N = 1: Are We Serving the Student in Front of Us?

Last night was the first night of my Reading Diagnostics class at MGH Institute of Health Professions, where I am a student in the Reading Specialist program.

Our professor presented a fascinating concept to us: N = 1.

She said that, when teachers complete academic assessments and instructional plans with a student who we are serving, the sample size is 1. Just 1.

Although researchers utilize larger sample sizes to study trends among groups, those who directly serve children must focus on serving each individual student in the classroom or clinical setting. This means that, although some classroom techniques or clinical practices may serve most students, it really only matters if the services provided to a student work for that particular individual.

She likened the practice to doctors selecting a medicine for a particular patient. Just because a certain type of prescription works for most patients does not mean that the particular medicine will work for the one patient who we must consider as an individual entity, in and of himself or herself.

N=1 makes me feel validated in my approach to students.

I have difficulty examining trends in data about my students – I prefer to take the time to look at each child individually.

I applaud success, and I become very concerned if a child is not thriving, even for a moment on a particular day. I  analyze the many factors involved, and I often follow up with a conversation with that student. Did you eat breakfast? Lunch? Did you sleep last night? Did something happen in the hallway? the bathroom? in homeroom? Did you understand the directions? How do you feel? Did the lesson make sense to you? 

I have learned that I cannot assume. There are many reasons for students to have a “bad day” or a “bad class” at school. My job is to optimize the classroom factors I can control at school for that student and to let the student know that I will never give up on him or her no matter what. Who cares if something works for most students? Different things will work for each and every child in front of us, and we need to take an individualized approach to provide a bridge to  progress and growth.

N must equal 1.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 2

Before beginning The Artist’s Way, I would wake up and instantly reach for my laptop. First e-mail account. Second e-mail account. Third e-mail account. New York Times. I would start the day by drowning my brain in communication with others. Well, The Artist’s Way has changed all that, and now the first thing I do is slide out the drawer of the bedside table to pull out my gold and red Chinese print fabric-covered journal and my InkJoy retractable pen and write down three pages of whatever comes into my mind. Since I am sleeping well for the first time in years, I actually have dreams that I can remember. I usually begin by writing those down, and then I write down whatever else is on my mind. Rather than infecting my brain will e-mails and advertisements, I am beginning the day by slowly massaging the thoughts from my mind and onto paper. It feels great.

Week Two focuses on rediscovering one’s own identity.

The second week of The Artist’s Way focuses on recovering a sense of identity through exploring self-definition, creating boundaries, and exploring one’s personal needs, desires, and interests. Ironically, these themes are something that I periodically I focus on with my own students, yet it never occurred to me to take the time to examine them for myself.

On page 43, Cameron states: “As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think our behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people.”

Prioritizing taking care of others over self-care is an extremely easy trap for those in the teaching profession or any human services career for that matter. In my teaching career, I feel an extremely compelling passion for and responsibility to my students and their families. However, there came a point last year when I began to felt burnt out or, as one friend said, like I’d been put through “the old-time, old-fashioned wringer”. I had spent nearly a decade putting my responsibilities to others over spending time taking care of myself, and I found myself feeling short-tempered, moody, and exhausted. Interestingly, since focusing more attention on myself, I feel more clear-minded, energetic, and self-assured, and I am better able to assist others with my stronger sense of self.

In this chapter, Cameron carefully cautions the reader to be wary of “poisonous playmates” and “crazy makers” in one’s life. She encourages the recovering artist’s to avoid those who diminish our self-worth and increase our skepticism and self-doubt. And she asks the provocative question: “What creative work are you trying to block by staying involved [with those who make you feel terrible and insane]?”

Change Agency: The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

On a snowy New England Sunday, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a 40,000 square foot monument to children’s literature, rests atop frosted grounds nestled inside the Pioneer Valley. The decade-old museum offers several galleries full of picture book art, a children’s library, a café, a bookstore, and a performing arts space. Additionally, the building hosts a packed schedule of arts and literature-based activities for children as well as professional development workshops for educators.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar Car is parked at the entrance.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar Car is parked at the entrance.


Galleries

As in a traditional art museum, curators have neatly mounted the featured pieces at eye level. However, the plaques displayed to the left of each illustration do not necessarily contain information about the artist. Rather, the plaques present a quotation from the text that the illustration elucidates. Benches in each gallery contain boxes of picture books connected to the displayed works, and many visitors go back and forth between looking at the walls of the gallery and browsing the picture books to locate the images in context.

A display of illustrations from a Caribbean retelling of Cinderella

A display of illustrations from a Caribbean retelling of Cinderella with text to the left and illustrations to the right.

Short blocks of text encourage close reading.

Short blocks of text encourage close reading.

Illustrations illuminate the language of the story.

