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Sunday, December 15, 2013

How to Bully Proof Your Campus

Whether it's on the playground, in the locker room, or discreetly right under your nose, bullying happens every moment of everyday in our schools.

Here are 5 things you can do to decrease the odds of it happening on your campus.

1) Know the players. Looks can be deceiving!

Bullies are sneaky to say the least. In fact, one of your beloved darlings who makes straight A's and gives you Starbucks gift cards for Christmas, may very well be picking on one of your not-so-beloved students. One of the best ways to spot a bully is to catch them off guard. The cafeteria lunch line or when students are in line at recess are breeding grounds for bullies to emerge. Who cuts in line (bully)? Who typically sits alone pretending to read (victim)? Who is picked last when choosing "teams?" Instigators are highly manipulative and sneaky!

Watch!  The triple dog dare! Scene from The Christmas Story

2) Get the whole story.

 Before jumping to conclusions, stop and meet with involved parties separately. This may need to happen in an administrator's office depending on the severity. Nonetheless, before picking up the phone to call home and basically ruining the student's entire holiday, listen to all parties involved before writing the student up. This isn't to say there shouldn't be consequences for saying an inappropriate word or fighting in the boys' locker room, but there may be more to the story. Warning: document, document, document! Having the student write down in his/her own words will protect yourself and your campus administration from future headaches.

3) Don't be an enabler.

Just because you need a smaller student to play the sheep in your Christmas pageant doesn't mean you use the smallest student. Why make the bully's job any easier? Students who are typically bullied are targets for a reason. Maybe they haven't hit a growth spurt and are small for their age. They may be super-intelligent and would rather talk about computer coding or fossils over computer games. Ask a student privately before assigning them to a task.

4) Be approachable. You may appear 15 feet tall to a young child  who is in first grade.
As goofy as it may sound, practice your facial expressions in the mirror.
Find a way to diminish scowls and creased foreheads in exchange for a less scary look. It is one thing to show disapproval, it is another thing to scar a small child for life! Perspective is everything!

5) Teach students to self-advocate!

There's a fine line between tattle-telling and self-advocating. Students who learn to stick up for themselves and express their needs are less likely to fall victim to bullies. When a student self-advocates they are empowering themselves. Whining and crying are weak ways to express needs and may look like tattle-telling. Our job as teachers is to teach them the difference.
Comfort and console, but then role play to model how to self-advocate. Teach students to say, "I need to be able to stand in line without others cutting in front of me," versus (student crying) "So-and-so cut in line!" It is our job to set students up for success by ensuring them that their voice matters. Yes, it's a full time job and may not be a part of our state standards, but in the long-run this may be the one skill that gets them through life in one piece!


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lost in Translation


As with most adventures in life, things don't always go as planned. It was 2007, light years away from Angry Birds, Iphones, and instagram.
Class projects relied on the good ol' #2 pencil, glue stick, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, and a trusty ruler. I was a week away from spending a romantic springbreak get-a-way with my
husband touring the city of love and lights; Paris, France. But as with all teachers, it is in our DNA to carry our students in our hearts, even on vacation.

I was walking the aisles of Hobby Lobby when a miniature passport with the Eiffel Tower on the cover caught my eye. Wa-La! The Flat Stanley project was scheduled to launch. It would be the crème de la crème of literacy ventures. I would take a class-made Flat Stanley to Paris, snap photos, and return ready to translate the photos into a journal starring our very own Flat Stanley.

By the way, Flat Stanley is a fictional storybook character created in 1964 by Jeff Brown. He was an ordinary boy until a bulletin board fell on him during the night flattening him. The book series has Stanley capturing burglars and retrieving keys from storm drains; feats of heroism attainable because of his flatness.

Unless Mr. Brown had a time machine, there is no way that he could've imagined the magnitude in which his loveable character has impacted literacy projects around the world.

