In my free time, I have been writing curriculum designed to teach beginning special education teachers what they need to know about teaching students with special needs. I am on page 600 and have 4 more sessions to write. I mean, there is a LOT that teachers need to know. I don’t know how you people do it. And I have been trying to condense it all into 16 sessions. Good times.
Recently, I finished the session on oral language and through the process, realized that oral language seems to be the slightly ignored stepchild of the English Language Arts domain. I mean, when you think of language arts, you think of reading and writing, right? But what about oral language? It is so important! It is often neglected in psychoeduational assessments as well, unless it is wrapped up in general language processing.
Oral language is not just speaking. It is a large set of skills that encompasses listening comprehension, understanding and producing complex language, vocabulary and word knowledge, grammatical knowledge, phonological skills, and so much more. Allow me to illustrate how oral language skills are necessary for comprehension by confessing something embarrassing.
I am the worst at deciphering song lyrics. My best friend, Kendra, however, should be on that game show “Don’t Forget the Lyrics.” She was always my first choice in picking teams for Songburst. And when I can’t figure out what a song is saying, I call her.
Some embarrassing examples:
1) I was singing along with Kendra to the song “One” by U2, and belted out, “Love is a tent pole, love’s a higher love!” and she said, “Um, don’t you mean that love is a temple, love’s a higher law?” Ah yes, that makes more sense.
2) I was car singing (as I do) to Sean Kingson’s new song, “Replay” and I actually sang:
Shawty’s like a melody in my head,
That I can’t keep out
Got me singing like, la la la la every day,
Like an eyeball stuck on my plate, my plate.
Scrrrreeeeech (record scratches). Wait, what? That doesn’t make sense. But that’s exactly what it sounded like to me. I knew it could not be right (because of oral language skills, of course), but no matter how many times I heard it, I still heard eyeball stuck on my plate, my plate. Good thing my radio station plays this song like la la la la every day, because I finally got it…it’s like my iPod stuck on replay, replay.” Much more romantic than my eyeball lyric.*
Wait, what was my point? Ah yes, oral language. If one has a strong vocabulary and strong grammatical and semantic knowledge (how words go together and make meaning) then you are better able to understand what you read and produce written words. Let’s take another example. If you have ever studied a foreign language, you know that having limited vocabulary can significantly impair your ability to understand what you read. If you read “Tengo que practicar Espanol. Voy a charlar con mi amiga todos los dias” and you did not know the phrase “Tengo que” or the words “charlar” and “todos,” you would read, “Something to practice Spanish. I’m going to something with my friend something the days.” Say what?
Not having solid oral language skills can also impair writing. I always sound a little bit like Tonto when I write in Spanish, and/or super limited in my knowledge, because I avoid words I don’t know. Which sentence is better?
The student is exhibiting some symptoms associated with depression.
The student is being sad.
The latter sentence is about what I could produce in Spanish, with my limited vocabulary and oral language skills. I love nuance, and it just doesn’t work well without strong oral language skills. The same is true for our students who come with limited “academic” vocabulary or limited English.
So how can we promote oral language in the classroom and at home to give students the building blocks for reading and writing? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few strategies that span the grades; Some can be modified to be easier or harder, depending on what you teach. Some are from the New Teacher Project, some are classics, and I hope you can offer some more as well!
A Few Strategies for Building Oral Language Skills
1) Show and Tell. A classic for elementary students! Students bring an item from home that they want to talk about and there is a precious question and answer session that ensues.
2) Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Traditionally, this is an activity where each day, there is a prompt written on the board for students, such as a sentence written with incorrect grammar for students to correct individually. I prefer to have the students create grammatically correct sentences in small groups (like their tables or with a partner). For example, you could give the words “Since” “Robert” and “party” and have the students come up with a grammatically correct sentence and discuss as a whole group. Another example is to pre-teach a vocabulary word that you will use that day or in the next lesson. Show the vocabulary word and have students talk about its meaning together in a small group and have them draw a group picture representing that word. Share out with the large group. You can have kids draw the vocabulary word on a post-it and then stick it on the board next to the word.
