Thursday, August 29, 2013

A teacher coping with disability

I've been contemplating this post for quite some time, but it's been difficult for me to put into words.  I've decided to give it a shot, in hopes that maybe somewhere out there, my story might impact somebody, and possibly give me some closure to what has been one of the biggest challenges of my life.

So flash back 4 years to May of 2009.  It's a normal Saturday, like any other, except I woke up and couldn't hear anything.  I shouldn't say I couldn't hear anything at all, it was more like all I could hear was fuzz and ringing.  I'd had some tinnitus in my left ear since college, but this was tinnitus times 1000.  To put it into perspective, my husband had to put his mouth right up to my ear for me to hear him, and even then it was very garbled.

I went to several ENT's and had more hearing tests than I can count...basically, no one knows why this happened, and no one was sure if it'd ever get better.  That was a huge gut check.  I'm a teacher, how in the world am I going to teach if I can't hear what my students are saying? The doctors were optimistic that my hearing would get better, but they weren't sure how much.  My official diagnosis (and I'm not making this up) is Sudden Hearing Loss...yes, that's really the name.

As if all that wasn't enough, this happened exactly 1 week prior to the River Bank Run...a 25K I had been training for since January (over 300 miles logged), and my ENT told me that because of all the steroids I was on my immune system was really low and that I should probably sit it out.  He may not have realized what a big deal it was for me to not run, but it was a big deal.  I had never run anything remotely that long, ever, and I was a charity runner for the Kent County Girls on the Run.  Talk about pouring salt on a wound.

As it stands now, I can hear low tones pretty well, but I can't hear high tones well at all...things like microwave beeps, annoying reminders on your phone, and high pitched voices are beyond my range.  I have to wear hearing aids when I'm at school to help me better understand what the students are saying, but even with them, students often have to repeat themselves.

As you can probably imagine, it is incredibly frustrating for me and the students...I've gotten in the habit of repeating the student's comments to make sure I'm right, and often the students look at me like I'm nuts.  That's a pretty clear sign that I didn't hear them correctly.  That is probably the most frustrating part because I don't want people to think I don't know what I'm doing, or that I'm not an intelligent person.

While I try to stay optimistic, it is hard...really hard sometimes.  I hate that I can't hear my students the first time.  I hate that I miss side comments that I really should be able to hear.  I hate that I miss the point of a joke & have to have someone rephrase...I always feel like I'm 10 seconds behind the punchline, and by the time I laugh it's not funny anymore.  I hate that I can't always hear my kids (imagine driving somewhere with kids in the backseat that you can't hear talking to you).  I hate that I avoid phone conversations purely because I'm afraid I won't be able to understand them.  I hate that I am nervous telling people about my hearing loss because I'm afraid they'll judge or avoid me.  I could probably go on and on, but it's easy to get into a "poor me" mentality, and that's not who I want to be.

So how do I cope? For starters, my family is wonderful.  My husband is extremely patient with me if I need something repeated, and my kids are finally of ages where they understand that I'm not being mean when I don't respond to them, I just don't hear them.  My friends are also incredible.  I used to get nervous when going out with the girls because I missed a lot of the conversation.  I found myself just nodding my head.  I don't want to burden people, so I took the easy way out.  They finally caught on and had a mini-intervention with me.  Basically it took them saying, "Damn it! Would you just say something if you don't hear us? We miss you being a part of the conversation."  So now I do.  I don't know if I have formally thanked them, but it meant a lot. So thank-you Wendy, Julie and ladies are fantastic.

But probably the hardest thing to cope with is my teaching.  How do you handle a class of 30 students when lots of noise is a major issue for you? Do you require them to be silent...please, like that's even possible!  I've found that simple honesty is the best policy.  I tend to not mention my hearing loss until I develop a relationship with my kids.  If I could pick a graphic for how most students respond it would probably be a little guy shrugging his shoulders and saying "ok, no big deal".  And that's a huge me.  They do little things for me now that they wouldn't before.  Like answering the phone because they know I don't even hear it ring.  Or looking at me before they speak so I can read their lips as well as hear their voices.  Do some students take advantage of it? the other kids think it's funny when they do? Not at all.

I'm writing this in an effort to get it all off my chest, find some closure, etc.  In addition to finally getting this out there, I'm also going to sign up for the River Bank Run.  It's been 4 years since this happened, and I still haven't tried to run it.  Call it a mental block, emotional block, or whatever you want, but I associate my hearing loss with the River Bank Run and I haven't wanted to try again.  This year I've been inspired by a lot of people doing amazing things, and I'm ready to give it a go.  I also found a running buddy to do it with me, so that's exciting as well (now you can't back out Megan!).

This year I was introduced to a company called Fellow Flowers.  To me, they're a place to find encouragement, motivation and inspiration.  Their company basically sells flowers (the cute ones that go in your hair), but each one has a different meaning to it.  I'd been wanting one for awhile, but I wasn't sure which to choose.  I finally decided upon Red:  Love, Passion, Commitment and Spirit.  Caring for the world around you.  Bringing it - every damn day.  It takes strength to do what you love.

