My Very Favorite Christmas Book of All Time

Today I wanted to give a shout out to my very favorite Christmas book of all time.  No, it isn’t How the Grinch Stole Christmas (she says with some guilt and an apology to that wonderful classic and to Dr. Seuss himself); it’s The Red Ranger Came Calling, by Berkeley Breathed.

I was as surprised as any fan of Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat to find a Berke Breathed book that centered on, well, human beings.  But loving Bloom County, I picked it up to thumb through it.  The book passed both of my tests for successful picture books: it brought me both tears and chills in the middle of the bookstore.  Wiping away the tears, I hurried to the counter and bought it immediately.  I’ve read it a gazillion times to classrooms, friends and individual students, and I wipe away tears every time.

The book is a wonderful piece of family folklore.  Told in the first person, the main character is the boy who would grow up to be Breathed’s father.  Breathed’s love for his father and his childhood experience of wonder listening to this story infuse the book with a palpable aura of joy.

The first-person narrative nails the voice of a cranky, curmudgeonly little boy raised during the Depression, trying desperately not to feel any more disappointment than his already cynical self has experienced.  Breathed manages to layer in the perspective of a wiser, older self reflecting back on the story without minimizing or patronizing his young narrator at all.

The story centers on said curmudgeonly little boy’s adventures to disprove the existence of Santa Claus, in particular to expose a fake whom locals claim is the Real Deal.  After all, the boy explains, “It took folks far more fruity than the Red Ranger of Mars to be tricked into believing such twaddle.  Like many my age, I knew that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny were just that many more promises hatched by those who weren’t very good at keeping any.”

Illustration of  The Red Ranger

Illustration of The Red Ranger

The rich illustrations glow with magic.  They match and magnify the tone of the narration perfectly.  Half the fun of reading the book comes from giving voice to the main character.  The other half comes from letting kids study the evocative pictures.  The combination makes The Red Ranger one of my favorite read alouds.

To say that the boy discovers the true meaning of Christmas would be too clichéd to mean much, but I will tell you that he gains a new understanding of faith, belief and love, and just what those untrustworthy grown-ups are really trying to express with their twaddle.  And as he does so, I can promise you that (if you are anything like me) you’ll find yourself wiping away tears and chills each time you reread this book to those you love.

Developing Details in Writing: Beyond Visualize and Verbalize Part II

So, you’ve been working with a kiddo whose spelling is great, grammar is excellent, but who melts down when asked to write in class; the more open the assignment, the more panicked the student.  You’ve been using Lindamood Bell’s Visualize and Verbalize program  to help connect the pictures of the right side of the brain with the words on the left side of the brain.  Maybe you have started supplementing that with the Guess the Animal game I described in Part I of this series.  But now you are looking for some other activity to continue developing both receptive and expressive language, all while building comprehension and writing skills.

In Part I, we made sure we had scene builders, folders and pattern blocks in our tool kit.  What, you may have asked, could those possibly be for?  I’m glad you asked!

robot scene builder

Build A Robot from Mudpuppy

For this activity, you can use any type of scene builder: felt, magnetic, cling-on…I am a big fan of the Mudpuppy Magnetic Figures because they are quirky and fun.  The key is that you need two exact sets.

First, show your student that you have the exact same set he does.  You tell him the game is for one of you to build a scene in secret behind a folder, and describe it to the other person while building it, so that at the end, the two scenes look exactly the same.

I always let the student choose whether she wants to build first or have me build first.  The shyer ones, or the ones who don’t quite get the activity yet, let me build first; the ones who grab hold of the idea want to build right away.

While they are building and describing, I make sure to ask clarifying questions if there is a little ambiguity (“How far from the moon does the monster head go?  Do you mean the green leg with scales or the smooth one with a boot?”)

Once they are done, we do a drum roll and the Big Reveal!  I remove the folder with a flourish and we compare results.

After a bit of oohing and ahhing, we debrief, um, briefly, with comments like, “Oh, I see the arm is pointing up.  I saw it pointing down,” or “You really helped me see the angle of the space ship, but I thought it was a little closer to the edge.”

The great thing about this game is that it works on both receptive and expressive language.  You can also target specific types of language (to the left of, on top of, or specific vocabulary) and the Visualize and Verbalize structure words.