3) Dramatic Vocabulary. This one is from my good friend, Beth, who taught 9th grade English. I think middle school kids could do it too. It’s kind of like vocabulary charades. The students get in a circle and the teacher has a set of cards with that week’s vocabulary words on them (the students can make these cards in groups before the activity for added learning). The teacher pulls a card and gives it to one student, who must act out the vocabulary word for the other students to guess. After it is correctly guessed, the students say, spell, and write the definition of the word together on the board.
4) Word Wall. Also a classic! I think it is used mostly in elementary and middle school, but I can see its value in secondary classrooms with added elements, such as grouping by prefix, suffix, roots, etc. Basically, it is a wall of words that are frequently used in the classroom that are posted for easy reference. Teachers, feel free to comment on how you elaborate on the classic Word Wall.
5) Debates and “Take A Stand” activities. You can start out by providing a prompt for a related lesson, such as “Every student should wear uniforms to school” for a lesson on persuasive writing. Place a line of masking tape in your classroom that ranges from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” with “not sure” in the middle. Have students “take a stand” on where they fall on the continuum. Then, group the students to form teams for a debate on the issue (“not sure” kids can be equally divided or be their own group). From there, you can provide reading materials for the students to support their argument, or begin a research project for students to find their own material for a debate.
6) Listening Activities. For the little ones, I like the classic game “telephone” where the kids get in a circle and the teacher whispers a sentence to the first kid, and they have to whisper the sentence to the next kid. The goal is to have the sentence be in tact at the end. It never is. Hilarity ensues. For older students, teaching listening skills can be in the form of teaching good note-taking skills during lecture. Give the class a list of key phrases that they want to listen for in a lecture such as, “This is important..”, “One of the main things…” “The first thing you have to do is…, etc”, “You will need to know…” To begin, you could ring a little bell or something when you use the key phrase, then transfer that job to a student.
7) Fancy Tech Stuff I must admit, there are many many tech applications that frighten me with their newfangledness. However, I really think that we should be harnessing the students' natural interest in tech and social media. Maybe kids across the country could Sykpe-talk to each other about an issue/project/modern day pen pal thingy, build a personal word or spelling dictionary in their iPhones/iTouches, find an App for site words (there's an app for that!), making a classroom Podcast, etc.
8) Consult with your Speech Language Pathologist. These people know oral language and will have good suggestions for students. My SLP friend says that "written language (reading/ writing) is overlaid on oral language skills so it is very rare for a student with poor oral skills to read or write with a level of proficiency - yet we rarely focus on increasing oral skills when difficulties are noticed with written language." Amen sister. Go consult with these people. They are fabulous.
9) You tell me! I want you to practice your oral language skills too. Meanwhile, I will work on my lyrical analysis skills. ☺
*In general, I avoid the word “eyeball”. I think it sounds gross. Perhaps I have PTSD from when I had to dissect a sheep eyeball in order to study visual perception in school. Bleh.
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
Scene: It is a sunny day, 4 children and one psychologist are seated outside at the lunch tables of a nonpublic school for children with emotional disturbance. Birds are chirping.
Three of the four children are eating bologna sandwiches. The fourth child looks at the sandwich and screams, “I hate this sh*%!” and throws said sandwich at psychologist.
Psychologist wipes bologna and mayo off of face and says, “I see that you do not like your sandwich. It’s okay to not like bologna, but it is not okay to throw food. Can you use your words instead?”
Bologna Hater jumps up and runs for a Razor Scooter.
Camera pans to psychologist’s terrified face and ominous music plays: dun dun dun
Psychologist leaps up and says, “Scooters are for riding, not throwing. Put down the….
Scooter is thrown at psychologist
Questions from the audience?
Yes, you….No, I do not have a future in script writing.
Young lady in the front?...Yes, this really happened to me.
The gentleman in the back...No, thankfully no stitches required.
And last question?...Yes, bologna is a vile meat, I should have known better.
