Sunday, January 31, 2010

Goodbye Friend

Camille and Bill Cosby's son Ennis would greet those he met with the friendly salutation "Hello Friend".

After his devastating murder in January 1997 the Cosby's established the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation to continue his dream of providing an education to students who tend to fall through the cracks in our schools.

Ennis himself was dyslexic and struggled his whole life with learning differences. This challenge ignited his passion to teach children to overcome dyslexia and come out of the shadows. He wanted to cast off the shame and despair these children felt and replace it with self esteem.

In addition to creating awareness with the powerful video Ennis' Gift: A Film About Learning Differences and providing classroom libraries for under resourced classrooms, the Foundation also united in a partnership with Fordham University's Graduate School of Education in 2000 to create the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Certificate Program.

This is an 18 credit, intensive series of teacher training classes in language development, beginning reading instruction and early childhood literacy. The core of which involves a year long, twice weekly, hour long session of one to one supervised tutoring. Each 'Cosby Scholar' works with a struggling first grade student to develop their literacy skills.

I was fortunate enough to graduate from this program in 2004 as a member of Cohort 3. What I learned during that time changed my teaching for the better. I continued to stay involved, first as a mentor and then as an instructor. I taught the incoming cohorts during the annual summer literacy institutes as well co-teaching the tutoring practicum.

Sadly, this past week the final cohort of Cosby Scholars joined together to celebrate the completion of the professional development program for "Young Readers at Risk". Due to financial woes the program has (hopefully only temporarily) folded.

During the ceremony, which was attended by Camille and Bill Cosby's daughters Erika and Erinn, I delivered a short speech with a fellow Cosby graduate (from Cohort 1) and my co-teacher in the program Cayne. Cayne wrote the following speech for us...

We open with a quote from Alexander Graham Bell "Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open".

Early last year Dr. Uhry told Gary and I that the Foundation may not be able to fund another cohort of Cosby Scholars. We were stunned and saddened by the news and to the possible end of what we believed was a unique and profound experience that has forever influenced how we teach and those we teach.

We found ourselves continuing with our responsibilities of teaching the cohort and supervising the practicum but continued to stare at this door that was slowly closing. As ten incredible years of the Fordham University Ennis William Cosby Program come to an end it is within this quote we find the hope to continue the legacy that has been established. So we look to the open door.... whether that door manifest itself as a leadership position within your school, continuing your studies in education, providing tutoring to a struggling student or sharing what you have learned with a colleague.

With the end of the Scholar program also came the end of the immensely resourceful Hello Friend Website. For those of you that do not know the website once offered resources for teachers and parents in regard to literacy. Information about the foundation, and other great offerings like the Ennis' Gift video. However, as you know in this digital age nothing is temporary on the Internet (for better or for worse). With the help of the wayback machine (it is really called that) one can easily access old or discontinued web pages. So it is with the help of the wayback machine that we bring you a short essay written by Ennis posted to the Hello Friend website back in 1997.

Goals and Criteria for Learning

By Ennis William Cosby

When I work with students who learn differently, my goals may be slightly different than the goals of the regular education teacher. My principles and goals are the following:

I should be a teacher who can motivate students toward increasing their self-esteem and confidence. Most students who are diagnosed have very little confidence or self-esteem.

I must come to class well prepared and I also must be prepared for change. Students may have personalities that will alter the whole lesson plan of the day. My preparation motto is, "Try to be ready for the best and the worst."

"Quitters never win and winners never quit." I have always tried to listen to positive feedback from other special education teachers. Most of them have warned me about how students can damage a teacher's pride and ego to the point where a teacher contemplates quitting. "Never take things personally," one teacher recommended to me. This is probably the hardest theory to live by. I have promised myself that I will never quit. Instead, I will try to create the best solution for every problem I face. 

The students' overall performance and behavior will be my tools for measurement. There must be gradual improvement.

With the closing of an era may today’s final cohort 9 go forward having benefited from the program, incorporate Ennis' Words and principles in their teaching, may those at the Hello Friend Foundation look back upon the program knowing how revolutionary it was in professional development and literacy instruction, may the Cosby family look back upon the program and know how many lives Ennis touched and continues to influence, may Fordham look back upon the program as a successful collaboration that was the catalyst for so many scholars to strive for advanced degrees in literacy. And may we all look back open the door that opened all other doors.

With much gratitude to the Cosby Family, the Foundation, and Fordham University Cayne and I thank you and to Cohort 9 Congratulations and Good Luck!

Photo taken from the children's book Friends of a Feather: One of Life's Little Fables by Bill and Erika Cosby.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tips From My Mom #11

As an educator I spend a great part of my life with children. Over time their unique personalities become more clearly defined.

