Big Plans, Small Steps and A Significant Shift

picture of water with ripples from a skipping stone

Our goal was to overhaul the traditional approach to teaching middle school math in an attempt to excite students about the subject and engage them in new ways of thinking about mathematical ideas.

It had been Bia’s idea for us to team up in the classroom. We’d worked together before and had dreamed of a chance like this. When Bia asked the principal if the two of us could revise the math curriculum and redesign our teaching practices, the principal said yes.

Whoa. This was a wonderful moment. Also a little terrifying. It was one thing to believe in the work to be done. It was another thing altogether to actually sit down and do the work.

I’ve recently been thinking about that work with Bia. In small but significant ways, I liken the process of our mathematics instructional overhaul to the process of implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Although our focus was specific to the learning of mathematics, the work we did required an architectural redesign and a big mind shift.
 
I wasn’t aware of UDL at that time. Resources such as the UDL guidelines (CAST) would’ve been invaluable.

First of all, just getting started was a big obstacle for me. We relied on guiding principles and research about mathematics education, but began this work primarily with a collection of standards, topics, lesson ideas, and a head full of very strong convictions. The process of sorting out big ideas, key concepts and content standards was painstaking; organizing those things into some kind of cohesive teaching flow felt like an impossible feat.

Secondly, the primary goal of our work was to engage students in mathematics. Thinking about access, what it would mean for all students, how to ensure it, and how to make it the rule rather than the exception was at the crux of all of our conversations. We relied heavily on visual representations of ideas, and problems that were embedded in story. However, it would have been amazing to utilize additional strategies, technologies and materials that help lessen or eliminate barriers to educational content.

To note some specifics about UDL (UDL at a Glance):
  • It’s an approach to curriculum, not a prescribed formula to be followed.
  • It’s about honoring all students and their unique ways of learning and based on brain research.
  • A primary goal is to minimize barriers and maximize learning for all students.
  • It necessitates the curriculum be designed for access from the very beginning.
  • The design process must go beyond access to ensure appropriate support and challenge.
These were important tenets of our work as well. UDL speaks to the core of what I believe as an educator and to a vision about how I believe things should work in the world. I think the beauty of UDL is that philosophically it tugs at the heartstrings of every teacher out there, no matter the grade, subject, specialty or circumstance.  

The middle school students (gr 6-8) with whom Bia and I worked were not grouped by age, grade or ability, and inclusion students were a part of each class make up. We wanted to ensure every student would have an entry point to every mathematical task, and that every student would have the means to share his/her thinking about any given task.

Our approach included making subtle changes to the classroom routine and physical environment to give students more choice and responsibility. These changes also enhanced opportunities for small group discussion, hands-on exploration and individual pacing. We implemented contextually rich mathematical investigations that were relevant to the student population we served.

While this was a continually daunting endeavor for us, one thing I can say for sure is that small, purposeful steps make surprisingly huge shifts in the desired direction. Surely the same is true with respect to UDL. The shift will be gradual, but it can happen nonetheless.

A podcast I listen to, “Akimbo” (Seth Godin), is described this way:

"Akimbo is an ancient word, from the bend in the river or the bend in an archer's bow. It's become a symbol for strength, a posture of possibility, the idea that when we stand tall, arms bent, looking right at it, we can make a difference.

Akimbo's a podcast about our culture and about how we can change it. About seeing what's happening and choosing to do something.

The culture is real, but it can be changed. You can bend it."

I love that phrase “posture of possibility.” I love the vision of standing in a "posture of possibility" and choosing to make a difference. Akimbo!


(If you’re reading this, you’re likely already aware of PATINS’ no-cost services, including our UDL support and resources. Let us know how we can help!)

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A Case for Meaningful Context and Unpredictable Connections


This is a story about James. Actually, it’s a story about James and Mr. Tooley; the two of them were inseparable outside of school.


James was in 5th grade when I first met him. We worked together on math concepts once a week after school. We primarily focused on fractions and decimals, which he absolutely detested.

