Bedtime Routine #SOL19 22/31

“I would like to be chased upstairs by turkey vultures.”

If this were Survivor, the contestant would be sweating. In our house, it’s bedtime.

Allow me to explain.

We have a really long bedtime routine at our house. It takes at least an hour – usually more – and, in addition to the standard washing and brushing, includes the kids reading out loud in French, me or their dad reading out loud in English, and often time for reading quietly in their beds. And lots of snuggles, some of which are code for “for the love of all that is good, stop moving your body.”

From an outsider’s perspective, that may seem excessively long, but last evening alone perfectly illustrates why our children need so much time to settle down.

7pm, our kitchen

I look up from commenting on a blog post. “Thomas, you know the rule: no handstands after 7. Are you done making your lunch?”

“Yes. Just let me get in one more good one. Wait – will you take a picture? No wait, a video. You can put it on your blog.” He continues to do handstands. Up. Down. Up. Down.

I stare implacably. No, wait, I don’t. I actually say, “Sure, one picture” because I am a sucker and I am tired. Plus, I am twenty-two days into a month-long blog challenge, so I will take almost any topic. Three handstands later, I crack, “Enough. That’s all the handstands for today.”

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In the background, his father is unperturbed. This child does a lot of handstands.

Thomas pleads: “Please…. Just one more. Wait, that one wasn’t good. One more good one.”

This time I hold firm and shoo him up the stairs. I am turning my focus to child #2 when my husband jumps in to help.

“Mr. Eric, do you need to do any more on your lunch or would you like to be chased upstairs by your father screeching like a Tyrannosaurus Rex?”

Long pause. Eric tilts his head and shoots his father a mischievous look. 

“I would like to be chased upstairs by turkey vultures.” He tears out of the kitchen.

And dad is up, running through the house, lifting his knees high, gobbling like a turkey while flapping his “wings.” Eric runs shrieking in front of him, swings around the newel post and flees up the stairs.

Don’t judge, it’s the fastest way to get him up to bed. But it does make a for a long bedtime routine. Good thing we all like the snuggles.

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Both…and #SOL19 20/31

In the next room, my younger son is saying “win-dow.”
“Good! Tap it,” responds his tutor.
A few minutes later she says “pay-per. Now, would you double that?”
“No!” He is confident.
“Right! Explain why!” she cheers.

They will continue on this way for the next hour. It’s a lot of work for him, but he loves this phonics-based tutoring and looks forward to his tutor’s arrival twice a week. Because of this intensive intervention, he is currently reading at grade level. We plan to keep it up and hope that eventually his brain makes all the connections he needs to be a fluent reader.

As they work, my thoughts keep returning to a Twitter “discussion” I was involved in this weekend. A well-known figure in the world of education tweeted a quote from a speaker at a conference she was attending: I would argue that most students who are in intervention wouldn’t be there if we just had good classroom libraries.

I nodded in agreement as I read this, but something niggled at the back of my brain. What was bothering me? I am actively working to develop my own classroom library, and my kids’ bedrooms are filled with books – “bedroom libraries,” I guess. For Christmas, a group of us parents gave one of our kids’ elementary school teachers a bunch of books from her wish list and a gift certificate to purchase more because we wanted to support her classroom library. All evidence shows that I clearly believe in classroom libraries. Yet my younger child, surrounded by books, still needs intervention in order to learn how to read.

I rarely respond to people on Twitter, but this time I really wanted to say something. After all, this person is widely followed; lots of teachers would read her tweet. So I tweeted back:

As the mother of a child with dyslexia & an English teacher with a classroom library I’m proud of, I really want to emphasize the “most” in this tweet. No number of good books will make my child a reader. He needs phonics for that. The books, however, will keep him reading.

This did not seem revolutionary to me.

Her quick response was XXX was not talking about children with disabilities, with IEPs, with dyslexia. Of COURSE all kids need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. But they also need time to read books they can and want to read.