Afterwards, you may want to ask the student to write a description of their picture.  They have great support: a visual right in front of them, verbal rehearsal of the description, and the debrief to focus on anything that was unclear.

I’ve also used  pattern blocks for this (which, by the way, is an excellent geometry exercise as well) or simply blank paper where we drew something and directed the other person to draw the same thing.  You can really use anything that gets built, drawn or made, as long as you have two sets of it.  Pander: use the special interests of your student (Legos?  Perfect.  Fashion dolls?  Fabulous.  Angry Birds?  Absolutely.  Dolphins?  Of course.).  Go nuts!

Developing Details in Writing: Beyond Visualize and Verbalize, Part 1

We’ve all had the kids whose parents come in and say, “He’s been reading forever and his spelling and grammar are great. But somehow he never gets inferences and he just melts down when he is given a writing task.” Maybe you are lucky enough that this student comes with testing; maybe you’re the first one who’s seen him.

So, the question is, how do you get them to write?

My go-to on these kids is Lindamood Bell’s Visualize and Verbalize program. It helps connect the pictures of the right side of the brain with the words on the left side of the brain. It helps develop both receptive language (oral and reading comprehension) and expressive language (speaking and writing).

But then what? Pure V & V is often done all session long, but for me after about 20 minutes of it, I need to switch activities. This is where I reach into my tool belt and pull out…hmm…one set of pictures of animals from a calendar (donate to World Wildlife Fund once and you are set for life); two identical magnetic scene builders; a file folder; pattern blocks; notecards. Ready?

The first rule of all of these activities? Always call it a game. As in, “Oh, I have a great game we can play…” or “In this game, you will…” The great thing about kids is, if you call it a game, it’s a game.

So, in the first game, you spread out fifteen to twenty of your small pictures of animals (I cut the preview pictures off the backs of the calendars). Arrange them in rows facing the student. Hand her a notecard and get one for yourself. Explain that she is going to pick one of the pictures secretly without telling you what it is. Then she is going to describe it as fully as possible (if you have been using V & V, remind her of the structure words) without using the name of the animal! Make sure she realizes the goal is to get you to guess it; otherwise students try to be mysterious and confusing, which is definitely not the skill we are trying to teach.

You will do the same. This is a great way to model the kind of richly descriptive writing you want. Believe me, the student will notice if your card is full and she has one or two sentences on hers: great motivation for the next round. When you are each done writing, you read your description to her. When she gets it, ask what gave it away. Then she reads you her card. I make a big show of thinking it aloud: “Hmm. You said the animal was a baby, so it must be one of these five. (I physically sort the pictures as I am talking.) You said it was red, so it can’t be this one. You said it had feathers, so is it this one?” If there is possible confusion in the description, make sure not to be able to figure it out. “Hmm, that narrows it down to these two. Can you read the description again? I am not sure which one it is.” Make sure to play this multiple times so your student has a chance to get better, and then point out her growth to her!

A lot of these same kids have some trouble reading complex facial expressions, so one variation of the game is to use photos of people–either ones you have found in magazines, or a deck of emotions face cards. It all works the same way, but you can fold in discussions about feelings as well. I also like asking, “What do you think happened right before the photo was taken that made her feel this way?”

So, what do you do with the scene builders, the file folder and the pattern blocks, you ask? Well, you’ll have to wait until Part II to find out!

This post originally appeared under the Writing Interventions section of the Association of Educational Therapists website.

In Praise of Neuro-Diversity

So, I have this student, let’s call her Lisa.  Lisa is a fifteen year old with a rare chromosomal abnormality.  She presents as someone with pretty severe autism: she barely makes eye contact, but is fully verbal.  She has a personal relationship with the technical gadgets in a room (“Ask Printer if he knows the answer,” “It’s Projector’s turn to do a problem,”), but she won’t remember the names of students she’s been in class with for months.  She has trouble reading a clock or counting change with automaticity, but she is one of my best Algebra students.  You read that right: one of my very best Algebra students.  She uses a white board (only the one with curved edges, not the square corners, and only with a blue dry-erase marker, never another color, especially not pink) to do all her work because her fine motor skills make it hard to fit side-work onto a single sheet of paper, but she unerringly knows what procedure to use when and applies her knowledge with almost complete accuracy.

