Saturday, July 30, 2011

Teaching Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance (a project of the southern poverty law center) is "a place to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools".

They provide free educational materials such as books, documentaries, DVDs, the Teaching Tolerance magazine and other items to promote social justice in our schools.  They also have a blog for educators to share their insights, experiences and day-to-day struggles with anti-bias education issues.

A few months ago my principal sent an email notifying me that Teaching Tolerance was looking for writers.  As a frequent reader of this blog and supporter of the work I do in the classroom he suggested I get in touch with them.

I did.

I was asked to write a try-out piece which I entitled On the Playground.  It took quite a while for them to get back to me and thinking they were not interested I posted it on my own blog (recently Hilary at The Smitten Image kindly selected it as a Post of the Week.)

However, Teaching Tolerance was interested!  They asked for a simple revision and yesterday I got notification that my post was "live".  How exciting is that?  I am submitting a second try-out post this weekend and after that may or may not be offered a contract.  The brilliant thing about all this (other than being paid to write) is having the opportunity to share my journey with a broader audience and forge connections with other educators who are passionate about the same issues.

I am grateful for this opportunity and hopeful that they will like my second try-out post.  I'll keep you posted.  In the meanwhile you can find my post here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Deaf Culture

The feedback on my Reading and Deafness post led to a bit of Internet hopping to sites focusing on issues in deaf education. Once again I was struck by opposing perspectives that influence and shape how deaf children are taught.

Delpit describes literacy as being part of a larger political entity and this is certainly true in the field of deaf education. Literacy encompasses not only reading and writing but reflects how it is situated within a larger context. Educational policies and curricula for deaf children closely reveal larger societal views towards deafness. These are represented in the two divergent approaches in teaching methodologies and modalities, namely the oralist and manualist approaches that influence how deaf children are educated in the United States.

Simply put, the oralist perspective is based on a medical view which sees deafness as a deficit.  From this standpoint deafness is something that needs to be corrected, fixed or cured. According to King and Quigley, the dominant hearing culture has historically held the belief that "deaf people were intellectually inferior to hearing people and showed definite deficits in various aspects of cognitive functioning". This is in line with an oralist stance.

This deficiency model is challenged by deaf individuals and linguists who promote a cultural perspective incorporating art, American Sign Language, shared experiences, lessons and myths.  The shift from "can't" to "capable" has a huge impact on the education of deaf children. It became apparent from my reading that these passionate debates continue to rage on.

As I jumped around the Internet I also read statements voicing the opinion that deaf individuals who use American Sign Language and immerse themselves in Deaf culture refuse to join a hearing world and are therefore choosing to remain isolated and separate from society.  This is a bit like saying that my German grandparents who belonged to a German club and spoke German were Nazis. They weren't.  And deaf individuals who celebrate Deaf culture are not anti-hearing or shunning mainstream society.

America celebrates and recognizes many cultures, why should this be any different?

Note: Click here for an interesting related article in

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Adding a Limb to the Family Tree"

Lauren is pregnant!

We have been partners for the past 8 years, working together, side by side, day in and day out for longer than our students have been alive.  Team teaching with Lauren has been a truly edifying experience.

Of course the news brings about changes for us - perhaps.  Once she holds that baby in her arms I fear I will have lost her but oh, what a joyous reason for a hiatus from teaching. We'll see how it plays out. At any rate, I'm sure that all she has expereinced the past 8 years in the classroom will only make her a more insightful mommy.

As the school year came to a close we knew we had to share the news with our students.  Since we are moving to first grade with this class in the fall she didn't want them coming back to a big surprise (she is due in December).  But how would we tell them?

I thought for a moment of pulling a Lucy and having them sing until the message became clear but Lauren decided to read them The Baby Sister by Tomie dePaola. This story centers on the birth of Tomie's little sister and his feelings about being a big brother.  When we finished reading a little girl, as if on cue, asked "why did you read us that book?"

This opened up the perfect segue for breaking the news (don't you love when that happens?).  The children were very excited.  Some didn't really seem too surprised.  I suspect their parents may have let the cat out of the bag because a few had already commented on the changes occuring to Lauren's body.

