I GOT AN EMAIL FROM RICHARD LAVOIE!

As I mentioned in an earlier post of mine, I was first introduced to Dr. Richard Lavoie’s work on Special Education and learning disabilities in my second year of university. I was instantly drawn to his enthusiasm as an educator, and to the powerful messages that he was offering to individuals working with students with special needs. I was incredibly fortunate over my recent alternative practicum to be working with a supervisor who encouraged me to further my understanding of learning disabilities by conducting some of my own research as part of my placement, and I am so grateful that I was able to do so. I have learned a great deal about the strengths, struggles, and unique individual needs of students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD, and out of all the sources that I came across, Richard Lavoie’s work definitely stood out the most. After watching a few of his videos, I soon started to immerse myself in his work and learn as much from him as I possibly could. I am now currently reading both of his books, and I have acquired nothing but insight, inspiration, and invaluable advice from him. As a soon-to-be teacher who will be working directly with students with learning disabilities in one capacity or another, I can say with confidence that Dr. Richard Lavoie is one of my biggest professional mentors.

After a while, I was curious to see if there was a way to get in touch with Lavoie, and I took it upon myself to find out. I soon came across his website, which included an email address. Although I wasn’t quite sure if he would respond (or even have a chance to read an email, with his very demanding schedule), I decided to give it a shot, and I sent the following email to thank him for inspiring me as an educator:

 

Dear Dr. Lavoie,

My name is Megan Leonard, and in a little over three weeks, I will be finished my Concurrent Education program and will have completed the requirements needed to become a certified Elementary School teacher. I have wanted this career since I was six years old, so this is definitely a surreal feeling.

I am writing to you to thank you for all of the insight and inspiration that you have provided me with throughout my program. I was first introduced to your work when my Education class watched your original F.A.T. City Workshop in one of our second year lectures. I nearly started to cry in the middle of the lecture hall, and growing up with a physical disability, I found myself instantly relating to the social implications of being “different” that you discussed in the video.

More importantly though, I was incredibly intrigued by your exercises, and their effectiveness in capturing the frustrations endured by children with learning disabilities. Although the video was made before I was born, I was shocked to see just how relevant most of its content still is today.

Over the past few weeks, I have been completing a volunteer placement with my local Learning Disabilities Association, and my supervisor recommended that I take a look at your work during my research. I have now seen many of your videos several times, and am currently reading your books as well. I am very passionate about improving the school experiences of students with special needs (I even wrote an Honours Thesis last year about students with disabilities and bullying), and I want to thank you for giving me a great deal of strategies and wisdom that will help me to do so.

I hope that I can see you speak at an event someday, so that I can thank you in person. Your work has changed the way I see learning disabilities, and in turn, the way that I will soon teach all of the students in my own classroom.

Sincerely,
Megan Leonard.

A few days later, I received an absolutely amazing surprise when I opened my inbox to check my email before I began work on an assignment for one of my courses. I thought I was seeing things or hallucinating at first, because in the corner of my laptop’s monitor was a pop-up that read “1 new mail notification: Richard Lavoie.” After picking my jaw up from the floor (I’m exaggerating a little, of course, but I was VERY excited at this point), I clicked the notification and found the following response from Richard Lavoie himself:

 

Megan…..

I read your email yesterday at 35,000 feet while on my way to a California speaking engagement. You made my day.

I smiled when I read that you are YOUNGER than FAT City…..that made me feel old AND proud at the same time. It is wonderful to know that that film continues to inform and inspire professionals….and will impact young kids that I will never meet.

The fact that you took the time and effort to write that email speaks volumes about your sensitivity, professionalism and character. Your own personal struggles and successes will enable you to have an uncommon sensitivity when you begin your teaching career. Those kids will be blessed to have you in their corner.

Always remember that kids need love MOST when they deserve it LEAST……Let that be the guiding principle as you enter the profession that you have longed for.