All three tweets received some attention – a lot by my standards, probably not much by hers. And really, the tweets are all true enough. But…the more I think, the more my mind fills with questions.

  • How many kids who are in intervention do NOT have some sort of disability? I’d bet many of them do have disabilities. So… intervention might be necessary, right? It’s not a bad thing. And probably having a classroom library in and of itself won’t fix that.
  • How many kids are receiving “explicit, systematic phonics instruction” in school? Mine did not.
  • How many kids have access to good classroom libraries? I honestly don’t know. Probably not nearly enough.
  • Is having a classroom library enough to build readers, as the original tweet implied? Because I think we’re using “classroom library” as shorthand for having teachers who love reading, have the time to read regularly and share the books they discover with their students. And libraries also imply funding and time. I don’t want to undersell what teachers actually have to DO with classroom libraries to help kids learn.

I don’t know the answers to all these questions. To begin with, I teach high school, not elementary school, so my perspective is different. I’m not trained in teaching reading. (…yet! I’m signing up for a course that starts in April.) And I live in Canada, not the US, so I think intervention has a slightly different meaning.

Nevertheless, as I listened to my son learn, the niggling in the back of my mind finally resolved itself: the tweeted response – the one that says that the speaker was not talking about kids with disabilities – I don’t like that. I am uncomfortable with solutions that work for everyone except kids with disabilities. We already risk leaving these kids as afterthoughts when the truth is that students who fit this description are in most classes, and they deserve solutions that work for them, too. Equating the mere presence of classroom libraries, even good ones, to a dramatic decrease in the need for reading intervention veers dangerously close to the idea that these kids just aren’t working hard enough.

“Just have a lot of books available” sounds great on Twitter, but for up to 20% of our students (dyslexia alone affects between 5 and 20% of students depending on whose research you read), that’s not enough. My child is lucky: our family has the time and money to support his learning. I see high school students every day who have not had the same access to research-based reading instruction and who are suffering because of this. My classroom library will never make up for this, no matter how many good books I put into their hands.

That said, I don’t want to undersell classroom libraries. My son’s reading is thriving in part because of the books available to him, and I can personally point to high school students who have grown enormously when allowed to choose books that have meaning for them. I’m looking for a both…and solution. I want literacy instruction that helps all kids become readers – and I really don’t want the “all” part to be an afterthought.

I could keep thinking myself in circles here – though writing this has helped straighten my thoughts a little. I have considerable respect for the tweeter (and I’m not familiar with the presenter she quoted, but I’ll bet she’s thoughtful and concerned, too). I know that Twitter can erase nuance through enforced brevity and rapid responses. For me, this tweet seemed worth digging into.

In the next room, I hear clapping.
“Pi-rate,” says the tutor. “Which syllable has the stress on it?”
He can’t quite figure it out. They practice saying the word different ways and in funny voices, and he giggles when they get the stress wrong. Then, they do it again.

Phonics, multi-sensory learning and a lot of books.

He’s going to be a reader, this kid. He really is. 

 

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You’re an English teacher? #SOL19 20/31

I had a doctor’s appointment this morning before work (for my poor achy shoulder). As I left, I stopped at the desk to set up a follow-up. I didn’t recognize the receptionist, so I made my standard request to try to get a time before or after my classes – “anything first thing in the morning on an odd-numbered day? Or after 4:00 any day at all?” She looked quizzical, and I added, “I’m a teacher.”

“Oh,” she said, “What do you teach?”

“High school.” I’ve learned to be vague. My best bet is to feel out the person in front of me because not everyone has fond memories of high school English. Last week the woman at the salon told me several sad high school stories as she washed my hair. English class featured prominently. She had not read many books in high school and actually brightened a little when I told her that magazines count as reading. Poor thing. So this morning I brace for the (polite) worst.

“What subject?”

I smile and ‘fess up, hoping that she won’t tell me how awful it was. I can tell the conversation isn’t over.

