Teaching Him to Read pt. 7: Service Dogs (cont’)

link to previous entry: https://thepoliticsofreading.wordpress.com/2017/04/10/teaching-him-to-read-pt-6-sesame-street-and-service-dogs/puppppppyOver the weekend, I visited home and got to meet a beautiful, sweet, and smart dog!  As I mentioned in my last post, my family has been looking forward to taking a service dog home for about a year now.  Josh’s seizures have played the most insidious role in preventing him from reaching his literacy goals, so the added protection (and affection) of a service dog will hopefully allow him to revisit reading.

Even though Josh has always loved dogs, adjusting to such a new and unfamiliar routine will pose a challenge.  For instance, Francie (the dog) is attempting to bond with Josh, but sometimes her excitement can overwhelm him.  When she jumps up on him, he gets a bit confused and doesn’t know exactly what to do. We’ve tried encouraging him to pet her, give her hugs, and play with her, but displaying outward affection doesn’t come naturally to him.  Initially, we were concerned.  “What if Josh hurts the dogs feelings?”  “What if he doesn’t end up liking her?”  “What if this doesn’t work out?” I realize that these worries are irrational because this situation is completely normal.  The trainer told us that the adjustment period will be difficult, but that it will all work out in the end.  She reminded us of all the other families she’s worked with who’ve gone through the same thing.  At the same time, it’s hard to stow these doubts away.

We realized that we could take our concerns and turn them into something productive.  We are going to integrate dog care and bonding into my brother’s academic goals.  I was thinking that we could make flashcards with different dog-related tasks, such as “walk,” “pet,” or “feed” the dog.  Ideally, these cards would give him a chance to practice reading while upholding responsibilities.  I remember in his old literacy program, (more on this in the first entry,) one similar exercise taught him action words.  The instructor would give him commands about little figurines in order to help him understand verbs.  The instructor might have said, “Lift the cat, give me the frog, and hug the car.”  (These commands sound very strange outside of therapy context, but I promise it made a little more sense at the time.)  Maybe we could model a program about dog care after an exercise like this one.

Also, it may be beneficial to read dog-related picture books with Josh right now.  He loves characters like Spot, Scooby Doo, and Clifford.  He’s even called Francie “Clifford” a few times, after his favorite dog from PBS Kids.  It’s possible that having Francie by his side will make these characters even more enjoyable and even encourage him to read more often. When I was growing up, the best way to foster my love of reading was to make the story relateable in some way.  When I visit home again, I plan on trying out some Spot books and flashcards.  I will update next week.


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Thoughts on the XP Grading System

I’ll be honest.  During Syllabus Week, I felt very lost in this class.  Navigating XP was difficult for me because I’ve never taken a class with a similar grading system.  Over the course of the semester, however, I’ve grown to understand it and even appreciate it.  Since we’re nearing the end of the year, I decided to outline pros and cons I’ve noticed about this unconventional system.

