June 5, 2014

Swimming with Rainbow Fish

Today is the last day of school.

For me, the first and last days are always bittersweet. Days full of excitement and trepidation, fun and uncertainty.

This spring I watched my son learn to scull, and as he practiced, I couldn't help but compare the experience with my daily life as a special education teacher. In August, we push off from shore with our brand new clothes and our brand new shoes and our brand new pencils ready for a new adventure. By November, we've got the rhythm down. We know our roles: cockswain who encourages and directs, stroke teams working together to keep the rhythm and move forward. We've learned how to work in unison.

By February, we hit the doldrums. Exhaustion sets in. The end feels so far away. Are the kids where they need to be at this point in the year? There's so much left to teach. Tests loom in front of us like storm clouds, so we open our umbrellas and remind ourselves of how unimportant they really are in the scheme of everything. Like a winter storm, they blow in gray and noisy and then fade away a quickly as a whisper.

But then, the last few weeks of school approach, first creeping up on us with quiet little feet that soon graduate to determined, flip-flop clad stompers that will trample you if you don't duck out of the way fast enough. Those sharp pencils are now nubs. The soles on our shiny new tennis shoes are worn thin. But the same feelings echo in me. Relief that a break is coming, worry about whether my students accomplished all we set out to accomplish.

As I stood in the entrance to school this morning waiting and watching for my students who might be confused by the change in morning routine, I realized that sadly there are so many children that I don't "see". Those kids for whom learning comes relatively easy, for whom social relationships are built with fewer bumps and bruises. It's not that they are less important. On the contrary, I work with students in extracurricular groups like Student Council and UIL specifically so that I can get to know these students and keep my finger on the pulse of "typical".

But what I realized, as I stood there in the foyer, was that those students swim past me like schools of fish, lovely silver, swimming in straight lines, attending to the world around them with ease. But mixed in the current are rainbow fish, with beautiful, sparkly scales. One may have an odd-sized fin and swim in more of a zig-zag than a straight line, but he leaves a wake of beauty. These are the students who mean so much to me.

I'm so fortunate to get to spend my days in the company of these interesting and lovely little humans, these rainbow fish.
~ Kelley

April 3, 2014

Talking to Students about Standardized Testing

It's that time of year with standardized tests looming on the horizon...

Many of my students are showing signs of stress and anxiety regarding the upcoming tests. We are working through a unit on stress and stress management in our social thinking groups and the topic of tests is top on the stress chart for most of my students.

I have definite feelings and opinions on the one-size-fits-all, high-stakes testing issue, but that is not a problem we're going to solve today, unfortunately. In the meantime, I thought I would share some strategies and a tool I am currently using with students to help de-mystify the whole testing routine and help them realize that they've got the tools they need to keep their stress levels low. 

First of all, I use the story of The Wizard of Oz with my students to help them understand the purpose for benchmark tests and state standardized tests. I tell them that at the beginning of the year, we start off walking down the Yellow Brick Road with our friends. Along the way, we will learn many things and the goal is to make it to the Emerald City to see the Wizard (representing the total learning for the year) by summer vacation.

I tell them that their job is to do the work to learn and practice new skills along the path. A few times a year, the teachers want to check to make sure they are moving father down the Yellow Brick Road and getting closer to Oz. We do those checks through benchmarks and (in our case) STAAR tests. I tell them that taking those tests is the same as when we use a ruler to measure distances. The tests measure the distance we've traveled down the Yellow Brick Road. My students seem to really understand this analogy and it has calmed down some of the anxiety.

Along with the Yellow Brick Road story, we do what we can to de-mystify the big, scary test. We look at examples of released tests so they can see that the questions don't look any harder than work they do successfully every single day at school. We make lists of things we know, want to know, and then have learned about what to expect.

Finally, we review the powerpoint below which can help answer nagging questions. Feel free to use this powerpoint with your students if it would be helpful for them.

One piece of advice is to not assume that your students know information that you think would be common sense. For example, after our last district benchmark test, I found out that the biggest source of stress for one of my students who was in an oral-administration group, was that the administrator didn't spell out for him how to indicate to her that he was ready to move on. He needed to be told explicitly what to do ("When you are finished answering the question, look at me. That will let me know you're ready to move on.")  Also, for kids on the Autism Spectrum, please take the time to show them the space where they will test (and the administrator if it is not going to be you) BEFORE the test. The more you can take the mystery out of it, the less anxiety they will have to deal with.

And finally, encourage parents to keep it all in perspective. Kids only stress when they pick up on stress from the adults in their lives. In the long run, remember that these tests are NOT good indicators of successful learning, job readiness skills, or how successful they will be in life. They only indicate how well they've learned to answer multiple choice questions and bubble in answer sheets. I reinforce to parents that the most important thing to me is how well kids make progress toward IEP goals and how they show their learning in everyday and authentic learning tasks.
Click here to download the powerpoint to your computer.