 Before internet gizmos and gadgets, hash tags, and Avatars, Flat Stanley was a simple paper cut-out, shaped like a boy with reddish-brown hair, fair skin, and rosy cheeks. He traveled via the United States postal service or was physically carried by a kind and willing soul, or he stayed put. Thankfully, there are more options today!

As fate would have it, the day my literacy class was scheduled to discuss our global project, I bit down on a cherry jolly rancher and cracked my back molar. I went to the dentist and was told I needed a root canal. I scrambled sub plans and wrote detailed notes on Flat Stanley literacy circles, mapping out his adventures to famous landmarks, and of course, using paper templates of Flat Stanley.

When I returned on Thursday, teachers would vote anonymously on which Stanley would go. It was a lot to ask from a substitute, but visions of the project trumped any common sense.

Dreams of French pastries and desserts kept me strong through the ordeal, and I was confident the Flat Stanley project would prevail. I would not...could not...let a jolly rancher take me and our class project down. 
The swelling was worse than expected and  a dry socket would keep me out until Friday...the last day before spring break. I emailed my substitute who assured me the students were "highly engaged" and the students' characters were "coming along nicely."
I returned to school to find a plethora of paper creations lining the walls, only none of them looked like Flat Stanley.  I opened my book bag and a lump formed in my throat. The crispy white sheets of Flat Stanley templates, were tucked neatly inside my school tote bag, along with my project plans. 
I looked around the room. There was a Harry Potter look-alike (scar and all), a transformer, a Justin Bieber, and even a Pegasus. I wanted to cry. What have they done? I cursed the jolly rancher. In the absence of templates and lesson plans, the students didn't know that they were creating a Flat Stanley replica that would actually go to France.

My substitute wasn't to blame either. I had forgotten to take the templates out and half of the plans were paper clipped to the copies. She only knew to read books and have students create a character using their imagination. It was the best I could've expected, really, given the circumstances.

I confess that I blamed the jolly rancher for years for the project gone bust. But there was a bright spot in the Flat Stanley Fiasco, as I called it for years. His character was unmistakable. Except for the rosy colored cheeks and Flat Stanley clothes, it was Kenny to a tee.

 He had also designed a passport with a hand-drawn Eagle on the cover with black marker. I pulled him aside, "You did a wonderful job drawing your character. What is his name?" (I excepted for him to say his name). "Mrs. Dollar! He already has a name...Flat Stanley!"
After class, I quietly asked Kenny if he'd like for me to take his Flat Stanley and he answered, "Duh!
That's why I made a passport!"

I confess that I wanted to create an authentic Flat Stanley, the one Mr. Brown would be proud of (or so I thought), but my teacher inner voice screamed no! I guess you could say it's one of the moments when, as a teacher, I had to let go of preconceived notions, my ideal lesson, the crème de la  crème project.. and go with the heart.
Confession Reflection:
  • Has there ever been a project/lesson that didn't go the way you planned? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Can you think of a teacher who affirmed you in some way? Did the experience shape how you relate to your students?

  • How can administrators nurture a climate that affirms risk-taking and celebrates "jolly rancher" moments?




Saturday, October 5, 2013

How I Found My Genius!

Miss Margaret Romper Room
It was the cornucopia of childhood moments. Plastered to the black and white television screen along with children everywhere, I waited with baited breath for Miss Margaret’s daily epilogue. It was Romper Room. The year was 1969. The stage was my living room, gold shag carpet and an untouched peanut-butter-jelly sandwich within reach.
Miss Margaret raised her magic mirror and blazingly looked through the screen. Would today be the day she saw me? One could never tell. It had been days, weeks, no months since I’d mailed my fan letter with a Polaroid of the marshmallow castle meticulously put together with marshmallows, toothpicks, and crushed potato chips.
Yes, I could feel it. Today was my lucky day.
“I see Bobby, Susan, Johnny….” I held my breath.

