Monthly Archives: April 2013

Finding My Mojo

I start every year with a clean, fresh slate. My students are new, my attitude is renewed, and I have this overwhelming feeling of excitement about what the year will bring. The ideas on what and how I will teach bubble over and I keep a list of teaching ideas as a Google Document, ready to begin implementing them as soon as possible.  I understand that I will not get to every single idea and will not get to do every single project or activity that I set out to do at the beginning of the year. But I’m content with the possibilities that September brings each year.

There comes a point in my year, usually around January/February, where I find myself losing the excitement, the motivation that energized me at the beginning of the year. I make a conscious effort to find my motivation again. I reevaluate my own professional goals. I try out a new lesson, activity or game with my reading or math group.  I try and spend extra time with my more challenging students so that I can feel inspired again by their individual accomplishments in the face of such challenge and adversity.  After a few weeks, I find myself feeling inspired again — the mojo is back.

This year, instead of focusing solely on my own motivations, I am starting to think about what motivates my students. Is it enough for them to earn stickers towards a prize in the prize box? Are they really following directions because they want to earn marbles so that they can earn another state on our US state puzzle?  For some of my students, the answer might be yes. But for many of them, I know the answer is no.  My thought is that if I can more specifically address what motivates my students, I can create a more positive classroom with more engaged and invested students. And perhaps if my students are more invested in their learning, I can become reinvested in my teaching.

What motivates you as a teacher? What motivates your students? How have you found your teaching mojo again?

Special Education is Just Good Teaching

The words “Special Education is just good teaching” came to me on a chilly Tuesday evening in October. I was sitting in Developmental Variations 1, a class that I was required to take by Bank Street’s Special Education program. Until that moment, I wasn’t sure that this was the major for me. I knew that I would need and benefit from the experience of learning about special education and how to work with children with learning challenges, but I didn’t feel the pull and passion that I knew was necessary for a teacher in the same way I felt about general education.

My professor, Kate Ascetta, was in her late twenties. She had been working in special education since she was young. It was her pull and passion in life. Her personal experiences were what drove her to this profession. When she broke down just what special education was in it’s simplest terms, I got it. It was almost as if there was a click in my brain. She told us that “Special education is just good teaching.” It’s knowing your students, understanding your students, supporting and pushing your students. It’s finding an accessible point for a child to learn and running with it. Not wearing a superhero outfit and doing the impossible, just providing good teaching to children who need it. To do this, a person needs some sensitivity, creativity, and the ability to make a fool of one’s self in order to provide good teaching to children. I try to remember this as I do ridiculous dances, sing off-pitch songs, and make absurd monster faces alongside my students during lessons.

So how do I provide good teaching? I need not only to know them, but understand them. In working with students with different challenges, specifically in language, understanding their perspective and thoughts can be difficult. I always try to consider their point of view in a situation. The “whys” behind their actions. In stepping back and thinking of a bigger picture, I am much more likely to efficiently and appropriately support them and provide them with the good teaching that they deserve. Whether I know they love a certain basketball team, color, or song, it his so helpful to understand these pieces of my students to better teach them. I try to deliver “good teaching” in every single opportunity I am presented with. I truly believe that my students want to learn, they just need some support the best ways to learn.

With this in mind, I am reminded of two quotes that have stayed with me and influence the way I teach:

quote 1 quote 2

with these thoughts and my own understandings of myself and my students, I am constantly reminded that

Special Education is Just Good Teaching.

What do I tell a conference group?

So, this afternoon I’m hosting my student teacher’s conference group to show them my classroom and answer questions about teaching. I always get nervous right before I host a group– I want to give them thoughtful, helpful, and amazing advice that is practical for their teaching… So, how do impart what I know or the most important things I know about teaching in an hour long session.

Last time I hosted, I showed the prospective teachers my creative behavior plans. They were engaged and excited about it, but I wonder how much they think about that now. I wonder if they got my message that all children want to do well and can do well as long as they are given the right environment. Is it helping them now?

I guess we’ll see how it goes tonight… Reflections to come. Maybe I’ll also give them a few questions to answer that I can post later.