Their sense of humor, their worries, their little quirks, how they are likely to respond to a given situation, the core of what makes them who they are becomes known to me.

And, although I have been at this teaching thing for quite a number of years, I am still quite amazed when I meet their parents to realize that the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree.

The worried parent often has a child who is fearful, the stubbornly opinionated one has a daughter or son who demands things their way and the quiet adult usually belongs with the child who is content to play alone. I do realize that there are exceptions to this but more often than not I am honestly and continually surprised to find it to be the case.

My mother has given me gratitude.

Life can be difficult. There is sickness, death, pain, emotional hurt, earthquakes and other natural disasters, fears that are both real and imagined but through it all there remains something deserving of thanks.

A friend, a full moon, a dog that runs downstairs to greet you when you return home at night, warm pajamas, a night without worry, a day to do nothing, rain, getting lost in beautiful music, freedom, the comfort of your bed, hope, expressions of love, family.

My mom told me this morning that she counts her blessings everyday.

I already figured she did. I do the same.

This apple didn't fall very far from the tree either.

And I say to you mom, "Thanks".

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On The Surface

On the surface everything seems right
No one notices the dimness of the light
For the world outside our door our smiles are oh so bright
On the surface everything's all right

I am certainly guilty of being one of those (sometimes annoying) chaps who stubbornly prefer the world to be all rainbows and flowers.

Hopelessly optimistic, I choose to see the good in each situation or at least strive to maintain an upbeat attitude.

However, this week my rose colored glasses sat askew when it was announced that our (my!) beloved principal would be leaving us.

As our school community sat in stunned amazement at this pronouncement, I was rendered utterly speechless.

Imagine that.

Nothing happening in my mind but a blankness that was filled with utter chaos.

How do I process this information?

Professionally, she has transformed our school by shepherding an undying belief in those she works with - not who work for her, but with her to achieve what is best for our students.

Always supportive. Ever contemplative. Forever willing to listen, to bend when necessary and to stick to her guns with fierce determination when faced with unacceptable bullshit or questionable integrity.

In this climate of teaching to the test rather than teaching to the needs of the child, where educators bemoan the sorry state of their schools, the leadership, the lack of support from their principal, I sit among all of this thinking "Wow! I have none of these extraneous issues".

My first strong memory of my principal is set back in the early days of my career. I was new to teaching and on top of that I was teaching in my second language so I was still a bit wobbly on my fledgling legs. As I sat with my class to do a read aloud of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in American Sign Language (ASL), she walked in and sat right on down on the floor with the rest of us. Her supportive smile instantly set me at ease. It was the beginning of an enchanted working relationship.

Personally, I am forever indebted to her for championing me in the pursuit of my academic endeavours. There are too many instances to mention but each one is remembered and for each one I am grateful.

I feel like I am saying farewell to a friend. I guess because I kinda am. She will stay in my life but it'll never be the same.

We are told that change is good. And perhaps that is true. On the surface we are all going about our business of teaching our precious children but underneath each of us is grappling with this news.

Best of luck to our divine Ms. M! You will be missed indeed.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"The better to hear you with, my dear"

If Joseph Campbell is the guru of the comparative mythology game then I want to play that part in the kiddie version.

Joe's scholarly investigations into world mythology helped shed light on the great mysteries of existence. In order to understand the collective modern 'we' he uncovered the commonalities of what it has always meant to be human, that struggle to make sense of our world and our place in it.

These life lessons and rites of passage propelled mankind forward through storytelling. Fairy tales are also tools for understanding larger concepts. They contain digestible chunks of wisdom and serve as cautionary tales for developing minds. Like the great myths and legends they attempt to sooth our fears, help focus our attention and separate good from bad.

Joseph Campbell looked for common threads across cultures, times and civilizations. Shifts in understanding or circumstance directly influenced the mythology. This can also be said for adaptions made in the retelling of classic fairy tales or more specifically in the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Illustrator Trinia Schart Hyman based her work on the original tale by the Brothers Grimm (Jacob Ludwig, Carl Grimm & Wilheim Grimm).

Her love of the character shines through in this award winning retelling of the traditional story. Grandma and Little Red get eaten alive by the wolf and are subsequently rescued by an intrepid woodsman.

Little Red Riding Hood learns her lessons - to keep her promises, to stay on the path, to mind her manners and to avoid talking to strangers (especially big bad wolves).

Author and illustrator Ed Young created a Caldecott Medal winner with Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story From China in 1990.

This is a haunting rendition of the classic tale containing exquisitely drawn Chinese panel pictures . It follows the adventures of a determined and terrifying wolf as he tries to get the best of young Shang, Tao and Paotze.