Generally, on Tuesday afternoons, I went to James’ school, where we met in the cafeteria for an hour. A teacher friend had asked if I’d be willing to help James. She said, “He’s such a sweet boy, but struggling in school.”

I agreed to work with James and soon discovered he was absolutely amazing.

As the week of Spring Break grew near, James’ mother, Ruth, asked if I’d be available to work with him over break. So that particular week, I went to James’ home for our math session.

Ruth met me at the front door, “Hi. Before you come inside, I need to ask if you have any problem being around pets.” I said I was fine with pets and just assumed the family dog or cat would greet me when I walked through the door. 

front porch view of door slightly open
 
I wish I had a picture of my face when James came around the corner with Mr. Tooley on his shoulder. Mr. Tooley was James’ pet crow.

Prior to meeting James, my experience with crows had been minimal. I didn’t know anything about crows except how they looked and how they sounded. I didn’t care for either. Glimpses of crows picking at roadkill tended to disturb me.

What happened between James and me, once Mr. Tooley (Mr. T) entered the scene was the best tutoring I ever experienced. In the name of full disclosure, James was definitely the tutor; I was his tutee. Mr. T was teacher, friend, and comedian to everyone he encountered.

James used our weekly sessions to teach me all about Mr. T. We never met in the school cafeteria again. He and his entire family thoroughly enjoyed surprising me with Mr. T’s feats of wit or ingenuity.

A favorite family game with Mr. T was Hide and Seek. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. I was surprised how clever and engaging Mr. T was, no matter what game we played with him.

Coincidentally, with Mr. T’s assistance, James would tackle almost anything academic, mathematical or otherwise. James was completely invested in any activity that involved Mr. T because he was completely invested in that crow.

James had tremendous knowledge of crows and other birds. He also loved to draw. Although his fingers were not formed in the same way as most of his peers, he was able to use any type of drawing tool he wanted in order to accomplish any effect he desired. His artwork, as well as his imagination was remarkable. 

black and white illustration of man lying on stomach reading a book with three crows near him
Over time, James shared incredible stories with me. They all traced back to Mr. T in one way or another. We worked together to bring his stories to life. He wrote, spoke and drew them into life, then revised and retold them all over again.

There were innumerable ways to incorporate mathematics into our time together. James seemed to love them all. He wasn’t frustrated or defeated, even when we worked on fractions and decimals.

He loved to prepare fractional amounts of seeds, nuts and pieces of fruit for Mr. T’s food and then calculate the percentage of each that Mr. T ate. He was also motivated to figure out the annual cost of owning Mr. T, which then prompted him to do a price comparison of cages in order to lobby for a new one.

For James, the context was meaningful, which made the content palatable, even intriguing.

In the end, I’m sure I learned more from James than he learned from me. I’m also sure he impacted my way of thinking more than I impacted his.

My preconceived notions about crows had been based on physical attributes, limited experience and no real knowledge. My preliminary thoughts about working with James had been based on curriculum guidelines, classroom settings and personal agendas.

Sometimes it helps to have another person invite you into new ways of thinking and new possibilities. James (with the help of Mr. T and his family) did that for me.

I didn’t work with James in a classroom setting, but I still think this is a powerful testimony for employing the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the classroom.

UDL is not about the wit of a crow or a fifth grader’s distaste for mathematics. But it is about what happens when such things collide into purposeful, accessible and motivating ways, allowing students to flourish academically.

At PATINS, we know it’s darn near impossible to stop students from making educational strides if they enjoy or believe in what they’re learning, and when they have the access and means for this learning to take place.

Give us a “caw” if we can help your UDL plans take flight.

American crow in flight with blue sky background


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It's the Thought That Counts

a person's open hands holding a small wrapped giftbox

If you celebrate the holidays that take place this time of year, there’s a good chance gift giving is a part of that celebration.


I love to give gifts. I enjoy it even more when I think I’ve come up with something the recipient might actually like. But I usually find myself slightly stressed this time of year, and frequently at a loss when it comes to determining gifts for the people on my list.

