Friday, August 31, 2012

Helping Hunter Spanjer Keep His Name

Grand Island Public School District (GIPS) in Nebraska wanted 3-year-old Hunter Spanjer to change his name because they said it violated the school's weapons policy.

I am outraged.  But more than that, I realize that students like Hunter need advocates.

 As a teacher I've had students with some pretty unique names but never once have I taken it upon myself to rename a child. 

Actually, it wasn't Hunter's audibly spoken name that caused the unrest, it's because Hunter is deaf and communicates through sign language. The school district took issue with his name sign because it resembles a gun and therefore infringes on their policy that forbids children from bringing "any instrument that looks like a weapon" to school.  Apparently, Hunters small fingers--thumbs folded, index and middle fingers crossed--could be confused with a gun so they told him to change his name sign.

Not only is it absurd but it shows a lack of sensitivity, respect and understanding of Deaf culture and family privilege. The school failed to consider the cultural identity of the child, Hunter's linguistic development and the family's right to name their child.  A name is a very personal decision--whether it is in English or ASL--and not one that rests with the school.   

What Grand Island public school needs is a little education. Name signs are given according to set parameters. For example, they should be given by a Deaf  person (the capital D in "Deaf" signifies someone who is culturally deaf with ties to the Deaf community) or at the very least by a hearing parent who signs. Name signs can reflect some physical trait or characteristic of an individual and may incorporate the first letter in his/her name.  Hunter's name sign is a modified form of the letter "H". Over time Hunter's name sign may change--this is a normal developmental process for signers--but that decision is his.

As a deaf child attending a mainstream program Hunter has very little power.  Taking away his name sign is a very significant blow. However, having Hunter at this school can help educate staff and students about Deaf culture. That is why diversity is crucial.

Rebecca Marshall, former principal at PS347 The American Sign Language and English Lower School in New York City said this situation could have been avoided if the school had at least one person on staff who was deaf and involved in the education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Marshall applauded Hunter's parents who are strong advocates for their child but pointed out that without a community outcry the outcome would have been quite different.

The school district, under pressure from Internet petitions, and the threat of legal action from the National Association of the Deaf, has relented and decided to allow Hunter to keep his name sign.

When we hear of something like this happening it is up to all of us to step up and be that advocate who gives voice to a child who needs it most.

Note: This post was written for Teaching Tolerance which can be found here.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Spicing Up Your Word Wall

This is the time of year when many teachers are stepping back into the classroom after a relaxing summer break to tackle room arrangement.  And if school is not yet in session, you can bet most teachers are thinking about how to set up the perfect classroom environment.

One aspect of this in the early elementary grades centers on the word wall.  Teachers ask, "Where do I put it?" and "How should the letters be displayed?"

In our class we developed answers to these questions over the years through trial and error.  We are a dual language school utilizing both English and American Sign Language so we wanted our word wall to be representative of that.

Our idea was to take pictures of the children signing the manual alphabet.  Next we uploaded the photographs to an image hosting site, such as Photobucket,  and edited each one to include the printed letter. You can play around with letter placement, font, color and size as needed.

You can go from this...

to this!

Last year we painted over our blackboard with magnetic primer and attached magnetic tape to the back of the index cards we used for each word on the word wall. We wanted our students to be able to take the words off the wall easily if they needed them during writing or word study.

It is a nice way to get all of the children invested in the word wall and it also puts forth the feeling that the classroom belongs to everyone.

I even had my own letter - G!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Friday Folders

Friday Folders are evidently a thing!

Who knew?

I certainly never heard of Friday Folders before Michelle, my new co-teacher, told me about them today during our long distance planning session for the upcoming school year (which begins in two weeks).

She remembers them fondly from her own school days and suggested we incorporate them into our kindergarten routine.  Every Friday we intend to communicate with parents using these folders.  The purpose is to provide specific information to allow interested moms and dads to construct a portrait of their child's academic, social and/or emotional development at school during the past week.  

The parents will then respond with their opinions, concerns, questions and comments over the weekend and return the folders to us on Monday morning.  The folders provide a way to ensure open communication between the school and home environments.