However these three crafty, enterprising girls have a trick or two up their sleeves and in the end the wolf proves no match for them.

Flossie and the Fox written by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Rachel Isadora is an African American tale about a wily fox, notorious for stealing eggs, and a bold little girl.

In this adaptation the fox gets outfoxed by Flossie when he meets her in the woods. She insists upon proof that he is a fox before she will allow herself to become frightened. She taunts him stating "you a rabbit" or "you a rat trying to pass yo'self off as a fox".

All of his attempts to prove that he is indeed a fox fail miserably. The frustrated creature is finally outdone by Flossie and a fierce dog.

There are many, many, many variations on the Little Red Riding Hood story. It is interesting to read and compare these - and other fairy tales -with children to not only teach them about things like diversity and perspective (cultural, individual) but to get their take on them as well.

I will leave you with a short video that I made with Lauren entitled Fairy Tales. If you are at all interested in American Sign Language (ASL) watching Lauren is like a master class.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Polka Dots

Each Christmas I seem to fall upon a theme for my holiday wrapping. One year it was ye ol' fashioned Christmas from the days of yore with brown paper packages tied up with string then bells that 'jingle jangle jingled' the next to shiny (yeah, shiny!), glittery, mesmerizing overdone masterworks another.

But as I was handed an elegant, tastefully wrapped gift this Christmas I saw the theme for Christmas 2010.

Polka Dots!

I have always loved polka dots. Blame Minnie Mouse or that itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, yellow polka dot bikini but over the years polka dots have converged to showcase two of my most undying passions...

Linda Ronstadt and children's books.

The album Get Closer came out in September 1982 with Linda in that flowing red polka dot dress.

I couldn't wait to get that 33 on my turntable. Linda starts off in guttural rock shouts with the title track and ends the album singing sweet harmonies with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

I was in heaven.

In preparation for her upcoming concert at Radio City Music Hall, to which I had proudly scored tickets, I knew that my own wardrobe must incorporate a polka dot theme.

After all, one never knows if Linda might suddenly stop mid-wail to notice the wide eyed teen crying his eyes out in the third row orchestra (right side) to admire the thought that went behind his fashionable attire.

So, it was off to the mall. I found my perfect shirt at Sears. This long sleeved, maroon slice of paradise with tasteful little white polka dots ended my day long search. Ahhh, it fit amazingly well too on my 5'10", 132lb frame.

The night of the concert, as we took our seats, I could tell my twin brother was so jealous because here I was in a shirt that said I cared while he was in a mere concert tee - from a concert by some other performer.

Linda took the stage in her cheerleader outfit (no polka dots?!) and failed to notice me screaming at her until I finally lost my voice and could yell no more. That night passed and Linda moved on to other fashions (stripes, prom dresses, cub scout uniforms) but for a brief moment polka dots helped us get closer.

Many years later another singer, Madonna, also incorporated polka dots into the mix.

This time it was in the artwork and marketing of her children's book The English Roses.

It is, of course, easy to dismiss this book and its sequel The English Roses: Too Good To Be True as trite nonsense created by a pop star but that would be a mistake.

These engaging tales focus on the friendship between five girls, the English Roses, named Nicole, Amy, Charlotte, Grace and Binah.

In their polka dotted landscape the girls dance, work, dream and learn important life lessons.

Now to figure out how I can wrap all that wisdom in polka dotted Christmas paper.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Library Project

Last June I met with Lauren and Lisa Burman (our AUSSIE consultant) to begin planning areas of inquiry for our incoming kindergarten children.

The proposed units of study were to follow the tenets espoused by the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education.

We decided that an investigation of libraries would support the young students as they became immersed in books and the workings of the library.

Our plan included visits to several libraries, including the Taj Mahal of NYC libraries, to learn about how they operate, read books and have fun. We made sure to document all of this with pictures, video and transcriptions.

Slowly, we began to incorporate what we had learned into the dramatic play area. We had a plan to introduce something new into the space when we felt the kids were ready, made a large book to show our learning and helped structure the experience to maximum benefit.

The only problem was...the kids did not want to play there!


So we decided that we should stop trying to be 'perfect teachers with a perfect plan' and just let the kids play. We would watch and let the kids tell us what they needed to make their play more meaningful.

And they did.

It took off.

Jobs were sorted out. Some students were librarians, others were visitors. They had story time, created a scanner for checking out books, made a wall of books (pictured) with labels on the spines of each book, used book carts, assigned duties and even had a guard on watch for those who might want to steal a book.

I have the most amazing video of their play that I wish I could post but of course privacy issues forbid it.

Our library project has been a reminder to us (the adults) to step back and listen to the students. How is it that I keep needing to be reminded of this?!


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