So there you have a dramatic reenactment of me trying to de-escalate an emotionally disturbed child. What the scene didn’t let you in on is that this little guy was a foster youth who had just had a supervised visit from his mother that had not gone well, and his reaction had little to do with the processed meat. This example stands out in my mind only because it is one of the few times I have been unsuccessful in talking down an angry kid from becoming violent.
Not to toot my own horn or anything (too late), but there are few kids who I can’t get to comply with instructions. My tips aren’t foolproof, but they have worked on more occasions than not. And since my last post about getting bitten resulted in requests for some tips for de-escalating students who are angry, here you go:
1) Prevention, prevention, prevention. Rarely does aggression come out of nowhere (even bologna can be a trigger, apparently) Usually, aggression comes from frustration, internal stress that has been activated, provocation from others, and/or a desire to regain control over a situation. Try to see what is underlying the anger and intercept it.
2) Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate. If you see a child becoming increasingly upset, intervene early in the chain of events. Understand that verbal aggression is the “gateway” to physical aggression. If you hear anything about anyone’s momma, intervene swiftly and redirect. “That’s not appropriate language for class. I need you to use respectful language. This is a warning. If I hear it again, you both will receive a classroom service.”
2) Anticipate when the child may have external factors that will impact his or her ability to control his or her anger. For kids with turmulteous home lives, they often cannot check their anger at the school door. For vulnerable students, provide a brief, private, check-in before class and give them a replacement behavior for acting out in advance. “I know you had a rough weekend. If you find yourself getting upset, then you can use this pass to take a break for 5 minutes.”
3) If prevention and anticipation are not sufficient, then we move to Defcon 3: Talking a kid down once they have already escalated a bit. This may look like the student grumbling, cursing under his or her breath, pushing something, etc. First, try to redirect privately if possible. There is a lot of secondary gain (usually attention) from acting out. In close physical proximity, acknowledge the anger. “I know that makes you angry when Joey talks about your mom. He will have a consequence for that. I need you to take a deep breath. Then, you can choose to take a quick break outside or go in the reading corner to relax. It’s up to you.” That way, the kid feels validated, and has a face-saving way to pull it together again.
4) Defcon 4: You try the private conversation and the kid escalates (shouts profanity at you, says he doesn’t care, or postures toward you or another student). In a business-like but firm tone, tell the student you need to speak with him or her outside for a moment. You could say something like, “I see that you are very upset. For your safety, we are going to step outside for a moment. This is your chance to turn it around so I can tell your parents how well you controlled your anger today.” Model calm. If you get worked up, it will likely escalate the situation.
5) Defcon 5: If the student refuses to see you privately outside, intervene in the chain of events you have set out in your classroom already (e.g. warning, classroom service, detention, call home). You can also call for backup at this point. There is nothing worse than being in a classroom alone with an aggressive student. If your phone doesn’t work (you can tell I work in schools where this can happen), and you have an aggressive child, move the calm children out. It is far easier to get 20 calm kids out the door than one out-of-control child. Say, “Children, for your safety, we are all going to step outside in the hallway while Jeffrey calms down.”
6) And most importantly, never serve an angry child bologna. Just don’t do it.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I posted once on my Facebook Fan Page that I was "writing reports, which is the non-glamorous side of school psychology." One of my wonderful colleagues wrote back, "Wait, there's a glamorous side???"
Okay, so there's not really a glamorous side, but I try to tell the cyberworld the truth of this profession--the warm fuzzies, the cold pricklies, and the insane. I don't want to sugar coat how hard this job is, though I try to write about the positive stuff as much as possible.
Recently, I've been getting lots of emails asking me what experience would be good for preparing one's self for graduate school in school psychology, and being a school psychologist. Being biased toward my own experience, I say that you should work with kids with special needs before deciding on this career. The best training I ever got was before grad school, working in a group home for developmentally disabled adolescents, and then during grad school, in a home for emotionally disturbed kids. I figured, if I work with the most difficult to manage students, I could handle any kid that comes in my office after that. I was, for the most part, correct. After getting stitches for having a scooter thrown at my head, managing kids who threw objects or bit me, I can handle a surly teen who doesn't feel like doing my tests. I also have an expansive verbal repertoire for redirecting behavior: "Stoves are for cooking, not throwing, Jeffry," "Climb on the play set, not the roof, John," and "Sorry, we can't push the lawnmower to Safeway. Shall we push a stroller instead?" So glamorous, right?