Just as I thought the final name had been called, she said, “And I see, Tamra.”
I'm sure my mom eventually calmed me down after days of dancing and jumping up and down during Romper Room. Nothing after age seven could possibly bring more contentment and reassurance as the day Miss Margaret said my name. Whether I realized it or not, the day Miss Margaret said my name was the day I learned my life had significance. I was noticed. I mattered.

There is a new movement sweeping Twitterville and schools across the world called, “Genius Hour.” Fueled by the inspiration and voice of Angela Maiers who, I am convinced, is the Miss Margaret to this generation of children who desperately need to hear the words, "you matter.”

They need to hear their name.

 But unlike Miss Margaret, there is no magic mirror, or final episode, because Angela is carrying her message of hope and inspiration to the heart of educators who then, in turn, can take this message onto their campuses and into the classrooms.

 Can you imagine what kind of revolution could start if this generation begins to believe that they have something to give, that the world is better off because they are here? Think about that one student who seems withdrawn, who has bags under their eyes from lack of sleep, and they’re only ten? Think about the trouble maker who fails to turn in assignments and they are dubbed a failure, a goof, in middle school? What if something happened to change them? A kind word or a hug to add sparkle and life to the ten-year-old? Forgiving a slew of zeros and patiently re-teaching a student until they "get it?" 

 I confess that I have been relying on the razzle-dazzle message of a demi-god educational guru or the growth mindset of a handful of high-powered administrators to change our educational system. But what if the change doesn't begin with policy and procedures, or a new grading system? What if change begins on a much simpler note? What if it is as easy as saying a child's name?

Please check out the following link:  Angela Maiers on You Matter!

Confession Reflection:

1. What are the benefits of scheduled time within the school day for students to investigate and explore their own interests?
2. How can educators break the pattern of failure in students especially at the secondary level? i.e. alternative graduation plans, career readiness training, flexible grading policies.
3. Why is it important to build relationships with students beyond the classroom?\


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Creating Global Citizens in a Digital Age

A few years ago I volunteered to mentor a student club, America 4 Africa, or A4A for short. I wish that I could say that this was because I was passionate about raising money for mosquito bed nets, but I confess that I signed up as a way to clock hours during my graduate school internship.

The following year, I signed up again but this time it was because I was asked by students. If it weren't for the fact that they reminded me that every 30 seconds a child dies from malaria and the other teacher sponsor was in dire need of help, I would have opted out. But something tugged at my heart. Maybe it was guilt. Whatever the reason, I lasted a second year.

By the 3rd year, my graduate studies behind me, I continued to sponsor A4A but with a change of heart. Since our campus had moved to a digital model, stacks of notebook paper and other supplies had built up in supply closets throughout our campus. As a service learning project, our A4A kids decided that they wanted to send school supplies to a middle school in Kenya. And the project took off!

Our Coppell Middle School North teachers ran with it! Notebook paper, pencils, rulers, markers, construction paper and about every other imaginable school supply landed in a trunk. One of our parents went twice a year to Kenya and volunteered to take the trunk with her. The students took donations to raise the $50 needed to send the trunk overseas.

As part of this mission, America 4 Africa, set up a facebook account. We marveled how students who didn't have money for a pencil were able to be on facebook until we learned that internet cafes dotted the continent of Africa. Students, rich and poor, were able to go online!

Months past, and our efforts were rewarded. One of our A4A students was monitoring our facebook when he yelled, "Mrs. Dollar...they told us thank you!"

I bolted to the computer and what I saw made my mouth drop open and my heart race! On the screen, seemingly bigger than life were five students holding up construction paper we sent with the words: Thank You America 4 Africa drawn with colorful markers. Their faces spoke volumes!

As the new  year begins, I am thrilled to continue being an A4A sponsor, but not out of a sense of obligation but because I have seen with my own eyes how a simple act of kindness can impact the world.

Confession Reflection:
  •  What are the benefits of teaching global citizenship to our students?
  • Why is it important to empower students to find ways to help others?
  • How does service learning build the capacity for showing empathy in students?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

SpongeBob SquarePants to the Rescue!