I taught Lisa in the classroom for two years until I decided to quit classroom teaching and focus solely on my private Educational Therapy practice.  Now Lisa comes to my home office twice a week for Algebra, while at school she will still be trying to become automatic at reading a clock and counting out change. Now, I knew that it would take Lisa a little while to get comfortable in her new surroundings, so the first time she came to my house, I ask if she wants to meet my husband, since he’d be around now and again.

“Nah,” she says, “Where’s your printer?”  Silly me.  She wanted to get straight to what’s important.  So I show her my printer.

“He’s an HP, like the downstairs one [at my house].  What kind is he?”

I read her the name, “HP Photosmart Premium.”

“Huh,” she says.  “Why do you have the pencil sharpener in front of him?”

“Oh,” I say, “That’s because there is no paper tray and that keeps the papers from falling on the floor.”

“Huh.  He probably has a tray.”

“No, I’ve looked all over, and there isn’t a tray.  Let’s do some math.”

She pauses in the middle of a problem, eyebrows furrowed.  “The tray is probably underneath him.”

“No.  I looked.  I looked underneath and all around.  There isn’t a tray.”

“Huh.”  Lisa finishes her problem and asks for a break.

“Ok.  Do you want a white board break?”

“Nah.  Let’s look for your tray.”

Realizing it is useless to argue, I let Lisa go search for a tray I know is not there, just so she can let her pre-occupation go.

And she finds the tray.

Four years I’ve owned this printer and never found that stupid little tray, and within five seconds she has it pulled out and all set up for me.

In my (admittedly weak) defense, I tell her that I thought the little indentation under which the tray was hidden was a thumb rest.

“Huh.”

Over the course of the next three sessions, Lisa says, “You thought it was a thumb rest.  But really it was a little tray.”

Everyone in the LD community struggles with the choice To Label or Not To Label.  Of course we don’t want our kids stigmatized or limited by their diagnoses; each of them is so much more than just “dyslexic” or “autistic” or any other word you could put in quotations.  On the other hand, a diagnosis provides a shorthand for the types of interventions, remediations and accommodations that may help.  And we can’t forget (how could we?) that a diagnosis is required for services both at school and after.  Most importantly, a diagnosis can circumscribe a student’s disability–instead of feeling globally stupid or lazy, suddenly a child (and his or her parents and teachers) can make sense of the pattern of weaknesses and strengths and can realize that a variety of problems actually all arise from one specific source.  After all, the word define is related to making finite rather than infinite.  But we as teachers, educational therapists and parents, we have to understand that we are defining and circumscribing the learning disability, not the student.  Lisa was, and continues to be, a marvelous reminder to me that, to paraphrase S.I. Hayakawa, the diagnosis is not the student.  Thanks, Lisa.  You’ve taught me so much.  Including where my paper tray is.

First Day (Aaaahhhh!) Jitters

I walked into Staples and saw them.  Signs plastered everywhere: Back to School Sale.  My stomach tightened, my palms sweat and my heart skipped a beat.  As much as I or any teacher loves teaching, there is always that inevitable dread that comes as August winds down and September looms.  If this is true for we adults, who have been through 1st days of school twenty, maybe thirty or more times (even brand-spanking new teachers have already gone through their own twelve first days plus four in college), just think of how it feels to the little ones we teach.  Even the kids who love school, thrive in an academic environment, miss the easily-found social time of recess and lunch, or feel soothed by the structure and predictability of a regular school day feel some level of apprehension facing that very first day all over again.  Just think what it is like for the kids who struggle academically, socially or attentionally.

So, what’s a sensitive, caring, emotionally savvy teacher to do?  The first and most important step in helping your kids (and, let’s be honest here, yourself) deal with the first day jitters is to acknowledge them.  My master teacher lo these many years ago started out the first class meeting the first day of school by saying, “I’ve been through 48 first days of school and you know what?  I still couldn’t sleep last night wondering about what it would be like this year.”  You could hear the kids sigh their collective relief.  You mean this is normal?  I’m supposed to feel this way?

I always planned my first week curriculum around these very human fears.  The first day, we read aloud Kevin Henke’s wonderfully charming Wemberly Worried.  Oy, what a worrier Wemberly is!  She’ll make your most anxious student look as calm as the Dalai Lama.  And Wemberly’s newest and biggest anxiety of all?  School!

