Category Archives: Field of Dreams

My fourth year journey as it relates to our class theme, “Field of Dreams.”

You Are Not Your Grade

Report cards in special education classes are a contentious issue. Often times, no matter the effort put forth, no matter the good feelings cultivated, no matter the strength of students’ beliefs that they are doing well, the grades are low because they are aligned to grade level standards.

This is unfortunate. In a culture where numbers have become more significant in schools than names, most students with a disability who are held to these standards really don’t have a chance. The issue is complicated further when parents only see numbers, as opposed to anecdotes and positive feedback, as indicative of what their child has accomplished.

It feels like a battle that can’t be won. So I ask, “What is the point?” This is not a question of whether we should give grades, but rather a question of whether students with disabilities – already with so much working against them – should be painted with the same broad grading brush as the general education population.

I submit that they should not. When they are, grades become punitive, injurious, and stress-inducing. They don’t motivate. Even if a student “tries harder” (who is to say they’re not already trying their hardest?), the reality usually is that grades will still show an inaccurate and unjust portrait of a student who just wants to do well, be respected, and taste success.

So I’ll remind my students again that the grades don’t tell the whole picture. I’ll continue to ask them if they feel they’ve been doing well in school, if they’re feeling good about themselves, if they’re learning. I won’t be able to squeeze these important intangibles into a number, but maybe squeezing them into students’ and parents’ heads will be enough.

Reasons to Celebrate

I have high expectations for my students. They are specific to their own needs and current abilities. They are realistic.

In our classroom, we celebrate what, to outsiders, is insignificant because no achievement should be considered insignificant.

When a student no longer relies on me to remind them how to properly form a lowercase g or realizes for himself that for “b” he wrote “d,” that is a reason to celebrate.

When a student who previously receded into a shell of shyness and self-doubt when called to the front of the room instead tentatively steps forward, boldly putting herself out there in her own way, that is a reason to celebrate.

When a student sets goals of advancing to the next reading level and accomplishes that goal with a proud smile, that is a reason to celebrate.

When we honor each other’s different abilities and respect the fact that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, that is a reason to celebrate.

When the words “Dare to try” ring out from one student to the next even though I’m not near them, that is a reason to celebrate.

When a student is struggling to do something and suddenly hears her name being chanted in support, that is a reason to celebrate.

When a student starts coming on time after chronic lateness, that is a reason to celebrate.

When a student who previously butted heads with any notion of failure announces, “I am proud of myself!” that is a reason to celebrate.

When we bridge word work, reading, and writing into a harmonious synergy that demonstrates proper use of short vowels or other phonics, that is a reason to celebrate.

When another teacher comes in with a smile, the stigma of my students broken by their vibrant personalities and eager attitudes, that is a reason to celebrate.

When my students tell me in actions, words, and small notes how much I mean to them, that is a reason to celebrate.

Even when traditional means of schooling and assessment bring my students’ attitudes down and leave them questioning the message they get from me and each other in contrast to what a number says, there is so much in my room to celebrate…

Because we understand that none of our accomplishments should ever be diminished.

The Music of You Matter

All day one of my girls was begging me to let her sing for the class. I kept telling her she could if we had time. During reading, she asked. During writing, she asked. Before science, she asked. During read aloud, she asked. Finally, bags were packed and we had time, so I said, “Go for it!”

I expected Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez, but what this girl and her friend sang was a million times more amazing. It was a song they wrote themselves and a song that had me tearing up almost immediately. The lyrics:

I matter
You matter
I matter
You matter

People matter
Babies matter
Teachers matter
Police matter

Everybody matters in the world
Everybody matters

I matter
You matter
I matter
You matter

Everybody matters in the world
We love when people matter

I’ll tell you, as stressful as things can sometimes be, children always have a way of reminding us about the things that truly…matter.

“We’re All Losers”

The words stopped me in my tracks and brought a silence upon the classroom yesterday afternoon. After several students realized their mistake on a brief quiz, in which they had to write a number greater than one provided, they were upset with themselves. One student said, “I lost.”

Then another one said those horrible words: “We’re all losers.”

A seven-year old said this.

I was a bit dumbfounded, and then I was very sad.

I wanted to tell them how great is it to make mistakes. I wanted to tell them about mistakes I made this year and how I’ve tried to learn from them. I wanted to tell them they sound like they’re giving up on their dreams and trying. I wanted to tell them that they come to school to learn, and no one comes to school knowing everything.

I did tell them these things. I don’t know if they registered.

