An Orange Marmalade Christmas

 

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Several years ago I turned my beautiful friend, Cathleen, on to the Mitford series written by Jan Karon. If you’ve never read the series about the delightful Father Tim, you really must. When my friend Stephanie gave me book one, she said, “give it 80 pages.” Well, I didn’t need 80 pages. I had just finished a series on the apocalypse, so the light, refreshingly comical and sincerely poignant characters of Mitford were just what I needed!  I’ve read the entire series twice and some books a third time (Because you know, heading out the airport, so you grab an old favorite off of the shelf and stuff it in your carry on. 4 hours later, you’ve read it for a third time or fourth time!)

Anyway, I gave my friend Cathleen the first book for her birthday. Her husband emailed me a few days later, “Cathleen is on her way to Montana to see family. She asked me to tell you that she loves the book and she has instructed me to go online and order the rest of the books for her so she will have them up on her return home.” Yep…I knew she would love Mitford!

So, that Christmas I wanted to do something special for Cathleen but struggled to find the right gift. Then it dawned on me… Cathleen treated sweets very carefully. Being a very healthy and successful lifestyle coach, she only had sweets once in a while; birthdays, holidays, etc.  And when she had a sweet, she HAD  sweet… none of this hold the whip! She enjoyed every moment of her indulgence. So, I knew that for a very special day like Christmas, a sweet it had to be. And not just any sweet… it had to be…

Edith Mallory’s Orange Marmalade Cake!

A quick search online yielded the famous recipe from one of Jan Karon’s most adorable characters, Edith Mallory.  In the stories, Edith is known for creating this masterpiece… and for baking many at a time… and her famed cake almost put the hero of the series 6 feet under with a terrible sugar coma (Father Tim is diabetic). The cake is legendary to Mitford and it’s gentle readers.

So, I baked the cake. I managed to put a flower of some sort on top of it and put it in a clear plastic cake box.  But I couldn’t just “give” Cathleen an orange marmalade cake. I mean… I had to do something else to make it even more special, right? I wanted her to KNOW it was Edith’s cake. So, I did the unthinkable.  I actually wrote Cathleen a letter from Edith Mallory to go with the cake. Why is that unthinkable? Well, because no one can write Edith Mallory like the incomparable Jan Karon. But, I had to try.

So, that night before the cake was revealed I gave Cathleen her gift. A simple, handwritten note.  She opened it and began to read aloud. (I wish I could put my hands on my copy of the letter but I have no idea where to find it. Should I actually find it some day I’ll update this post with it.) Anyway, I remember that it went something like this:

Dear Mrs. Frank,  

I cannot tell you how delighted I am that you have come to live in Mitford.  The cottage on the corner of Church Street has been vacant far too long for my liking. I wondered when anyone would ever have the courage to take over the crazy rhodendron!  I like what you have done with the yard so far, and I can’t wait to see the rose beds in Spring.

Lord’s Chapel is blessed to have you as a congregant. Though, I’m not sure why you sit on the pentecostal side, but I understand to each his own, and all that.  Wasn’t that Christmas potluck a humdinger?  Did you make the Swedish meatballs? I thought those were wonderful, but could never figure out who brought them.  I had plenty of that, as well as Father Tim’s scrumptious ham.  I heard that you make amazing Heavenly Cranberry Oatmeal Bars. Will you be making those for the Primrose Tea? I’m partial to a lemon square, myself, but something with oatmeal can’t be half bad.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. I don’t know how I have time to write such a lengthy note whilst there are Orange Marmalades to bake and deliver! Which brings me to the purpose of this letter.  Please accept this Christmas gift of one of my Orange Marmalade Cakes (… cue my husband Todd, who walks around the corner with an Orange Marmalade Cake)… I originally made it for Lew Boyd, but I dare say he seriously overcharged me for a break job a few weeks ago, and well, I’m not over it. Anyway, this cake is lovingly yours. Enjoy.

Sincerely,

Edith Mallory

As Todd rounded the corner of the kitchen with Edith Mallory’s Orange Marmalade Cake in hand, Cathleen started to cry.   I can’t remember if had EVER before (or since) given a gift that evoked such emotion. I was surprised and touched.  She went on to say that it had been a very hard Christmas (no, I had not known that) and she felt like her holiday had somehow been hyjacked and that she was feeling so tired and grieved upon arriving at our home.  And that this gift… this cake… made her feel that Christmas was restored.  She too, had fallen in love with Mitford. And this cake- this little thing- made her feel connected to something and someone she loved.  Imagine that a gift so simple could make someone feel restored.  Wow.

And then… WE ATE CAKE! HA!

