Pink Hearts & Bear Claws

pink heartIt’s hard being a kid, especially in middle school where up is down and right is wrong and social rules are ever-changing. I truly feel for my middle schoolers – I do; I wouldn’t want to go back.

For Davis*, that’s also the case, except he still has to muster his way through the next two and a half years of strife and confusion. His struggle is three-fold: (1) social cues alone are hard but couple that learning curve with autism and it becomes even harder; (2) transitioning from elementary school to middle is one of life’s BIG changes and comes with the need for greater emotional maturity, which not all of our students are ready for; and (3) Bear Claws – oh those coveted Bear Claws, a symbol that you are Top Dog with the most Class Dojo points and a chance to win free dress and front of the line lunch passes.

It is EVERYTHING in the social jungle that is middle school. Unfortunately, today, Davis did not earn a Bear Claw.

His day started out just fine, earning points for completing morning work, station rotations and fulfilling his classroom job. But something went awry after break and the points slowly kept slipping out of sight. He was neck and neck with Angel* when all of a sudden, Angel got double points for doing EXTRA WORK and SHOWING INDEPENDENCE. Poor Davis just couldn’t bounce back.

It was all too much.

And he just snapped.

“TEEEEAACCCHHHHEEERRR!!!”, Davis wailed in his Level 4 voice. “I NEED A POINT!!!!!! YOU HAVE TO GIVE ME A POINT!”

Of course, a Level 4 voice would never warrant a point; that would incite anarchy. Instead, he was issued a Warning, shortly followed by a Needs Work aka negative point.

Davis was down. But not out. Not yet.

With the help of my Amazing Aide, Davis sat on the stoop near the door and explained his side of the story. He argued his points like a well-seasoned attorney, citing all the evidence of the inherent unfairness of the point system in general and why he deserved a Bear Claw for his efforts today.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed and Davis was finally ready to rejoin the class. He took a few final Lazy 8 Breaths and strolled back to his seat. Before he resumed his rightful place at the corner desk, closest to the board so his wandering thoughts could be redirected to the lesson at hand, Davis, a kid whose struggle was real, took it upon himself to teach this teacher a lesson she’ll never forget.

Right there, in the midst of our planner and Remind.com end-of-day routine, Davis, with tear-stained eyes and a sniffily nose silently stood in my bubble space and placed a pink heart sticker directly on my heart.

He gave me his heart, with all of his heart.

I stood there for a few seconds, shocked yet honored to be a part of this moment.

His simple act of kindness was a keen reminder that even though he did not earn the Bear Claw today, Davis’ heart would always be in the right place.

*Names changed for privacy

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Christine Terry is a Special Education Teacher and the Founder & Executive Director of Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services. She combines her teaching credential, psychology and law degrees, and a whole lotta chutzpah and heart to serve students and families seeking academic, behavior and advocacy support. Learn more at TerryTutors.com


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“My Brain Hurts When I Write!”

scary story map“My brain hurts!”– “My fingers are stuck.” — “I don’t have paper.” — “I don’t have any sharpened pencils.” — “I lost my eraser.” — “It’s too noisy.” — “It’s too quiet.”

Oh excuses.

For every surface excuse, there is an underlying reason. Usually, I find that when it comes to students and writing the excuse tends to hide feelings of inadequacy. Writing seems to be too serious, too much at stake, and too big a task.

The cure?

Focus on creative writing, and feel free to put on a little soft music for those that need some white noise in the background.

Creative writing is very freeing. For beginners, there are few rules and this “break the rules” façade is liberating to young writers who struggle with perfectionism, writers block, or confidence.

Also, I find it’s helpful to incorporate some tech accommodations, like text to speech, voice recorder, or computer use instead of traditional paper and pencil. If it works for you, go for it! Yes, I agree that paper and pencil makes those synapses grow stronger and feeds the brain like no technology can, but for new writers it can be a daunting, overwhelming experience to look at a blank page and hope for the best. Instead, opt for easing that transition with technology.

As a teacher and a tutor, I’m a big fan of sentence stems, like these Expressive Language Prompts, which do the trick because they are simple enough to get a conversation going. Once a conversation is flowing, the writing will follow.

A few examples of where to begin:

A-Z Story, where every new sentence of the story starts with the next letter of the alphabet.

Backwards Story, where you write the ending first (think ‘Memento’ but for kids)

Talking Pet Stories

Fractured Fairytales: think of a well-known fairytale and then modernize it, such as changing the ending, add a prequel or sequel, add new characters.

Halloween-themed Scary Stories, like these:

So, take a few tips and tools to let your story flow and writers brain grow. Happy writing!


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

Ageless Grade Levels?

grade levels

This month’s post could easily have been titled “Education’s Long, Divisive Debate of Teaching to a Child’s Developmental Age versus Chronological Age” — but I thought that might be too long 🙂

No matter what you title this debate the question remains the same: Why do we continue to divide up students by how old they are versus how many skills the know?

My Classroom this Year

In Special Education, we have a variation of the same problem. Many of our self-contained classes are mixed grade/age/ability/learning difference levels.  For example, I currently teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in our Autism-Core Class. I am teaching state required common core standards that must be scaffolded according to my students’ needs as well as integrating their IEP Goals as the overarching compass of our units. My students range from ages 10-14, with ELD (English Language Development) Levels of 1-5 and a few EO’s (English Only) learners sprinkled in. When assessed, my students are reading anywhere from a 3rd-7th grade level. Math is a little higher, probably because it’s universal in any language and more concrete in content.