Gift giving will be a different kind of experience for me this year. One reason for this is that my son’s family recently expanded to include three foster siblings, (2 year-old boy, 4 year-old girl & 7 year-old boy) in addition to their 18 month-old daughter.

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While I had an idea about the kind of gifts I wanted to give the them, I had no clear sense about how or where to start. I began thinking about the kids, both individually and collectively. I tried to figure out what I knew about their likes and dislikes, unique characteristics, strengths and challenges, and anything else I had come to understand about them.

I factored in the kinds of experiences I hoped my gift selections might offer, as well as elements I thought they’d value and derive maximum enjoyment from. I tried to take into consideration the physical space of their home and the general environment in which they live and play. I did a lot of Internet searching, asking friends and colleagues, and just plain contemplating.

Looking back, I realize my approach for gift decision-making wasn’t scientific or profound. Yet I also recognize the value of working through the process in the way that I did. It allowed me to identify what was most important about my gift selections.

Ah-ha! The connection.

As it turns out, my gift selection process closely resembles the process I used to go through on a regular basis when creating lesson plans as a teacher. I’d start with the general vision in mind (like the goal, standard, topic), then work through multiple layers of available information until I felt I’d reached as much clarity and discernment as possible. At that point I’d feel ready to turn plans into action.

Lesson designing was always a labor-intensive endeavor for me, as I think it is for many teachers. There is much necessary intentionality of design - planning, research, collaboration, and a great deal of deep thinking.

Deep thinking about:
  • the students - what is known as well as what’s unknown
  • the goals - what is intended, hoped for, expected, assumed
  • the obstacles - what stands in the way or threatens to impede the child or the goal

Now, as educators begin looking ahead to the implications of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its numerous endorsements of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I am excited about the improved potential impact. This is because UDL guides the process for curriculum development in such a way that
all students are able to access, participate in, and enjoy rich and meaningful learning opportunities.


At the design level within UDL, potential obstacles are eliminated (or at least minimized); the learning environment is set up with everyone in mind; and students’ variability is not only acknowledged, but also honored. There are no average students, no singled-out special cases, and no exceptions to the original plan. A UDL plan for instruction is intended and designed to be fully inclusive.

The lesson design process may continue to be a fairly labor-intensive process, even with the clear principles and supportive guidelines of UDL. But I believe when we’re engaged in deep thinking about the work we do, and about the students we teach, the process will always be a sort of labor of love.

If you’re curious about UDL or ready to dive in, you can access helpful information from the PATINS’ UDL resource page located on our website. There’s even an online tool to help you create your own UDL lesson plan from scratch. Our PATINS blog, as well as our weekly #PatinsIcam Twitter Chat regularly includes great ideas and insights related to UDL. (You can read archived blogs and chats at anytime!)

Finally, whether you’re just beginning or already implementing a UDL approach in your classroom or school, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact us to share your UDL questions, experiences and expertise. We’d love to support you wherever you are in the process of ensuring access to the curriculum for all students!

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De–Clutter Is De-Problem - Lack of Headspace Causes Havoc

Colorful image depicting visual clutter, busyness

My kitchen table is a disaster. The table itself is fine. It’s all the junk on top of the table that’s a problem. Obviously, I haven’t been serving any elegant meals lately. (Clever tactic, if I do say so myself.)

I decided to tackle the semi-organized chaos when my eyes caught sight of a Health & Wellness newsletter that was partially buried. It seemed to be mocking me with its title: The Mental Cost of Clutter. Ironic, I thought.

image of cluttered tabletop

I quickly glanced around the house and determined I was safe - no real clutter around except for this stupid table. I skimmed the article just to be sure I wasn’t harboring some unknown health issue.

According to this article’s source, statistics show that:
  • Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), making our senses work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.
  • Clutter constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done.
Other negative impacts were cited in the article, but these two caught my attention and prompted me to Google clutter, and declutter.

