Why I Teach: To Be Inspired By the Future World Changers

This entry is a follow-up to an entry from March 1, 2015 entitled Why I Teach: To Help Students Discover the Joy of Reading about a student named Laurel.

In fourth grade, Laurel’s reading comprehension scores soared as a result of her prolific use of AudioBooks.

Fast forward one year and Laurel is in the winter of fifth grade.  At that time, AudioBooks were not just beneficial to her, but crucial.  To keep up with the quantity of reading assigned, Laurel relied on AudioBooks.  Without them, she often felt like she was drowning in a sea of pages.

One day, the school librarian approached me, describing a grant that she and two other librarians were writing.  It would fund the acquisition of AudioBooks for the three elementary schools in the district.

Knowing my students have benefitted from them, the librarian asked me if I’d be willing to write a testimonial to include with the application.   It occurred to me that including the point of view of students, along with my own, might be even more convincing.

When I asked Laurel if she would like to describe how AudioBooks have helped her, I explained she could give her feedback without her name included. Sitting up proudly, she insisted, “I want my name attached.  I want to help other kids get AudioBooks because they have been so helpful for me.”

After asking Laurel some questions, I scribed her exact words.  She beamed with pride when she saw them in the grant application and discovered she was the only student, among quite a few teachers, with testimonials included in the grant.

The following are Laurel’s words:

“I am a very slow reader and I’m not too good with fluency.  When I’m reading, I have to concentrate on reading and not understanding it.  Sometimes I read a couple of pages and I can barely remember what they were.

But when someone suggested AudioBooks I agreed to try it out.  It really helped me understand what I was reading and helped me keep up in class.  I think it’s a great way to learn and that many other people should know about it and try it because it can really help them.

How AudioBooks are helpful:  “Some people like to imagine how the story is and its sometimes hard to imagine the book because when you read, you want to read the words.  You don’t know what you’re reading sometimes.  Sometimes, you get super stressed because you don’t know what a word means and there’s no one to ask.

With AudioBooks, it says the word.  You may understand it or you may not but you can listen to it over and over again until you get it because you can hear the word in context.  It helps you read faster.  You may be a slow reader.  You may think all of your classmates are ahead of you.  The AudioBooks help you keep up in a way that you don’t get sick of reading.  Without AudioBooks it is stressful.  It is hard to keep up with everyone because they are such fast readers.”

In mid May an email arrived in my inbox from the librarian:

“Good news!  The K-5 librarians were awarded the “AudioBooks and Interactive eBooks grant….Your letters of support were invaluable, especially the note from Laurel, who spoke powerfully and personally about the effect that using AudioBooks has had on her education…”

After reading this, bursting with excitement, Laurel exclaimed, “I’m a world changer!  Well…maybe not a world changer, but definitely a school changer!”  She insisted that we call her mom.  Neither one of them could contain their enthusiasm.

That afternoon, Laurel called many friends and relatives, even those living overseas.  Especially meaningful to her was telling her younger cousin, who her family suspects will be diagnosed with dyslexia in the near future.


After working with Laurel for two years, I had to say goodbye in June.  I told her that she has taught me how to be a better teacher, helping me understand how students with dyslexia feel and what they need.  I also told her while she is already a school changer, she is a future world changer.  Keep being yourself and speaking up for what you believe in.


Fast forward to a few days ago when I ran into Laurel and her family at a local restaurant.  After exchanging hugs and I miss yous, I told her mom that working with Laurel completely changed the way that I work with students with dyslexia.

This summer, I tutored a student whose school had not been servicing him properly.  Instead of telling his parents to work on drill and kill exercises with him, I told them that I would work on decoding and fluency with him and that they should enjoy AudioBooks with him to increase his vocabulary and love of reading.  After the first night, his mom could not believe how engaged he was in listening and talking about the book.

With tears in her eyes, Laurel’s mom said, “He is lucky to be working with you.”  And she said that she would be honored to when I asked her if I could put her in touch with the student’s mother, to help her advocate for her son.

Working with Laurel taught me the power of AudioBooks.  I can’t wait to order them for my current students, using the grant money that Laurel’s powerful and authentic words helped to get.










Why I Teach: To Help Students Discover the Joy of Reading

As I’m about to embark on the season of standardized PARCC testing, it is students like Laurel who remind me of why I decided to become a special education teacher in the first place.