Oh yes, she didn’t want to “save” it for Christmas day or home… she wanted to eat it right then and there, to share it with us. That is Cathleen’s beautiful style. And so, we ate cake. And yes, it was AMAZING!

Many years have passed since the “Cake Christmas Eve”.  And, actually, I do not spend time with Cathleen now. Not for any reason whatsoever that has to do with anything, but simply because life has moved us on to different places, and so being together is not easily accomplished nowadays. And that’s okay. I still feel deeply connected to her and her family. I would still bake her an Orange Marmalade Cake in a heartbeat if she asked me to. I miss her, but I know our lives are going in two different directions and some day we will reconnect, as true friends always do.

But, back to that gift.  What I wrote a few paragraphs back grabbed me… “Imagine a gift so simple that can make one feel restored.” Well, no need to imagine it.  

A simple gift…

a tiny baby…

in a manger.  

He was sent to give us life. To bring us restoration to God. A simple gift CAN and WILL restore.

All you have to do is receive the baby.

Receive Jesus.  

He can and will give you back what you have lost. That’s His promise.

“He was a wise man and a king,
adorned in finest gem,
Yet he travelled from the East
through the desert to Bethlehem.
And as he knelt before the baby,
He knew that what he saw,
Was the very presence of our God
Lying in the stall.”
(Natalie Jager, Christmas Poem, 1997)

Christmas, 2013

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Miley Cyrus- You are Loved

Dear Miley,

I don’t know how many people know your given name is Destiny Hope Cyrus, and that Miley Cyrus truly is just the name of the girl on the Disney show.   Destiny. Hope. What a GREAT name. I think you should use it all the time, not just on your birth certificate and at family gatherings. It’s beautiful. Just like you.

So, Destiny Hope, I have to admit that after I heard the buzz I (I’m a news junkie of sorts) had to go to YouTube and check out your vid. And, I must admit again, that I, too, added a comment here or there on a few Facebook pages that were NOT to your credit. Please forgive me for that. I’m opinionated and well, I enjoy tossing my hat into the rhetoric ring once in a while.   The next day I began to really think about you, and the performance, and I realized that I had been participating in the UGLINESS (Yea, that rhetoric FB ring thing). As I said, I’m sorry about that, young lady. You are free to be who you are as a human being, an artist and a woman, without judgment from me.

I realized upon later reflection after my two FB posts that I had been looking at you through eyes veiled with judgment, when I really should have been looking through my “Momma Eyes” and my “Artist Eyes.”  See, I’m a mom of a 23-year-old man who has a 23-year-old girlfriend who is part of the family. Many of my closest friends are moms to girls just your age… with dreams just as big.  Young women trying, like you, to find their way in this big, crazy, fast-paced, over-sexed, over-commercialized, over-technical world. YIKES. It’s way scarier out there for you today than it was for me in 1987, for sure!

And, I’m an artist. Though now I teach special education to 10-year olds, once upon a time I earned a vocal performance degree from a university in Oklahoma. I had BIG dreams of making it BIG as a singer.  But now I find so much more joy in teaching little struggling readers and writers how to read and write. I just do the “music thing” on the side… weddings, funerals, etc. And, I have been a voice teacher for over 20 years. I’ve heard a few voices here and there!  I do consider myself an expert, by the way.🙂

So, let me start out (sorry for that seriously loooooooong introduction to my boring self) seeing you through my artist eyes.  When you were Hannah Montana, your show was on regularly in my home. Guess what? My then 17-year-old and then 3-year-old were not the ones watching! Nope. I was. That’s right… a 39-year-old Momma tuned in every week to catch your cute little antics and hear your adorable voice.  As a voice teacher I knew this was only the beginning for you vocally. I thought, “Wow. A young singer with that much going for her vocally is going to have a long career.” And I meant it. And I would say that you today, still. Your voice has a wonderful, dramatic (and even edgy) timbre to it. I love that about your voice.  I would LOVE to hear you letting your voice SHINE just as it is; a little raspy, a little sweet, a little sultry. Your voice is COOL, girlie.  And you know where I’m going here… you don’t need all the theatrics to be successful with your VOICE. It’s very good. Use it. Enjoy it. Don’t thrash it. Please don’t waste it.  It’s a GREAT voice!

Now, through my Momma eyes. I’m not the mom of girls, but I am a girl, so at least I have that going for me here.  I am SO glad that the Internet was NOT part of my 20’s. I shudder to think of what I would have done or said online or in a video that might have UNDONE me. Sadly, we’ve seen that recently, haven’t we?  Young, innocent girls going out to parties to have a little fun… drink too much (of course, I ask why are underage kids drinking at parties, but I know that’s rhetorical at best)  and the next day there are pictures of them having sex with boys posted all over the Internet while they (the girls) are passed out. In at least two of those cases, those girls are gone. They’ve committed suicide. So tragic. So horrifying that people use the Internet for such selfish horrific acts of violence and then those they damage end up dead.  “Tragic” hardly describes it.