  • PRO: There are seemingly endless opportunities.
    • In other classes, I’ve had professors base a grade off of maybe three or four assessments total.  While this can be a plus in terms of workload, I really think this just causes more stress. One bad day can tank your grade, which is unfortunate if you truly understand the material.  With XP, it’s always been a relief to know that if I’ve missed something, I will likely have a chance to make it up.
  • CON: It is not procrastinator-friendly. 
    • Granted, I know that no grading system should be procrastinator-friendly.  But with conventional letter grades, it’s possible to cram and still make a good grade.  No matter how many teachers urge students not to do this, a brave (or lazy) few always will.  XP ,in contrast, is structured to incentivize early planning.  I blog in another class, one that abides by traditional grades. The professor told us that as long as we have 10 posts by the end of the semester, we will receive full credit for the activity.  She allows us to post twice a week, so even someone who waits until the last 5 weeks can secure a great grade.  In this class, however, skipping that many weeks of blogging would annihilate your grade.  To maximize XP, it’s best to start any quest as early as possible. I am the last person allowed to give that advice, and I’m probably the worst example of prior planning.  For what it’s worth, though, I do think that this class has kept me on my toes much more than other courses because XP builds on itself.
  • PRO: Your grade is entirely in your hands.
    • Because you know exactly what you need to do upfront, getting a good grade is just a matter of following through.  I’m not very good at that, but I do appreciate this class for helping me learn how to improve there.  I actually had to sit down at one point and add up the numbers, trying to plan ahead for the next few weeks.  Usually, in other classes, I avoid planning for even the next few days.
  • CON: Your grade is entirely in your hands.
    • I don’t trust my hands!! As I said before, this unique grading system has kept me on my toes. I’m not even kidding when I say that there have been nights when I’m about to fall asleep and then realize, “Oh man, I forgot to do my tweets!”
  • CON: The reward system in general can have its flaws.
    • There are downsides to any reward system: traditional grades, XP, junk food, etc.  I work with an autistic individual, and I have to practice a form of ABA.  It’s a system based on operant conditioning, so like XP, it uses points. I award points to encourage good behaviors (e.g. starting a conversation, being polite to someone,) and I’m required to take away points when he exhibits less-than-ideal behavior (e.g. says something hurtful, yells in public.)   I’ve undoubtedly noticed progress. He has flourished in many areas and achieved goals that seemed so far away before.  One problem, though, is the lingering question, “Is he being genuine?” For instance, sometimes he will do something positive and then say, “I was nice to someone!” while looking directly at the point card.  In this class, sometimes I question my own motives.  I’ve wondered before when Tweeting how much I truly care about the substance of the tweet vs. the XP I know I will earn from it.  This uneasy feeling can happen in any class, though.
  • PRO: The “X” part is very beneficial.  
    • I remember earlier on, Professor Hall said that XP stands for Experience Points.  I enjoy the X part and learning hands-on, like when we’ve had the opportunities to hear speakers and educators in the field.  I’ll admit that I probably would not have attended a talk if it weren’t for the XP incentive.  In the end, the X has definitely mattered far more than the P.
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You Don’t Deserve to be A School Counselor

Dear Mr. X,

I debated for a long time whether or not I should include your real name. Of course my first thought was that I don’t care at all if people know who you are or what you did. People should know who you are because of what you did. But then I thought, that’s something you would do, and you’re one of the last people I would ever want to be like. So I am took the high road.

I am writing to you, my elementary school’s counselor, to tell you about the time you were terribly wrong. So wrong in fact, that not only did you crush the self-esteem of a 11 year old boy but the exact opposite of what you told him happened. So I must admit, this letter is more than just an explanation of what a real school counselor should look like, it’s kind of an opportunity to rub it in your face. You see, I know several school counselors and aspiring school counselors who are amazing people. And they deserve that title, they earned it. You sir come no where close to deserving it, and honestly you ruined school counselors for me and my family until I graduated high school.

Let me back up. It was 2008, the end of my little brothers 5th grade year. You wanted to meet with my parents to discuss my brothers academics and if he was ready to move on to middle school. You made it very clear you didn’t think he was ready (although last time I checked the teacher would have a better idea about this than you, and she seemed to think he was fine). Then you said something that still sticks with my brother to this very day. He was sitting right there, when you look at my parents and said “Honestly, he won’t make it very far. He definitely won’t go to college and I doubt he’ll graduate high school. He’s just not smart.” First of all, he was in 5th grade. How in the world did you base that statement off a student who has only just completed 5th grade. Second, I don’t care how badly a child is struggling, it is your job to help him reach his full potential and understand how much of it he has. Third, he was sitting right there.

Ever since that day, I have never heard my little brother say anything positive about his intellect. In fact, his anxiety worsened and the only things he ever said were “I can’t do it” “I give up” “I’m not smart enough” “I’m way too dumb for this.” You took a little boy who simply need guidance and turned him into someone who doubted himself completely. Well guess what. That little boy did graduate high school. That little boy is 20 years old, on track to graduate from a four year university a semester early and already has an internship lined up. That little boy, is twice that man you will ever be. Not only did he do the exact opposite of what you said he would, he grew up to be funny, loving, protective and determined. All the things I thought you had once killed inside of him.

I came across this article, and I thought it was kind of funny. Most people will just see it as a  an article about school counselors, but I found it funny because having a counselor that actually did his job seemed like a joke.