“Which Shakespeare play are you teaching?”

Wait – what? That’s not what I was expecting. She has leaned forward a little and is looking at me quite intently. I’m still in my “I swear I’m not an ogre” mode.

“Um, well, I work with at-risk readers, so we don’t always do Shakespeare…” My voice trails off; she actually looks a little disappointed, so I add, “But if we do one, grade 10 is Romeo and Juliet.”

“Oh! That’s a great one! I really loved it. But my favorite is Merchant of Venice. My teacher just did a great job with that one and we got so into it!” She is nearly starry-eyed, clearly remembering some class, some moment of understanding, some passionate discussion. She pauses then adds, “I just love Shakespeare.” She glances at her colleague and gives her an almost apologetic smile, then she looks back at me.

“Me, too,” I say. Me, too.

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Tippy Cat #SOL19 19/31

This is our cat, Tippy. img_8330

She is not particularly interested in being introduced to you, but since I’ve insisted, she’s allowed me to post a few photos. She knows she is beautiful, you don’t need to tell her. (She’ll listen happily if you do say it, it’s just that she already knows.)

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She was a stray – a dilute calico with Scottish fold ears; the vet says she may have been bred by someone. She has really bad teeth, which are the only reason we can imagine that she ended up at the Humane Society.

When we got her, she was skinny and so sick that the vet thought she had a deadly virus called FIPS. They told us she would die within months. She had other ideas, and perhaps out of sheer willfulness, she lived and then thrived. She now looks at each day as a potential new adventure – or a time to sleep. Kind of depends on her mood.

Her early adventures might also explain why she turns into a crazy cat at the vet’s. They call her a “fractious kitty” and she’s only allowed to go to the vet for emergencies. Ahem. Oh, and she will knock anything she can possibly move off of any surface she can possibly reach. Paper, mugs, plants, containers of all sorts and more have met untimely ends since Tippy moved into our house.

She really, really likes children. She likes to play with them. (I swear this video is worth 10 seconds of your time.)

 

We cannot let her out in the mornings because she will go from bus stop to bus stop to wait with various children – then she will ignore traffic and walk into the street as though cars just aren’t a thing. She goes into the home of the neighbour girls. Just waltzes right in and hangs out with them. She once spent the night in an apartment nearby. They told us she just came in. When she was younger, she ended up on a community Facebook page because she was laying about in the street, reveling. People were worried about her. They also wanted to adopt her.

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Tippy really knows how to sleep

We tried to turn her into an indoor cat, but she was not interested in that plan. Now, she goes out and then knocks when she’s ready to come in.

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Knock, knock

She is a completely ridiculous cat.

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An old friend called #SOL19 18/31

I was online, writing a blog post and commenting on as many Slice of Life posts as possible, when the computer rang. I am old enough that I usually use a phone for conversations, so I was startled. Also, I was still in my pjs because it was the last day of March Break and I was savouring my tea and my morning. When I saw his name on the screen – a wonderful old friend – my mind flashed, “What if it’s a video call? I’m not ready!” but my heart said, “BOBBY!” and I picked up the call.

“Hello Mandy!” I could hear the smile in his voice, and I smiled back because this unexpected call, after – what? five years? – made me happy before we even started talking.

We chatted about families, changes, life. Our conversation was mundane, too particular to us for me to share, too universal for you to need me to share: you already know everything we said. We haven’t seen each other in 10 years – 10! When our oldest children were babies! Where is that picture? – but it mattered little. Time got slippery as we talked – we were there in our youth, we were here in our middle age, we were looking forward to the time that still stretches in front of us. Half an hour passed before I noticed.

As we hung up, my heart expanded to fill my chest. I was completely full of this particular moment, of this friend, of this friendship, and I was happy, just so happy that he called.

I took my cup of tea and my messy hair, walked away from the computer and stared out the back window at the snow-covered ground for a few minutes before I went back to my day.