So when they all left, I wrote a message to each child on an index card.

Today, I talked to them about trying, believing, accepting, making mistakes and learning. And I gave them all their own mystery envelope with this message inside.

I hope they believe it.

Late in the day a student eagerly puffed his chest out and stuck this in my hand:


A Morning Routine That Makes Them Smile

If your school is like mine, your yard is nonexistent because of construction and the kids are lining up in the hall outside your classroom every morning ten minutes before school starts. In my younger years, I would have considered this a major nuisance. After all, I am not a babysitter and, um, hello, I am doing work here. (Wait, I said “I would have…” Who am I kidding? I DID!)

This year, though, I sense that it is important for me to embrace this brief pre-class time with the children as something that can help them start each day with a smile and a positive vibe.

As such, when I hear the pitter-patter of their feet and the quiet chatter of their voices, I am making it my business to pay them a visit. And it’s not to say, “Hey guys, PIPE DOWN!” Instead, it’s more to say, “Hey, guys, what’s up? How’s everyone doing today? Who is ready to work? Who is ready to have a great day? Who is ready to have fun?”

It is so nice to hear genuinely enthusiastic responses to these questions from the majority of the kids, as opposed to the sing-songy responses that irritate the heck out of me. (Teacher: “Good morning, boys and girls.” Students, “Gooooood mooooorning Mrsssss. So and So.” I mean, honestly, who is that for?)

It is so wonderful to see big smiles early in the morning. Some kids don’t smile with their mouths. They just allow their eyes to light up. That’s awesome, too!

How are the students benefiting? They are reminded daily that they matter to me (and they don’t have to wait long in the day to have this affirmed). They see they matter to me just the way they are, not because of their reading, math, or other abilities. They see they are awesome just because they are themselves.

I like our little routine. It may mean I’m a little less prepared when they walk in. It may mean I sacrifice a few minutes of my productive alone time. It may mean I am looked upon as an oddity.

But, hey, that’s all good in my hood. Because it’s not about me. It’s about them.

Inspiring Words From a 9-Year Old

This week, students wrote letters to themselves which we will revisit in June. Take a look at what this student wrote. I was so proud of him for doing all of this on his own and for expressing such beautiful sentiments.

This student writes, "I will always believe in myself."

We Are the Change Our Students Crave

It’s fall premiere season on television, and while I don’t watch much TV, I did find myself drawn to an old favorite this week: The Biggest Loser.

(If you don’t know about the show, in a nutshell, it is a weight-loss competition among 15 obese individuals, separated into teams of 5, each driven by their own uniquely motivational trainer.)

I always enjoyed this show for its inspirational qualities. There are common themes that course through every season: self-doubt, belonging, desire to change, and always, pride. The presence of these universal motifs to which we can all relate no doubt contributes greatly to the success of the show.

Watching this week’s premiere, I found myself connecting to the show more than I ever have. The reason? My students.

It turns out each of the themes listed above is common to our students, too.

Self-Doubt In the first episode of the season, grown men were reduced to tears by the overwhelming emotional burdens of embarrassment and their belief that they were nothing but a disappointment to their loved ones. So many of the contestants come to the show with no sense of self-worth. Does this sound like your students sometimes? I’ve known kids who are so tethered to the belief that they can’t do something that it leaves them paralyzed and mortified.

On The Biggest Loser, trainers deal with these issues by screaming motivations at the wounded, essentially demanding them to consider who they are and who they want to be. Inevitably, though, the trainer comes out of that mode and becomes the sensitive support the person needs. I do that, too. Sometimes I am so befuddled by the disconnect between what I see in my students and what they see in themselves that I become angry at them. Once we both get it out of our system, I am able to be more rational, more uplifting, more supportive. The kids appreciate this: in clearheaded moments they are able to better appreciate what I’m saying and can consider the possibilities for themselves. Without doubt, we figure it out.

Belonging Another inspirational aspect of the show is the strength of the teams. They rely on each other. They believe in each other. They support each other. They understand that the team is significantly diminished by the absence of even just one person’s contributions. In essence, the team members know that everyone on the team matters.