And so via this amazing thing called the Internet, I caught your “act”. And guess what? This middle-aged southern Momma could not see the art. I couldn’t find it anywhere.  It made me sad.  It just seemed so “not right” on so many levels. I saw this woman who is beautiful offering her gift to world as something entirely not beautiful (at least in my view).  Your mannerisms were odd, your face contorted and it was so dark and well, creepy (and maybe that’s what you were going for).  It looked like you were offering yourself to the world as an innocent lamb to the slaughter… as if you were saying, “I’m a slave to this crazy world of Hollywood, false glamour and money and I’m here not to take what I have earned by all my hard work, but to offer myself as a sacrifice on this vile alter of sex and greed and fear and desperation.”  I know that sounds judgmental and harsh. I do not mean it to be so. You are LOVELY.  Be LOVELY. Act LOVELY.  I want to hear your great voice and see your amazing talent and yes, I want it to be LOVELY. I realize I don’t know you… I have no idea how you see yourself. But, I hope that you can or do see yourself as I, a completely detached stranger, have seen you for many years, as a treasure.

Now, just in case you need to hear it,  I just really wanted to remind you that under all the publicity and negative attention, you are loved.

Sincerely,

Natalie Jager

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Tea With Me

I have a few different behavioral management techniques in place in my classroom. Teaching With Love & Logic by Jim Fay and David Funk is really the basis (along with all the great behavioral classes I’ve taken over the years) for my approach. The focus is on shared responsibility in the classroom and delivering consequences with compassion.  Knowing my students and letting them know that I know them goes a long a way. You can read more about that in my post The Top Ten Things.  

As my year progressed last year, as with every year actually, I had to change up the positive behavior support just a bit. I think the kids like it when I keep it interesting!  So, about two-thirds of the way through our year last year I instituted a new “thing”… Tea With Me!

Tea With Me is a positive behavior support in which I choose a different student to, you guessed it, have tea with me!  Typically, I draw a name from my stick box and that student gets to have tea with me. When I arrive in my classroom  in the morning I brew the tea. I put it in a very pretty little tea pot and I have cute little tea cups in cute colors and a special plate for our breakfast cookies!  

ImageWhen: First thing in the morning!  As my other students are sitting at their desks doing their morning work, the Tea Student gets to skip the morning work and come sit with me for tea.

What: I teach the student how to “serve” me the tea. They love that!  They choose the tea cup saucer/color they want and then hand me my cup. Then they pour the tea. I also teach them how to appropriately offer me a breakfast cookie. The breakfast cookie can be anything I happen to have on hand… cookies or granola bars cut in half, etc.  The Dollar Tree in my town has actually very good, wholesome cookies for a buck!  So it doesn’t cost a lot to add the “breakfast cookie” and well, they think it’s very special. I also buy decorative napkins at the dollar store or from the sale bin at my local party store.  They think the special napkins are also great!

The Talk: What do we talk about at Tea With Me? Whatever the student has on his/her mind.  We do not talk about behavior or performance.  We talk about anything else, though. Often they direct the convo to sports, movies, siblings, parents, etc. And yes, sometimes something comes up that makes me aware of things going on at home. It’s very valuable information and helps me know where my student is “at” not on just that day but in that “season”.

Do you know what I’ve noticed about you?  This is the question I got from the Fay/Funk text.  They call it the One Sentence Intervention.  I weave the one sentence intervention into every single day for all of my kids, but I try to make sure to touch on it at Tea With Me.  The student might say something about going camping or something and I’ll say, “You know, i’ve noticed that about you… that you like to go camping.” That’s all you have to do. If you use those words, “I’ve noticed something about you…” it goes a LONG way in building that relationship with that child.

Clean Up is Special, too!  After “Tea” the student cleans up… they love doing this! I get our morning greeting time started while the student goes and does the dishes. I don’t know if they like this because they get to play in the dishwater, or because they get to do something different than what everyone else does, but it doesn’t matter.  They love it. It’s a GREAT way to start the day!

In the course of Tea with Me, all of my students got to have tea with me twice. And you know if I forgot a day they let me know about it!  And, I have successfully converted 3 hot tea drinkers!  One of my boys will drink 2 cups of tea (raspberry herbal tea).  I told his mom that and she said, “What? My son drinks HOT tea? Amazing!” So, it not only encourages the student/teacher relationship, but helps build social skills and broadens the student’s culinary horizons. It’s a win/win/win!!!!