One of my personal heroes is American Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of JFK. On the evening before he died, he addressed a group of college students in California. He said:

“Few of us have the greatness to truly bend History itself… but if each of us selects on small piece of this world and works to change one small set of circumstances, the collective efforts of ALL of us will write the history of this generation.”

Good luck changing YOUR “little piece of the world”

With every good wish,

Rick

 

It would be an understatement to say that I am thankful for this response. Hearing from Richard Lavoie and receiving personalized advice from him means the absolute world to me, and I will definitely be keeping his and Senator Kennedy’s words in mind as I prepare to finish my B.Ed. degree and enter my own classroom.

Some more Alt Prac reflections

Now that my Alternative Practicum block is coming to a close, I felt the need to take a few minutes to share what I have learned. I have had the opportunity over the past three weeks to immerse myself in the world of assistive technology, and I am very thankful for this experience. While I was already aware that such supports existed for students (I’ve even used a couple of them myself during my undergraduate years!), I had no idea just how much of a variety of devices and programs were available. I’ll post a more detailed summary of some of them soon, but I have been able to produce product guides and other documents for two models of Livescribe Smartpens, built-in assistive technology for both Windows and Mac computers, Google Chromebooks, and iPads. I am definitely blown away by the level of technological sophistication that these devices have, and the efforts that the manufacturers have put into making the lives of students and other individuals with special needs easier.

Although I do believe that as teachers, we need to be careful about how we choose to incorporate technology into the curriculum (because it definitely has the potential to be misused), this placement has provided me with a great deal of information about the types of assistive technology available to students, and the types of obstacles that they can help individuals to work around. In addition, I have learned more about learning disabilities in the last three weeks than I have in almost my entire program, and this research has been invaluable. I truly believe that this alternative practicum is going to make me a better, more effective and even more empathetic teacher, and I am so excited to apply what I have learned in my own classroom someday.

My Alt. Prac. Experience So Far

Now that I’m into the second week of my alternative practicum, I thought it would be a good idea to make a quick post detailing what I’ve been up to so far. I am currently completing my alternative practicum with my local Learning Disabilities Association branch, working in their assistive technology program. Assistive technology (according to an article on understood.org) refers to any form of technology that can help a student with a learning disabilities work with or around his or her challenges in order to succeed at school. This includes a wide variety of tools, devices, apps, and special software programs, however, not all forms of assistive technology require complex technological systems.

So far in my placement, I have spent a great deal of time learning about the various types of learning disabilities that children can experience, and I have also been getting acquainted with some of the assistive technology options that are offered by the Learning Disabilities Association. I have written how-to guides and product descriptions for two kinds of Smartpen devices by Livescribe (including the Echo model and the new Livescribe 3 pen, which I will discuss in another post), and this week, I am focusing my attention on some of the built-in tools and apps on both Windows and Mac computers that learners can take advantage of. As a whole, the past two weeks have been incredibly informative for me. Not only am I learning a great deal about supports for students with special needs, but I am also able to make a difference in a very small organization who, in my opinion, is doing fantastic work. Knowing that the documents I’m currently producing may be helping students, teachers, and/or parents who are looking for tools that will increase feelings of accomplishment and decrease their feelings of frustration is incredibly rewarding, and I am excited to see what the second half of my alternative practicum block has in store.

How this Placement has Changed my Life

As my final strictly reflective post, I have decided to write a brief overview about what I have taken away from my most recent practicum block. Compared to my other experiences, I personally feel as though this placement provided me with the greatest amount of self-knowledge and overall development as a new teacher. That is not to say that my other placements have not been wonderful, rich learning experiences. I have taken a variety of resources and experiences away from each and every one of my host classrooms over my five years in this Con-Ed program, and words cannot express how grateful I am for this. However, this past placement was different, mainly for one important reason.