I am a major believer – in fact,  it’s really become the core of my educational philosophy – in the absolute necessity of a family/team mentality in the classroom. This year, I’ve shared stories of how they’ve supported each other and how they’ve supported me. They might not be ready to articulate it, but I am willing to bet that the students all feel the same way I do: everyone in that room is vital to our class. There is no insignificant contributor. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Desire to Change No contestant applies for The Biggest Loser just for kicks. They do it because they have hit bottom and want to make a change. It is a brutal experience just watching it sometimes. The workouts are insanely intense. The emotions run wild and range all over the place. The trainers are there to drive the change, but they don’t always do it with a smile on their face. They break their teams down into pieces. They beat them to a sweaty pulp. There is no mercy. Yet, at the end, the contestants inevitably come away saying “My trainer changed my life.” While I don’t advocate driving students as hard as the trainers drive their teams, I do believe that we need to be strong, persistent, and insistent with our students. This year in particular, I feel this more than ever because we set goals on day one and have been threading hopes and dreams throughout the entire year. If you dream it, you can achieve it.

Pride At the end of the first episode, contestants stood on the scale for the weekly weigh-in. Some people lost nearly 30 pounds in a week. As one trainer said, “Now we’re seeing those frowns turn to smiles.” Even the contestant who lost the least – four pounds – HAS to be proud. A loss is a loss and her hard work paid off. Our students need to be able to have pride in their own accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem. One of my girls came to me writing her lowercase y and g above the line. She’s breaking that habit, and even though it seems minor, it is definitely a cause for celebration! Her smile when I point out that she’s making the letters properly is great for all of us to see – but best for her. You CAN do it!

Let’s commit ourselves to being the trainers – the change agents – our students crave. Let’s believe in them and tell them at every turn how wonderful they are. Let’s push them where they didn’t think they could go. Let’s always celebrate them for who they are and who they will become. Let’s make sure we leave them in a better place than when they came to us.

Let’s leave our students saying, “My teacher changed my life.”

They’ve Got My Back, Too

I totally goofed in thinking that parent orientation was today. It turns out the parents were invited for yesterday. When this struck me about 10 minutes before they arrived, I had a minor moment of panic when I realized that I had no one to translate, knowing the vast majority of parents would need that service in order to get the information I was presenting.

Incidentally, I had planned to allow my kids to stay for the parent orientation today (if it was to be today, that is), so I figured I might as well keep them in the room yesterday. The goal here was to give them an opportunity to share some of the things happening in our room (while I took care of the administrative stuff). In addition, I figured if I didn’t have a translator, they could assume those responsibilities.

Well, once parents arrived at our room today and I asked the kids to translate as I spoke, it became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen as I envisioned it. So I told myself I was going to have to give it a shot – dare to try – and draw on my high school Spanish to do my best to speak to the parents.

I started off shakily, telling the parents I was going to try to speak in Spanish. It was nervewracking. I felt like I was wasting their time. However, they were patient and indicated their understanding of my slow, disjointed speech, which was punctuated with a fair share of “uhs,” “hmms,” and “sooooo, yeahs.”

Thankfully, my students had my back. Numerous times, I stopped mid-sentence in Spanish to ask how to say a word. They were very helpful, and knew some tricky phrases, too, like “believing in yourself.” Maybe my boldness in trying to communicate to the parents emboldened them to dare to try, because the longer the session went on, the more willing were students to help me out. They also came up with several important items we needed to share that I had forgotten in my nervousness.

I ended the session by simultaneously thanking the parents for coming and apologizing profusely for my Spanish. To their credit they were understanding. I told them I had a 96 average in high school Spanish…but that I wasn’t in high school anymore!

Usually when my students find out I understand and speak Spanish to a certain degree, their reactions are a mix of shock, awe, and disbelief. When the parents left today, I asked the kids how they thought I did. A couple gave me a thumbs up, which they quickly changed to a thumbs down. Some gave me the so-so/eh/okay sign. Most, however, said I did a great job. All I could do was thank them for their help and let them know it made it much easier for me to have them there.

I had all day to ruminate upon this experience, and I realized that this was me modeling what it means to truly “dare to try” (or as I had to use my Spanish-English dictionary to figure out for the parents, “atreve tratar.”) I really wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of being up there by myself, exposed to the entire room as a poor speaker of Spanish.

I already know the kids support their classmates’ tries. It’s great to know they support mine, too.

Building Community with Books

Last Friday my school sent me for a professional development for our literacy program, but with the angle of being for teachers in ICT and self-contained classrooms. I was wary it would be a repeat of the session I attended last year at the same time (first full week of school). However, it turned out to be a different presenter and therefore, I came away with some really great new ideas.

One of the arguments the presenter made was that in special education classrooms, you have to readjust your timeframes and expect that work around the grade standards is going to progress at a different rate than in a general education room. This is music to the ears of anyone who teaches special ed but feels the pressure of meeting the demands that we are all under. That it came from the mouth of this staff developer makes the music even more melodic, as it is encouragement to continue on the path I am on with my students.