“Elementary school counselors…

  • Help students with organizational and learning skills
  • Help students better understand themselves
  • Help students with peer relationships
  • Help students learn and utilize coping strategies
  • Help students communicate with their teachers and peers
  • Help students who may need other services put in place
  • Help students and their families who may need extra support
  • Help students by being an advocate within the school system
  • And more…”

This is hilarious because I don’t think you knew how to do one thing on this list. And the best part of all this, before my brother and I reached high school, you had gotten a job at our high school. Oh yay. As I was hoping you had just had an off day, or something terrible happened to you that day and you were actually a decent human, man was I wrong. Not only did you bring your negative attitude, you turned into the guy who fixated on sending girls home for their outfits. You made it your mission to walk around the cafeteria and humiliate girls for violating the dress code that was quite frankly ridiculous. You not only told students they would amount to nothing, you deprived any chance they had at getting a good education by sending them home because their shoulders were showing, or because you could see 1/4th of an inch of their thigh. I have one thing to say about that, stop looking at our bodies and start learning how to do your job.

Part of me wants to say sorry if any of this is too harsh, or offensive. But then most of me reminds myself that you did way worse to an 11 year old with a learning disability. So therefore I am not sorry. You sir do not deserve to be a school counselor.


A proud older sister

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Teaching Assistants: The Glue of the Classroom

You would think this topic is common sense. Even as I am writing this I feel like I’m teaching a mathematician that 1+1=2. Yet once again the public school system ceases to amaze me, as the conversation about getting rid of teaching assistants is persisting. What part of that sentence even makes sense? I would like to see those school officials spend a day in a classroom of 25 plus 6 year olds, with no help. How about just keep them alive, don’t even worry about teaching them (because guess what, that’s all you’ll have time for). Maybe I’m being over dramatic, but as the daughter of a Kindergarten teacher who has volunteered many hours in her classroom, I have witnessed first hand how incredible her assistant is for her.

One thing that made me feel better about this situation… never mind it made me feel worse… is that even in the UK they are experiencing an under appreciation of TA’s and the possibility of having them cut from classrooms. In this article, an author from the UK discusses just how important a TA is and emphasizes why getting rid of them will not only fail to solve budget issues but have a negative impact on the lives of students.

A large part (probably the largest) of the argument revolves around saving money by cutting TA’s. The first problem I have with this, as detailed in the article, how this will impact the children. Maybe these people don’t get it because all they see is a generic job description, but the roles of a TA’s go far beyond what you’ll find on a resume. Not only do they help students academically by providing more opportunity for one on one interactions, but they touch the lives of children is so many other ways. My mom’s assistant has training (this was also mentioned in the article) with special needs children, behavioral training, detainment training, emotional support training, and the list goes on. The point is, she is so much more than an “assistant,” as are most TA’s. They are a vital part of the classroom.

So the follow up argument for all of that tends to be “let’s hire more teachers.” Well I don’t have to say about this other than agreeing with the author of the article. That solution would cost more (teachers are paid more you know…). Then comes the “just increase class size” which brings me back to my earlier point about keeping dozens of young children alive for 8 hours a day, and oh yeah giving them a quality education. There is no way a teacher can provide the individual needs of each student, which being able to take care of her/him self as well. The mental health of teachers would plummet and burn out would increase. How is that getting the most of your money? Unless you consider subpar education and burnt out teachers a good use of funds.

The bottom line, we need teaching assistants. Not because the teacher isn’t good enough, not because they need an extra baby sitter, and not because we hate saving money. Teaching assistants are well qualified, passionate members of the school system who can help one student with his math, guide another student with her sentence structure, talk with a group of students having an argument, and emotionally support a student who’s only safe space are the four walls of that classroom. Teaching assistants are not merely assistants, they are one of the most important aspects of a classroom.


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For the Love of Books!

In elementary school, I loved reading. I absolutely loved it. . I loved the ability to make sense out of the lines on the page and to be transported into other places. I learned about other places, strange and wonderful people. I was inseparable from books. This love of reading was instilled in me at a young age. My mom would take my brother and I to the library every week to let us meander the shelves with bright covers and pick out books we wanted to read the next week. As I moved from picture books like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” to The Bailey School Kids Series to Nancy Drew, I began to understand the world around me better and to understand myself better. Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children taught me how to be resources and to think beyond the standard use of the things and world around me. My parents would read with me and we would make connections to the books we read as we went throughout our days. Reading was powerful.