Laurel is a charismatic and enthusiastic student who brings an energy and a liveliness into any room she enters.  With a slight southern drawl, her speech is charming.  Laurel enjoys comparing the way she says words such as “tomato”, to the Northeastern accents of her classmates.

As a dyslexic student, reading and writing do not come easily.  Everyday, she conscientiously works on decoding rules and fluency drills.  At the beginning of fourth grade, with her determination, can-do-anything attitude, and strong comprehension skills, Laurel set her mind to reading books higher than her decoding level.  Although lengthy (often over 200 pages) and containing words she struggled to decode, she was tenacious in using strategies to figure them out– breaking words into syllables, sounding them out, and asking adults for support.  Reading was hard going and she was not consistently excited about picking up books during silent reading.

In December, Laurel discovered her father’s Kindle, introducing her to new strategies.  She found it easier to read when she could enlarge the text.  It also provided her with a new level of independence.  When Laurel came to a word she could not figure out, with a simple touch to the screen, the Kindle read the word aloud to her.  Needless to say, she loved the Kindle.  However, sharing it with her dad had its limitations–it was not always available for her at school.

To make sure the Kindle was not just a novelty, a passing fad, Laurel’s parents made her a deal.  Show us that you are serious about this, that it is not just something you will be interested in for a few weeks.  Then we will think about getting you one of your own.

Throughout December and January, Laurel plugged away at books on the Kindle.  Her parents noted that several times, she even continued reading after she was supposed to have gone to sleep!  In school, Laurel enthusiastically shared that she had read on her Kindle for four hours straight during a snow day.  Not only that, but her comprehension scores skyrocketed from end of third grade in June to fifth grade in January.

Last week, Laurel brought what looked like a purple notebook with white polka dots to school.  When I asked her about it, she proudly replied, “This is my new Kindle.  I paid for half of it with my birthday money and my parents paid for half. I was going to pay for the whole thing but my parents said that I didn’t have to.  They said I earned it.”  Laurel open it up to show me not only the four books she had finished reading on it since December, but also the line up of books that she couldn’t wait to read!

On Friday, when Laurel came to work on fluency, she begged, “Please can I read my book?  I’m up to the best part.” We made a deal– ten minutes at the end of the session for putting forth your best effort during the lesson.  When the ten minutes were up, Laurel playfully said, “Now I’m mad at you.  It’s even better now and I have to go back to class!”

This past week, it also became clear how much Laurel’s reading has influenced her writing.  Starting an assignment in class, she was required to finish it for homework.  Laurel suggested emailing it to her so she could access it on her Kindle.  Independently completing the assignment, she sent it back.  It was clear that Laurel had incorporated writing techniques from the authors she’s been reading.  Not shying away from words she might misspell, she weaves great vocabulary into her writing such as grumbled and deafening as well as includes powerful imagery such as “one big lightning strike that lit up the whole sky.”

As a teacher, it is wonderful to have the support of parents and to see how their pride in their children nurtures their growth.  On Friday, Laurel’s parents sent this email to several teachers that work with her this year:

“We can’t thank you enough for your wonderful hard work and talent in helping our daughter to turn into a reader!  This is no mean feat and there are no words to express how truly delighted we are that she has now cleared this huge hurdle and can finally access the joy of reading and all it can offer.  It is also wonderful that her reading has had a clear and positive impact on her writing.  We have told her how proud we are of her for all of her hard work and sheer tenacity that has brought her to this point.  The Kindle we must say was a brainwave.  Just got to love modern technology.”

In my eyes, Laurel has made leaps and bounds this year as measured by her newfound love of reading, not wanting to put books down, making reading goals for herself, and incorporating great writing techniques from authors into her own writing.

Why I Teach: To Boost My Students’ Self-Confidence

Maribelle is the kind of student that I love to teach.  She is receptive to learning, expresses how strategies are helpful to her, is an active participant in class, and  has a great sense of humor.  But she did not start the beginning of fourth grade this way….

Quiet, shy, and apprehensive in September, Maribelle rarely participated, appeared nervous, and apologized when asking questions.  During instruction, particularly in math, she could look like a deer in headlights.  These behaviors had carried over from third grade, as they perfectly matched the description of her given to me by last year’s teachers.

