Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Kids' Book of Questions

Here’s a quick little time filler I reach for over and over when I have just a few minutes of class time remaining with grades 2-5. I have even used it as a whole class lesson with 4th and 5th grade a time or two.  It is The Kids' Book of Questions by  Gregory Stock, Ph.D.  

I found this little book of over 200 questions at a book sale several years ago.  It generates silly, insightful, and thought provoking comments and discussions from students and is a great way to practice discussion rules too. The first time I opened its' pages and began to read a few random questions, I knew my students would be unable to resist the chance to share their thoughts and opinions!

As I previewed the book, I found a few questions I felt were more appropriate for one-on-one situations rather than a whole class setting (questions about adoption, being touched by an uncle, God and religion).  So, I wrote down the numbers of every question I thought was appropriate for the classroom or group setting on small 1 inch by 1 inch squares of paper.  I put the squares in a small tub and was ready for class.  I allowed the student(s)with the birthday closest to the day I was playing the "Question Game" to choose a number from the tub.  The student would read the number chosen and I would read the corresponding question to the class and let the student who chose the question answer first.  Hands start shooting up all over the room, others blurt out in excitement, all eager to share their thoughts.

Sample questions include:  
"Would you rather have a strict teacher who was fair and taught you a lot or one who was relaxed and fun and didn't teach you very much?" 
"When you make a mistake do you make up excuses?  If so, do you think people believe you?"
"If you woke up tomorrow and by magic were already grown-up and had kids of your own, how would you treat them differently than your parents treat you?"
"If you were to be granted any one magical power you wanted, what would you pick?"
"When did you get yourself in the biggest mess by telling a lie? What do you think would have happened if you just told the truth?"
"Make believe right now you have to pick the job you will have as an adult. What is the best job you can think of?  What is the worst?"
"Have you ever farted and blamed someone else?"

As you can see there are questions of every type from serious to silly to questions involving values and ideas about the future.  Students love the "Question Game" and you will love the way it gets them thinking and talking and sharing!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Find Your Marigold

I have been privileged to serve as a mentor for a fellow counselor this year.  At the beginning of the year I attended a training about what our district expects of mentors.  While there I heard a powerful story called “Find Your Marigold.”  I was instantly struck by the metaphor of m­­­­­­­­­arigolds and walnut trees. The insight and cleverness as it relates to the experience of the first year of teaching, and yes School Counseling at any number of years, had me cheering silently in my seat.  Many times during my career I have felt the “walnut trees” poisoned my enthusiasm, my ideas, my programs, and other colleagues.  You have probably witnessed this as well.

One of my new favorite websites/blogs is Cult of Pedagogy.  Its author is Jennifer Gonzalez a former middle school language arts teacher and now college educator. You may wonder why an Elementary School Counselor would be interested in the postings of a former teacher turned college professor?  Jennifer is funny, insightful and POSITIVE.  She loves students and teaching and has a plethora of ideas which can support all educators with tips from classroom management to technology to book reviews to videos.   Her advice is simple, straightforward, and a great resource for School Counselors to improve our own classroom teaching skills and to provide advice for the teachers with whom we work who may need extra support in some of their classroom management or teaching techniques.

 Find Your MarigoldThe following blog post is from Cult of Pedagogy, August 29, 2013.  It is re-printed here with permission of the author Jennifer Gonzalez.  Thank you Jennifer for your permission and for verbalizing not only what new teachers face, but what we as School Counselors, both new and experienced, encounter on a daily basis!

Welcome to your first year of teaching. This year will test you more intensely than just about anything you’ve done up to now. It will deplete all your energy, bring you to tears, and make you question every talent or skill you thought you had. But all these tests, if you approach them the right way, will leave you better and stronger than you are today.
Advice is available everywhere you look, and some of it is very good. Still, with everything you have to do right now, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all. And the fact is, a lot of those tips won’t work very well if you fail to follow this one essential rule:
Surround yourself with good people.
By finding the positive, supportive, energetic teachers in your school and sticking close to them, you can improve your job satisfaction more than with any other strategy. And your chances of excelling in this field will skyrocket. Just like a young seedling growing in a garden, thriving in your first year depends largely on who you plant yourself next to.