Meet Michelle, my
new co-teacher
I think it is a great idea and I am sure just one of many additions to my modus operandi that Michelle will contribute as we enter into our new partnership.

Although I embrace working with Michelle, I haven't totally loosened my grip on Lauren who worked alongside me for nine years. Lauren is ever gracious in providing feedback and resources as I prepare for another exciting school year.

I can't help but feel like a lucky guy. Take a look at Michelle (pictured). Take a look at Lauren.  They are both as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside.  And smart, kind, charming and funny too.

I'm sure I'll be writing a lot more about Michelle throughout the year.

Consider yourself introduced.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Teacher Appreciation Day

Celebrate Staples Teacher Appreciation Day.

Enter your state and city to find the date and time your event will start.

The "great perks" include...

A FREE thank you gift bag (while supplies last) with bonus coupons to use at the event.

A sneak peek at must-have new items for your classroom.

Time to catch up with colleagues.

Staples makes it sound pretty exciting.  The image their advertising inspires is one of a relaxed social gathering with smiling people sipping cider and laughing whilst extolling the virtues of glue sticks and post-it notes.

 In reality, a harried employee slaps down a tote bag containing fewer items than the year before and you make your way through an overcrowded store thinking, "do I really need any of this stuff?".

But, it's all part of the back to school ritual and it is common knowledge that teachers like free stuff!

In my area Office Max has their Teacher Appreciation Event on the same day so my little MINI will be bursting at the seams.

And that's a good thing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Save the Date

I am pretty excited about the upcoming evening of fun to benefit the Artists-in-Residency partnership between the Children's Museum of the Arts and PS347, The American Sign Language and English Lower School!

The event, which is taking place on Monday, September 24th from 6:00 to 8:30 p.m., provides a unique opportunity to meet the award-winning authors and illustrators of some of your favorite children's books including...

Dan Yaccarino (Lawn to Lawn, Every Friday, Unlovable, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau, All the Way to America)

Peter Brown (Children Make Terrible Pets, The Curious Garden, The Purple Kangaroo, You Will Be My Friend!)

Jim Benton (Cherise the Niece, Dear Dumb Diary, Franny K. Stein: Mad Scientist, It's Happy Bunny)

Victoria Kann (Pinkalicious, Silverlicious, Purplicious, Goldilicious)

G Brian Karas (On Earth, Atlantic, Young Zeus, The Class Artist)

Ann M. Martin (The Baby-Sitter's Club, A Dog's Life: The Autobiography of a Stray)

Bob Shea (Dinsoaur vs. The Potty, New Socks, Race You to Bed, I'm a Shark!)

Floyd Cooper (Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes, Mandela, Jump!, Cumbayah

Tad Hills (How Rocket Learned to Read, Duck & Goose, Knock, Knock Who's There?)

In addition to book signings expect food, drinks, raffles, prizes, a silent auction and kids' workshops!

Tickets for the event--held at The Children's Museum in Tribeca--are $40.  If you plan to attend, please RSVP to

I hope to see you there!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A System of Tens

I know I am not alone in when I write that math has never been one of my favorite subjects (except for algebra, which I loved).

So, who'd have thought that I'd have fun spending 4 days (25 hours) discussing...

The Commutative, Associative and Distributive Properties


Compensation Strategy

Mental Math

Identity Property

Order of Operations (PEMDAS)

Constant Difference

Decimal Points and Percentages

The way we teach math nowadays is a far cry from the "Yours is not to reason why, just invert and multiply" mentality of my childhood. It is unsurprising that I am lacking mathematical confidence after an education wherein traditional algorithms replaced an understanding of how numbers work.

I learned to "carry the one" but wasn't taught that the "one" was actually a "ten".

Today the traditional algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are taught after the children have developed an understanding of our number system.  In kindergarten we explore basic numbers and each successive grade builds on that understanding.