Math is a struggle for her and much repetition and review are required.  Subtraction with regrouping was especially challenging for her.  Maribelle could not remember which number to subtract from– the top or the bottom– no matter how many times it was taught and practiced.

One day, wanting to try something different, I suggested to Maribelle that she write the top number of the problem with a colored pencil and the bottom number with a regular pencil.  “Subtract the number in pencil from the number in color,” I instructed her.  Using this strategy, Maribelle was able to solve problem after problem correctly.  Her entire body seemed to relax and her affect completely changed– with smiles, jokes, and even laughter– during math class.

Particularly rewarding for me as a teacher was in the following days and months when she took out the colored pencils on her own to use this strategy independently.  For the end of the unit math test, I gave Maribelle the option of taking her test at the back table if she did not want her classmates to see her using the colored pencils.  Without skipping a beat, she replied that she would like to take the test at her desk.

A few weeks later, I sat at a table with Maribelle’s parents and classroom teacher as we looked at her recent spelling tests.  Scratching our heads, we could not figure out why she was adding extra letters that did not phonetically make sense to the end of words.  This resulted in test scores in the 50s and 60s, often lower than her pre-test scores at the beginning of the week.  Asking Maribelle, she responded that she did not remember which rule she was supposed to use so she often tried to use several in the same word.

The next week, in reviewing the words after the pretest, I wrote the words on the ActivBoard with the letters of the rule in a different color from the rest of the word.  Maribelle was required to create flashcards of her spelling words in the same fashion.  Since studying with color coded words, she has not received lower than an 88% on her spelling tests, often achieving in the 90s.  Maribelle’s pride in herself can be seen in the huge smile across her face when she sees her scores.

The use of color also did the trick for paragraph instruction.  Modeling the required parts of a paragraph on the ActivBoard, her classroom teacher and I wrote the topic sentence  in one color, each detail with elaboration in its own color, and the concluding sentence in a separate color.

When students were asked to write their own paragraphs, Maribelle asked if she could write hers in colored pencil.   She replicated the same color coding that we had used and wrote well-organized paragraphs that made sense.  Other students, both those on IEPs and those in regular education, saw what Maribelle was doing and asked if they could do the same.    A strategy initially developed for Maribelle was now helping the rest of the class to succeed.

Writing multi-paragraph assignments created a new roadblock.  Much modeling on the ActivBoard was done of what to include in each paragraph.  No matter how many examples she saw, Maribelle’s writing was rambling with either no paragraph breaks or unindented paragraphs that did not make sense.  The graphic organizers that had been so successful with other students over the years did not help her at all.

I was at a loss.

One day it occurred to me to throw all conventional teaching methods out the window and put myself into Maribelle’s head.  What would help her understand this?   How could I use color to get through to her?

Grabbing an assortment of colored pencils, I drew a new kind of graphic organizer.  This one contained shapes and colors.  The outline of each paragraph was drawn in a different color with an indented first sentence and then colored in.  A line was skipped in between each paragraph.   I labeled each paragraph with the kind of information it should contain such as introduction.

This graphic organizer instantly solved many problems including the no indentation, the rambling paragraphs, and the paragraphs that did not make sense.  Without being told, Maribelle pulls the colored graphic organizer out before writing activities.  She has taken good care of it and is still in possession of the original, several months after it was introduced.

One of Maribelle’s favorite T-shirts says, “Color makes me happy.”   Color seems to light up her brain in a way that nothing else can– helping her to make connections and retain and understand information.  When her classroom teacher and I teach at the ActivBoard, we will often say to each other, “Why don’t you write that part in a different color to make it stand out?”  It is at these times that I particularly notice Maribelle suddenly snapping to life, her eyes sparkling.

Having only known Maribelle since September, I have not witnessed the full extent of her transformation and the effects of her increased self-confidence.  It was the school social worker who illustrated this point for me.

Walking into Maribelle’s classroom one day, she noticed that the classroom teacher was not there.   She asked the class and Maribelle instantly looked straight at her, explained how the teacher had popped into the classroom next door, and went back to the enthusiastic conversation she was having with her table group.  The social worker was shocked, mentioning how last year, Maribelle barely spoke, looked up, or made eye contact in her classroom.