What can you do that is special to you, which can become special to your students, too? I’m always drinking tea in class. They all knew long before I started Tea With Me that I was a hot tea drinker. I think this makes even more impact… “Mrs. Jager is including me in something she loves.”  Perhaps none of them think this, or maybe some do, or they all do they just don’t know it, I’m not sure, but I know that Tea With Me was very impacting in the ongoing development of my relationships with my students. I will definitely be doing this next year, too!  Oh wait… next year? I mean next month… it’s almost here! 2 more weeks!

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Student At a Glance

Student At a Glance- Maintaining a Positive Note at the IEP Meeting

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I am a parent of a student on an IEP. I have sat across the table at at least 10 IEP meetings for Q (my beautiful child with said IEP). He had the same teacher for 7 of those 10 IEP meetings. At our first meeting together she began the meeting with the PLOP (Present Levels of Academic Performance). I’ll never forget what she wrote about him in the very first section, which highlighted his strengths, “Q is a very handsome and sweet boy…” to paraphrase she went on to describe his love of Thomas the Train, Hot Wheels, his determination to always be the “leader” and his affectionate ways toward his teachers. I was SO touched that this woman (at that time a stranger to me) thought my kid was “very handsome” and “sweet”. The fact that she knew his likes let me know she was paying attention… and that thing about leadership? Well, that was a nice way of saying he was a bossy, challenging, pain-in-the-bottom handful!  I knew that, but I didn’t care. I LOVED the positive spin!

As a parent, especially in those early years when we didn’t really know what we were dealing with in the way of a bona fide disability, the IEP meetings were pretty scary to me. Only after 1st grade (his 4th IEP) did I begin to head into the meetings with confidence that he wouldn’t be belittled and I wouldn’t be judged for being a bad mother (I was not an educator at that time).  Of course, as educators we know that we should not, and hopefully do not, pass judgments on our parents and if we struggle with that, well an official school meeting is not the place to make such thoughts known.  Actually, if you honestly judge your parents in the recesses of your mind it is best to leave the judgment there, or confide it only in someone completely removed from the school district, classroom and your social circles.

As an educator I have probably now led about 30 IEP meetings (that’s a drop in the bucket to a 25 year educator who has probably lead 2500 meetings). At my meetings have been advocates, parents, grand parents, guardians, siblings, translators, family counselors and district leaders.  I’ve had a few meetings wherein no one came to represent the student.   30 IEP meetings do not make me an expert, but I think being a parent gives me a specific insight. So, when I set out to set up my IEP meetings, I followed the wonderful example of my son’s teacher of several years (Kristin Jacobson, the BEST teacher ever) and then added my own spin. Here’s my advice:

Be Positive!  FIRST and foremost keep it positive.  There may be disheartening news you have to share. If you can find a way, share it in a positive light. I try to avoid the words, “no, not, does not” in IEP meetings.  Instead of saying “he does not do” I might say, “He struggles with…”. These are basic diplomatic skills.  Which brings me to…

Be Diplomatic!  Avoid using blaming language or judgmental statements.   Be open-minded to the idea that this process is as much of a learning curve for the parent as it is for you or the student.  Parents may or may not do a lot of research. They may or may not use an advocate. They may have a ton of knowledge, or like me in the beginning of our journey, have none.  They may be hanging on your every word for a ray of hope. Keep your words “hopeful.” Speaking of being hopeful, let me add….

Be Compassionate!  Your parents may not be fully aware of their child’s challenges. I know that my husband and I had no idea how extensive our son’s challenges were at first. He was 19 months but had the skills of an 8 month old. Because I’d never had a child before, I didn’t realize how far behind he was. That information was a blow to my husband when it was delivered. I had suspected pretty bad news, but my husband was really thrown for a loop. He grieved over that one statement for a few days.

Consider that your assessment reports and behavior analysis may be a shock to the parent, or may confirm their worst fears. Some of them sit across from you with no hope for the future. Some of them do not know what to do or where to turn. Some of them are in complete denial. Some of them have suspected for some time that something was different about their child, but didn’t know until that moment in the IEP when you confirmed it. Believe me, I’ve held back tears in an IEP. I remember thinking in his 2nd IEP (when he was just 3), “Hold it together, Natalie. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” I held it together. After the meeting I wept all the way to daycare to pick up my child. I cried most of the weekend. I was just coming to terms with how frightened I was for his future.   Fear, hopelessness, uncertainty, and even anger, may rear their ugly heads at your IEP meetings. Be ready for that. If your parent is displaying any of those feelings then know it is not a reflection on you, but all about what the parent and child are facing.

