Tag Archives: celebration

Nice to Meet You (Face-to-Face)

I had a great thrill this week. I finally got to meet face-to-face one of my favorite people in the online educational community, Pernille Ripp.

Pernille has been a friend and collaborator for two or three years. I don’t remember how we found each other on Twitter, but I remember bonding with her when Wisconsin was devolving into a union-workers’ hellhole. Pernille was down at the Capitol frequently, voicing her opinions and fighting for what she believes in.

That’s how she rolls, and I’ve always admired that about her. She is outspoken, upfront, and committed to her values. We’ve Skyped, e-mailed, and talked on the phone, but it’s a different element in person. Our conversation over dinner was passionate and interesting. Being able to sit with Pernille for a few hours was a wonderful experience.

In the past, Pernille and I had some brief hypothetical conversations about someday working together, maybe opening a school. Let me tell you, our students and colleagues need more people like her. So, Pernille, if that offer still stands, you know where to find me.



Come Together

The play each class in my school is required to present is draining. There always seems to be something else that needs to be done. Every year, we wonder how we’re going to pull it off, and every year we marvel that we did.

This year’s play was extra special. In my two previous years teaching self-contained special ed, I sought out colleagues in the same position. My reasons were these: 1) two or three small classes combine to make a stageful of kids, so that’s good, and 2) birds of a feather have a propensity for flocking together.

When the play wrapped last year, I found myself thinking it was time for my birds to fly a little higher. So I reached out to my co-teaching colleagues across the hall and asked if they might consider our classes working together on the play this year. To my delight, they said yes.

Why did I seek them out? I like the idea of inclusion in a classroom, but even better is the idea of inclusion in a school. I thought it would be a rewarding experience for everyone involved if my kids had the chance to work with students with disabilities in a less restrictive environment as well as their general ed peers. Turns out I was right.

This play featured 42 students, three teachers, and two paraprofessionals. It was an amazing collaborative effort for me and my students. Here are some of my major takeaways:

  • Originally, I asked my class who wanted to speak in the play and who didn’t. I thought back to my days in elementary school, when the shyest kids appeared on stage but didn’t speak or acted as grips, stagehands, and gophers. I wasn’t planning to push the point with the kids who didn’t want to speak, but my partners persuaded me to look at it differently. As I wrote the play, they said they wanted all of their kids to have at least one line – one chance to shine – and I realized I should want the same, even if it meant a push outside a student’s comfort zone. Rewriting the script to include everyone became a challenge I enjoyed. It meant changing the story, adding characters, and finding group speaking parts for the kids who really would have been mortified to have all eyes on them even if for only one word. The end result: everyone had a chance on the microphone and everyone was an important contributor to the play.
  • This play brought out the best in kids who rarely have the chance to shine. It turns out that one of my students has been in my plays for three consecutive years now. I experienced great joy watching him grow from someone who, in first grade, just stood on stage and, in second, was removed from the play because he refused to practice and threw a punch when his space was violated. His growth? In third grade, not only did he practice with us every time, he danced, sang, smiled, and said his line with clarity and confidence.
  • He wasn’t the biggest story. That distinction goes a boy who has been my major project for the year. Picture a boy screaming, crying, saying things that don’t make sense, rolling on the floor, hopping, and showing no inclination toward socialization or schoolwork. Picture a boy crying on stage during rehearsals because the music was too loud, the prospect too scary. No way he would ever sit for the play or participate for it, right? Now picture him smiling, dancing, singing his face off, and posing for pictures with his mom, friend, and class after the play ended. During the course of rehearsals, as my colleagues and I determined the stage was a bit overwhelming for him, we asked him if he could sit there and then come off stage to dance. Boy did he ever. He had a starring role as a dancer and showed more confidence than I can remember seeing from him all year. The untrained eye wouldn’t know he was “special”.

That brings me to my final point. My parents attended the play. My dad has time to do such things now that he’s retired from his dedicated service to the city. My mom is a retired District 75 principal (the severest disabilities). They both said you couldn’t tell the students without disabilities from the students with disabilities.

And that’s why I did this. It was an opportunity for my kids to be seen as kids and kids alone – never mind their low reading levels and other issues. To their credit, they had the administration smiling, the audience laughing, and their teachers beaming.

Kids are kids, no matter the label. Today my students made that point loud and clear.

It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m Thankful For…

The education edition of the traditional, “I’m Thankful For…” game:

I’m thankful for…

…having a job.

…having a class of sweet kids even though there are only 10 of them and it sometimes feels like there are 30.

…having an awesome para who “gets it” and is totally committed to the job.

…having great people around me who are both good friends and good colleagues. They share resources, ideas, and laughs.

…being part of a staff that raised over $3,000 in a week to support staff members in need following Hurricane Sandy.

…those precious early morning minutes before anyone else arrives, when I’m the only one on my floor, when all is quiet and still and I can be as productive as I planned to be.

…the steady stream of “Good mornings” that begins soon thereafter.

…the group of students from last year who make it a point to stop by my room most every morning even though their classroom is two floors up and they really have no reason to be on my floor.