Since working with students with disabilities over the past 9 years, I have been able to keep myself safe from severe situations except on three occasions*:
Bite #1: I was working in a group home for adolescents with developmental disabilities. The ”OJ is going to jail!” kid always went home on Friday afternoons with his grandmother. This Friday, his grandmother had cancelled. Kid shows me his suitcase and says, “Grandma is coming.” I tell him for the 10th time that day that Grandma is coming next week, and he screams and bites the back of my right hand and won’t let go. Why the right hand? I need that one, buddy. No one is around to help me. I tell him to let go. He doesn’t. I tell him to sit down (I don’t know why) and to my surprise, he sits down and releases my hand. I cry. He says, “Grandma is coming” and plays with the buckle on his suitcase.
Bite #2: Working with a 6 year old who has severe language issues and is possibly on the autism spectrum. I ask him, “What color is the sky?” and he sniffs my face, then arm, and then gently bites my arm. I say, “Can you tell me what you are thinking about instead of biting my arm?” He says, “this game is too hard.”
Bite #3: Trying to test a 9 year old boy in foster care, who is severely inattentive and impulsive. I present him blocks. Blocks get thrown. I present copying. Pencil gets thrown. I try a talking game (ha! No objects! You can throw all the words you want!). He leaps out of his chair, starts crawling on the ground, snarling, and says, “I’m a mean, mean, dinosaur! Run away from me.” I say, “you look like a nice dinosaur to me.” He says, “No! Play my game, I’m bad!” I peer down at him and he swipes at me and then bites my ankle. I take a breath, ankle throbbing and say, “Actually, I have studied dinosaurs for many years now and you appear to have all the features of the Nice-a-saurus Rex who happens to be angry right now.” He giggles and gets back in his chair and starts working. I pretend my ankle doesn’t hurt and try to recall when I got my last Hepatitis B shot.
What are the lessons from these incidents?
1) If you want to work as a school psychologist, make sure you have your Hep B shot current.
2) Be prepared that every so often, you may get a surprise bite, or have an object thrown at you. If you work with severe needs kids, it could happen. Working in a group home is a good way to get on the job training so you can handle any kid who comes in your office.
3)The majority of kids school psychologists work with are not severe needs students, but you don't get to pick who gets referred to you. Get experience working with all kids, and you'll be much more comfortable in your role.
4)In 99.9% of situations, you can prevent acting out with good de-escalation techniques.**
5)Most importantly,the kids who act out are often trying to communicate something to you by biting, hitting, or throwing, that they cannot put into words—-they are disappointed, the work is too hard, or they feel like a bad kid. Try not to take it personally and work with the kids, parents, and staff to teach them alternative ways to communicate.
I hope I have not frightened anyone from the profession. But you gotta hear the non-glam side too...
*Three times in nine years isn't so bad, right? Who doesn't deserve a good triennial injury?
**You want a post on this? Lemmie know!
Thursday, December 3, 2009
I have written before about the dangers of eavesdropping and making assumptions. I now turn to a favorite movie, Office Space, to illustrate the dangers of jumping to conclusions when you are a school psychologist.
I really could have used this mat the other day to remind myself how lame it is to jump to conclusions. In the words of Tom Smykowski, from the movie Office Space: “You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor… and would have different CONCLUSIONS written on it that you could JUMP TO.” Brilliant.
Not knowing much about gangs and how they all work, I strive to have the kids explain it without jumping to my own conclusions. With each student I talk with, I learn a bit more about the intricacies and inter-workings of gang recruitment in middle and high school--the difference between “being jumped” and “being jumped into,”* the differences between wearing a red belt and wearing a red belt, and the tragedy when a kid “dies for a color.”Gang life is so ingrained in the culture of my students, whether they are in a gang or not. It even filters down to tagging graffiti in the name of Obama.