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The fish & chips that changed my life #SOL19 17/31

If I’d known that the moment was going to change my life, I might have paid more attention to the details. I was in Galway with 11 other high school teachers for a 5-week fellowship on W.B. Yeats and two of us had gone out for fish and chips. I don’t remember which chip shop we went to. The fish was firm, the fry glistened and the newspapers it came wrapped in were soon heavy with oil. You know, a standard Irish chip shop.

I’d left my boyfriend for the summer, off to learn everything I could about the poetry I loved. I had cried at the airport, but now, a few weeks in, I if I were honest with myself, well, I missed him very little. He had many strengths, but none of them were sitting around a table sharing food and passionately discussing poetry. Or, really, passionately discussing any of the things I loved. Still, he was a good man, solid and secure, and I knew he loved me. I knew he would be there when I returned and, since we were approaching 30 and our relationship was stable, I knew he would likely propose soon.

Earl and I must have been talking about this over fish and chips. I didn’t miss my boyfriend, exactly, but he was on my mind, especially since the only other single woman in my close circle of college friends had just announced her engagement. I was the only one left; I was next.

Earl, who loved music, poetry, literature and all things Irish, had white hair that rarely looked combed and a big personality that he rarely reigned in. I remember meandering talks with him as we walked from our dorms into Galway proper, sat in a pub or picked through the poetry that had moved us all across the ocean for the summer. Earl’s laughter drew everyone into the joke and his quick wit often had me choking back giggles. While those are my dominant memories of him, they are not the whole of Earl because by that point in our trip, we all knew that he had lost his daughter in an accident not many years before. His oversized love of Irish music, good beer and all things Yeats couldn’t completely mask this truth. Single, childless, not far from his daughter’s age, I had only the notion of the kind of scar that loss might leave. I knew part of him was hurting, but I also knew that being with Earl was enlivening.

That evening, over dinner, Earl put down his Guinness and paused. And this part of my memory isn’t fuzzy at all. “He has to make you laugh, Amanda. There’s no way you’ll make it if he doesn’t make you laugh.”

Our conversation continued. After we ate, we walked back to the dorm – or, more likely, we met up with others for a pint and maybe some dancing. I laughed a lot. I don’t need the concrete memories to know that I did. I laughed and talked and and read and thought for the whole five weeks. 

Though many of the details from that fellowship are fuzzy now, it changed me deeply. There are more stories I could tell from that trip, for sure, and someday I will. But this one is important because I broke up with my boyfriend – how could I not? – and have since married a man who fills my life with laughter and love. 

Thanks, Earl.

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Why he comes to class #SOL19 16/31

Yesterday, the Ontario Minister of Education announced the government’s plans for education changes in the next few years. Education is, of course, a major line-item in the budget and always the target of cuts when a government wants to save money. While I agree that efficiency is worth looking for and eliminating wasteful spending should be an ongoing process, I fear that some of the impulse for these regular cuts comes from a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or overpaid. Or something. This upsets me because, I promise you, I’m not in education to get rich and no one survives for long in a high school if their main focus is summer vacation. Worse, I believe that some of the changes the government is proposing will, at a minimum, result in worse learning and will, more than likely, harm students, especially our most vulnerable students.

In fact, I was chatting with my principal last week and talk turned to one of our most reluctant students. He has years of haphazard attendance in his school records, and all the days of missed school have left him with learning gaps that have caught up with him in high school: he’s currently failing most of his classes. Truth be told, he’s currently not attending most of his classes. In fact, he’s pretty much only attending my class.

“Why do you think he’s coming to your class when he’s skipping everything else?” asked my principal.

Well, I have some ideas. He comes to my class because we as a school have agreed to put our most experienced teachers in classes with our most at-risk students. I am not the school board’s cheapest employee, but when I walk into the classroom, I bring to bear everything I know about classroom management, curriculum, respectful learning environments and reluctant learners. I bring a Masters Degree, 20+ years of teaching, experience working with both at-risk and ESL students, an Honours Specialist in Special Education, and a commitment to ongoing PD and my own pedagogical reading. He comes to my class because I work to implement a pedagogy that meets students where they are and supports them as they move forward.