…the fact that when I walk into their classrooms (or the classrooms of other former students), everyone screams my name, work pretty much stops, and their teachers only smile, never complain.

…the fact that I have this wonderful Thanksgiving holiday break to spend with family and friends, doing what I feel like doing, enjoying the season.

…the fact that you read my blog and support me through it. Thanks to all of you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

After Sandy, A School Community Comes Together for Its Own

It’s amazing the way people come together for good when the chips are truly down. Community is, indeed, an incredible force.

Having now distributed the cash we collected for staff members affected by Hurricane Sandy – people who lost so so much – I am able to look back at the whirlwind experience it was to collect the donations and give them out.

I was knocked speechless when I took the first donation: a crisp $100 bill. Donations continued to come in on a steady basis with people showing similar generosity. Some asked sheepishly what others were giving, and expressed disappointment that they couldn’t give more than they did. My answer was the same each time: “This is a beautiful donation.” And they all were.

We had a group of folks we planned to give the money to. It was all supposed to be a surprise, but eventually word got around to me that some people on the list were planning to decline the money. They felt there was no reason for them to accept it when others were dealing with much more than they were.

As incredible as it was for colleagues to come up to me all week with envelopes of cash and checks, I was perhaps most moved by the gestures of those who said, “Others need it more than me.” And try as I did to convince them that people wanted them to have it, they wouldn’t budge. They passed on their cut so that others could get more. It’s hard for me to even express how touched I was by that. To be sure, when they first told me they wouldn’t take the money, I was disappointed and bordering on indignant, but the more I thought about it, I totally understood why. Needless to say, I gained plenty of respect for them.

I’m proud to say we raised more than $3,000 from the staff. The recipients were overwhelmed with gratitude and shock when I presented them their portions. You always wish you can do more, but my colleagues should be proud for having done what they did. We all hope it helps people start moving forward.

Related: Sandy Left Tons of Destruction. Now What Can I Do About It?

Orange You Glad You Turned Down the Cookie?

“No, thank you,” she said as I offered a cookie.

“No, thank you,” she said as I offered a munchkin.

“Yes!” she said as I offered my carrots.

Here was a 9-year old turning down the sugary sweet snacks in favor of the infinitely healthier ones.

To understand the significance is to consider the evolution this student has undergone since telling me early in the year, “I can’t eat too much sugar. The doctor says I won’t be able to breathe.”

When I heard that, I made a mental note that the baking and candy around the holidays would have to take a backseat this year because a child who was beginning to understand the level of her unhealthiness was trying to make a change.

Foolishly, I did bring in cupcakes once after this, and after telling me she’d keep half for her mom, she couldn’t resist finishing it all while I got her a bag to store the leftover piece. I felt immense sadness. She looked like the cat who swallowed the canary and was clearly embarrassed by her choice.

Since then, though, any treats provided by other teachers have gone into a bag and brought home for others. The amazing resolve this student has shown has been quite impressive and quite inspirational.

Yesterday, when I needed the kids to snack on something during the test break so they’d get a jolt of energy, she turned her nose up at the unhealthy options. But she sure did gobble those carrots.

I sent a note home commending her efforts and telling mom and dad that I was so inspired that I would bring in a healthy snack – a vegetable or fruit – for the whole class today. I didn’t have a chance to get to the store for baby carrots, so I’ll bring in some orange slices instead.

It takes a special kid to understand the consequences of unhealthy eating and refuse to indulge, especially when it’s not the cool thing to do. With today’s oranges, I hope I am sending a positive message to all the kids and hope I’ll remember this lesson in the future.


Happy Patrick’s Day!

You know what today is, right?

Sure you do.

You could ask my students if you don’t.

They’ll tell you:

It’s Patrick’s Day!

No need to wear green. No use for shamrocks. No taste for corned beef or cabbage.

Because when you’re 7 or 8 years old and you hear “St. Patrick’s Day,” you kind of ignore the “St.” and your mind travels to Bikini Bottom, where Spongebob, Sandy, Squidward, and Mr. Krabs are celebrating the man of the day, Patrick.

Read about the holiday my students created in response to them hearing “Patrick’s Day.” And allow us all to wish you and yours a great one!


You came to my class last year, a few days after the first day of school. You were petrified and in tears. You barely spoke to me that week and only had the confidence to do so when with your best friend.

You awkwardly danced through our play practices. You stared pleadingly at me when asked to come up in front of the class or answer a question. You glued yourself to a chair when there was any type of physical activity that permitted you to think about how you might be perceived.

You are in my class for the second consecutive year now. You have been chattier with me and other kids. You still don’t participate in the physical aspects of our enrichment programs. (You won’t stretch, you won’t jump. You will, however, retreat to a corner). You still don’t like to come up in front of the class, but you inch slowly and do so. You often whisper when answering a question.

You wouldn’t  – you couldn’t – possibly want a speaking part in our play. You would, as a result, be the only student without one.

You told your speech therapist you wanted a part. You told me you wanted a part. You had me feeling skeptical. You realized it would involve speaking into a microphone, on a stage, in front of a lot of people. You nodded, unconvincingly, when I asked if you really wanted to do it.