Apparently, I have more of a problem than I thought.

image of female headshot of smirk expression
Here are some of my red flags:
  • I’ve never been through a 15-step declutter program or 30-day declutter challenge
  • I don’t have a Pinterest collection of Top 10 Ways to Eliminate Clutter
  • I don’t belong to a Clutterless Recovery Group or to Clutterers Anonymous

Admitting the problem is the first step.


I’m actually pretty careful about physical clutter. To be honest, I’m pretty much an organizational freak (which is an entirely different Google search…). Nonetheless, I’m fairly organized - except for my kitchen table area. I don’t think physical clutter is my problem.

However, clutter inside my head – now that’s a different issue. The cumulative amount of stuff running around in the confined space of my head is definitely a source of messiness for me.

This mental clutter consists of new input, old residue, and every drive-by source of stimuli in between which, when combined, ends up consuming too much space inside my head. When headspace has no white space, the result is mental clutter.

If I’m in a state of mind-full clutter, I’m likely to become distracted more easily and focus on unnecessary or unimportant details. If I’m struggling to curate the information in my own head, my ability to transfer new information into learning is minimal.

Note to self: Less clutter. More curation.

Distractibility, excess stimuli, information overload, and internalized stress are all known to be barriers to learning. We may not know how prevalent the issue of mental clutter is, but we do know barriers like these negatively impact the learning process.

image of barrier, barbed-wire fence around a field

In and out of the classroom, we know the advantage and importance of developing strong executive functioning skills. Everyone benefits from support in this area. (Case in point: me. I rest my case.)

I love the way Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation is described by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University:

Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

I sure could use a Captain Sullenberger Level of Executive Functioning right about now. And while I can’t offer a 15-step program for mental decluttering, or a 30-day challenge to eliminate all barriers to learning, I can offer a few resources to support students in the development of their own executive functioning:

Composite Lists of Recommended Apps:
Apps for Mindmapping & Habit Building:
Don’t Forget About Built-In Tools Such As:
Gotta run now - my kitchen table’s overflowing with inedible objects….

What are your favorite resources and strategies? We’d love to hear from you!
Or, feel free to contact us with questions you may have. We’re here for you!


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The Best Next Step

I’ve had the opportunity this past year to attend several workshops and conference sessions focused on innovative uses of technology in the classroom. I’ve been excited and inspired by the ideas, activities, strategies and suggestions for using technology in meaningful, engaging and thought-provoking ways with students.

These are the kinds of learning opportunities all students (and teachers) should be engaging in and benefiting from. These are not experiences designed solely for the purpose of using technology. Nor have they been designed exclusively for the adventurous, the extraordinary or for those with too much time on their hands. These are experiences designed for content-rich, level-appropriate learning opportunities that incorporate technology.

Yet, in nearly every session I’ve attended, a handful of attendees have commented on challenges they face either with getting technology into their classrooms, or with being able to fully utilize the technology they have. The challenges mentioned include things like inconsistent internet access, restrictive internet blocking, lack of training, lack of training on devices, lack of time for training, lack of technology plans, lack of technical support, and lack of funds.   

A handful of situations where challenges like these exist may not seem like much of an issue, but I wonder how many students are being impacted by each of these situations? Even a handful of these kinds of potential barriers is too much. A barrier is still a barrier for the person(s) being impacted.

This has caused me to think deeply about the disparity that exists between technology-rich and technology-less environments. It doesn’t mean that an impressive and powerful learning environment cannot exist with little or no technology. Nor should we assume that wherever technology is plentiful, the learning will be guaranteed and abundant. However, it does mean we have not yet reached a level of equitable access to technology for every school and every classroom. While I’m sure we can’t afford to be okay with this status, I certainly realize the magnitude and complexity of a viable solution.

Likewise, I’ve been thinking about the notion of ensuring equitable access and equitable use of technology for every single student. As in:

  • All students should have access to technology that allows them to learn and survive in the ways they need.

  • All students should have access to current and emerging technologies and to technologies that extend their own thinking about ideas, experiences and the world around them.