Having worked with the social worker in third grade, Maribelle continued the relationship this year.  Within the first few months of school, it was clear that the quiet, non-expressive girl had turned into a bubbly, talkative kid who excitedly told the social worker stories.  Feeling success in the classroom had changed the way that she presented herself.  With this newfound self-esteem and self-confidence, it was decided that Maribelle no longer needed to see the social worker.

To this day, color continues to be the key to Maribelle’s learning.   She continually challenges me to be a better teacher and to create new strategies based upon her highly visual learning style.  While color makes Maribelle happy, seeing her smile and hearing her laugh makes me happy.

Lightning in a Bottle

This is one of the many reasons why I love co-teaching a certain fourth grade class.

At the beginning of the year, I knew that this was a great class.  The kids were hardworking, motivated, and sweet.  They were curious, asked a lot of good questions, and participated frequently.  But it wasn’t until a few weeks into the school year that I discovered the magical energy of this group of kids.

One day during math, a student used a particularly helpful strategy during a graphing activity.  In the middle of the lesson I stopped the class and said that Coach and Sparky had seen a great strategy and wanted the rest of the class to see it.   The student explained and showed her strategy to the class and Nancy and I praised her for her excellent thinking.  Suddenly, the kids gave her a round of applause and burst into shouts of “Great job!  Good work!”  The student stood up in front of the class, beaming, with a huge smile on her face.

And the atmosphere of the class has been like that ever since.  When a student reads a piece of writing aloud, shares a math strategy, solves a problem….the class shows them unwavering support.  What is particularly touching is the encouragement that kids receive from each other after they have struggled with a problem and finally come up with the correct solution.

I would love to hold onto the magical energy of this class, but it is like lightning in a bottle.  All I can do is cherish it for the last six weeks of the school year.  It has truly been a privilege to teach these children this year.

Particularly exciting for Nancy and myself has been seeing how invested the students have been in preparing for the Math MCAS test.  With close to 100% attendance at each session, the class came before school at 8:00am, for Coaches’ Spring Training, for five sessions.  Here, students reviewed concepts and strategies and practiced sample questions.  Our goal:  to pack tons of math practice into an atmosphere infused with fun.  Did we achieve our goal?

What happened on Friday morning at 8:00am says it all.  When Nancy and I announced that we decided to add an additional Coaches’ Spring Training the day before the first day of the test, the class erupted with cheers and clapping.

Why I Teach: To Provide Challenges for Kids

At back to school night in the fall, I was approached by a parent in a classroom in which I co-teach.

With little introduction, the parent launched into her first question, “Are there a lot of students on IEPs in this classroom?”

I swallowed my shock and gave the answer that I am required to give.  “I’m sorry.  I’m not allowed to answer that question for the confidentiality of the students.”

She snapped back.  “Well, there must be a lot of students on IEPs if there is a special education teacher in the classroom.”

I stood there, stunned.

Not satisfied with my response, she marched over to my co-teacher to express her concerns that her daughter, Bailey, would not be challenged enough in math.  From that moment on, one of my personal goals for the year became for the special education teacher to challenge Bailey during math class.

Most days, Bailey completed her math work before most of the other students in the room.  Instead of letting her take out a book to read, I would engage her in additional math—either an extension of a concept or the introduction of a new one.

One day, I was asking Bailey an extension question about the multiplication strategy the class had been learning.  Rather than teach the kids the multiplication algorithm right away, we first teach them what is known as the box method for multiplying two-digit by two-digit numbers.  This way, the students understand why they are doing what they are doing, rather than just memorizing a series of steps.

Bailey already knew the standard algorithm and could use the box method, so I wanted to create a challenge for her.  Her task:  for a given problem, explain how steps in the box method related to steps in the traditional algorithm.  For once, Bailey was stumped, and by the special education teacher!

There was another student in the class who I knew would be up for the challenge:  Wesley—the very same Wesley from the blog post entitled Why I Teach: Witnessing Transformations.  Even though he is dyslexic, Wesley is an exceptional math thinker and student.

Wesley did not disappoint.  As soon as I posed the question to him, he explained the relationship between the two methods, citing several connections.

Bailey stood there with her mouth partially open, surprised that Wesley had figured it out before she did.  Wesley looked quite pleased with himself.