She shared some wonderful books that can be used in special education classrooms as a way of celebrating differences as well as addressing the inevitable frustrations that school and life present. (ADDED BONUS: You’re still doing your read alouds and other literacy work!) Please consider taking a look at:

The first three books on that list were new to me, and I wanted to seize the momentum of this PD and bring it to the classroom immediately. Conveniently, we had already read Chrysanthemum, as well as another wonderful book for building community and learning to deal with adversity, Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus.

Yesterday, I brought in Giraffes Can’t Dance. It’s a wonderful book about Gerald, a giraffe who longs to dance but struggles to move with the music. He meets a friend who encourages him, and through the power of self-belief, winds up becoming the star dancer in Africa. His story is quite similar to Leo’s, a tiger who starts school unable to speak, write, read, eat neatly, or draw. Leo struggles to learn these things, but eventually, through his perseverance, does. At the end, he celebrates his newly harnessed skills with the simple but poignant declaration, “I made it!”

With these two books in my students’ minds, we had a talk today about our own current limitations. My main point was for students to appreciate that, even though the books are fiction, they provide important lessons for believing in oneself and knowing that one day, you will achieve your dreams.

Students were open about their limitations. One girl talked about having trouble reading. Another lamented the fact that writing is sometimes difficult because she doesn’t always remember letters. When I asked them if they could try to remember Leo and Gerald when they were struggling, they said they could. I also told them I would remind them about those stories. They were heartened by this.

It was really nice to see the students so honest and introspective (especially since we’ve only been together for what, 8 days?) Can simple characters like Gerald – a clumsy giraffe – and Leo – a late blooming tiger – provide inspiration for them this year?

You know what? I think they can.

I Had a School-Mare Last Night

I had a school-mare last night. I woke up at 3:30 in a sweat, heart pounding, body shooting up straight out of bed. It was my first school-related nightmare (aka “school-mare”) of the year!

Generally, my school-mares have to do with waking up at 8:07 (or thereabouts) knowing the kids are arriving at 8:10. Or, I might dream that I was observed on a day when I was totally unprepared for myself or my students, let alone my administrators.

This particular school-mare was quite unique.

It was the first day of school, and the principal was making the rounds, seeing how the classrooms had shaped up and making sure everyone was on the ball. In the school-mare, my kids and I were discussing our various Field of Dreams concepts, including “Dare to Try” and “You Matter.” They were into it, and good vibes were pulsating from my orange bulletin board to my blue one and everywhere in between.

Only when the principal arrived, she was none too pleased. She ripped the orange backing paper off the board and tore the “Dare to Try” sign off the door, leaving it to flutter unceremoniously to the ground. She stormed out but voiced her distaste later that day in both an announcement AND an e-mail, in which her message was essentially, “There should be no decorations in classrooms of teams that have lost 50 games in a row to the Washington Nationals!” (Wow, I had really touched a nerve with my community building and positiveness!)

It was at this point, having been exposed and mocked in the e-mail, that I woke myself up, relieved to realize I was in a school-mare, and not my school. So at 3:30 AM, I found myself stumbling through the dark and considering how I would respond if ever confronted with why my room is decked in Mets stuff and why I chose to focus so heavily on the words “Dare to try.” It is fairly evident why I would use a Mets motif in the room, but here is what I would say if asked about why “Dare to try” means so much to our class this year:

In my experience as a teacher, I have been at many times surprised and saddened by students’ lack of confidence, their diminished value of self-worth, their inability to take a leap of faith due to not believing in themselves. So, school-mare principal, when my students read and say those words, I am hoping they begin to internalize them. I am hoping they inspire them to believe. I am hoping they motivate them to give it a shot when previously they wouldn’t.

“How does this relate to the curriculum?” you ask? Well, in the most literal sense, I guess it doesn’t. Except for the fact that when kids believe in themselves, they believe in what they can accomplish. For those kids reading two years behind grade level, it might be the ticket they need to be better readers. For those kids who still can’t add without their fingers on their face, it might be the ticket they need to try other methods of addition. For those kids who would rather sit in a dentist’s chair than in the share chair in the meeting area, it might just be the ticket they need to gain a smidgen of confidence.

I’m so glad this was only a school-mare. Were this scenario in the real world, my kids would never have a chance. But I am empowered to empower them. They do have a chance, and one of the most important elements of their success is them believing that success can in fact be theirs.