A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Field Experience

Throughout my life, the most enduring lessons have tended to be the ones that have brought me the most pain. My frustration with Field Experience nearly brought me to tears several times this semester, but men do not cry. Throughout the process I had the nagging feeling I was being set up for failure. Having followed the example of William “the Conqueror,” having allowed zero room for retreat, I was feeling overwhelmed by the paperwork. Then, as if angels started opening doors for me, relationships I had long nurtured began bearing fruit. First, the secretary at the middle school where I had done a lot of subbing found me a student for my Curriculum Based Assessment project. Next, Mindy, the mother of one of my Kindergarten students, a Speech Pathologist, responded enthusiastically.  Then, Harriett, the teacher for whom I had launched a kindergarten class in September, invited me in. Eventually, my relatives, some dear old friends, and some neighbors helped me rally so that I could finish strong.
Universal Design for Learning provides an architectural metaphor for the barrier I faced in getting field experience: a lack of access. Despite long-standing personal connections, trying to get into schools in May and June this spring was like trying to make cold calls as a salesman. It felt like constant rejection. Carla, a secretary at a local Title I school, who had called on me in desperation early in late August to see if I might launch a Kindergarten class, had become a gatekeeper. My former colleague, the Reading Specialist who had recommended that I go to Marymount, became impossible to pin down. The lead Kindergarten teacher, who had gone out of her way to set me up for success, who had always been available for a few minutes, never checked her email. The special education teacher, who had sent out glowing emails around her school about me, never returned my emails. The long tenured principal at our neighborhood elementary school had retired. My son’s current principal, an amazing educator, never returned my email. Even my relative and her best friend could not give me a firm answer. I’m not sure what I would have done if the Jedi Academy Middle School, where I had often subbed, had not found me a student for my Curriculum Based Assessment (CBA) project.
With the end of school quickly approaching, with zero time to spare and with only the faintest idea of how to do a CBA, I launched myself into the classroom with the task of teaching scientific notation to a child with autism. Having taught math to 3rd graders and 4th graders in two Title I schools, having been formally trained in Math Investigations, I had strong convictions about why a 7th grader might struggle with scientific notation. First, I reviewed the SOL. Next, I pulled out my 3rd grade fraction unit, with which my Title I Math Specialist and another 3rd grade teacher had guided me. Then, I grabbed my tattered of Elementary School Mathematics. After reviewing Van de Walle’s strategies for connecting models to language and procedures to models, I scoured websites for the right assessment. Unable to find the right assessment for Luke’s instructional objective, I developed one for him. After compiling a set of core problems, many of which were extracted conceptually from IXL’s website, I incorporated base-10 and fraction representations in Luke’s interactive notebook pages using special math fonts. Lastly, I picked up a set of base-10 blocks from Lakeshore Learning and met Luke, a child with autism with a passion for Star Wars. A mutual passion for everything Star Wars provided an immediate bond. In building rapport, I shared with Luke how my son, also a 7th grader, had read every Star Wars book he could get his hands on. While producing the graphs for the CBA, I had an Aha moment! I finally understood the power of using data to drive instruction. A Jedi Master at Excel, I now saw how a tool that I had mastered long ago in practicing the dark arts of accounting could be used to actually help people rather than an annoyance. Data from the CBA allowed me to identify the wide discrepancy between Luke’s strengths and weaknesses. Based on the data, we could develop a plan to scaffold step-by step processes that he could use whenever solving math problems. In order to become a designer of computer games, Luke needs to master fractions and other problem solving skills.
Sparked by what Dr. M had taught us about the work of Jim Cummins, I was excited about my upcoming meeting with Mindy, a Speech Pathologist, at a local Child Find school. During morning meeting at a preschool Autism class, I witnessed a child who had entered her classroom during the spring with zero expressive vocabulary, in June, experiencing a language explosion. Mindy shared with me her notes which documented how she had worked with Barry hand-over-hand to get him to speak his first words, connecting words to physical objects and pictures. She explained how the child’s grandparents were supporting the child in every way imaginable. Meanwhile, the lead teacher was using a felt board with pictures of the children, plus representations of the home, bus, and school to welcome every child to school with a song. The Instructional Assistant was sitting with the neediest children. Mindy pulled me aside and shared with me the life of another little boy in the class who was not thriving. Likely the product of an incestuous relationship, she observed, his uncle looked and behaved, strikingly, more like a father than an uncle. Afterwards, Mindy took me to a 3-6 grade self-contained classroom that she supported, where the teacher had disappeared without a word just before the testing season. There, a child with burns over every inch of her body, moaned and groaned every time her teacher asked her to do any work. Mindy confided that this child’s difficult behavior had sent the teacher over the edge. I watched how, as the long-term sub delivered a scripted Read 180 lesson, a paraprofessional compassionately moved the moaning child to a seat away from the table, where she immediately calmed herself. Mindy found a moment to point out all the great things the long-term sub was doing, quietly moved next to a child, and helped him with his word sort. Later, Mindy invited me in to meet with the Child Find director. We had a brief conversation about Child Find’s role in early intervention in the Director’s office.