Illustrations illuminate the language of the story.

Unfortunately, visitors are unable to take photos in the main galleries due to issues with the preservation of the artwork; the images above were displayed in the children’s library in a smaller exhibit that featured digital prints from variations of “Cinderella” and “The Three Little Pigs”.

Reading Library

An incredible library of picture books sits at the back of the museum. Tables feature selected display books and accompanying activities.

Library Book on Display: Pezzentino (Italian for "little piece") is a small orange cube that searches for his place in the world.

Library Book on Display: Pezzenttino (Italian for “little piece”) is a small orange cube that searches for his place in the world.

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Library Book on Display: Ganesha the Elephant breaks his tusk while chomping on candy, and he needs help from Vyasa the poet. An accompanying worksheet encourages the writing of an “epic” poem.

Printables from publisher’s websites accompanied both Pezzettino and Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth on the display table.

The Bookstore

Book lovers, leave your wallets at home! It’s a bibliophile’s heaven (or hell, if the bibliophile in question is low on funds).

A modern retelling of Strewwelpeter

A modern retelling of Strewwelpeter, a German cautionary tale

Illustration School series: step-by-step instructions on how to draw really cute things

A volume from the “illustration school” series: step-by-step instructional manuals on how to draw really cute things

The Hungry Caterpillar Bookshelf

This attractive display case featured seasonal books.

This attractive display case featured seasonal books.

Mission Accomplished!

The museum provides a space for "anyone interested in the art of the picture book".

The museum provides a space for anyone “interested in the art of the picture book”.

Change Agency: 826 Boston, Egleston Square’s Inspiration Center

I was really surprised to find myself out on a school night, especially after the very first day of school last Thursday. However, the lure of free pizza, visiting a book store, and talking with writers at non-profit youth tutoring and writing center 826 Boston‘s Write-A-Thon launch party proved irresistible.

826 Boston’s field trips allow classes to create their own publications with each student writing his or her own ending.

“3035 Washington Street,” I told my husband,”It’s right by that Dunkin’ Donuts at Egleston.” We walked toward the building, right on the corner. “Oh, it’s right here at this bank,” I said, as we walked closer. GREATER BOSTON BIGFOOT RESEARCH CENTER read the letters on the front of the building. “Well, this is 3035,” said my husband, ringing the doorbell for 826 Boston. A smiling woman greeted us and quickly escorted us through the “research center” – which turned out to be the clever disguise for 826 Boston’s very own bookstore, full of books published by the organization’s students.

As we entered the back room, the center’s tutoring center, we were presented with hard-cover writing journals as well as name tages to write our pen names – our childhood pet’s name as the first name and our childhood street name as the last name. Assuming my new identity as “Birdy Thornbrook”, I sat down and helped myself to a slice of pizza while I scanned the room. I noticed a cartoon drawing on a white board, a story being typed and displayed on a projector, and another display of a Skype homescrren.

Before we arrived, the other partygoers had created the beginning of an extremely silly story – this particular story was about an animal named Petunia who hoped to become a shortstop for a Syracuse sports team. Then, each participant wrote their own ending to the story, and several of the endings were read to a bearded and bespectacled editor via Skype. It turned out that this activity is exactly what 826 Boston youth visitors experience when they come on school trips to 826 Boston headquarters, and they then receive a copy of the beginning of the story as well as a book with their ending. If the laughter and smiles of adults are any indication of what children experience at the center, it must be a very joyful place.

This assumption was affirmed by my conversations with 826’s volunteers and staff. Northeastern University student Toby Fox, age 20, volunteers at 826 as part of the Civic Engagement Program at the university. He says that he enjoys leading field trips and tutoring students, and he loves seeing the stories that the students write. Although Fox studies environmental science, he says that his experience at 826 has inspired the desire to continue volunteering with youth.

Northeastern University student and 826 volunteer Toby Fox feels inspired by the students at 826’s Egleston Square writing center.

When asked about her favorite publication in the Bigfoot Research Center Bookstore, Store and Events Coordinator Sarah Skolnick responded by showing me A Place for Me in the World, a collection of interviews and prints written by the middle school students at the Mission Hill K-8 School. The interviews focus on the theme of career, and the interviewees consist of professionals working in cake decorating, marine biology, and even government – the grinning jowls in the print portrait of Mayor Thomas M. Menino are immediately recognizable.

Store and Events Coordinator Sara Skolnick (left) and writing teachers Aria Hamada-Forrest (center) and Julie Drench (right) pose with the center’s latest publication, written by Mission Hill School middle schoolers.