 It’s a teacher’s worst nightmare.
I'm standing outside the Pearly Gates only to be confronted by angry parents of a student I once taught! And I think to myself...SpongeBob...he ruined me!

I was a first-year special education teacher hired to teach reading and social skills. As a case manager, I had to know as much about the law, as I did teaching. The newest law on the books was Indicator 13 which translated to mean: when a student turned 13 it is the district’s responsibility to begin the transition process to prepare them for life after graduation.

Well, Casey (not his real name) had just celebrated his 13th birthday. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and was terminally ill. But as most parents do, they had chosen to fight. A new bout of chemo treatments had caused his brown hair to fall out in patches and had weakened his arms and legs and he had begun using a wheelchair.
(While he did qualify for HomeBound services, it was decided that the social benefits of being in school outweighed what he would be able to learn one-on-one with a teacher who came to his house).
Some days it was all he could do to stay awake during school. It felt almost cruel asking him Indicator 13 questions about the future and what he saw himself doing one day. But it was my job to complete the paperwork: dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s (or so I thought).

Much to my surprise, Casey seemed to like the idea of answering questions about his future and interests like whether or not he would like to go to college or a vocational school. I learned that he made a mean grilled cheese sandwich, and I also learned that his best friend was SpongeBob SquarePants. He said it with all the sincerity in the world, even after rephrasing my question about who was someone he looked up to, Casey didn’t waiver. Not only did he know SpongeBob...they were “best friends.”

In case you don’t have a child or a student who watches Nickelodeon, Spongebob SquarePants is a cartoon sponge, with eyes, nose, mouth, arms and legs who goes on adventures with other “likeable" characters under that sea. He eats crabby patties and has his own movie. But he is not real. I knew it. Every other middle school student knew it. Everyone….except for Casey.

Visions of Casey going to his Science inclusion class the next period telling his classmates that SpongeBob was his best friend, made my stomach turn. Middle school students can be cruel (to say the least); even to kids with cancer.
 So I did what I thought was best for my student. I made the decision to cut off any future jokes by telling him the truth. “Casey, the students in our class are real, your neighbors are real, your parents and brothers are real, but Spongebob SquarePants is a cartoon. He isn’t real.”

 It was one of those moments you would do anything if you could take back your words. But it was too late. Had I known the back story that his family had been flown to the Island in Hawaii by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and that he did, in fact, meet SpongeBob and even had a luau complete with all of his favorite characters, I would have known to have kept my mouth shut!

All I knew was that I had made a BIG mistake!

His lower lip began to quiver and tears welled up in his eyes. “Mrs. Dollar, he is real! I met him on my summer vacation!”

 At our parent conference the following morning, which included the principal and counselor, I told the story. His dad confessed to writing personalized “letters from SpongeBob” to hide under his pillow if he’d made a good grade at school. They even cooked “crabby patties” (which is a SpongeBob hamburger) on the weekends. They had planned on sharing this information with his teachers, but felt shame for feeding his fantasy.

They were ordinary people who had been dealt a bad hand. If believing in SpongeBob gave their son joy and helped him believe in miracles…then so be it. Suddenly, all the Indicator 13 paperwork and transitional files took a backseat to the hopes and dreams of a boy who had, in many ways, been rescued by SpongeBob SquarePants!

 That very day, we all agreed it was in Casey’s best interest for me to encourage more conversation. I spent our student/teacher conferences listening to letters he had written and received from SpongeBob. He talked about wanting to fly airplanes so we researched aviation schools and he delved into learning about how airplanes are built and how to fly them. I was invited over for "crabby patties" and Casey even promised to introduce me to his best friend in the world!. That is, as soon as he learned to fly!