Back to my tale of jumping to conclusions. I suppose that after 56 years** of working as a school psychologist in large urban school districts, the frame of gang prevention is thoroughly engrained in me. This is why when I learned that one of my high school students I am counseling jumped another one of my high school students I am counseling into a gang over the holiday, I freaked out. And I’m pretty unfreakoutable.
I had been talking to both of them about the decisions they had to make about pursuing their goals or joining a gang. Both were teetering on the edge of joining and felt trapped. One kid was possibly already affiliated but afraid to tell me. When I first heard about the jumping in incident, I jumped to the conclusion that these kids were now mixed up in something deadly and freaked out. Luckily, I was scheduled to see both of them that day. I pushed my freakoutdeness aside and calmly asked each of them separately, "So, what's new?" And then I listened.
I can’t go into detail and I’ve changed some of the language because of confidentiality, but I will say that my freak-out level was significantly reduced when I found out what “gang” it was. It was S.O.J.
What is this nefarious S.O.J? Not the new rap singer who might be a second cousin to the Notorious BIG. I found out that it means “Soccer Over Jail.”
Let’s take a moment to ponder the interworkings of 9th grade minds constantly exposed to gang life. Instead of forming a soccer club or team of some sort, they decided that the best way to prove you loved soccer was to beat up new members. I bet the higher ups are wishing they didn’t give the soccer team the axe in budget cuts now.
There isn’t a real moral to this story, other than the obvious one: really listen to your students and not make assumptions about their behavior until you have their perspective. Was it wrong to beat someone up? Yes. Was the intention misguided? Yes. Are these juvenile delinquent gang kids? Not at this time...I hope. Maybe I'm naive, but I feel that what they truly want is to belong and have support. My interventions with these kids is going to be far different than the one I would have done had I used my “jumping to conclusions mat” and decided they were gang members. We’ll start with learning how to start a club appropriately and figure out how to get soccer back in their lives.
*From what I’ve gathered, “being jumped” is basically being beat up for the purpose of injury, to settle a score, or to get your money or property, and “being jumped in” means that you get beat up by the gang to prove you’re worthy of being in the gang. This is the filtered version from the perspective of a suburban white girl. I’m sure it’s more complex than that.
**Each year is a dog year of learning, so technically, I’m on year 8.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I think I will.
After a day of being a de-facto “lice-check line” monitor today at my elementary school, due to my unfortunate office juxtaposition, I really needed something fun to do this evening. I came home, psychosomatically itching all over (please, please be psychosomatic) and am delighted when I realize it’s Wednesday. Because Wednesday means that my night shall revolve around my favorite show, Glee.
How do I love Glee? Let me count the ways.
1) So funny. Love the counselor and her OCD. I love her outfits, love the Costco-sized hand sanitizer on her desk, love her pamphlets (e.g. “My mom has bipolar and won’t stop yelling”, "So, you like throwing up?"), love her.
2) Random and partially-random outbursts of singing and dancing as a form of expression for the yoots. You know how I love movies where dance is the key to overcoming adversity.
3) Portrays disabilities in a positive light. And the disabled character doesn’t saunter in for a very special episode, but a main character is in a wheelchair and several episodes have featured students with Downs Syndrome and deafness. They are portrayed as normal kids who happen to have disabilities. Their disabilities are not the core feature of their presence in the show.
My only complaint for all the Hollywood producers who read my blog (cough cough) is that there are no black male students as main characters in the show, and last week’s episode had a group of black girls who stole things. Not a good stereotype to be perpetuating.
Other than that, I love me some Glee and will be settling into my couch this evening to enjoy. Do join me, metaphorically speaking,* and let me know what you think!
*I do not have room for my 1s of 10s of loyal readers on my couch. Plus, my greyhound and wolf dog like to take up most of the space. Husband does not share the love of Glee. Humph!
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