You were assigned the role of introducing the play. You practiced and practiced and memorized your lines. You walked to the front on cue when we rehearsed. You spoke your part without pauses and without clarity. You rushed. You concerned me and made me question my decision.

You listened when I told you you had to be louder, slower, clearer. You practiced and practiced. You improved. You spoke louder, slower, clearer. You didn’t let your voice rise like a question. You asserted yourself. You gave me goosebumps.

You started to accept yourself in your own skin. You let your shyness inhibit you less. You began to believe in yourself.

You amaze me. You.


What is Behind That Nervous Smile?

To You Who Cries

That Kid Who Gets Under Your Skin

Certain kids just have a way of creeping under our skin…

They don’t do their work…

They get angry for no apparent reason.

They don’t pay attention.

We start to give up on them.

Certain kids have a way of getting under our skin…

We start to believe in them.

They start to pay attention.

They start to seem happy for no apparent reason.

They do their work.

Certain kids just have a way of creeping under our skin…

…and touching our hearts.

The Continuing Story of a Boy and His Paper Clips

One student in particular this year has provided me several grief- and angst-riddled experiences, promoted a multitude of conversations with others who work with him, and generally caused me a lot of distress. Because despite whatever impression people might have from reading this blog, the truth is, I, like most, do sometimes run up against what feels like a brick wall – unyielding, inflexible, and wont to stay the same for a good, long while.

Among other dalliances, this student has found particular joy in tiny objects – like paper clips. That is to say that if he has one – or any other similarly-sized object –  in his hand, it is likely to occupy much more of his attention than anything else that should be occupying his attention (like, say, his work). He has been known to angrily fold his arms and pound his fists on the table, wordlessly, in an expression of dissatisfaction with whatever isn’t going exactly his way. In weeks past, I’d lost my cool with him more than once, even, I admit, multiple times daily, to the point that I knew kids were beginning to categorize him as a certain type of kid (and not in a good way).

Based on what you’ve read here, perhaps you’re also beginning to categorize him, assigning him labels of varying severity and intricacy. Whatever you have in mind, perhaps you can suspend that judgement and consider where he was a week ago and where he is today.

One of the big takeaways from Annette Breaux’s presentation last week is that every child needs to feel they are the favorite. This involves being positive with all students and smiling at them bunches.

I thought about the majority of my interactions with this student and realized just how negative they were. So, I’ve gone in completely the other direction with this guy and have turned on the happy, bubbly positiveness.

Every day when he walks in, I tell him how thrilled I am to see him, saying things like, “I am SO happy to see you!” I always make sure to give him a high-five or fist-bump when he comes in. (Originally, I thought I might choke on the words. Now, I am genuinely excited for him and his Angry Birds hat to walk in each morning). In exchange he might give me a salute or a, “Yeah!” He comes in now and gets right down to business. Instead of being among the last to unpack, he is among the first.

In one week, he has gone from frequently being angry to frequently being happy. He is more invested in his work and more receptive to what I say. He seems to be focusing more, and I’ve noticed him looking to me in times of distress, finally understanding that I care and want to help him. I am taking a special interest in him when he does his work. Since he often is reluctant to write, I have made arrangements with him wherein we can take turns writing on his paper. He now puts my initials to show where I’ll write and his to show where he will.

Periodically, he has pulled a gift from his pocket and said, “Mr. Ray! This is for you!” Invariably, it’s been a paperclip. I always thank him, as if it’s the greatest gift I could ever receive, and say, “I always need more paperclips!” and ask him to place it where I keep mine. He usually says, “Yeah!”

I am truly excited by the change in this young man, and it is plain as day how grateful he is for the way I’ve changed. I’ve allowed myself to accept him as he is and be thankful for the fact that he’s in my class. In turn, he is beginning to flourish.


Remember the Whales

I was driving along the coast of Connecticut, heading toward a right curve that put the car alongside the sparkling blue water of the Atlantic Ocean. To the left was an unpopulated white beach. I saw mist was coming up from beneath the surface and recognized it as the product of whales’ blow holes.

I had been fascinated by the majesty of whales since fifth grade when we studied them for a whole unit and adopted one as a class. So to see this spontaneous display as I drove was quite emotional for me. That’s why, when a blue whale launched itself out of the water, high into the air like an acrobat before diving back below the surface, I felt tears welling in my eyes. I wanted to stop to watch, but couldn’t. I continued to drive, upset by my inability to stop, simultaneously thrilled by the natural spectacle occurring right there on the coast.

Ocean now obscured by brush and with the golden sun setting, I pulled into the town where street vendors hawked their crafts and food. All I could appreciate was that no one shared my excitement over the whale.

Then, with that unpleasant tightness in the chest that accompanies the undesirable outcome of a dream, I awoke.

I read so many articles yesterday that were about the narrowing of our curricula and the complacency of test prep. A whale in my dream arrived to say it shouldn’t be that way. We should celebrate the amazing things in our world, the spontaneity of discovering what we never knew about, and the joy of experiencing firsthand what interests us.

Let’s not become the disinterested street vendors so focused on their profits that we forget about everything else. Let’s remember the whales.