From that day on, whenever Wesley and Bailey completed the daily math assignment early, which was often, they would race up to me for extra math.  Introducing them to new concepts such as exponents, the two would compete to see who could complete the answer first and who would get it right.  A healthy competitive relationship developed between the two.

As the year progressed, I thoroughly enjoyed providing these two, and eventually others, with additional challenges.  Eventually I forgot about my original goal, until I was reminded, of all people, by Bailey’s mother herself!

Coming to speak to the classroom teacher for Bailey’s parent-teacher conference, she mentioned how much her daughter enjoyed the extra math challenges I gave her and working with and being intellectually pushed by Wesley.   Little did she know that Wesley was one of those IEP students that she had asked about at the beginning of the year.

With two teachers in the classroom, I was able to provide her daughter with extra challenges when the students on IEPs for math did not need my help or while the classroom teacher worked with the students who were struggling.   I am hoping that Bailey’s mom now understands that co-teaching benefits all of the students in the classroom, not just those on IEPs.  Based on this email addressed to myself and my co-teacher, I think that she does.  She wrote it to thank us for providing an extra math opportunity for the class to prepare for the upcoming math MCAS exam.

“Thank you so much for your extra efforts for helping kids to learn better and perform better.  Your passion for learning and dedication for teaching are the best and most powerful inspirations for the kids to work more, learn more, work harder and achieve more!   Bailey is really lucky to have teachers like you and she definitely enjoys every minute of school!   Thank you so much!

Why I Teach: To Create Opportunities for Kids to Shine

            When I heard that a student newspaper was being created at my school, I immediately jumped at the chance to participate.  In high school, as a writer and an artist, one of my favorite activities was The ROAR, the art-literary magazine.  I enjoyed the process of putting together the magazine—selecting which work would appear and laying out each page.  Holding The ROAR in my hands, I felt very excited and proud to see my poetry and artwork published.  With the school newspaper, I hoped to create a similar type of experience for the third, fourth, and fifth graders at my school. 

            Our newspaper staff was blessed to have two parent volunteers at its helm—one a journalism professor at a well-known college in Boston and the other, a reporter for the Boston Globe.  During the first edition of the newspaper, it was thrilling to watch them create the buzzing atmosphere of a newspaper workroom, bringing together a group of kids to make a newspaper from scratch.  It felt like I was enrolled in a journalism class right along with the kids—learning how the decision-making process works in a newsroom.  We learned how to brainstorm and vote on ideas for the name of the paper, for articles, and for a logo.  Writing newspaper articles in the same format as journalists was a key part of the experience.

            At a ceremony where the paper was unveiled to the staff, I loved seeing the pride in the students’ eyes as they flipped through the paper.  They excitedly pointed out articles, pictures, and their names in print to their families and friends.  Most exciting for the fifth grade students was when they were given the opportunity to distribute the newspaper to the school, to hand deliver it to each class. 

            From the beginning, I knew that working on the school newspaper would be a rewarding experience for the kids and for me.  What I did not anticipate was the positive impact that it would have on my relationship with Blake, one of my students.

             At the beginning of the year, Blake came to the Learning Center to work on writing and spelling during times when many other students also left his classroom to participate in instruments.  Unfortunately, during these periods, the rest of the class engaged in one of his favorite activities, computers.  As a result, Blake often became surly, angry, and disrespectful during his Learning Center time.  He was resentful that he needed to work on his least favorite subject, writing, while missing his most favorite. 

             Blake’s parents, teacher, and myself eventually created a new schedule for him.  As a result, he was able to participate in most of the computer time and I would work with him during other time periods in his classroom.   However, our previous battles had created a huge rift in our relationship.  When I tried to work with Blake in class, although less hostile, he still did not respond to me positively.  It was very difficult to work with him because he either tried to ignore me or gave one word or minimal responses to questions.

            As a member of the newspaper staff, Blake presented as a much different student. During the first edition, he greatly enjoyed using his artistic talents to create a comic strip.  Currently, for the second edition, Blake switched into the group creating the Games page, leaving him under my watch.  At first, I was hesitant about this arrangement, nervous that our rocky relationship would carry over to the newspaper.  This couldn’t have been further from the truth.

            Eager and engaged, Blake was always ready with ideas to share.  Throwing his energies into creating a Suduko puzzle, he was 100% focused on his task.  Blake also came up with an idea to draw two pictures for a Find the Differences puzzle.   Throughout the newspaper session, my interactions with him were happier and more relaxed than they had been previously.