  • All students should be able to use these technologies (not just have access to), as much and as often as needed, with the level of proficiency needed, and in ways that provide similar experiences with the technology as their peers are able to receive.

All students, not just some.

When I think about the question “So what do we do?” I realize there is much that can be done, no matter the particular circumstance. There is always a best next step. One great starting point is to consider what technology already exists and explore how it can be used to improve students’ (and teachers’) lives. No matter what your current situation is, it’s important to clarify (and share) key thinking around the following kinds of questions:

  1. What does it look like to use technology in the classroom in such a way that it becomes meaningfully infused into students’ lives?

  2. What message(s) will we send to students and others by virtue of the technology we use - or don’t use - in our instruction and daily life?

  3. What measures can we take as we design instruction that will incorporate the use of technology to enable and encourage students’ thinking?

Moreover, the best suggestion I can offer anyone is to call upon the expertise, resources and support available through PATINS-ICAM Project. Services are at no cost to Indiana public/charter schools & educators. So borrow an item, seek an in-class consultation, submit a request for refurbished tech; you can request services just because! (No IEP required.)

Here are highlights from my own learning opportunities with PATINS-ICAM, but you’ll want to discover these and others on your own:

Let PATINS help with your best next step!

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What We Can Learn Through the Eyes of a Child

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Meet Nora. The most amazing Little on the face of the earth, A.K.A.my granddaughter.

At ten months of age, she is taking on the world around her. Among other things, she is busy exploring her physical environment, deepening her connections with others both socially and emotionally, and encountering the language around her with great zeal.

Like many children, her parents and numerous others have a vested interest in providing her with multiple ways to engage in their world of language and their methods of communication. She is enjoying a variety of experiences that include read alouds, interactive books, rhythm and rhyme, movement, body language, facial expressions, physical contact, tactile explorations and more.

As I’ve watched Nora light up with joy when her mother sings songs and chants rhymes with her, my mind has repeatedly gone back to a Hands Land workshop I attended this past fall. The workshop featured American Sign Language (ASL) rhymes and rhythms designed for young children whose native language is ASL. (I do not know very much ASL, by the way.)

The Hands Land ASL rhymes and rhythms are specifically designed to promote language acquisition, phonological awareness and foundation for literacy. During the workshop, we experienced a variety of activities that incorporated story, rhythm, rhyme, movement, body language, facial expressions and more. I’m pretty sure I lit up with the same joy I’ve seen roll across Nora’s face so many times.

The value and importance of early and consistent language development is a well-proven fact. Children who are deaf and hard of hearing experience the world through a visual lens; their language is visual and their learning style is visual. As a point of clarification, children who are hard of hearing who use listening and spoken language are still reliant on visual language learning, such as lip reading and body language.

A fully accessible language with which children can interact naturally is vital for every child. The problem is many children who are deaf and hard of hearing have less access to early and consistent language than their hearing counterparts. While children who are deaf and hard of hearing use visual language and visual learning, they may come to school without having had the necessary exposure and access to their natural language and learning style.

According to Marschark and Hauser, in their book How Deaf Children Learn, there is a positive correlation between children who have a strong early language foundation and their cognitive development. The issue of being deaf has no negative impact on cognitive development; rather, it is an issue of not having had enough access to language. The particular background of every child who is deaf or hard of hearing varies dramatically related to how he or she has learned language and how he or she uses language for communication.

This information is significant to me for a number of reasons:

1) It challenges me to think about my own communication methods and the ways in which I interact with the students I encounter.

2) I realize I have much to learn from each and every student regarding his or her particular background with language and his or her use of that language for communication.

3) Even if I know the preferred language and communication method of a student, it doesn’t mean that he or she has had sufficient exposure or access to it.

4) There is joy in the acquisition of language and in being able to communicate with other people. That’s called human connection. I want to do everything within my power to facilitate that kind of joy.

PATINS is here to support you in every way we can. It brings us great joy to make new connections and to deepen already established ones! Give us a call!