It's truly incredible to listen to children explain how they mentally solved a math problem by manipulating the numbers into "friendly" or "landmark" numbers and giving the parts meaning. For example (taken from the book pictured above), 38 + 25 could be solved as 30 + 20 = 50 then 8 + 5 = 13 then adding these two numbers together  to get your answer 50 + 8 = 63. Or another child might try it this way, 38 + 2 = 40 then 40 + 20 = 60 so 60 + 3 = 63.  There are so many possible ways to figure this out and the tradition algorithm is simply one of many.

Interestingly, once children develop number sense, the traditional way I learned of "borrowing" and "carrying" becomes the most confusing, complicated one of them all!

Kudos to our workshop leaders, Kerry and Christina, for making me as smart as fifth grader!

Helpful Resource: 
Check out the Common Core Alignment Guidance for Everyday Mathematics. Lessons in Everyday Math are color coded according to relevance to the Common Core.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Owen Tales: Strollin' with Little Baby Owen

I have such clever, clever friends. 

First, Adam Stone teamed with Lauren Ridloff to create the charming iBook Pointy Three in English and American Sign Language (ASL).  

And today my friend (and former principal) Rebecca Marshall announced that after years in development the first iBook in the Owen Tales series Strollin' with Little Baby Owen went "live"!  

This is a fun, truly interactive book that includes audio/read aloud in Spoken English, video read aloud in American Sign Language (beautifully executed by Lauren), engaging photographs with "hidden" messages, a picture glossary, puzzles, games and live updates on adorable Owen's shenanigans!  

The design ensures that a wide array of readers are supported in their learning while having a good time.  It's learning that sneaks up on you whether you are a child listening to the silky tones of the audio track or watching Lauren sign, an advanced reader focusing on the written text or a parent/family member learning ASL to communicate with a baby.  

I am also thrilled to note that Cal, my Saint Bernard, makes a cameo appearance in Strollin' with Little Baby Owen!  

See...clever, clever, clever!

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Yesterday I spent the day happily working around the house.  And while the body is occupied with trimming the lawn and bathing the Saint Bernard, the mind is free to wander.

I was thinking about how lucky I have been to have spent the past 16 years teaching elementary school.  It's a blessing and one that I hope I never take for granted.  There is absolutely nothing on Earth that matches the sense of "rightness" I feel when I am sitting in a classroom guiding the learning of a group of children.

I thought about those amazing kids entrusted to my care.  How they have brought me happiness, frustration and insight whilst keeping me on my toes.

I hate to think about the day it will come to an end but that day is not today.  I am in the middle of this journey and appreciate it so much.

I'm sure all this waxing sentimental influenced my dreams because last night I dreamt I was in my classroom reading with a group of children.

It was lovely.

Life is good!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Man to Superman

From Man to Superman! - What makes a hero?

Riddle me this young champion...

What are the qualities of a hero?
Are heroes always heroic?
How can you be a good citizen in the classroom/at home?
How do your actions affect others?
Who is your hero?

These are some of the questions our kindergarten children will be exploring when the happy days of summer have become but a distant memory.

Our school has charged us with creating a themed social studies unit--incorporating all aspects of the curriculum--entitled Citizenship, Values and Freedom through a 9/11 Lens.

The challenge is a bit daunting, a little inappropriate and a possible train wreck for a group of four-and-five-year-old children who haven't learned the evil ways of our world just yet. And why push it?  They'll learn soon enough.

However, this is the task set before your intrepid kindergarten teachers and I am happy to announce that we have found a way to teach Citizenship, Values and Freedom through a 9/11 Lens courtesy of Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spiderman, Wonder Woman and the assorted bevy of altruistic superheroes.

Children seem naturally motivated to explore acts of courage and a sense of right/wrong through enthusiastic play, detailed drawings and intensely passionate conversations.  Our intention is to tap into this font of existing interest and curiosity to make connections to the way citizens worked together to help one another during the events of 9/11.  Community workers and ordinary citizens acted heroically by helping one another.

It is through these acts of kindness and bravery that we can explore the questions above in an age appropriate manner while covering the objectives of citizenship outlined in the NYS Social Studies Core Curriculum.

It'll be interesting to see who the children choose as their heroes (Mom?, Dad?, big brother or sister?, teacher?) and to learn the reasons behind their selections.

Wish us luck!


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