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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?