Classroom Management

by Bilal Kamoon
Photo credit: Bilal Kamoon

Classroom management sets bells ringing in most new educators’ minds. When the words spill off your tongue, your mind races to find out what that means– it means control without having control, order and emotions, productivity and creativity. How can you possibly create an environment that is managed and still find that individual flare? I can remember being so nervous about this when I first started teaching. My worry was that I wouldn’t be able to get them all to follow directions. Here’s a bit about what I’ve learned.

Creating a routine is one of the first steps to management. Predictability is helpful for children and adults alike. Once a routine is in place, there is more room for thinking about everything else. To get yourself (and your classroom) settled into a routine, first create a list of things that need to be done every day. For school, the list can include all of things you want to child to do independently each morning or afternoon; this can include items that need to go in and out of a backpack, independent work, etc. For home, this list can include snack, bathing, homework, brushing teeth, etc.

In the beginning, create a checklist or visual that reminds the child of the routine. Stick to your visual, and soon it will become automatic for the child (or your classroom). Motivation plays a key part in this– some children are capable of remembering the routine with the visual and some children need a little more support.

For more resistant children or a child with executive functioning or attention challenges, a more creative approach may be necessary to get those neurons firing. In the past, I have created story lines using children’s interests. Using the list of things they need to do, I’ve made a visual for them to do things like they’re more interested in. For example: freeing the tiger, getting the triceratops to the watering hole, or scoring a touchdown– all based on the child’s true interest to make the tasks more engaging and motivating (and you won’t need to repeat the same thing over and over again). Turning stressful times into a game or story has taken stress of both me and my students.

Laminating and using Velcro dots keep the visual intact and ready to use again and again. All visuals were made on Boardmaker.

Check out the visuals below:

Freeing the Tiger

The tiger moves from box to box until he or she is free from the zookeeper.

Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 11.09.26 AM

Getting the Triceratops to the watering hole

This visual has a triceratops that moves through each step of the routine until he or she gets to the watering hole.

Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 11.11.11 AM

Scoring a touchdown

This visual is great for the sports-interested child. He or she can move the player down the field to score a touchdown.

Screen shot 2013-04-14 at 11.10.23 AM

The child can also record when the tiger is caught by the zookeeper, when the triceratops goes to bed thirsty, or when the pass gets intercepted to squash the touchdown attempt. Keeping track can give the child a more enticing incentive, which leads to a feeling of accomplishment, a new sense of independence,  and increased confidence.

Meet Caitlin

pic for blog

I am writing this post with a full cup of coffee on my desk and butterflies in my stomach. As a first year teacher, my to-do list is ever growing. “Reflect and record” is always at the top of that list. Ironically, I never thought that would be on a public forum, such as a blog post. Although it’s scary, I must remind myself how important reflecting is in this profession. Throughout undergraduate and graduate school I always thought to myself I want to record my thoughts, reflections, and feelings on a weekly or even daily basis. The first year teaching holds many powerful moments, whether those be ups or downs.

Once I graduated high school, I had a plan. I would attend undergraduate school for a Bachelor’s in Childhood General Education at The College of Saint Rose, then venture off to graduate school for Special Education. The special education piece derived from advice versus passion. Professors reminded my classmates and I that teaching is a very competitive profession. Because of this, it is so important to find things to set yourself apart. Various professors recommended that my class gain some special education experience. “You’ll always encounter students with some special needs,” they would repeat. This was how I made my way to get my Master’s in Special Education at Bank Street College of Education.

As a first semester graduate student commuting into Manhattan two days a week for night class, I was overwhelmed and felt out of place. While the staff and students were kind and eager to collaborate, I didn’t feel like I was truly meant to be there. I was there based on advice given to me from my college professors. Special education wasn’t my passion… not yet. It wasn’t until a Tuesday evening in October that I was sitting in my Developmental Variations class that that spark of passion occurred. My professor, just a few years older than me, made a statement that transformed me as a teacher. “Special education is just good teaching.” I remember these words each day as I prepare lessons to support and engage my students. I know them so well, so why not add their special interests and strengths to my lessons? It excites them, which in turn excites me. After sitting through that class, I knew that my plan was going to be different than I thought a few months prior.

After completing my first year of my program, I was given a student teaching placement at the Parkside School in a third grade self-contained classroom. From the first day I entered the red doors of the school, my life has changed. I learned from the students as well as my mentor, Jess Durrett, endless lessons, strategies, and insights every day. This year, I am lucky and thankful to say that I still enter those same red doors and that very same classroom door. The difference is, this year I am one of the classroom teachers for an incredible group of children.  Our class is full of students with various language and learning needs. They are the most incredible and brave children. They face their difficulties, and showcase their curiosities, questions, and strengths everyday.