* An informative, free online course by Gallaudet University, “Educating Students Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: A Guide for Professionals in General Education Settings” offers a wealth of knowledge, insights and instructional strategies related to the education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing. This course served as a key source of information for this writing.



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Taking a Backward Glance Into the Future

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Dear Colleague ** Student ** Letter


 
Dear Shaunteé,

You’ve been on my mind quite a bit lately. I’m writing these words in an attempt to make sense of why that is. It’s been a long time since our paths crossed.

I came to your classroom as a first-year teacher. It was a third grade, full inclusion classroom, with 43 students crammed in the room. You might not remember the first part of the year because you weren’t there very often. It was absolute chaos. I don’t remember much of it myself. The class number adjusted to 35 students by the end of October but there was still plenty of chaos.

As for you, well, you could often be spotted outside the classroom window on your bike, riding furiously up and down the sidewalk. You would ride up close to our classroom window and laugh wildly as if to mock those of us trapped inside the four walls you detested.

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I was told by a few of the more experienced teachers there was “just no getting through to Shaunteé.” They would say to me, “You need to focus on the ones you can help, starting with the ones who actually come to school. Just concentrate on the ones who are teachable.

I knew those words weren’t true. I wanted to be strong enough to fight upstream against that trending mindset. But to be brutally honest, it was usually easier when you didn’t come to school. Even as a new teacher, my observation abilities were pretty astute – our system of school wasn’t working for you.

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You had few connections to anything that happened at school.

Your records branded you as non-communicative, non-verbal and non-performing in most areas. You didn’t use many words but you did communicate your likes and dislikes on more than one occasion. You liked numbers and shapes. You liked figuring things out. You liked riding your bike. You didn’t like being cold. You didn’t like books. You hated sitting at your desk.

I had realized very early on that school was no joy for you, but it didn’t take long before I felt as if I’d exhausted every option for making it better. I fought harder some days than others; sometimes I fought for you; sometimes I just fought not to fight against you.

I know now that so many of the struggles – yours, mine and ours – were struggles that fundamentally shaped my teaching practice. I also know that a portion of those struggles came from me trying to fix you rather than honor you, from focusing more on students blending in rather than belonging, and from valuing an ideal classroom more than an effective learning community.

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The process of looking backward and reflecting on our experience has helped me envision experiences for teachers and students that are more impactful, intentionally designed and thoughtfully executed. As I’ve become immersed in Universal Design Learning (UDL), I’ve figured out why you’ve been on my mind so much. If your school experience had been framed through the UDL framework, you might’ve found more reasons to come into the school instead of riding past it on your bike.

I know UDL wasn’t around when you were in my class so let me explain briefly. UDL is a framework for guiding educational practices that reach all students in the classroom. This framework acknowledges and accommodates the variability of learners; it negates the notion of “one size fits all.” Goals, assessments, materials, and methods are designed with consideration for all learners. The principles of UDL necessitate that students have options and multiple ways to engage, flexibility in the way material is represented and offered to them, and choice when determining how they respond and express themselves.

The UDL framework honors the belief that all students can learn and achieve.

Imagine having options as a kinesthetic learner, allowing you to move and explore the space around you. Imagine having the choice to build, take apart and design things using a variety of textures, objects and mediums. Imagine having access to learning opportunities just like other students. Imagine being supported to express yourself in ways you never thought possible.

Imagine wanting to come to school, and being valued as an important member of the class.

Am I thinking unrealistically or dreaming the impossible?
I don’t think so. And I think you’d agree with me.

Sincerely,
#ThxShaunteé

P.S. PATINS Specialists are here to help you with your big (and small) steps to change the world for your students!
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Daniel G. McNulty
You, Vicki Walker, fully embrace the passion that leads to fundamental changes in the quality of life for the one starfish left on... Read More
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Rachel Herron
Vicki, this blog touched on ALL of the emotions that a teacher might have with a challenging student! You are so right...the pri... Read More
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