Confession Reflection:
  • How would this situation have been different if there had been better communication between school, parents, doctors, community?
  • Are there "exceptions to the rule" in cases of terminally ill students?
  • What can schools/districts provide more socialization for Homebound students?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Accidentally on Purpose @edcampHome

 Dear @edcampHome staff,
I am writing to tell you that I stumbled upon your event last Saturday purely by accident. I wish I could tell you  my #edcampHome experience was a planned event in my twitter/PD life, but truthfully, as with most memorable events in my life, I simply Forrest-Gumped it. Anyways, thank you for letting me register late and participate.

Mid-way through the first hour or so, I became keenly aware that I was witnessing a first-hand account of something that (to my knowledge) was making PD history. (I may be wrong about that, but I can’t help it. I have been diagnosed @Johnwink90 as the #FullyFull mind set, so it’s just the way I’m wired).

By the way, I appreciated how humor was sprinkled in here in there. My favorite line,“everyone should know where the restrooms are,”via @davidtEDU, made me laugh! An occasional barking dog in the background gave the sense that #edcampHome was led by ordinary, down-to-earth educators who had children to feed, lawns to mow just like anyone else.

Next, a virtual corkboard allowed us to add virtual sticky post-it notes showing what topics we wanted covered Topics like: #inquiry based learning, #augmented reality, #best practices in grading, began to pop up left and right. #edcampHome attendees quickly volunteered or were asked to facilitate sessions.

It was all I could do to contain myself. I began tweeting and retweeting to the world (well, my  67 followers) to join as if the world were going to end if they didn't!

As with any new experience, technology glitches happened. Your #edcampHome lead facilitators began troubleshooting to get camp up and running again. I appreciate how the #edcampHome team turned what could have been an "awkward moment" into a “learning opportunity.”  

Thanks @davidtedu @swpax @LS_Karl and @coachk, for being role models to not freak out when technology kinks arise, especially when there are thousands of viewers waiting for things to be fixed.

 Sitting in my pj’s downing my morning java, I had the best of both worlds: #PD and I could get up and let my dogs out or toast a bagel without missing a beat.

 Since then I continue to learn from #edcampHome bloggers and watching archived sessions. I’m proud to report that my twitter following is on an upward trend, as with a slew of educators I am now following. 

Now that I think about it, maybe my #edcampHome experience wasn’t an accident. Everything happens for a reason is a motto I live by. Well, at least that’s what my #FullyFull mindset leads me to believe.



Confession Reflection:
  • How did the edcampHome experience help me grow as a teacher/leader?
  • How will global connections with other educators impact what I do in the classroom?
  • What technology innovations will I try on my campus?

Monday, July 22, 2013

To My Principal....I Must Confess!

To My Principal:
Yes, I lied to my students. Faced with an entire grade level of at-risk students who would rather do almost anything than write an essay, I was desperate. These were possibly the worst fourth grade writers in the school's history, (and I do not use superlatives lightly). Furthermore, the dreaded state writing assessment loomed on the horizon like a dark cloud above my head. An initial writing inventory of fourth grade at-risk students left our department feeling hopeless and desperate. As the new principal on our campus, you would undoubtedly notice an entire grade level failing a state assessment!
So I did what every good literacy coach would do. I approached each writing lesson with the rigor and determination of a sprinter at the start of a race. Tell about something fun you did this summer or If you could have any super power what would it be and why? Each prompt was met with grumblings. "Why do we have to do this?" What does this have to do with anything in real life?"

"Expressing your thoughts and ideas is a skill everyone needs in life," became my staple answer. "You can't be successful without the ability to express yourself on paper. You DO want to be successful, don't you?"

Weeks passed and with each writing assignment discipline issues surfaced, as well as, a slew of excuses like, "I have a blister on my finger" or "I didn't take my pill today and I can't focus because I'm ADD." (I swear I felt a permanent twitch forming in my left eye).

We had just finished reading a Scholastic Read 180 book called Yuck! showing how different cultures considered insects a delicacy. Exasperated, I blurted, "Would you rather eat a bug or write?"

To my horror and dismay the ring leader shouted, "We'd rather eat a bug!"

It was time for plan B.