826 Program Coordinator Karen Sama claims to face an addiction to the center’s students. She displays her favorite publication, a well-designed palm-sized volume titled A Handbook of Practical Knowledge for the Modern Spy, which I purchased for $5. The book is full of ciphers (I spent about twenty minutes trying the first one, and I plan to return to it later) as well as stories about spies. Sama recalls a memorable student: “His name is Kamari. I remember he never wanted to hear the feedback. He just wanted to finish his stories, and that’s it – just to get them done. Then, one day, he went to put his folder back. It was almost put away, and then he pulled it back close to him. He said he just wanted to add something to his story. It was a great moment.”

Program Coordinator Karen Sama sits among student publications holding her favorite 826 volume.

Note: I have set a goal of raising $250 for 826 Boston’s Write-A-Thon. Please support me in this endeavor if possible.

The Perfect Place for Me: Cabarete Language Institute

Back in March, in the midst of state testing and a flurry of IEP meetings, I was online one night, and I found a $500 plane ticket to travel to the Dominican Republic, where I volunteered for three summers, for three weeks in August. I had neither arranged a place to stay nor did I have any plans of what I would do there, but I decided to buy the ticket anyway.

Myself, Elena, and Nataly (my classmate) outside of CLI on my final day there.

But how would I spend my time? Yes, I can visit friends and former students, but what else? I know myself, and I need to have some sort of schedule. Aha! I can study Spanish at Cabarete Language Institute. I had heard great things about the school from a friend who had studied there, but I had my doubts that I could succeed in a Spanish class. I learned Spanish as an adult from my Dominican and Puerto Rican students in Boston and from living and working in Cabarete for three summers. My Spanish was a teacher’s Spanish and a Spanish from the streets. I could communicate basic information about school events and meetings to my students’ families, even on the phone. But, there are still hiccups, gaps, and stops once the context changed or the ideas became more complex. I had taken Spanish in high school, and that’s how I learned the basics. I had tried a popular course at a local adult education center, but I dropped out because I felt uninspired. I received a scholarship to attend an evening program at a prominent Ivy League university, and the teacher bored me. Although my two weeks at Cabarete Language Institute did not make me a perfect Spanish speaker, they did instill my faith that I was capable of refining my Spanish in a classroom setting. I found that, for myself as a learner, Cabarete Language Institute provided the perfect place for me.

Spanish Immersion
When I entered Cabarete Language Institute for the very first time, Rosa, a cheerful and enthusiastic intern from Venezuela, greeted me in Spanish. I took classes from 10 am – 1 pm each day, and for that time, except for a few clarifications in English, I heard, spoke, read, and wrote in Spanish and Spanish only. Even during our charlar con café coffee breaks, we spoke in Spanish and we were provided with feedback from our fantastic teacher…

From L to R: Elena, Nataly, Me, Al (another student), Rosa, Jessica

Elena
Elena is a teacher’s teacher. As a teacher myself, I judge other teacher’s strongly, and Elena exceeded all of my expectations. First of all, Elena knew her content. Elena is a native Spanish speaker from Spain who has lived in the Dominican Republic for a little under two years. Elena knows her Spanish backwards and forwards, and she even studied philology (which I learned is the history and structure of languages). Elena makes the students feel so welcome and comfortable in her classes – she asks lots of questions, and she is interested in learning about her students. She sets clear goals and she provided us with interesting classwork assignments, such as listening to and dictating lyrics, creating shared narratives using various verb structures, and discussing personal experiences, and homework tasks – such as constructing questions based on common interests and writing summaries of a wordless film. Elena provides consistent feedback and corrections in a way that supports students in their language learning without making us feel stupid or overwhelmed.

Elena (center) in action: a dynamic and professional teacher.

A Welcoming Atmosphere
Jessica, the director of Cabarete Language Institute, was prompt in responding to any communication over e-mail before the class started. When I arrived at Cabarete Language Institute on the very first day, I noticed that the chalkboard in the lobby read ¡Bienvenidos Jenny! The lobby also contained a library of books in a variety of languages, which is a treasure in Cabarete where there are no book stores and a few extremely tiny library collections here and there in shops and non-profits. For me, personally, a particular highlight was the free coffee, milk, and sugar provided by Cabarete Language Institute. I am a shameless lover of coffee, so it suited me perfectly! The classrooms are comfortable and airy, and the teachers and staff are hospitable, professional, and able to answer any questions about Cabarete.

Welcome sign and library in the lobby.

I wish I could spend a whole year at Cabarete Language Institute. Between the wonderful atmosphere, classmates, teachers, and students, it is the perfect place for me. It would benefit my Spanish incredibly to work with a talented and experienced teacher like Elena, and I love the enthusiastic, warm, and caring atmosphere of the school. Although I am now back to my reality in the United States, I am fortunate that Elena and Cabarete Language Institute provided me with the confidence to continue my pursuit of “perfect” or at least “progressive” Spanish.