The second day, I read Shel Silverstein’s poem, “What if?”  which ranges from “Whatif I’m dumb in school?” to “Whatif green hair grows on my chest?”  Needless to say, kids (and teachers!) love it.

Lest you (or your administrator) get too worried about “wasting” time on socio-emotional issues rather than “the real” (hah!) curriculum, I have my kids follow up, first by inventing their own What if‘s (connecting self to text, and making a great bulletin board to boot), and then by comparing and contrasting Wemberly Worried and What if? (connecting text to text, venn diagram and all).

Of course, these activities don’t take all the dread away from the beginning of school, and they sure don’t make up for having to get up early again, but they do help kids feel normal, even when their feelings are uncomfortable.  And that helps to set up the class for a really great year.

End-of-the-Year Blues

I can’t believe teachers are starting to talk about going back to school.  I’m only just recovering from the end of school.  I know what you are thinking as you nod your head in sympathy: the finals, the grading, the report cards.  But there’s one more thing to recover from that rarely gets mentioned.  That’s, well, the ending.

You all know the old joke: What are the three best things about teaching?  June, July and August.  Now, I love a good summer break as much as the next teacher.  But I’m also always left with a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth: that of dissolving a community.

Every teacher I know spends a huge amount of time and energy building their incoming, often chaotic group of little ones into a cohesive, supportive community.  From getting to know you activities in September to on-going problem solving, sharing and group work throughout the year, the kids get to know each other, the teacher and themselves as part of this group.

Ask any third grader who is the artist in your class or who the writer and they’ll tell you without hesitation.  Ask a fourth grader which classmates think dogs rule and cats drool and which ones fervently defend their feline friends, and they’ll know.  Even Middle and High schoolers can tell you which of their classmates they text to get the homework assignments and which they text to get clarification on the math lesson.  That is all to say, these kids get to know each other; they become part of a community.

Now, ask any teacher about classroom behavior, and they will tell you that there is a clear and consistent cycle each year: you have to work hard on it in the Fall, get to relax into a solid routine in the Winter, and then have to refocus on it in late Spring.  Why, my colleagues and I bemoan in April, do we have to go over the rules for tether-ball now!  Did all my students really forget how to stand in line or share scissors over Spring Break?  After seven months of practice, how is that even possible?

Battle-weary teachers bandy theories about over the coffee machine: Spring Fever, beautiful weather outside, excitement for the summer.  But a few years ago I realized another factor was unraveling the hard-won structure in the classroom: anxiety about leaving behind the class they have become part of.

Around mid-May one year, I heard a piece on NPR about military spouses getting into squabbles right before deployment.  Psychologists explained that it is easier to take your leave of someone when you are angry or annoyed at them than when everything feels perfect.  The latter is just too sad.  So, unconsciously, we humans spend our last few precious days picking fights, building up the annoyance that will make good-bye feel a little less bitter.

My next morning was filled with a gazillion little aha moments.  Ben and Chris, best friends since October, arguing over whether Ben purposefully though the ball out of bounds.  Melanie and Sarah, not speaking to each other because Melanie had wanted to play on the grass and Sarah insisted on the jungle gym.  These kids aren’t crazy, I (finally) realized; they’re scared.

So for the first time, we circled up and talked about it.  Yes, we were super excited about summer.  Yes, it would be great to sleep in, have no homework, go to camp.  But, hey, we were also going to miss each other.  Although it seemed so appealing, it was hard to go from six hours a day surrounded by friends to a house with only parents and siblings, when you had to work to set up play dates instead of just running out to recess or lunch.

Kids shared what they would miss, who they appreciated, what they had learned from whom over the last nine months.

Now, I won’t pretend I morphed into Michelle Pfeiffer and all conflict magically disappeared as we faded to black in cinematic bliss.  But conflict did decrease, and as we continued to check in and revisit our ambivalence about the end of the year, a tenderness emerged.  Students (and their teacher) learned that we humans often feel contradictory emotions about the same subject at the same time.  So, even though it was harder to say goodbye when the time came, it was also sweeter and more real.  And as I blanch slightly walking by the Back to School signs at Staples, I also start to wonder who the little people are going to be who will make up my community this coming year.