However, in middle school and high school I began to read less until I didn’t read for fun anymore. And, in case I haven’t made it clear, loved to read. I would sit in the yard for hours with a book. I knew how long car rides were based on how much I could read from when we left to when we got there (the mountains were exactly one Mary Kate and Ashley book away from my house). So what changed? Was it me? Did I just “grow out” of reading?

No, it wasn’t me and I didn’t “grow out” of it. For starters, I had less time. High school and middle school are where sports and after school activities begin to emerge, decreasing completely “free” time. Most kids go to school for eight hours a day, have a practice after school, come home, eat, shower, do homework and go to bed. This definitely decreases time to read for fun. However, it doesn’t eliminate it. Before I make it sound like I had a negative school experience and my teachers weren’t good, I had a great school experience and some really great teachers. That being said, there are pressures and expectations placed on teachers that limit their autonomy.

What I believe zapped my love of reading was the type of texts, lack of choice in texts, analysis of texts and testing on interpreting texts. When I was in elementary, middle and high school (I graduated in 2015), reading analysis started in middle school and kicked into high gear in high school. Reading went from being pleasurable to scrutinizing each word for the purpose, definition and various other qualities. The focus was not on what we actually thought about a book, but on what the test makers wanted us to think when we read a test. I no longer had the freedom to imagine the world and characters the way that I saw them. My imagination was being forced to fit in a cage.

I stopped reading for fun in high school. It was too much like a chore. Trying to read for fun was like going to a graveyard for the imagination. I had a trained negative reaction to reading. Reading meant questions with right answers and that meant a test or worse, a timed writing. As a freshman in college, I had the courage to try to start reading for fun again. I was apprehensive at first. How could reading be fun? The life had been analyzed out of it. However, over time, I began to enjoy reading a few pages every now and then. Then, I began to look forward to it. Now, I have a drawer in my small dorm room (space is a precious and limited commodity) dedicated to books so I never have to be without one.

I tell you about my experience to show that in the pre-common core age (minus my last two years in high school) to show how the analysis that was done in English Language Arts before Common Core had serious effects on even students who enjoyed reading.

Last week in class we watched a video about the ideal read-aloud as prescribed by the common core. This video chronicles one of the five days spent on a single text walking kids through each paragraph with questions so simple that it makes you question how smart you appear. These are questions that kids infer the answers to without knowing that they’ve inferred it. Questions resemble the following:

Jimmy wanted to eat an apple so he went home and ate one. Who is ‘he’ referring to?

The class spent five days answering questions like this from the text. Common Core stresses that 80-90% of questions should be text-dependent. This means that no outside information can be used or is needed to be used to answer the questions. So, if you are reading a poem about Jackie Robinson and have outside information about discrimination or baseball, forget it. You can’t use it. It won’t count as a justification for why Jackie had a more difficult time than other baseball players in the league at the time.

So, if I experienced reading burnout from over-analysis when the way I was interpreting information was limited (but still permitted outside knowledge use), what will happen to these kids who are confined to the black and white letters on the page? Will reading be a pleasure? Will kids still be creative and able to read between the lines if they are discouraged from doing so? They’re told this thinking is wrong. It won’t answer test questions right. Why are we stressing test taking if you aren’t asked to take a test at a job interview or analyze a text to get a promotion? If reading is so important, why limit it? It is our differences that make us strong, not our similarities. Thinking within the box doesn’t lead to revolutionary ideas. It’s time that we encourage kids in their passions and explorations. Let them learn from books.

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Should There be Heightened Security in Schools?

One of my most vivid memories I have of high school was sitting in my Spanish 2 class freshman year and the girl behind me tapping on my shoulder to warn me not to come to school tomorrow, as there was a shooting planned. The girl did not say it in her usual, lighthearted tone but instead sounded extremely serious. I had become friends with her after being assigned seats next to each other and I had yet to see her in an austere mood. This was unlike anything I had been told since I began high school, and as intense of a statement as it was, I almost did not take it seriously. Turns out, it was one of the most serious ‘warnings’ I have ever received.