Before entering my Associate Teachers’ classroom in February, “nervous” was not a sufficient word to describe how I was feeling. Prior to this, I never had any intention of teaching at a Grade 6/7 level, and I was unsure of how these older children would respond to me. Will they think my kindness is over-the-top? What if I try to make a joke and they groan? What if I get verbally attacked in the middle of a lesson?! I was very apprehensive, but also entered the room with as much positivity and optimism as I could muster up.

As a whole, I am pleased to say that these students and this placement exceeded my expectations, ten-fold. The first two weeks allowed me to establish individual bonds and a strong positive rapport with the children, and once I was able to teach in the most traditional front-of-the-classroom way, I was communicating the material with a kind of ease and confidence that I did not even know I possessed. I felt more and more comfortable with the Grade 6s and 7s as time went on, and I loved being able to dive into a great deal of meaningful content with them. Having the opportunity to teach children who understood my sarcasm and awful puns definitely didn’t hurt either! After reflecting upon everything that I experienced in this placement, I can honestly say that the Junior grades are a great fit for me as a teacher, and I would be thrilled to teach my own Grade 6 class some day. This statement alone is completely life-changing, because I would not have been able to say it even a year or two ago. For this reason, I am so incredibly thankful to have spent the past few weeks in a school and classroom environment that was so supportive, welcoming, and eye-opening. It is near impossible to accurately convey how excited I am to see what my future as a teacher holds.

My very last day as a student teacher

This past Friday, I woke up feeling as I have on any other typical practicum day. Hopeful, yet in desperate need of coffee, and excited for the plans in place for the day ahead of me. However, as the morning progressed and one instructional period blended into the next, it began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary placement day. I would have no lesson plans to create this weekend, no activity materials to organize, no anchor charts to make and no ideas to present to my Associates. This was it– this was my last day as a student teacher. What a surreal feeling!

That being said, I was able (for the most part) to place my emotions aside temporarily and enjoy my last moments with the students whom I had inevitably grown attached to over the past few weeks. I watched videos and played games with them during free time, marked their Math quizzes from the previous day, hosted my last circle session, and finally said goodbye to the class who provided me with more insight, confidence, and professional and personal growth in four weeks than I even knew was possible. They surprised me with a thank you card and nearly tackled me in a group hug, as I shared my hopes for a potential future visit with them. And then slowly but surely, I gathered my belongings, left the leftover treats on one of the back tables for the kids who were absent that day (I’m still not one hundred percent sure that the cashier at the grocery store truly believed me when I told her that I did not intend on eating 25 packages of Mini Eggs by myself, and that I was in fact giving these to my placement students), and said a final goodbye to the staff and school who provided me with two invaluable practicum experiences. I miss the kids already, and the lessons that they and my host teachers have taught me will stay with me as I prepare to finish my time at Teachers’ College and enter the profession as a new educator.

 

Our Most Successful Circle Session

Now that my practicum is finished, I am left with a plethora of memories, moments, and lessons, and five separate sets of observations from my Action Research Project (which explores the use of Circle Process in the classroom). In reviewing my notes, it is blatantly obvious which of the circle sessions was the most successful of the five, and this session occurred on the day that I relinquished some of my control as the Circle Keeper.

At this point in my project, I had completed a short sharing circle and two circles focused primarily on relaxation and meditative breathing. At the end of the third session, I asked the kids to tell me what they wanted to discuss in future circles, and while many of them did not think of ideas (or at least, didn’t share them), one child presented a potential topic that got a positive response from a few more of his classmates. He asked if one day, we could go around the circle and talk about our favourite and least favourite foods and drinks, and I wrote his idea down, thanking him for the suggestion. Little did I know at the time though, that this topic would spark the longest and most productive circle session of my entire practicum experience.