Give your Parents the Benefit of the Doubt When You Can.  I’ve said it before; you are a mandated reporter so it’s always best to err on the side of the child. If you suspect abuse, report it. Period. But, also, don’t be quick to assume your parent is lying in an IEP. Admittedly, after a few years with a lying parent, you do figure it out. When there is a whole lot of talk but no action, you may wonder.  But always give the benefit of the doubt when you can.

When Q was in Kindergarten his teacher asked us what we did to discipline him when he melted down and emptied the contents of the bookshelf all over the room. WHAT?!  We had NEVER EVER witnessed that kind of behavior at home.  So, when a parent says to me, “He never does that at home,” well, yep, I often believe it.  In our case school was entirely more rigorous than home. He still had very little language. At home he didn’t need language, even though we were trying to force him to need language by not meeting his needs unless he spoke them. The bottom line was that he felt safe at home, as he should have and as we would have hoped he would feel.  When the rigor of the classroom took its’ toll, he took it out on the bookshelves, unfortunately for sweet Mrs. Jacobson!   Long story short, a behavioral analysis and a sensory diet went a long way as well as Todd & I making home more rigorous, while maintaining the safety and respite it provided to our son. Oh, and time was on our side. He flourished over time with the right positive behavior supports. But I digress, in that positive behavior supports is for another blog entry.

Back to the IEP…. 

Student at a Glance!

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This is a picture of the first thing I hand a parent at an IEP meeting. I print it up in color on an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. My hope is that they take it home and put in on the fridge as a reminder to the whole family how special and important their child is. When the parent walks into the room, this picture is on my Smartbaord, front & center of the meeting. It’s up there in “life sized” style.  I want to make an impact on the parent, a positive one. I hope this does it.

You’ll notice there is no negative word on this document anywhere.  Instead of writing, for example, “Does not like to do tasks he thinks are too hard” I wrote, “Avoids tasks he thinks are too hard.” And instead of saying, “talks to much” I wrote, “Areas to Develop: maintaining a quiet voice in class.”  Believe me, a parent of a child who has the need to vocalize constantly does not need me telling them, “Your child has to vocalize constantly.” They know it. But if I say, “working on maintaining a quiet voice in class” that implies I know it, they know it, and this is what their child and I are doing about it. It’s proactive.

Instead of using “Strengths and Weaknesses” I chose to focus on “Strengths and Areas to Improve”. Yep, they might be weaknesses today but the reality is that given time they can be areas of improvement. They might even become strengths someday!

I also include a section on the Positive Behavior Support system I have in place. This gives me an opportunity to reinforce what I am doing in class. Notice that this student is 50 stars behind the class average, but at least he is actually earning stars.  I focus on what he is earning and not how far behind he is.

This particular student (name and picture have been changed from the actual student) had just come from general ed to my SDC. I had had him for almost a year when I had his IEP and had the first opportunity to meet his family. His mother came in stoic and unemotional. By the end of the meeting she told me, “At all of his other meetings all we heard about was how hard he had been. How he had to move all the time and make noise and cause trouble. You are the first teacher to notice all the things that make him special, the things we love about him. Thank you.” The next day was Valentine’s Day. He proudly came in with a really cute, big teddy bear for me and a note that read, “I love you, Mrs. Jager.”  Ahhhhh…. That’s one reason I do what I do!

Now, in general ed defense, a student like this little guy in a classroom with 35 other students and a general education teacher possibly not equipped for his diverse needs (or certainly without the support of a classroom aide), might convey some things to the parents that are perceived by the parents as negative. If he is behaving completely opposite of everyone else and making it impossible for others to learn, then that is what the gen ed teacher has to report.  The other teachers may not have said anything negative… perhaps the parents just perceived it as such. It was a different educational setting… it was more restrictive to him and his needs as opposed to my class, which is his least restrictive environment. Of course he’s going to fair better behaviorally in my room with sensory input, access to frequent breaks, an appropriate workload, specialized academic instruction and a focus on small groups.  So, my meeting would appear to be more positive and to the parent may seem more productive.

In Summary! Look for the good stuff. Find it. Dig. If you look hard enough and long enough you will find a lot of positive things to put on your student’s “At A Glance.”  I am not perfect by any stretch. I do not always keep it 100% positive. I have had a few students that I liked a lot, but could not reach. Keeping their IEP positive was a challenge. But I keep trying!

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Stars for Monkey Bars- My Positive Behavior Support Plan

 

Stars for Monkey Bars- a Whole Class Positive Behavior Support Plan

 (Let me apologize in advance, but I have somehow failed to have pictures of the starboard, etc… but I think I have a few pics of the chair covers once turned into pillows….)

