A Reteachable Moment

I’ve been using Lindamood Bell as an intervention with my struggling 3rd grade readers.  They are getting the labelling and the production – lip poppers, tongue coolers, scrapers and we’ve been working on the Vowel Circle. After nailing CVC  and CVCe (that’s short vowel and magic e words to the unintitated), I was feeling pretty confident that we could do blends — you know two consonants together and you can hear both sounds.

Well, it took some doing, but we we working our way through a word chain full of  beginning blends by touching felt squares to physically segment each sound. Plan to plane, plane to flane, flane to flame — the “words”  don’t have to be real words in case you were thinking I’d gone off my nut.  And then I asked if anyone in the group could think of a word that began with the /pl/ sound.

Plan – playground – play – please…. all good stuff, right? Until I came to my last little guy who very proudly and in a clear voice offered  prostitute.

Must-keep-a-straight-face! Where in the world did this kid pull up this word? Usually when he responds to anything it’s with a monosyllabic mumble!

As I said, you can’t make this stuff up. We’ll be revisiting blends next Monday.

Worry About The Quiet Ones

As with every year, there are always kids that are easy to read and those that are “question marks”.

It amazes me when kids are remarkably accepting of situations beyond their control. One of my students this year is a quiet unassuming kid. He struggles with some academics but works very hard. About a month ago, this student told me he would be moving to New York. That was a big disappointment because he is a pleasure to have in our class community; I joked with him that he couldn’t go and that I’d stand in front of the moving truck so he couldn’t leave us.  A few days later he quietly reported that his Dad told him he could stay, he wasn’t moving after all.

Now that should have perhaps set off some alarm bell, but it did not. Life moved on. At the beginning of last week, he was absent for several days in a row and I worried that he may have moved away after all. But he returned and very quietly, without much emotion, revealed that his Mom had moved out of the house. We talked about that and whether he wanted or needed to talk with a counselor. Being a quiet student, he shook his head no. We moved on, his demeanor didn’t change one bit despite an upheaval that had to be upsetting.

Today, during a school assembly in which our fourth graders, our “seniors”, presented their annual play, my quiet student was sitting behind me. A casual comment, that next year I’d be watching my third graders perform as fourth graders, brought an unusally revealing response: Mrs. Bisson, my parents won’t be here to watch me. My Dad works. My brother’s in jail. My Mom left us.

Here was this quiet stoic child looking at his future and knowing he wouldn’t experience it in the same way as most of  his peers. This four-sentence glimpse into his life, into what influences his being burned in my brain.

It is the quiet student that I worry about the most.

Rediscovering Read Alouds

Sometimes we, meaning I, get so caught up in teaching the required standards, that we forget.  We forget the simple pleasure of hearing a book read aloud. I’m not talking about picture books here — those texts are used over and over to illustrate a mini lesson or a book with enjoyable illustrations. I am talking about reading longer chapter books for a sustained period and letting students use the author’s words to visualize.

I began reading Little House on the Prairie to my third grade students this week.  My class will be attending a Theatreworks production of the same name in about a week and I wanted to give them some idea of who Laura Ingalls Wilder was and why someone might think she would be a good subject for a play. At first, the students seemed puzzled by the lack of pictures on each page. Why wasn’t Mrs. Bisson stopping to show the illustrations on each page? There was some restlessness, some wiggles, and I wasn’t altogether sure the vocabulary in the story might pose a problem to my mostly-second language learners.  However, we plowed ahead and after reading Chapter 1 took a look at a US map to see where the Ingalls family started (Wisconsin) and where the two rivers were located.

This afternoon I continued to read for another 20 minutes that I carved out of the day – right before dismissal got underway. Again, I was concerned that the vocabulary was over the students’ heads, but as I glanced up from the text to check, I noticed they had all crept forward from our usual circle and many were lying on tummies, chins resting on hands, to hear the next adventure in the life of the Ingalls family on their journey through the prairie. Calmly and intently they were engaged in the story of a long ago family on the adventure of their lives.

For me, this was a moment of realization when I understood in a new way that all the standards based time on task in the world won”t hold a candle to students enraptured as their teacher reads a book aloud. The time we spent today, lost in the adventures of a pioneer family in the mid-19th century calmed the kids down. Several students expressed the thought that, though a long story, they were enjoying hearing each chapter.

The kids I teach may not have a parent at home who has the luxury of time to read aloud to a child. Their parents often work multiple jobs, or they are still negotiating learning English, or perhaps their school career was not as positive as mine was and they never developed that love of words and story. Whatever the reason, students in this urban environment need adults to read and share books; sometimes the only person who can do that may be the classroom teacher.

Honestly, I don’t know why it never occurred to me before today to say the heck with the schedule, let’s enjoy a good book; let’s read another chapter. Some of my favorite remembrances of elementary school are connected to books and read alouds. Charlotte’s Web was read to me as a third grader and I can picture my teacher, Mrs. Harrell, standing before us reading a chapter at a time.

I hope that finding a few minutes each day to read a new chapter is something my students will remember with fondness when they grow older.  Meanwhile, back to the book – this is a really exciting part.

What are you doing the rest of your life?

“What are your goals for retirement?” This is a question I dread mostly because I’m in denial that I’m ever going to want to retire. However, moving  across yet another annual milestone and watching as one after another of my colleagues readies to leave teaching, it’s a question I no longer have the luxury of ignoring. I do not want to be the clueless old hag in front of a class.

I finally got the courage to look into the Masschusetts Teacher’s Retirement System website this week to see what my financial future might hold. While not ideal, the future doesn’t look too grim.  I’ve worked since I was 16 years old, so I have plenty of quarter credits in the social security system — all credits which I believe will not be of benefit to me as I’ve also worked under the MTRS pension for enough time to get a reasonable monthly nut.  For me, it looks like another 7 years will be needed to get in the 50% pension range (% x average of last 3 years salary), but 8-9 years will make a significant difference in pension checks. So right now, I’m saying I have 8 years 90 days left to go.