The first time around the circle went just as it normally did– I posed a question (this time, asking the kids to tell us about their favourite foods), and those who normally participated offered a statement, whereas my frequent passers passed the talking piece with a blank look on their face. However, much to my surprise, the more we went around the circle, the more the class began to open up. My Associate Teacher helped me to ensure that the Circle rules were being followed and slowly but surely, even most of the students who had originally passed were proudly sharing their ideas about their food preferences. By the end of the discussion, we had received stories about family traditions, frequently consumed beverages, descriptions about the students’ favourite foods, and reasons behind their dislikes. We also had a short debate about junk food consumption and the practice of eating all foods in moderation, and for the most part, I simply sat back in awe, quietly taking stock of the participation level and listening to the insights and opinions being shared around and across the circle. I felt slightly guilty as we wrapped up our talk and moved on to my poetry lesson, as it was clear that the class was engaged. I thanked each of them for their ideas, and told them that they were welcome to keep the discussion going throughout lunch, which a few of them ended up doing.

Overall, I am thrilled that I decided to use a student-generated circle topic, and I attribute the success of this session to that very fact. By asking the class what they felt like discussing, I provided them with a sense of ownership and direct responsibility for their learning. No longer was I solely in charge of the direction of our class circles– I was simply a mediator in a student-led conversation, and I loved watching the atmosphere in the room change as the discussion continued. While I did not get to host as many circles as I had hoped over the course of my practicum, this Action Research project has restored my faith in the power and effectiveness of circles as an instructional strategy and a classroom management technique, and I will without a doubt be implementing them throughout the course of my teaching career.

 

My Most Challenging Day of Practicum and What I Learned from it

Almost two weeks ago, I was faced with the most challenging and emotionally charged day of practicum that I have personally ever experienced. Although it has been a little while since these events first occurred, I have been prolonging this post because I wanted to give myself some time to decompress from the day’s tension, and to reflect upon my learning.

March 3rd, 2016 started off in a relatively low-key way. With more than half of the class away at a half-day trampolining elective, the children’s Math/Science teacher and I had decided that rather than present any new material, I should focus on reviewing yesterday’s Math topic (which was the area of composite 2D shapes), and allow the students to work on a learning task for the rest of the period. This plan went over well as a whole, and after recess, I gave a quick recap of the poetry writing techniques we had been working on, and had the students work using the school’s laptops until lunch. This portion of the day was slightly more hectic and unstructured than the first instructional block, but I did the best that I knew how to do, and managed to get some poetry out of a few of the students.

However, after lunch was another story entirely. The class had returned from their trip with their Literacy teacher, and the room was buzzing with energy. In addition, we were sharing our classroom space with about six to eight of the Grade 7 and 8 students from next door, because their teacher had left with the rest of the class for their time slot at the same trampoline elective. My second Associate Teacher and I had planned an Arts work period for the class, with elements of free time built in as well– many of the students were watching a movie and socializing, and many were taking advantage of the open-ended afternoon and working on some Art activities that I had taught to them earlier in the week. I had printed activity pages for the class, and the period started off relatively well, and quite productively.

About half way through the instructional time, chaos broke out. This is because for some reason, one of the Grade 8 boys from the other classroom began to argue with one of our grade 6s. My Associate Teacher attempted to remedy the situation at first, but it seemed that her presence only caused the altercation to escalate more quickly. The fight soon turned physical and before I could even begin to grasp what was happening or why it started (I’m still not sure what sparked the argument, to be honest), the two boys were attacking each other, and sending furniture across the room. My Associate Teacher did exactly what I would have done in my own classroom, by sending two other students to get help from the school Principal, and eventually, the fight was broken up. In the meantime though, all I could do in that moment was move away from the violence and stare at my placement students in shock, watching with a horrified, doe-eyed look on my face as the smart, witty, inquisitive children I had been teaching for the past couple of weeks turned to volatile, angry, and impulsive young people, using language that I had rarely heard from 11-13 year olds before that day.