I think red seems appropriate.

---------- Guess what? I accomplished my Riverbank Run goal! You can read about it here. -----------

You mean PD can be meaningful?

This summer I attended 2 professional development opportunities through my district.  While they both relate to each other, I'm having a hard time meshing them.  In the past, I've found that once I begin writing, often times I'll figure out a solution...therefore I give you what is potentially going to be a very rambling blog post.

Training #1 - Leadership Blueprint
The first training I attended was about developing leaders in the district...or so I thought.  We did, in fact, develop some strategies for being leaders, but most of those revolved around learning how to build relationships.  The power of having relationships with whomever you're working with (students, parents, teachers, principals, etc.) is HUGE.  I should also preface this part of the post by giving kudos to everyone in my district who attended.  There was a room of 32 adults, and they consisted of: the superintendent, curriculum director, all principals and assistant principals, director of technology, head of maintenance, many teachers AND a school board member.  Throughout the duration of the 3 day training everyone was engaged & one was checking emails, texts, was a beautiful thing.

One catch phrase that kept coming up was "My goal is your success."  The goal of a leader isn't their success, it's the success of those they work with.  The biggie here, is you have to mean it.  You can't say something like that, then never DO anything to back it up (aka - walk the talk).  I also had a bit of a light-bulb moment during the training.  I am used to teachers being given feedback by administrators to help us grow.  What I hadn't ever thought about was giving feedback to my administrator.  I never thought of it as my responsibility to help my administrators grow, but I'm realizing that if the people working for them can't give them honest feedback, then they will never change.  This year I intend to be honest with my administrator, and hopefully we can help each other be successful.

Affirmation also became a big topic of discussion.  I have a very hard time receiving affirmations with a simple "thank-you".  I always feel like I need to justify what I did.  This is a goal of mine, to simply say "thank you" when someone says something kind.  I also want to give more meaningful affirmations.  Two things I'm going to take back to my classroom from that portion of training are affirmation bags and classroom "good things".  Once I've developed a relationship with my kiddos we'll start affirmation bags with each other...basically anonymous notes filled with affirmations.  One thing I'll start day 1 is our classroom good things.  Each morning, while we have breakfast, I plan on just calling out 5 people for good things...good things at home, good things at school, whatever.  Being the obnoxiously optimistic person that I am, I want the day to start in a positive way.

Another part of our training that I will definitely be doing with my class is a social contract.  A social contract is an agreement of behavior.  As of now I have an empty bulletin board that says "Social's how we treat each other".  We'll be filling it in as a class.  I've done similar things in the past, but this year I'm going to change something...I'm going to remember to actually go back to it & even change it, if necessary.  Along with the social contract came 3 hand symbols that I LOVE.  Thumb up is a reminder to a neighbor who isn't paying attention (I got to use this on my principal...he, he, he), Time out is a reminder to the group as a whole if there is side chatter, and Foul (one hand up, one hand out) is if you hear someone give a put down (to themselves or others).  If a foul is called, then whoever said it must immediately say sorry & give a put up.

Training #2 - Curriculum Design & Development
My district is in the very early stages of being the first school district in Michigan to go to a completely mastery based system of grades.  We voted, as a district, last year, and 81% of voters supported this move.  With it comes a HUGE shift in thinking about how you run your classroom, how you teach, and how you think about your students.  I just finished 3 days of introductory training on the RISC (Re Inventing Schools Coalition), and it was good...I hesitate to say it was great, only because there was a lot of talking at us.  I also realize that there needs to be a certain amount of knowledge being passed down to us, especially when we're beginning.

The most beneficial part of the training was the work time.  We got a chance to work in buildings and grade levels on some of the changes we need to begin making.  In grade levels we began unpacking standards, turning them into kid-friendly language, and thinking about rubrics that show mastery...we have LOT yet to do.

As a building we got a lot of time to solidify our building wide procedures, expectations, vision, etc.  We used to have a very wordy vision for our one really knew what it said (even though we all had input on it), and we needed a change.  I'm really excited about what we came up with:

Alpine: Be the Best You

We then took the word BEST from our vision and turned it into our expectations.
Be a leader

We even have a building song (thank the lord for musically gifted teachers, because our Kinder teacher came up with it in less than 5 minutes).

We also got a lot of work done on the building wide procedures.  One of our issues is that we have procedures, but they're different in every room.  We came up with simple, kid friendly procedures that everyone will use.

I think the most powerful part of it all was that our principal wasn't the one directing us to do all this work.  We, the teachers, recognized the issue.  I know it was probably extremely difficult for him, but he managed to sit back & let us take control of all of it.  The only time he stepped in was when we needed to share what we did with each other.

When I spoke at the beginning of this blog about having a hard time meshing the trainings, it was mostly my desire for wanting to do a social contract, but also stay consistent with the other teachers within the building.  Like I expected, I've sort of worked it out now that I'm done typing.  I'm realizing the social contract is the behaviors within my class, the relationships I build with my students.  The procedures and vision expectations are the common language throughout the building.