My cousin from Arizona became somewhat of a pop icon in her community when her team of teachers agreed to swallow a live worm if 100% of 4th grade students passed the reading and writing exam. The plan worked. The local newspaper captured a still shot of the unlucky worm dangling from my cousin's fingertips before meeting its fate. She was nominated for Teacher of the Year and the fourth grade team were all given "Super Teacher" tees. I'll never forget her words of wisdom, "Be careful what you promise your students...because you can win their trust and respect or you will end up with more discipline problems that you can imagine!
The next morning, I stopped by your office and presented the idea of eating a bug as collateral damage for our at-risk students passing the state test. "As long as no PETA laws are broken," you said. "I'll support you." My team opted out, but supported me 100 percent. After all, the odds my at-risk students not passing were more favorable!

My kids approached daily writing exercises with the vengeance of a hitter in the world series. By mid-November their reading scores (lexiles) showed noticeable gains, as well as, improvement in their writing. They began begging me to read their daily journal entries..and so I did. I actually looked forward to student conferences. My kids were becoming confident writers and readers, even if it was for the reason of seeing their literacy teacher eat a bug!
Mid-May the scores arrived and a mass email was sent to teachers. To everyone's amazement every single at-risk student enrolled in our literacy recovery program passed the writing and reading state assessment that year! In all my years as a literacy coach and teacher, this was a first!

The class voted and it was decided that I'd eat a chocolate covered baby cricket. My neighbor worked at the local to Petco and routinely brought home baby crickets to feed to her pet
iguana. I took one look at the little crickets jumping around in the air-filled baggy and knew that not only would my students witness their teacher eat a cricket, but they would also see me gagging and perhaps vomiting on the carpet, spewing tiny legs into the air.

So I did what I had to do....create a fake bug.

I made my husband pinky swear on his life that he wouldn't tell a soul. He is a raisinet lover. Holding out a handful he said, "You could fake them out with one of these."

I rolled my eyes. "Really? My students may be at-risk, but they are smart enough to know the difference between a chocolate covered raison and a chocolate covered cricket!" I exclaimed.

In the secrecy of my kitchen, my husband proved his point. He microwaved a clump of nestle chocolate morsels and with the finesse of a master chef, he meticulously dipped raison after raison into the gooey chocolate. He purposefully added swirls to resemble a toothpick thin leg or a bulging cricket head.

The next morning I took a bag filled with live crickets to school to erase any doubt that I was using fake crickets. Next, I opened a Tupperware container showing ten chocolate covered "crickets" we had concocted the night before.

On the count of ten, wide-eyed with wonderment, my students watched as I popped one of the "crickets" into my mouth. Wrinkled noses and exclamations of "snap!" and "awesome!" erupted from my class. "What's it taste like, Mrs. Dollar?"

With all the sincerity I could muster, I answered, "It tastes just like chocolate...with a crunch!"

If I could have captured that moment, it could've been a chapter out of Diary of a Wimpy Kid! Using the good ol' bait and switch, I had fooled my students, my team, and yes, even you. I know that it was deceptive, even after you had admired my lesson plans on cultural diversity and even created Edmodo polls on what kind of insect might taste the best. That's why I've kept this secret until now.

What came out of that experience is well worth this confession. During the next days and weeks my kids kept writing and reading without the reward of seeing their teacher eat something disgusting . It was about learning they had a voice when they wrote and that I listened...and responded. I was also willing to put myself in their shoes and do something that was difficult (and disgusting) for reading and writing was for them. It was about building relationships with each student and celebrating every success.

I didn't make the newspaper, and I wasn't nominated for teacher of the year, but I was able to learn the art of capturing my student's hearts. Maybe next year I'll go for the real thing. (Well, that is, if you approve).

Confession Reflection:
  • What are the benefits to encouraging teachers to take risks in the classroom? How does this impact student learning?
  • How did this experience build trust with my students? How did it effect student learning outcomes?
  • Do at-risk students learn differently?