What was almost more upsetting for me was watching the aftermath of this fight unfold. My heart broke as I saw one of my placement students spiral into a panic attack, and as I watched the Grade 6 student who was directly involved leave the classroom with tears in his eyes. My whole body filled with the worst kind of fear-induced adrenaline as I witnessed several other students storm out, and I felt completely helpless and lost. I thought: “What am I supposed to do? I’m only a student teacher! I should have done more to help them. What happened? Why didn’t I do anything?” I helped to clean up the classroom, gathered my belongings at the end of the day, and cried as soon as I walked into my apartment. My Associate Teacher and I spoke that evening, and she told me that volatility was likely a factor today, but it was hard to tell exactly why the fight had broken out.

The next day was mainly focused on damage control and reflection. Our normal Math period was spent having a whole-group discussion of the previous day’s events, and I remember that their teacher kept telling me she was sorry that we were going to have to move my planned lesson materials to the following Monday. As much as I understood and appreciated this, I told her “please, do not apologize. I completely understand why we’re having this conversation with them, and it is far more important than the trapezoids I was planning on talking about today.” She smiled and thanked me for being understanding and flexible, and I recalled that in many cases, the curriculum should not be a teacher’s top priority. As shocking and emotional as March 3rd was for me, looking back, I can see that it provided me with a great deal of insight into teaching at-risk students. It reminded me that each of these children are incredibly complex individuals dealing with a variety of emotional difficulties, and that our role as teachers is ultimately to show them that we care, and to  provide them with a safe and supportive space every single time they enter the classroom.

What do teachers REALLY do on P.A. Days?

What do the teachers do when P.A. Days are called? As a student, this question would cross my mind from time to time over the course of the school year. “Do they get the day off too?” “Is it like a long weekend for everyone?”, I would wonder as I slept in and spent most of the morning in my P.Js and relaxing. However, as it turns out, P.A. Days are a busy time for teachers, and my recent Practicum experiences have given me direct insight into this topic.

Today, I had the opportunity to attend a P.A. Day at my host school, my second time doing so as a professional. As a whole, I can honestly say that I found today’s sessions to be a meaningful chance for me to both gain new knowledge, and to reflect upon my personal reasons for entering the teaching field. We started the morning by sharing recent examples of success in the school, using the app called SeeSaw. This app allows educators to upload photos that they have taken of their students during moments of connection, engagement, accomplishment, etc., and to comment on these pictures throughout the entire school year. What I love most about this system is its capability to capture and store all of the “little victories” that are so often overlooked and taken for granted during the hectic and demanding daily lives we lead as teachers. The pictures remind us that we ARE in fact making a positive impact on the lives of children, and in taking photos and celebrating with students in the moment (no matter how briefly) we can help them to develop a stronger sense of confidence and self-efficacy. Even if the school I end up working in some day does not use SeeSaw, I can definitely see myself incorporating it into my own practices.

After some review of recent Professional Learning initiatives taken on by the staff, we used a gallery walk exercise to explore the idea of play-based approaches to Numeracy. Each table center made use of a different game or manipulative to teach students various Mathematics skills and concepts, and they were very similar to the strategies that have been discussed in length within my curriculum course (which was comforting and very reassuring!).

Finally, the Principal shared with us some recent stories of hope and student success, and read from an article that is now circulating online called “Dear Parent: About THAT kid”. It was incredibly touching, and the emotion in the room was very evident as the session concluded. And as I sit in my empty host classroom, now working away at some lesson plans and photocopying for the week ahead (and praying for no snow days! *fingers crossed*), I am filled with a refreshed sense of hope, optimism, and excitement to see my students tomorrow and to let them know, in small, subtle ways, that they matter to me.

**Here is  the link to the original article, if anyone is interested. It’s definitely worth a read! http://missnightmutters.com/2014/11/dear-parent-about-that-kid.html

 

A Brief Reflection of My First Direct Lesson

After a first two weeks of unexpected circumstances, bus cancellations, long weekends and lots of busy days, I finally was able to present my first lesson to the class on Thursday afternoon. To say I was excited and nervous simultaneously would be a colossal understatement. I was buzzing with energy as I opened the PowerPoint and got ready to address the students.