My positive behavior support plan is multi-faceted. It includes both individual and corporate positive behavior approaches.

  • Stars for Monkey Bars– I teach in San Diego County… we pretty much play outside every single day of the school year. So this is an easy way to provide encouragement for good choices.
    • Every day students earn stars on a star board. Stars are given by me and my classroom para-professionals for good choices. Students following our classroom “norms” (I use norms as opposed to rules) will earn 5 to 10 stars per day. They are given out for:
      • Good transition
      • Hard work during group rotations
      • Coming in from recess/lunch and sitting quietly
      • Following routine without being asked
      • Displaying “Peace Builder” qualities (praise people, give up put downs, seek wise people, notice and speak up about hurts I have caused, right wrongs)
      • Demonstrating a “friends first” attitude in class (giving the best seat to a friend, letting a friend have the first turn)
      • Etc!
  • I have a laminated grid with the students’ names along one side.
  • Stars are written across the board throughout the day.
  • Students that earn AT LEAST 5 stars in a day earn 5 minutes of extra recess at the end of the day.
  • Students without 5 stars stay in the classroom with a classroom aide and clean.
  • At the end of each day, I add the total stars earned to the total from the day before, and keep a running total on the board (kids LOVE to compete for the most).
  • I also track each day’s stars on a clip-board which I transfer to an excel spreadsheet, just incase someone erases the totals.
    • Daily Star Winner
    • I award a daily star winner each day.
    • That student gets to keep a CRAZY Room 4 trophy on his/her desk the entire of the next day.
    • The winner gets a prize from the prize box.
    • The winner does not necessarily have to have the most stars on the starboard, but the winner does have to BE on the starboard.
    • The starboard is also a great way to add extra incentive… such as, “I brought cookies for a special snack today, but you must be on the starboard by 1 p.m. today (have at least 1 star) to receive one.
      • Stars for Chair Covers/Pillow/Drawstring Bag- in addition to earning a daily reward of extra recess for following classroom norms and good choices, the students’ totals earn them rewards.
    • Each summer I make a bunch of chair covers (I’ll put the “how to” for this in another post) from handkerchiefs.
    • When a student earns 100 stars (on average takes about 4 weeks), they earn a chair cover from me to put on their chair at their desk.
    • With 50 more stars they earn their name on the chair cover. (I use iron on letters or puffy paint, Iron on letters can be a pain.

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Chair Cover Front, with student name on it.

  • With every 50 additional stars they get to choose an iron-on patch from my pocket chart. I order the patches at wholesale prices from Uniport Industries (just tell them you are a teacher and they’ll set you up as a wholesaler). I buy a $5 pack of 25 patches that are themed from Uniport. It’s a great deal!
    • At the end of the year, the chair cover gets sewn shut and stuffed with fiberfill. (Parents help me with this so I don’t have to do all of them myself).
    • Before the pillow conversion, I take the pillow and write on it (in puff paint) the year, the grade, our room #, and all the names of the classmates.
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    • Kids then take home a wonderful keepsake!
    • (Chair Cover idea courtesy of Anne Foster Ybarbo)
    • Next year I plan to convert the chair covers to a drawstring backpack… NO STUFFING or ADDITIONAL SEWING REQUIRED!
  • Class Total Stars/Milestones = Class Party
    • When the class as a whole gets 3,000, 6,000, and 9,000 stars, we have a party.
    • The class nominates party ideas, we vote and then plan the party.
    • I announce every Friday how many WHOLE CLASS stars we have.
    • The kids LOVE working for those 3,000 marks.
    • Last year my students earned over 9,000 as a whole.
    • The highest amount of stars for one student was 903.
    • Second place star winner was 878.
    • The lowest star winner was 475.
  • Year End Honorees
    • At the end of the year we have an awards ceremony.
    • Kids are rewarded with their star total on a certificate and are presented with their pillow.
    • Everyone wins!!!!