Before I left, Mindy shared an anecdote about a home visit she had recently conducted. The child’s father had called the Child Find number because, at 3 years old, his child was still not speaking. She had been knocking at the front door for a while and was preparing to leave, when a large man from Ghana finally came to the door. He had come to the door not wearing a shirt, looking completely disoriented. He had forgotten their appointment. In the living room, several men were sleeping on the floor. A small child was sitting alone in a dark corner with a pile of toys. The father worked all night. The mother worked all day. Having recently completed a Psychology Course at ...College, I was reminded of the importance of early exposure to a language rich environment.  I glanced over at Mindy and uttered, “Isn’t that neglect?” She nodded and shuddered. That night, after class, I visited Mindy’s blog, considered her wonderful record of everything her family does together, and reflected, “No wonder her son Allen is such a gifted writer!”
As a pen-pal, I had remained connected to Mindy’s son’s Kindergarten class after Allan’s teacher Harriett returned from maternity leave. I was committed to be there at the year-end Kindebration. In our emails, when I broached the subject of observations, Harriett told me just to show up any time during language arts, so I did. Carla, however, was far more formal about sending me back to the classrooms than I had expected. She turned me away. Even when I had a scheduled appointment the next time, I was made to sit out in the hall for over an hour before Rosanne, the Accountant, finally grabbed me and brought me back to the reading room, where I waited another hour for Noreen, the Reading Specialist. Noreen asked me, “Why didn’t you just come back?” She broke for lunch and returned an hour later, only to head off to a series of meetings about the summer school classes that she would be running. Afterwards, I emailed Harriett, who was surprised to hear about the problem and sent Cara a note that I would be coming at such and such time. Finally, a few days before the end of school, I managed to observe Harriett conduct a lesson. Harriet is one of the strongest teachers I have ever seen, and would have been a great person to shadow, since I had launched her classroom in September.
On the way back to Harriet’s classroom, I noticed something that disturbed me. Jeanie, the Counselor, waved me over to the teacher’s workroom excitingly. There, I greeted all of the class’s struggling learners “working” with Mr. T, an Instructional Assistant with a gift for making everybody comfortable. My little friends had been coloring a worksheet with little apparent instructional value. Donald, whom I had referred for language screening, who we could never leave out of our sight because he might bite, push, or otherwise bother the lovely Lori, a child who spoke three languages fluently, greeted me warily. Ricky, a twin, with street smarts, whose perfectionism hindered his acquisition of academic knowledge, but whose drawings reflected artistic talent, hugged me. Allah, whose drawings were mostly scribble scrabble, who rarely paid attention at the carpet, during math, reading, or writing, but who always seemed to find another gear at recess, high fived me.  Little Jimmy, who had suffered a broken arm just after he had his appendix removed, who for three weeks had been unable to run around during recess, and had missed out on gymnastics, who was constantly popping up during naptime with his little frog blanket, smiled up at me broadly. Narnia, who loved to recite Silly Sally, but who still could not write her name, gave me a big hug.
In the classroom, Harriett rewarded children during a quick game involving phonemic awareness as she released them from the carpet. It occurred to me that Mr. T’s group had been regularly removed from the class for the sake of the others. Mr. T’s group returned as snack time was starting. Lola, the Instructional Assistant, passed out Ant Journals as the children sat down for snack time. Harriett proudly pointed to her new Smart Doc camera, which she was using to project the Class’s ant farm. Then, as the students were snacking, she presented a science minilesson that connected what was occurring on the screen to the kinds of things they could be writing. She held up Allen’s journal, which had sentences and detailed drawings, as an exemplar. A few days later at the Kindebration, each child was given a role in the ceremony. Harriett handed me the clipboard, and like old times, I released the children to their parents.
