there is much to share but it seems a good idea to keep it attention span friendly so this post will offer just a few thoughts...


For those with AD/HD

  • Make friends with your brain. What does it need and how does it learn best? I don't have a long attention span, therefore it is imperative for me to be organized enough to study for short chunks of time. A major test on Friday? I can't do a marathon cramming session, so I study for 20-30 minutes the four days before. I had to teach (translate:make) one of my daughters  do this. Did she rise up to call me blessed? Far from it.... but she smiled when she received a good grade and figured out it is a good idea. A big hairy study guide loaded with info that makes me hyperventilate just looking at it? Break it into chunks. Put the information on note cards in easily digestible pieces.  The Notecards app has been a valuable tool. Figure out your learning style and use it. There are lots of great resources for recording information in classrooms and then listening to it later. Noteability  (app) has this capability as well as the Livescribe Smartpen (

  • Find a system. Figure out what helps you stay organized. My daughter is an inveterate list maker. I have to have my day written out by hand atop my desk. The electronic calender works for some and is readily available. Clean out that backpack and locker once a week. Amazing discoveries await (like your math homework).

  • Figure out your valleys and peaks. Attention comes and goes. Figure out when you are most attentive and do your most challenging task then. Mine is in the morning. I have to get the hard stuff figured out first. The time after 9 PM is an intellectual wasteland for me. Having said that, I know all of us have times that aren't optimal for us but we have to be learning and engaged. Being aware of that is helpful. Take notes, breathe in and out, visualize the information that is coming it, connect it to something that you will remember.  Talk to your brain and ask it to hang in there for another 15 minutes if you happen to be in a valley of distraction.

  • Write it down! If impulsivity lands you in a heap of trouble, carry around some sticky notes or a journal, write those things down rather than saying them. It really helps and when you read them later, most of the time you are really glad you didn't say them.  The other use for writing things down is to remember them.I have students leave my room telling me what the homework is and by the time they get to their locker, it's a lost thought. So, write it down! Sticky notes can be your best friend.

  • Know that school isn't the real world. School takes the attention span to task in the most brutal way. In the real world, you will likely get to operate out of your strengths and while you have to do things you don't want to do, you usually have a bit more control over when to do them. To have lots of choices though, you need an education. So, hang in there, learn as much as you can and and remember that someday you won't be in class for 8 hours a day.


Parent and Teacher Tips

  • Understand that working memory is often impacted by AD/HD. This means that your learner can't retrieve the information you just taught to apply to the new information you want to give him. Help her retrieve this information. Review yesterday's content, use visual clues (lots of them), and help the student make connections. Remind the student where he was when he learned the skill or what game you played to practice it. This is HUGE for kids with AD/HD and too many times we don't get it and assume the student wasn't paying attention or isn't trying. Not true. Help them access that information!

  • Change the address often. We can't keep children or adult learners in their seats the whole class period. Build in movement and offer options. It is worth the effort to plan purposeful movement. Have several options available in your classroom for seating/standing. Yes, it is okay to have times when you expect everyone in their seats and everyone quiet but not all day or even most of the day for a learner with significant attention issues.

  • Change it up. Take the kids by surprise. The AD/HD brain loves the new and novel. Utilize technology, hands on activities, games and mystery.  Prime the brain for learning by telling them what you hope they figure out by the end of the class period.

  • Educate the whole person. We do this so well in preschool but too many times by the time we are teaching high school kids we are only talking to the part of the learner that is between the ears and the top of the head.  All through our lives we need to have chances to learn with our whole body. If we can teach it hands-on, we probably should.
  • Have some sensory/escape items in your classroom and home. Everybody needs them. I have yet to see a child acting impulsively while playing in the zen garden or doing some creative doodles. These things are calming and create a safe outlet. Children with AD/HD often need a little help to slow down their engines. Give them that help by offering some hands on materials. Zen gardens available at
  •  Provide rationale. Often the AD/HD child wants to know why he or she is asked to learn something. It is a fair question. If we can't answer it, we should probably chuck the lesson. "Because it is on the state assessment" is never a good answer. I tell my students I should always be able to tell them why I have given them an assignment or why I am teaching a particular skill. The child with AD/HD is wonderfully inquisitive and will ask you great questions. 

Finally, it is my contention that if we make our classrooms and homes friendlier places for students with attention needs, we will benefit everyone. The most challenging students I have had have made me the best teacher. The most active and inquisitive students I've had have grown up to do wonderful things when allowed to work out of their strengths.