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The Top Ten Things I Learned as a First Year Teacher

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Top Ten Things I Learned in my First Year of Teaching

Though I am no longer in my “first year” of teaching, I still remember those “first year” lessons so well.  Here are my “Top 10” to encourage you whether you are in your first year, or your twenty-fifth year. You may respond, “Really?” or you may respond, “Don’t I know it!”
  1. Be Friendly, Not Familiar– this was the most important lesson I think I learned early in my teaching career. How did I learn it?  In the WORST possible way when a parent “called me out”. And she SHOULD have. Thanks to her I learned a valuable lesson that will last me all of my teaching career.  I had made ignorant assumptions, shared information about her and her family (that I thought was public) to another parent, and word got around. Oh my! I loved these parents, and I loved their kids. I would in no way, ever, gossip about them. Yet, that is exactly what I did. I needed that “slap” on the hand. She wasn’t gentle about it, but she was gracious and immediately forgiving. I thank God for her and this lesson every day!  When I say, be friendly, I mean it. It’s okay to be friends with your parents, but you must also embrace the boundary that exists between parent and teacher. Be friends. Be friendly. But don’t assume you are part of the family. You aren’t. Whatever your student’s family has going on is NONE of your business, even if they share it. You may have to hold on to information that makes you uncomfortable, but remember, it’s never your information to share with anyone. Of course you are a mandated reporter, so if you think something is going on that is harmful to your student, call CPS immediately.
  2. The TOP 2– Memorize this. TOP 2. TOP 2. TOP 2. I learned this valuable lesson from my first principal (thank goodness, she was a GREAT leader).  She would say to me, “Natalie, what are the top 2 things you need to take care of today?” I would tell her. And she would reply, “Do those 2 things and then go home.” Were there some things that did not get done? YES. Did my students learn and grow? YES. Did I do everything that year I wanted? NO. Did my students make progress on their IEP goals? YES. Did we make living math journals? NO. Did we learn math facts? YES. Did learning happen? YES. But did I do it all? NO. I had to learn to let go. Yes, there are a million fruitful, engaging and super FUN things I can do in my room. No, I can’t do a million of them. Nor can I do a hundred of them. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll do 10 of them in a year. Wait, maybe 5. I mean, let’s be realistic! But you can be sure that I will meet every IEP timeline, document progress on every goal and make a deep, meaningful connection to each student every day. Well, most days. I mean, I am the weather system. On occasion I do have a cloudy day.
  3. Relationship Counts More than Anything 
    During my first year of teaching I began working on my masters degree. It was a little quick, granted, but I’m an “older” first year teacher and I wanted, and needed, to get it accomplished.  As a parent, I read a book titled, Parenting with Love and Logic.  Upon further research, I discovered the authors had also written books on teaching with love and logic. I applied their approaches to my room on day one. Granted, it has taken, and will continue to take time, for me to fully embrace shared responsiblity and mutual respect in the classroom, but I get better at it each year. My master’s thesis was about “The Power of One,” a principle I learned from the Love & Logic reading. That first year, every single day, I would make my rounds during morning work. I would get on each student’s level and shake their hand, look him/her in the eye and say, “Do you know what I notice about you?” and then I would share with them one very simple observation that was unrelated to performance. (Ie. I’ve noticed you like to play soccer at recess.) Pretty soon the students were telling me, “Mrs. Jager, do you know what I’ve noticed about you?” or they would say, “Mrs. Jager, could you notice today that I like math?”  I saw behavior, in-class effort, and turned-in homework statistics go UP. Then, I looped with my students the next year, and even a year later some were still saying to me, “Mrs. Jager, would you notice something about me today? I would really like that if you did.” My principal once shared with me that my “effect” with the kids is what she believed made me an effective teacher. That “effect” is birthed out of the relationship. I am the weather… my students want to be affected by our relationship. They look to me to be in their corner.
  4. Loose the Power Struggles-  That’s right. Give them up. Don’t go there. If your student comes in every day and slams the door, and you say, “Stop slamming the door,” then rest assured that everyday he will walk in and slam that door. Two options: ignore the slamming door. Your response to the slamming door only encourages him to keep slamming. But if you ignore, his power is gone. Or, option 2, give him a different direction. Instead of waiting to respond to the slammed door, tell him to slam it. When he walks in say, “Make sure you slam that door today.” In that way you are sharing the responsiblity and once empowered to slam the door, he will stop slamming.  You are not weak if you let your students perceive they are winning a power struggle. For some students, it might give them the sense of control they do not get at home.