The high school I attended, Myers Park, is a huge public high school- the largest in North Carolina containing nearly three thousand students. Like any other public high school, there were fights that made having security guards crucial. There was a history of shootings at my high school, the most recent one was at the homecoming dance in the eighties, which explained why we no longer had a homecoming dance. With the last shooting being so many years ago, the threat of this occurring again crossed very few students’ minds.

It turned out that the reason for the planned shooting was gang related. A boy in Charlotte that attended a high school nearby had recently been murdered. The gang the boy was apart of threatened to come to Myers Park and get their revenge with a shooting.

I am not exactly certain how true that story is, but it was the one I was told, and to no surprise, the Myers Park administration took the information in all seriousness to be safe. I came to school the next day because as my English teacher said, it was “the safest day to come to school”.  The quad was filled with policemen on motorcycles, security was at every door and there were little to no students as many had taken advantage of the rumor as an excuse to skip school.


Above is an image of the quad of Myers Park High School. Now imagine it covered with security guards, policemen on motorcycles and very few students. Credit: Google Images

Luckily, no shooting occurred at Myers Park High school that day, or the next or to this day. However, shootings at schools have continued to be an issue whether gang related or not, where innocent children and teens are killed. While most public high schools have security guards, should there be more and should there be security guards as early as elementary school? Just recently there was a shooting at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino where an innocent student was killed. Then of course there was the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting among many others. Although the shootings may not occur that often, the results are tragic and something that should be prevented at all costs, meaning maybe there should be heightened security at all schools.



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Promoting Literacy: The Reading Buddies Program

According to Reading is Fundamental, the United States is enveloped in a literacy crisis. Millions of children and adults alike have been affected through what they call a “never-ending cycle of educational disadvantage.” According to Reading is Fundamental, a student’s first three years of schooling are the most critical in developing literacy skills — in fact, “65 percent of fourth graders read at or below the basic level.” We know that first, second, and third grade are incredibly important for ensuring that students are prepared to tackle a more advanced curriculum. With that being said, what steps are being taken in schools to promote the strengthening of literacy skills in their youngest students?

I know of one program in particular that I actively participated in throughout elementary school: Reading Buddies.

For the Reading Buddies program at my elementary school, fourth and fifth graders were paired with first and second graders to read aloud to each other. Through the implementation of “partner classes,” in which one older elementary school class is matched with one younger elementary school class, the reading buddies would have the opportunity to develop relationships throughout the course of the school year.

When I was in fifth grade, I was paired with a second grade student from my class’s partner class. We would read together once a week for around half an hour at a time. As the older Reading Buddy, I got to choose who read and who listened for each book. A lot of the time, my buddy and I would take turns reading the same book paragraph-by-paragraph.

As you can imagine, there are a number of benefits to be gained by both younger and older reading buddies. According to Teacher Vision, through reading aloud to younger students, older students have the opportunity to further develop their fluency. Similarly, Teacher Vision also highlights that older students can develop a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem through reading and promoting literacy in younger students. This fluency and sense of accomplishment can also be achieved in younger students when they are given the opportunity to read to their older buddies.

The Reading Buddies program definitely should not be limited to just older-younger elementary school pairs. Reading Buddies can also include the involvement of high schoolers, college students, parents, or just community members in general.

In the Fairfax County Public School System, the benefits for Reading Buddies are even more pronounced:

As the video explains, the reading buddies in Daniels Run Elementary School are composed of of elementary school students and ESOL high school students. ESOL high school students get the unique opportunity to further develop their English skills (i.e. fluency and pronunciation) while also helping kindergarteners and first grade students develop theirs.

I really enjoyed my time as a reading buddy at my elementary school — both as a younger student and as an older student. As a younger student, I had the opportunity to grow a relationship with an older student while also working on my fluency skills. As an older student, I was able to mentor a younger student and grow a sense of accomplishment and confidence in doing so.

Did your school have a Reading Buddies program? If so, how was your experience as a buddy?

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