Yours in distraction,

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Being Present and Being Real

"The secrets of good teaching are the same as the secrets of good living:
  seeing oneself without blinking,
  offering hospitality to the alien other
  having compassion for all of the suffering,
  speaking the truth to power.
  Being present and being real.
  These secrets are hidden in plain sight."    
                                         Mary Rose O'Reilley

    These words I received at a conference years ago and ever since they have been posted somewhere near my desk. It is the single best advice I have ever received regarding teaching. My students, especially in their most vulnerable moments, are some of my greatest teachers in this area. When we listen we learn, and  my students time and time again share insights rivaling the best methods course money can buy. They say, "This is hard." "I don't understand why we have to learn this." I liked this book but it is really strange!" "I feel like I have to be the dumbest kid in the school."  " I woke up this morning dreading seeing you for math tutoring."  "Is it TIME for lunch?"  I have learned that my best teaching moments come when I am honest as well. Many times I have seen a student sigh with relief when I can say, "That is hard for me too."   Then when they "get it" and they always do eventually,  I love it when they share the good news. I have learned that being present and being real means that I support them when they are struggling and celebrate with them when the proverbial light bulb comes on.

 I work with a wonderful teacher who told me early one morning while we were both gathering materials for the day., "I try to remember that my students are little human beings." So true. She reminds her students daily that no matter how they learn and no matter what their family is like, they are special and loved.   Too often this message gets lost in the daily duties, the rigorous curriculum, and the emphasis on accountability. Frequently we focus on product, not process, and lose the chance to be present and real. This same teacher readily admits to her students when she finds things difficult and anxiety producing.

Focus on Autism

In this entry I wanted to share some resources for parents and teachers who have the honor of living with or working with students who are on the autism spectrum. Although I will use some generalizations I am mindful of the fact that each person with autism is unique and amazing. There may be some characteristics common to many individuals with autism but as one of my colleagues says, "Once you have met one child with autism, you have met ONE child with autism."

If you have a student or a child with autism, here are some good resources for learning more. My favorites are the movies or books that tell stories from the perspective of someone with autism.


 Temple Grandin is amazing. She is an adult with autism who can tell you exactly how her brain works and what has been helpful to her. She has written several  books and there is a an HBO movie based on her life called "Temple Grandin." I had the chance to hear her speak once and I have never forgotten her courage and her honesty. It was so helpful to my understanding of how a person with autism might experience the world. I will never forget how she said that one of the strongest, most prevalent feelings she believes a lot of people with autism has is anxiety. Understanding this characteristic has helped me tremendously. When one of my students is upset or displaying challenging behavior I seek to understand, to listen to what could be causing anxiety and then address that. Read any of her books and you will receive valuable insights.

TED talks feature a talk by Temple Grandin and also one by Faith Jegede titled, "What I've Learned from my Autistic Brothers."  Excellent insights for anyone who wants to learn more about the gifts of autism.

 I recently read a book by Kathryn Erskine called "Mockingbird." It is so good although in the beginning it is  a rather sad story.  The narrator in the story is a young woman with autism and her perspectives on being taught social skills and navigating the world of relationships is insightful and helpful.

Michelle Garcia Winner has written a lot of books and produced resources on the subject of social thinking. Her materials contain helpful strategies and tools for working with kids who may have trouble taking the perspective of others. When I heard Michelle speak once, it became clear to me why my students often have trouble with reading comprehension. It is because so much of understanding literature is about taking perspective and understanding author's intent. So, she has tools and activities that are great for helping kids with this. She also has good insights into how people with autism understand the hidden rules of relationships. Time and again I have heard parents of children with autism express fear that their child won't have friends. This curriculum really does address the basic skills many students need to interact with "expected" behaviors. Google her and you will find what materials she offers!

There is an app called Social Express. It is pricey (around $80)  but it is good for children ages 5-8 or so who may need some assistance with the basic skills of recognizing how to make eye contact and how to determine what someone else might be thinking. It is interactive and has good graphics. My students like it and I have noticed they can transfer the skills to real life situations. For older students, I suggest Noteability. Students can organize notes into color coded sections for classes and record their instructor while they write or type. It is great and only costs about $2.

This letter was written by one of my students after reading a book I had given to her. I love her honest critique!

Finally, don't underestimate the sensory needs of students. We all have sensory needs and we have appropriate ways to meet those needs. Be an astute observer of your student to discover what is alerting or calming to him or her. What are the environmental conditions that help him/her be successful?  A good occupational therapist is a wonderful asset in this area but again, listening and being observant goes a long way. I worked with a little boy once who pulled hair at circle time. When I watched him I noticed that when he was isolated from others he pulled his own hair or scratched the carpet. Naughty? No. Sensory seeking? Yes. There was an easy fix as we got him a little troll to hold at circle time and he pulled that dear thing hairless as he sat happily beside his peers. Teachers who are incorporating flexible seating options are finding them helpful for an array of sensory seeking students. Work with it, not against it!