He comes to my class because our school has decided that at-risk students have the best chance to learn when their classes are small. Currently, the average high school class size may not exceed 22 students. The new Ministry of Education policy increases that to 28. Of course, classes of 28 and even 30 already exist, but with a required average class size of 22, we can work as a team to find the wiggle room that allows students with the greatest needs to be in smaller classes. He comes to my class because the small class size means I have time to get to know every student in meaningful ways.

He comes to my class because I never – not ever – say anything negative to him about his learning. When he returns after missing a day of school I say, “I’m glad to see you.” I don’t even say “I’m glad you’re back” because I don’t want to emphasize that he was gone. I’ve read his school records, and I’ve learned a bit about him. So, I practice positive phrases out loud with others, working to get the right words for this child into my brain and out of my mouth. He comes to my class because I call home every time he’s absent and leave a message saying that I missed him. He comes to my class because I’ve called home to leave a message about how well he’s doing when he comes.

He comes to my class because when he writes a sentence in his notebook, I have something positive to say about it. If he stops at a word, I’m next to him to encourage the next one. If he can’t write today, I’ll help him write tomorrow. He comes to my class because what he says matters.

He comes to my class because the room is full of books he can actually read, books that aren’t dog-eared, yellow-paged and falling apart. He comes because I’ve begged and borrowed in order to provide books that are in reasonable shape to show my learners that they are worthy of good books. I’ve asked what he’s interested in and chosen books that might catch his attention. I check books out of the public library because he can’t get there. I offer him books at multiple levels and chat with him one-on-one about what he’s reading. I never suggest he’s not good enough or reads too slowly. He can put down books he doesn’t like or can’t follow. I never make him read something he’s not ready for. He comes to this small class because I can pay attention to his learning needs.

Not only does the Ministry of Education plan to increase class sizes, they also want to require four e-learning classes for every student to graduate. No doubt this will provide cost savings to the government, and I’m sure there will be benefits for some students, but students like him need every minute of positive human contact they can get. He comes to my class because even though the class is small, I have an EA in the room every day. Between us, we can catch most students before they give up, assignment after assignment. We provide positive support so that they can overcome obstacles that might otherwise stymie them. We can see when they are having a bad day and help them cope with that; we notice when they are having a good day, and encourage them to shine. He comes to my class because we are physically present so we notice him and his peers.

He comes to my class because I was allowed to move to a cozy room with comfortable tables that let him stretch out a little. We have windows for natural light and plants growing along the window ledge; some days the students help water. He comes to my class because I have shelves full of all kinds of books to support learners of all kinds at all levels and walls adorned with vocabulary words, anchor charts and celebrations of reading. He comes to my class because the librarian provides us with a few Kindles so that students who struggle to read the words on a page can listen while they read. That same librarian pulls another student out for 15 minutes a day to provide one-on-one English language support. She comes to my class, too.

He comes to my class because I let him eat. Our breakfast program provides food – Cheerios and raisins or maybe some apples – that I put out most days. Many of my students grab a bag to snack on as they read or write. Some of them, probably including him, don’t get quite enough at home. So they come to class.

He comes to my class because we are a community of learners. Because I use every student’s name every day. Because other students speak to him during our activities. Because we listen when he talks. Because his voice matters.

He comes to my class because we have decided that he, and others like him, are worth it, even though they require time, energy and resources from our system. In fact, if you talk to teachers, you’ll find that we need more services for these students, not fewer. The changes the Ontario government has put forward – e-learning and larger classes are only two among many – will no doubt reduce the education line-item in the budget, but in the long-run they mean that students like him are less likely to come to class. I’m not convinced that the savings will be worth it.

 

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