As I continue to venture down this path as a first year special educator, I am both eager and nervous as I join this forum with some amazing and brilliant teachers. I am so looking forward to reflecting, sharing, and learning as I continue down my ever changing and exciting path as a teacher.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

I had several gut reactions when Jess asked me to contribute to her teacher blog.  Immediately, I was flattered she would want my input and ideas on her blog.  But that positive feeling quickly vanished and anxiety started to creep in.  I’ve never considered myself a writer, and trying to eloquently reflect on my teaching is a real challenge for me.  Add to this my inability to make a decision and I’m faced with what I could only describe as writer’s block right out of the gate!  Jess, being the great friend and supportive colleague she is, gave me an idea for my first blog post, so I must thank her not only for asking me to contribute, but for giving me that little bit of extra support I needed to get started.

When I first started teaching, one of the most overwhelming aspects of my new career was having to create: a classroom community, lesson plans for reading, math, writing, science and social studies, rules with expectations and consequences, schedules and transition times, behavior charts, worksheets, homework.  Although I had almost 3 years of graduate school and a year of student teaching under my belt, I still felt grossly unprepared. Where do I start? What if what I create doesn’t resonate with my students? How do I know that what I’m creating is going to work?   I would spend hours drafting and editing, copying, pasting and then cutting, just to start all over again.  As I talked to other teachers and visited other classrooms, I would marvel at what was being created throughout my school. But I also felt a bit envious that I hadn’t thought of some of it on my own.

“Don’t reinvent the wheel!” I remember hearing this from more than one professor in graduate school. The idea that you don’t always have to create something from scratch was new to me. My life before teaching was in an advertising agency, where reinventing the wheel was what made you successful. In advertising, if you go into a meeting with a client and simply reused an old pitch idea, you would no doubt lose the pitch.  I must admit it took some time to get used to the idea that borrowing another teacher’s idea, or using another teacher’s lessons and activities was OK.

But I’ve learned two important reasons why sharing and imitating ideas can be a good thing in the classroom. The first is that it allows for more collaboration among teachers. There are many days I don’t see any other teachers except the ones that work in my classroom. We are so busy and very rarely get a chance to visit each other throughout the day. When we are borrowing ideas and materials, it provides a reason for communication and collaboration. The second is that borrowed ideas can lead to more consistently throughout the school. The students I teach thrive on structure, routine, and the expected. The more consistent we can be not only in our own classrooms but throughout the classrooms of the school, the more my students are able to process classroom expectations and consequences, content skills and concepts, and specific behavior management techniques.

So, my advice to teachers old and new is to be comfortable borrowing from your colleagues and allow your own ideas to be borrowed by other teachers.  You’ll be surprised at how much more well rounded and more collaborative your teaching practice becomes.

Meet Katie


After spending 2 years in the advertising world, I was unhappy, uninspired and unwilling to give my job 100%. I had always thought about becoming a teacher, but was swept up in this fantasy idea of being an “international business woman” who traveled the world, briefcase in my hand and high heels on my feet. Once I realized this was not the reality I was living, I decided to listen to the voice in the back of my mind telling me to give teaching a try.

Two and a half years later, I graduated from Bank Street College of Education with a Master’s degree in General and Special Education. For the past 6 years, I have been teaching at The Parkside School in NYC, a self-contained school for children with a variety of speech, language and communication difficulties.  Every year I’ve had the chance to teach such a unique group of students, each with their own strengths and challenges. At times this can feel as though I’m a first year teacher at the beginning of every year, as my students challenge me in so many different ways. But most of the time, I’m inspired and in awe of the way my students overcome their challenges, learning strategies and using tools to be successful in the classroom.

I’m excited and truthfully a bit nervous to be a part of Jess’s blog. Over the years I have often wished I had written stories and learning experiences down, and I hope I am able to conjure up some of these memories through writing on this blog. I’m also looking forward to growing my personal learning network through this and other teaching blogs, so that I can continue to grow in my role as teacher, mentor and friend to the many students who touch my lives each and every day.