I had recently been asked to introduce the class to poetry, with the Four Elements (air, water, fire, Earth) as a topic. I have been writing poetry since I was in Grade 6 myself, so I accepted this assignment without any hesitation. After a bit of brainstorming, I decided it would be good to present the class with three brief forms of poetry: Acrostic style, Haikus, and Chinquains. I even wrote the exemplars of each poem myself.

At the start of the lesson, I began by hosting a whole-group brainstorm based on the following question: Why do we write poetry? I asked the students to do a “Turn and Talk” with a partner, and then we consolidated the ideas as a class. In a pleasant surprise, I had much more hands shooting up than I originally had predicted I would. I accepted every response with enthusiasm, and created a mind map to display the children’s thinking. Next, we did a brief re-cap of the Four Elements, and I went through my PowerPoint, explaining the basics of each poem, and having student volunteers read the exemplars. I know that this technique is often hit-or-miss, but my placement class is a high-engergy group who absolutely LOVES to talk, so I wanted to give them as many opportunities to share and communicate with both myself and each other during this lesson (and I had several brave volunteers each time, which was awesome to see). When the presentation was over, I used a Gradual Release of Responsibility strategy, and had the class co-create a poem of their own, which I added to the slides as an example later that night.

Overall, I got both a high level of engagement, attention, and participation during this lesson. I was not sure if this was due to genuine interest in what I was saying, or because of the reminder from their classroom teacher to be respectful during my lesson. In retrospect, I think it was a combination of both, with an emphasis on genuine interest. I moved on to an Art activity at the end of the lesson, because there was not enough time in the period to send the children to start  working on poems of their own. Again, the class seemed to be engaged, and I even had one student approach me during cleanup time and say “Miss Leonard, thank you for this opportunity to learn” in a very sincere and serious manner. I was beyond touched, and very relieved that my first teaching block had been successful as a whole.

 

After having the class write poems yesterday, I can see that they still have a long way to go in terms of adding creativity and detail to their writing. I have been assured by my Associate Teacher however, that this is common at the start of a Poetry Unit, and I am determined to help the students improve the quality of their poems in the time that I have left in this classroom.

Circle Time in the Classroom: Session #1

For my Action Research Project this year, I have decided to implement circle process as both an instructional tool and a classroom management strategy.

After hearing of the breadth of research supporting the use of circles in the classroom, I was highly intrigued, and curious to see if it would work with the Grade 6s and 7s in my placement class. Circle discussions have frequently been found to be extremely beneficial for the emotional, social, and academic well-being of children. Students also have a unique opportunity to bond with one another, and to increase their self-confidence in a safe, non-judgemental space.

I recently pitched the idea of circles to my afternoon Associate Teacher, and was thrilled to learn that she too was on board. Although the children in this class often do not handle transitions between activities very well, we agreed that we would be able to find a time of the day to make circle time less hectic, and decided to host the first discussion at the end of the afternoon last Tuesday.

Armed with a small and soft Spiderman ball as a talking piece, I got the class quiet, and explained the basics of circle time.

  1. This is a safe space, and we will be respectful of all of our classmates when they are sharing. This means no put-downs, judgements, or hurtful laughing during someone else’s answer.
  2. We will only talk when we are holding the talking piece, in order to give every student a chance to respond.
  3. You ALWAYS have the right to pass.

For my first go at circle time, I hosted a short, very simple sharing circle. I asked the kids to describe how they were feeling using one word, to name the best part about the school day, and to share one thing that they learned during the day (school-related or not). Overall, I think that this first try went relatively well. There were a few children who passed every question, but most of the class participated, with the majority offering one or more answers. Additionally, the rules of circle time were respected, with the exception of a few brief interruptions.

I personally feel as though this particular group of students can greatly benefit from the connection and ownership over their ideas and learning that circle process can give them, and I am very excited to try it again with them in the upcoming weeks.