This is an exciting time.  A new chapter in the life of a young family. I love it!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reading and Deafness

I remember the first time I heard that the average 18-to-19 year old deaf student reads at the level of an average 8-to-9 year old hearing student and that most deaf students graduate high school reading at a fourth grade level.

This was shocking news.  I could not wrap my mind around why this should be true.  My instructor wisely told me to remember that feeling of disbelief because as I continued on with my studies two things would happen.

The first being that my "passionate wonder" would influence the direction of my future research. Slowly,  I would come to understand the reasons behind such statistics and explore ways to ameliorate the outcome.

The second reason is that as I journeyed on and shared this information with others, who would inevitably experience the same reaction, I could hearken back to my initial response to deconstruct the woof and warp behind the numbers with greater clarity.

The truth is, there are many contributing factors. It is beyond the scope of this post to delve into the miasma surrounding the political influences shaping the history of deaf education in America but there are a couple of basic truths I will address.
  1. Reading English is based on the alphabetic principle which basically consists of mapping sounds onto letters in a systematic fashion.  This is obviously a challenge for a child who has limited access to the phonological aspect of language.
  2. Ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. This generally results in children who are delayed in developing a first language.  The process a hearing parent goes through when they find out they have a deaf child has been likened to the seven stages of grief.  As the parents journey towards acceptance the child lingers and precious time is lost.  For deaf children with deaf parents developing a strong first language with American Sign Language reading does not present the challenges deaf children with hearing parents experience.
So what can you do? Read to your children. Discuss the pictures. Interact in loving, caring ways around books. Provide opportunities in everyday experiences for playing with print such as writing shopping lists or following simple recipes.

And most of all, do not be afraid of doing it wrong.  If you have a loving heart, you can do no wrong.

Friday, July 8, 2011

On the Playground

A familiar statement expressed by adults as they watch children frolic on the playground centers around the observation that their interactions appear effortless.  There seem to be no barriers, no ego or self-doubt; if you want to play with someone you simply ask him or her.

It looks so uncomplicated. If a child is willing and able to partake in the fun then there are bad guys to vanquish, princesses to be rescued and treasures to be found.  A child's imagination is the only thing placing limits on the exploration.

However, we also notice that this ease does not come without occasional bumps; those little expected tiffs that cause small faces to redden, bodies to stand rigid and angry word to escape the lips.

As adults we think we understand the dynamics. But on the playground there exists a whole world outside the dichotomous phrases "Do you want to play?" and "I'm not your friend!"  For children who are faced with developmental or physical challenges such as blindness, deafness, learning delays or limited mobility, the playground can be a lonely place.

In schools we adhere to the belief that these children will benefit socially and developmentally from interacting with their typically developing peers.  We believe that all children have the right to participate in and have equal access to the same activities.

Many of us also trust that these interactions engender typically developing children towards greater acceptance, compassion and knowledge about diversity.  All we need to do is provide the setting and our hopes will play out as expected.  Right? Perhaps it is time to take a deeper look and question our assumptions.

Researchers have taken a deeper look by exploring the play interactions of young children with and without disabilities in inclusive classrooms.  They discovered that simply putting groups of diverse children in the same environment did not lead to resounding choruses of "Do you want to be my friend?"  Instead children with disabilities engaged in more solitary play while the cooperative play was mainly reserved for typically developing children.

The separation was not a result of internal bias on the part of the children.  It was about ease of communication and interaction.  It was about whether one was not just willing but able to partake in the fun.  Participation for those who had difficulty "keeping up" slowly dissipated and playing alone became the norm.

The good news is that with a little forethought, structures can be implemented to encourage play opportunities for all children.  The presence of a teacher can greatly increase the frequency and duration of inclusive play interactions.  Allowing for children of varying ages to come together has also been deemed successful in promoting fruitful engagement.

Understanding diversity takes time.  When we talk with our students and children about learning and physical differences they begin to make accommodations based on this knowledge.

And a little knowledge can open up the door to other worlds, worlds where a pirate treasure is waiting to be found.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Was ist Kindergarten?

It has become increasingly clear to me over the past several months that there exists a baffling misconception about what takes place in a kindergarten classroom.

So, to help clarify false impressions perhaps it is necessary to answer the question "What is Kindergarten?"

Kindergarten (literally translated from German as "children's garden" which I like because it conjures the image of lovingly cultivating growth in children) is the first time many children are exposed to formal schooling.