I'm excited for the year and developing a community within my classroom, and I'm even looking forward to getting more time to work more on our grade level unpacking.

So bring it on kids, let's get this party started!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Writing in my MATH flipped classroom!

Those of you that follow my blog know that I teach in an elementary school.  I swap classes with 1 other teacher.  We both teach our own ELA, but I've always taught the math to both sections, and she has always taught all the science/social studies.  We both get frustrated when it comes to teaching writing.  We want to make writing authentic, we want it to be purposeful, and we want it woven into all content areas.  We don't want it to be a stand alone subject, taught in isolation.  Unfortunately what we want and what actually happens are two very different things.

With the Common Core coming, my grade level partner & I decided to try to make some changes in the upcoming year revolving around writing.  The Common Core has 4 basics types of writing that are required in 5th grade:
- writing to persuade
- writing to teach
- writing to tell a story
- writing about research

With this in mind, we've both decided to eliminate writing from our day...I don't mean we won't be teaching writing, I mean we won't be teaching writing by itself.  Beginning next year we will be teaching writing in all the other content areas.

Here is how we're going to break it down:

During math, my students will be doing the usual flipped classroom requirements (which, by the way, involve a lot of writing when they do their WSQ's).  However, the change is going to come at the end of the unit.  At the end of each unit the students always do some sort of performance based assessment...I guarantee you that each child will have to WRITE a lot of explanations on it.  In addition to their performance based assessments, my students also blog.  They will be required to write a blog entry at the end of each unit that teaches someone else about one of the learning goals from their unit.  Last year we blogged with a few other 5th grade classes, but this year I want to kick it up a notch.  I want to try to connect with another 5th grade class (hopefully John Fritzky's class will be on board again)...but I also want to connect with a High School or Middle School class...I want my student's writing to have an audience.  So I'm hoping that somewhere out there I can find a Middle School or High School teacher who wants to blog with a group of 5th graders.  I don't even care if it's a math class.  Quite frankly, I hope it's not.  I think it would be great if a group of 9th grade biology students wanted to blog with us.  It would probably do wonders towards getting my kids to love science, who knows?!?  Sorry, that got a bit wordy, I tend to do that when I get excited!

Persuasive writing is going to be covered in science and social studies.  I don't know exactly how, because it's not my thing, but I am certain it will be :)

I dabbled in having a genius hour with my class last year, and it was A-MA-ZING!  Research goes hand-in-hand with genius hour.  That being said, the students will also be doing small research projects during our RtI time, as well as in science/social studies.

Our final writing topic is writing to tell a story...that seems like a no brainer to weave into our reading block.

The only way this whole plan is going to actually work, is if we extend our normal math/science/ss time.  We used to meet 50 minutes each day.  If our schedule works out the way we are hoping, our switch time will be bumped up to 75 minutes each day...I'm SO excited about the potential of extra time, now I just need to make sure I don't get carried away with the math & forget the writing :)

I'm also really excited about some of the new technology heading my way this year.  We'll have a classroom set of iPads for my grade level partner & I to share, and we're going to put them to good use with all this writing!

I'd love to hear some feedback on what you think about our plan for next year. Has anyone out there tried this, and how'd it go.  Also, are there any other classes that want to join me in my blogging adventure?

Setting Goals

I've been thinking a lot about next year, and what goals I'm going to set for myself.  In  we are either "on" or "off" schedule.  If you are "on schedule", then you have to set 1 goal & be observed 3 times.  If you are "off schedule", then you set 3 goals and are observed 1 time.  Our goals also have to be SMART goals.  These goals, along with our observation and proof of student growth, are combined together at the end of the year to form our evaluation.

Last year, when I sat down with my principal to set my goals, it was an extremely difficult process.  I had several things I wanted to improve on personally, but wasn't allowed to have as my goal because I'm already "good" at them.  Examples: being a leader in the building and improving how I utilize technology in the classroom.

Therefore, I had to set new goals, on top of the goals I actually wanted to do, and the whole thing became a lot to manage.  Please don't misunderstand, I truly believe that teachers should be setting goals for themselves, and reflecting on those goals throughout the year.  The difficult part for me is that I already do that...maybe it's because I'm a reflective person, maybe it's because I intentionally blog about it, I don't know, but to me, having to write additional goals when I already had goals of my own was a bit excessive.

At the end of the year I started to think about what I want this year's goals to be...I didn't want to sit down in my principals office again & have the same experience.  So here's what I came up with:

1) I want to improve parent communication via our classroom website, blog (which the students will be writing at the end of each day).

2) I want to incorporate writing into all content areas, rather than have it as a stand alone subject.

3) I want to incorporate smaller inquires at the beginning of a lesson, rather than at the end.

I plan on blogging more about each of these goals in the near future, but that is what I'm shooting for next year...