  5. Feed Them-  One of the biggest reasons that students come in and do not get started on work first thing in the morning is that “effective filter.” The effective filter could be anything that is going on with them that day. Perhaps their parents fought the night before… maybe a family member is sick. Perhaps someone they care about has had to leave them. They might be concerned that there is no food in the house. Think about all the things that you go to work carrying in the back of your mind, the things that move to the front, the things that you are worried about. Your students have the same filter in place. One of the quickest ways to get a student engaged in learning is to literally feed them FOOD. Honestly, I’m not fond of being a cafeteria, and I’d love to just say, “Mom didn’t feed you? Oh well, guess you’ll eat tomorrow when you decide you don’t like to be hungry.”  It’s not that black and white. There may not be any food at home. There may not be food your student can access on her own. Often in the morning my son is just not hungry, but I hover and I coach and I say, “take a bite, please” until I see at least half of his breakfast is off the plate and in his tummy. But not all parents do that. If a student comes in hungry they are not prepared to learn. Instead of asking a student, “did you have breakfast” which could imply there is no food at home, I simply ask, “Are you hungry?” I put out a few coffee filters (they are cheap and recyclable) and add a cup of cheerios or chex cereal. Any student that is hungry can have a serving. Our cafeteria also gives away milk that goes untouched after served, so my classroom aides bring back 2 or 3 cartons of milk each day that I keep in my classroom refrigerator.  Student can quietly feed themselves at their desk while doing morning work.
  6. Always have Something for Students To Do- It actually took me two years to really put this into action.  There are some students who simply cannot be idle. You can’t just say to every child who finishes their work early, “Go get a book.” For some, a book is not engaging enough to keep their behavior managed. Put folders together with activities in them. Have both easy (coloring page) and challenging (word search or math problem worksheet) extra work ready to go. I have “File Folder” games set up and in brightly colored drawers.  My students all know if they finish before others they can go get a book, a file folder activity, or a worksheet. Some of my most challenging behaviors come from students that like to be busy. When they are idle is when the behaviors get challenging. Keep them challenged to keep the challenging behaviors at bay.
  7. Let Your Students “Motor”- My husband is a busy bee. He cannot be idle. He cannot sit and watch a movie. He’s just wired that way. Some of my students are just like him. For those students I have motoring activities ready to go.  I have a mini trampoline outside of my room. Students can grab the 3 minute sand timer and go right out the door at any time they feel they need to (using a “break card” to ask permission) and jump it out. Sometimes I have one student run down to the tree and back (yes, running in the hall, oh my! Our halls are “outdoor” but it’s still the hall.). I also have gallon milk jugs that are half-full of sand. I put a cute picture of a zebra on them. Some students want to take the jug to another room. That teacher and I set it up so that the milk jugs travel back and forth all day. If a student is having a tough time focusing or managing emotions I ask, “Do you want to take the Zebra jug to Room 7 for me?” The answer is always “yes!” And then sometime during the day, a student from Room 7 will deliver a Zebra jug to my room. Other motoring activities include: a Sit-n-Spin located in my hallway, watering the plants, an activity choice board where a student can choose jumping jacks, yoga moves, or taking the tardy slips to the office. This also eliminates the “time out” which is a term we do not use in our district. Rather than putting a child in “time out” I send a child on an errand. They feel useful and fulfilled and no one has had the humiliation of separation.  Not to mention, when a student changes her physical state, she also changes her emotional one. Sometimes it’s a subtle change, but even a subtle change is enough to get her back on track.
  8. Let your Students “Stand”- I have a standing area in the back of my room with a tall table (a music stand would also work but I do not have one of those).  If a student wants to stand during instruction, I allow him. Why bother with that power struggle? Not everyone can be seated for long or even short periods of time (my husband, for example). I, myself, struggle with this when I attend trainings. I like to stand and move around some during sessions. If a student asks appropriately, I allow them to stand at the table in the back. Power struggle is eliminated, their feelings and needs are managed and learning can continue.
  9.  Ignore, ignore, ignore Perhaps you may have heard the term ‘Praise the best, ignore the rest.’ For the most part this is true. Obviously, you are not going to ignore a chair flying past your head, but you can ignore the student that is humming and you can teach your students to ignore it also. This was such a hard lesson for me to learn, but what  happens if you don’t ignore bad behavior is that the behavior followed by  your reaction eventually becomes a classroom habit. Joey knows (not his real name) that the minute he starts vocalizing, Mrs. Smith (not her real name) is going to correct him. He then has successfully gotten her attention. And because he enjoys getting a reaction from people, he has met his own need of control. It’s horrible. IGNORE. Warning… once you start to ignore the behavior will escalate because Joey will then act our more to try to get you to respond. Keep him and the other people in your room safe, and ignore as best you can. Eventually he will give up. He will!
  10. Remind Yourself that you are Doing a GREAT Job! If you are teaching full-time, remind yourself that you are doing a great job. You are. No one else in the world can do what you do the way you do it. It is not trite to say that you are impacting students lives every sing day. You are. It’s not trite to say that you are making a difference. You are. It’s okay to feel a sense of accomplishment about that because it is true. And yes, you did earn it. You took the classes, added the certifications, took more classes, attended in-services, collaborated with colleagues, took more classes, cleared your credential, took the behavior classes, and added another credential.  You can teach people to read, for heaven’s sake. What you do is noble and worthy. Be proud of it!
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