Across America kindergarten programs vary in structure and philosophy. In some states kindergarten is mandatory while in others it is not.  In some classrooms children are taught to read while in others they are taught readiness skills.  However, in all kindergarten classrooms children are learning to interact with others in a social environment without the presence of a parent.  It is a time of burgeoning independence and surmountable challenges.

Kindergarten today is a far cry from the one we remember from our collective childhoods. Gone are the cozy blankets at nap-time, the four-hour days, the endless play.  These are replaced by rigorous curricula in reading, writing, word study, science, mathematics and social studies as well as classes in art, music, physical education and in our school American Sign Language.

Student progress is documented to show growth in all areas through anecdotal records, observations, formal assessments and portfolio collections. Conferences are held with each child, in each academic domain at least once a week.

Of course, there is time for exploration, imagination, enjoyment and that ever important element: play.  There is an expression we have adopted at our school based on the Reggio Emilia approach to learning. It is "nothing without joy".

Kindergarten may be more challenging for the "kinder" than I remember as a child but this quote keeps things in perspective and in balance.  If a child wakes up looking forward to school each day, I have done something right.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Top Ten 2010-2011

At the end of each school year I like to invite the children to think back on the books we read together and share their absolute favorites.  We create a long list and then vote on each one to come up with the top ten for the school year.

I enjoy this experience because the selections really represent the unique makeup of the class and tell the story of our time together.  The number one choice this year was Skeleton Meets the Mummy by Steve Metzger.  The story has just the right mix of humor and fright that the children craved at Halloween.  The fact that it was brought up for voting (and won!) 8 months after we read it is a pretty strong testament to how much they enjoyed it.

Humor and fright continued to be a winning combination with our kindergarten children. One would be hard-pressed to find a sillier, more amusing book than the number two choice, There's a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems. This Elephant and Piggie book, like all the others in the series, is a riot of laughs, double takes and pure fun.  If you enjoy the "I just flew in from Chicago and boy are my arms tired" style of humor (and let's face it, who doesn't?) then this one's for you.

The number three pick, Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales by Lucy Cousins ranked high due to the illustrations. Sweet Lucy Cousins is not shy about showing the wolf getting his head chopped off by the woodsman in Little Red Riding Hood or playing with the size and placement of her childlike, colorful artwork.  The ingenious thread that runs throughout the book is the fact that at some point something in each of these stories is Yummy.  It may be the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the robbers meal in The Musicians of Bremen or even Little Red herself.

Another Perfect Day by Ross MacDonald slid into the number four position.  This is the story of an adventurer successfully battling all sorts of obstacles told through golden illustrations reminiscent of days long past.  The superhero quality of the lead character appealed to both the boys and the girls who stood up and cheered throughout our reading.  It turns out that the perfect day lives in the mind of a small boy with a clever imagination who is a bit of a superhero himself.

Alphabet books, a staple in kindergarten, ranked twice in the top ten. Alphabet Adventure by Bruce and Audrey Wood was number five while Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault came in at number eight.  Both books depict the alphabet as a group of feisty letters getting into mischief.  In Alphabet Adventure the dot on the lowercase i causes some trouble before coming to his senses while all the lowercase letters in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom need some looking after by the uppercase letters.  There are many alphabet books that I recommend and you can read more about them here.

One student single-handedly elevated The Rainbow Goblins by Ul Di Rico to number six.  This is a book that I had never heard of until she brought it in one day declaring that is was her favorite book and that she wanted to read it to the class.  It's a bizarre little tale but also very captivating.  I love when children introduce me to new books that they love.  What a pleasure.

Edward and the Pirates by David McPhail sailed in at number seven. I wrote a post dedicated to this book which you can read here.

Some old favorites and past Top Ten honorees made the final cut this year. In my eyes, no top ten would be complete without Curious George by H. A. Rey.  Although he hasn't always made the list, this year he charted at number nine.

And rounding out the top ten is It's Okay to be Different by Todd Parr.   Todd is certainly my favorite living children's book author and illustrator because his work carries a deeper message of acceptance, diversity and love while wrapped around bright, colorful illustrations. His latest, The I'm Not Scared Book comes out in August and I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the Top Ten next year.

Stay tuned...


Related Posts with Thumbnails