I have been focusing on language acquisition this semester, both at __ and __ College. My burning question has been, what are some of the advantages of a child like Allen, who seems headed for the gifted program, that are missing in other children’s homes? To get some clues, I visited the home of a relative, whose 3rd grade daughter recently won a national science competition. I was there to do a language observation of O. O was 6 years, 6 months, and 20 days old when observed. The first setting was alone with the observer in a homework room. The other was in the kitchen – her sister was getting a cooking lesson from her dad, her mom was in the background, and I was talking with O and her dad. Highly imaginative, O referred lovingly to her stuffed animals, “Floppy, Fluffy, and Lucy,” to which she had referred in drawings, but could also describe real-world details about her ballet recital, vacations, plus experiences at school, playing the Wii gaming system, plus everything that was going on in the kitchen. While O overgeneralized irregular endings, e.g., “growed,” instead of grew, and  “shrinked”  instead of shrunk, and mixed tenses, e.g.,  “was” instead of “were,” she often self-corrected. O’s command of prosodic elements of stress, pitch, duration, and tone made O sound to me more like a little adult than a typical 6 year old. The following is a snippet from our conversation: “I love whisking the pancakes when he makes it–banana chocolate chip pancakes. Her father handed her a spice jar to read: “Smoked Spanish Paprika.” How does evaluating the difference between regular paprika and smoked Spanish paprika, or tasting what happens when a dash of imported sherry vinegar is added to melted cheese, affect the brain? O cooed, “Mmm, yummy!” I left wondering how the cooking lesson had changed her.
I caught up to my relative Deena in a coffee shop later that day, where I interviewed her about her experiences as an instructional assistant with 20 years of experience.  Deena uses computer labels to record how every child she works with during language arts does on a daily basis. Her notes become an integral part of her teacher’s notebook of anecdotal notes. Although now classified as a Special Education Instructional Assistant, she has been working with a K-1 team, where rising kindergarten students become 1st graders, and serve as mentors to incoming kindergarten students during the fall. After the interview, Deena shared with me what it was like to have a child who was twice exceptional, GT / LD. Deena went back and located her daughter’s Individualized Education Plan records for me, giving me a window into the entire history of how the eligibility process unfolded, and why the process had been so frustrating to her.
Sara’s best friend, Sara, responded to my distress signals by inviting me to hang out this summer at an institute for the fine arts. Like she does every summer, Sarah is teaching 7th through 12 graders how to do tessellations and cartooning. Through tessellations and cartooning, students learn to identify character traits and apply that knowledge to find unique characters. They practice sequential planning, develop fine motor skills, and synthesize elements of graphics and language to create original imaginative stories. Of particular interest to me was how Sarah adapted lessons for students with disabilities, because I want to make cartooning more accessible to every student in the classroom. While there, a cadre of top county officials paused outside of Sarah’s door, oohed and aahed at the displays of student work, and introduced themselves. I wondered how I could borrow some of what I learned about cartooning into my classroom.
Wally liked to pop into Sarah’s room, and I knew him as the Social Worker who had run the Child Study meetings when I was teaching 3rd grade. I interviewed Wally about his role in the eligibility process at a Title I School. After a child is referred to the local screening committee, he told me, the Social Worker and Psychologist look for things that either rule things in, or rule things out. In background research, as the Social Worker, Wally looks to see whether there was a “funky birth,” what is happening in the home life, whether there is an ill parent, whether the child is staying up too late at night, etc. Factors in the child’s environment that might be impacting the child’s learning might help rule out a learning disability as the reason why a student may be having difficulty accessing the curriculum. Is the child tired, sick, are there other cultural and linguistic factors, or is it a learning disability? My 3rd graders had rudely awakened me to the issue of the instructional match when I tried to use James and the Giant Peach as a read aloud and I saw them looking back at me with blank expressions.
A neighbor, whom I had helped move a bookcase on the day he had moved in, repaid the favor tenfold by allowing me to administer the KBEA-II Achievement test to his son. James Neutron, age 9.8 on the test date, who has been living abroad, most recently on a military base in Germany, has been home schooled by his mother, a former teacher. James’s composite score registered in the upper extreme on all test takers.
What began as an exercise in frustration became a series of burning questions. Why did Narnia’s mother not use the textured letters I made for her daughter so that Narnia could practice with her letters?  How could Luke struggle so much to keep track of procedural steps but remember every detail of every Star Wars episode? How did an ordinary cooking lesson, given to a sibling, affect a younger child’s language development? How were poverty and delays in language development related? These are questions that continue to burn in me. With no going back, the way forward challenged me to go out and explore in ways I would never have anticipated.