Now, some educators would balk at the learning makeup of my classroom and advocate for grade-level specific classes. But I say, this is how it should be.

We Started Off with 1 Teacher for All Grades

If you’re a “Heartie” or a fan of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”  or “Anne of Green Gables” (I love her!) or even just remember a little of your Frontier History, you’ll note that there was one teacher for all of the kids in the town. That teacher was responsible for instructing whole group lessons in all core content areas and differentiating was required across K-12 subject-matters.

Really it was an administrative decision based on funding and student enrollment. There was one teacher that needed to teach to everyone.

Age Division is Partly Based on Administrative Necessity

It’s just plain easier to put all of the 9 and 10 year-olds together and call it Fourth Grade. The reality is that when working to place so many students, particularly within the public school setting, it is more convenient to group by ages and then, if the school and district chooses, to branch out from there. Some schools have various differences within the age level programming, such as Gifted and Talented, but few public schools structure their groupings with a focus on mixed-age levels determined by skill mastery.

Yet there are more supporters of this type of class groupings within the last 10 years than was previously thought (a few snippets of the conversation below):

What’s really frustrating, though, is that it seems like everything from text-books to games to a student and parent’s mindset is categorized by ages and grade levels in place of skill mastery. Due to the limited to no-retention policies, a fifth student who has not yet mastered their multiplication tables will go on to sixth and seventh and eighth grade and possibly be more behind in that skill area as the years go by.

Here’s What I Want 

What I would like to see in the span of my teaching career is a move away from grouping students by chronological age and grouping students more by what they know. If a 3rd grader is ready to go on to 5th grade reading but needs more time in 2nd grade math, then let that be our guide in how to structure classes and provide the right support, intervention, instruction and content for that student.

With technology, our society is becoming more and more individualized. My hope is that education jumps on board and begins to guide a student throughout their academic career by what they know instead of how old they are.


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

Just Take It One Day at a Time

one dayLet’s be honest. Not all of us want to go back to school. Sure, the new supplies make it a little more fun and seeing our friends everyday is a big added bonus but, all in all, the lazy days of summer are much more appealing than the structured confines of the classroom.

Students: I get it. You are not alone. Even teachers have a hard time going back to school.

Transitions are challenging. Nerves set in and our minds start wonder, “Will this year be better or worse than last? Who will I sit with at lunch? What if I just don’t get algebra?”

That’s why this year my classroom theme is: Just Take it One Day at a Time.

Whew. Just saying those words – speaking them into existence – helps calm me down. See, teachers worry too: What if I can’t reach every student? What if this classroom is not the right fit for me? What if the lesson I planned is not perfect and my students refuse to do it? What if I’m just not a good enough teacher?

The wonder of the ‘what-ifs’ can send anyone down a shameful spiral of negativity and fear. It’s okay to be afraid of the unknown; it’s a natural reaction to newness and change. I think the key is to take that fear and flip it into excitement.

It may be a just a trick-of-the-mind or a-flip-of-the-switch — a small change in wording, however, can lead to a big change in outlook.

Students, Teachers, Parents: Your job this year is to Just Take It One Day at a Time.

I’m certainly going to try.


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com

“Patience Young Grasshopper”

Now or later

I love baking. It’s calming, soothing, brings out my creativity and character.

Like tonight, I realized I forgot to pick up bread at the store and decided to try my hand at making it myself. I let the yeast meld with the warm water while I sifted the flour with the egg substitute. Then I added a little salt, some spice mixture and olive oil. Into the oven it went for 17 minutes.

I waited.

As the smell of fresh, homemade bread wafted from the kitchen to my dining room, I peaked inside the oven, poked a few holes to let the steam rise, and put the timer on for three more minutes.

I waited some more.

I waited till I could see the dough turn just a slight brown, knowing that the olive oil seeped through the bottom to create a crisp crust. Taking it out of the oven, I let it rest.

I waited again.

Would it come out all soft in the center? Would it taste good? Should I put butter and jam on it or date syrup?

Finally. It was done.  Not exactly as I had envisioned, more like a scone than a bread, but still, deliciously satisfying.

Waiting is anticipation.

Anticipation is full of a range of scenarios, strategies, emotions, what-ifs, hopes, nerves, and dreams. There’s so much more to the art of waiting than we acknowledge because, in our go-go-go culture today, we do not value waiting. Everything is at our fingertips. With the tap of the “confirm” or “send” or “delivery ordered” button I can buy, watch, and eat most anything, which makes it even more difficult to hone the art of waiting.

Waiting is a skill. A skill that is intended to teach patience. A skill that is becoming harder and harder to teach.

Just like our 24 hour news cycle and our quick social media replies, the quality of what we are saying, what we are doing and what we are portraying and projecting has been replaced with knee-jerk reactions. We are choosing to react instead of act on our own volition.

What can we do about it? How can we change? How can I change to be more artful, more intentional about waiting?

Well, I am learning that slowing down does not mean I will end up last in the race. In fact, it means that I will remain steady and steadfast to the cause. Steady is not boring. It does not mean I have given up or giving in. Steady means that I am stable and stability can bring consistency and appreciation to those aspects of life I may have put aside for a chance to run the race.

As I take this summer to recharge and reevaluate, I vow to also help myself learn to slow down a little more, be a little more intentional about my words, and when I’m ready — after waiting for the right moment — take action.


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Terry Tutors Specialized Education Services, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational nonprofit with a focus on providing wraparound academic, behavior and advocacy support services for struggling students in southern California. Learn More at TerryTutors.com