A financial planner began working with us this week. I am hopeful that the aggressive saving we were able to do while Adrien was working in the corporate world, will be adequate for our old-age future. But one of the planners asked me a question that I had great difficulty with: what are my plans for post-retirement?

Plans? Now I have to plan on something to replace the one thing I’ve lived to do over the past 20 years? Well, of course it’s no surprise I couldn’t answer it then — things like knitting and beading are things I already do sporadically already. They are not the things that could occupy me day in and day out. So the question remains: what are my personal goals, post retirement?

Forty-eight hours later and I still consider this question without enthusiasm.  I have a couple of book ideas in mind. One that might prove to be a resource for teachers and another that would be a fun joint-photo project with Adrien. I’d like to continue to tutor or teach — but most definitely not as a substitute teacher. I’d like to do some traveling. I am interested in family history and I am compiling a genealogy. I played tennis (pathetically) at one point, but my shoulder issues make that difficult now. I have always wanted to do a build with Habitat, or go to a cooking school, spend a month at the beach — but those don’t seem to be retirement “vocations” do they?

Maybe the problem is that I’ve never considered what to do with myself outside of education. Or maybe that the possibilities are too wide open – barring physical barriers, there is no limit.

Whatever. At least I have another 8 years and 90 days to think about it.

Healthcare and Tuesday’s Election

Massachusetts will have a special election on Tuesday in order to fill the remaining term of Senator Kennedy.  The two contenders, Martha Coakley and Scott Brown are attracting state-wide attention and even the national media has an eye on this thing. An election on a January Tuesday in the middle of — and I write this as a storm is dumping up to 6 inches of heavy wetness on us — Snow Season seems ill-advised, doesn’t it? Timing is everything.

The successful Senate candidate will, of course, be able to vote on the Health Care bill before Congress. I’m certain it won’t surprise anyone who knows me that being somewhat left of center; I don’t consider this current bill enough of a reform of the debacle that is the US healthcare system. But it is something.

In my opinion, one of the most desperately needed provision of the bill being considered is the part that will not allow insurance coverage to be denied based on prior conditions or catastrophic illness. Most people in Massachusetts will not remember the time when our Commonwealth did not protect people from having their insurance denied or from pre-existing condition clauses. I do.

Nearly twenty years ago, I underwent surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Thanks to my spouse’s excellent health insurance — an HMO by the way– there was not one problem for me as far as insurance coverage. A treatment plan was recommended and I received it. At the time, I did not have my own insurance coverage because I worked for a parochial school. Needless to say, benefits in a parochial school are not on a par with those offered to corporate employees.

Some years later, my husband wanted to change employers. The new employer offered a different, more traditional insurance only — and I would be denied coverage due to my pre-existing condition.  Luckily even in the 90s there had been some healthcare reform, and I was able to continue my original coverage through COBRA.  But, what was once free and included in our family premium, would now need to be paid for separately for 12 months until I could prove myself “worthy” of coverage.  I would still need to be part of the new employer’s healthcare plan (in case something new and unrelated to the cancer came up), but I could not receive coverage for any treatments that could be connected to my prior diagnosis of cancer.  I can still remember the cost per month of the continued COBRA insurance: $237.  Not a non-trival expense for a family.

The fear of losing healthcare coverage was one of the biggest stress outcomes of my illness. I did not worry about the actual treatment or the possibility of recurrence so much as bankrupting my family and all that we had worked toward should my treatment cause the insurance to lapse and coverage to be denied.  No one should have to endure this worry on top of fighting through a major illness, but outside of Massachusetts, many people do.

I am lucky enough to live in a state where I have protection from insurance coverage roulette.  Most states do not have laws on their books that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. The US Healthcare Reform legislation will not greatly impact me at all, but it will improve things for people who live in other states where such protections are nonexistent.

And our two candidates for Senate? Martha Coakley has clearly supported the US bill and the other, Scott Brown,  is hoping to become the person to prevent its passage.

The importance of this vote is that the successful candidate will have an impact on quality of life for many, many people. Tuesday’s Special Election vote will make a difference. Vote!

The Power of our Words

Each year I’ve required students to write at least weekly about something they have been reading.  At first the students’ letters go something like this:

Dear Mrs. Bisson,

I read Arthur’s Teacher Trouble. It was really funny.

Your friend,

No matter how pushed I am for time I generally manage to write back and so our written conversations sometimes morph into writings that are less about reading and more about what is going on in a student’s life.  However, as the school year progresses, I do get the students to write a bit more insightfully — or at least to offer some support to their reading opinions.  When the changeover happens, it is a proud moment for me: my students are arriving as readers and writers.

Last week one of my students wrote an outstanding critique of a book she had been reading and she wrote reasons for the character’s behavioral changes throughout the book. In my reply, I happened to mention how proud I was of the student’s response — and wrote those exact words to her. It was purely serendipitous that I expressed this idea; the student is quite bright and surely must have heard accolades previously.

The student’s reply to me today points to the power of our words — the student circled the words “I am so proud of your thinking” and then highlighted those words with exclamation marks. In her reply, my student revealed that no one had ever told her this before.  She revealed that the words made her feel good about herself.

I have no way of knowing how this tiny moment in my student’s academic life may influence her, but I am hopeful that she will continue to build her self esteem and positive learning attitude well beyond the 180 days she spends with me in our classroom community.

Once again, I am struck by how powerful and influential a teacher’s words can be on students.  This time the comments were by chance; in the future I hope to make such powerful words  more intentional.