            Several days later, when I walked into Blake’s classroom, his demeanor had changed.  Instead of ignoring me or giving me monosyllabic answers, he approached me and asked me for help with a story he was writing.  Throughout the period, Blake asked me questions, solicited my opinions, and was receptive to my advice and critiques. 

             Because Blake works with me on the newspaper in areas in which he excels, he is now more open to accepting my help in the classroom.  At newspaper, I have gotten to know a whole new side of Blake– a student who is not only artistically talented, but who also shows initiative by soliciting student and teacher volunteers to try out his games before they are published.  In fact, this week, I think that Blake got a big kick out of stumping me with his Suduko puzzle before I eventually solved it.

             I’ve always believed that it is important to use students’ strengths to help them with their areas of difficulty.  Blake has reinforced my belief, showing me how crucial it is to students that their teachers not only acknowledge, but also appreciate their strengths.  One of my favorite pictures from the unveiling ceremony of the first edition is of Blake.  He is pointing out his comic strip to his brother while they are both huddled over the newspaper, with the biggest grin on his face.


Why I Teach: Witnessing Transformations

When I received the paper work on Wesley, a new student, the following words jumped off the page:  kind, empathetic, motivated, always tries his best, gets along well with others, and eager to please.  Needless to say, I was excited to work with and get to know Wesley.

During the first few days of school, the student in front of me did not match the words printed on the page.  Never cracking a smile, Wesley interacted minimally with other students and his demeanor could be described as a bit defensive and even a little bit angry.  His classroom teacher and I could not identify a single activity or portion of the day that Wesley seemed to enjoy.

Since Wesley had been identified as having reading difficulties at his former school, I administered some beginning of the year assessments to see where we should begin.  As he struggled to sound out words with short vowel sounds and to decode words with two syllables, I was shocked.  Wesley presented much lower than his progress reports in June indicated.

Something just wasn’t matching up….

It occurred to me that perhaps Wesley was used to having visual cues and reminders to help him with reading.  Maybe if we reviewed some key words associated with each short vowel sound, it would help trigger his memory.

When I first asked Wesley if he had learned key words for the short vowel sounds, he looked at me quizzically, unsure of what I was talking about.  Once I started with a apple a, a look of recognition crossed his face.  “Oh yeah!’ he exclaimed as his eyes lit up.  Wesley then led me through the rest of his key words:  elephant for e, igloo for i, octopus for o, umbrella for u.  With the key words by his side, the next list of words was easier for him to read.

Next, I reviewed a few strategies to help him divide words into syllables.  As he read through a new list of words, I gave Wesley gentle reminders to refer to the keywords or strategies when he stumbled.  He was persistent and engaged and it was the first time that I saw his defensive edge disappear.

As we continued to work on his reading the next few days, Wesley no longer seemed defensive, but he did not look happy either.  His classroom teacher and I hypothesized that maybe he was upset about having to move to a new state, and a new school.

The light in Wesley’s eyes lit up again on the last day of that first week.  Having finished an activity early, his classroom teacher asked him if he would like to read a book.  Wesley half-heartedly shrugged and looked at her with a blank expression.

She tried again, “How about a math packet?”  This time, a genuine smile spread across his face, crinkling the skin around his eyes.  He enthusiastically responded, “I love math!”  Wesley excitedly engaged in the math work and smiled once again when it was suggested that he could help write some math problems for the whole class to solve.

Academically, Wesley was beginning to feel more comfortable in the classroom.  Math was an area in which he shone– offering accurate explanations  and often finishing his work before his classmates.  Wesley was also participating more in general with his hand in the air, volunteering to share.

But I wasn’t sure how he was feeling socially until a week later when I told his classroom teacher to check out the back table…

The class was working in small groups, reviewing their multiplication facts with array cards.  Wesley was sitting at a table with two other boys.  They were talking, laughing, and for the first time, Wesley looked animated and fully engaged.  The three of them looked like they had been friends for a long time.

I turned to his classroom teacher and said, “That is really cool.  I don’t even care that they are off task right now.  It’s the first time I’ve seen Wesley that happy since he’s been here.”

His classroom teacher smiled and replied, “I know.  It is really cool.”