The Marigold Effect

Many experienced gardeners follow a concept called companion planting: placing certain vegetables and plants near each other to improve growth for one or both plants. For example, rose growers plant garlic near their roses because it repels bugs and prevents fungal diseases. Among companion plants, the marigold is one of the best: It protects a wide variety of plants from pests and harmful weeds. If you plant a marigold beside most any garden vegetable, that vegetable will grow big and strong and healthy, protected and encouraged by its marigold.
Marigolds exist in our schools as well – encouraging, supporting and nurturing growing teachers on their way to maturity. If you can find at least one marigold in your school and stay close to them, you will grow. Find more than one and you will positively thrive.
Few teachers will be lucky enough to be planted close to a marigold – being assigned to one as a mentor, co-teacher, or team leader will be rare. You will have to seek them out. You can identify them by the way they congratulate you on arrival, rather than asking why anyone would want this godforsaken job. Or by the way their offers to help sound sincere. Or just by how you feel when you’re with them: Are you calmer, more hopeful? Excited to get started on a teaching task? Comfortable asking questions, even the stupid ones? If you feel good around this person, chances are they have some marigold qualities.
Find Your MarigoldOnce you’ve identified your marigolds, make an effort to spend time with them. Having a hard day? Go to your marigolds. Not understanding how to operate the grade reporting system? Go to your marigolds. Confused by something the principal said at the faculty meeting? Marigolds. They may be on the other side of the building, out of your grade or subject area, or otherwise less convenient to reach than others. If your school is especially toxic, you might have to find your marigolds in another school, or even online. Make the effort. It’s worth the trouble.

Beware the Walnut Trees

While seeking out your marigolds, you’ll need to take note of the walnut trees. Successful gardeners avoid planting vegetables anywhere near walnut trees, which give off a toxic substance that can inhibit growth, wilt, and ultimately kill nearby vegetable plants. And sadly, if your school is like most, walnut trees will be abundant. They may not seem dangerous at first. In fact, some may appear to be good teachers – happy, social, well-organized. But here are some signs that you should keep your distance: Their take on the kids is negative. Their take on the administration is negative. Being around them makes you feel insecure, discouraged, overwhelmed, or embarrassed.
WALNUT TREES ARE POISON. Avoid them whenever you can. If you don’t, they will start to infect you, and soon you’ll hate teaching as much as they do.
Doing this may be a challenge: Your supervisor might be a walnut tree. You may be co-teaching with one. You might work on a whole team of walnut trees, spending hours with them every week. Touching base with your marigolds will help flush out the toxins that build up from contact with the walnut trees. On top of that, simply identifying certain co-workers as walnut trees can help dilute their power over you. If I’d had a label I could mentally place on certain people in the schools where I worked, they would have had far less of an impact on me.
So in the spirit of identification, here are some common walnut tree varieties to look out for:
Kid-Hatin’ Kate, who will snort every time you share a positive anecdote about your students. Spend enough time with her and you’ll believe every single one of them is a lying, cheating little sneak and you’re a fool if you think otherwise.
Retirement Dan, who regularly reports on how many years he has left before he’s “outta here.” He then adds with a chuckle that you have about thirty, right? Dan will find your enthusiasm about school “cute,” but will then tell you to “just wait…it’ll wear off.”
Twenty-Page Tina, who sets impossibly high standards for her students and brags when kids fail. You had your kids write a five-page paper? Tina assigned twenty. Your mid-term had fifty questions? Tina’s had a hundred and fifty, and only a dozen kids passed it. The students say her exams are the only ones they ever have to study for. After talking to Tina, you’ll feel the urge to triple your kids’ workload and add at least ten trick questions to your assessments, just to get your average down.
Badass Bobby, who overhears you talking about your students acting up in class and says, “They would never try that crap in my room.” Whenever you leave a conversation with him, you go and scream at your kids.
Hattie-Who-Hates-the-Principal. Self-explanatory.
Lawsuit Steve, who sees you touch a student’s forearm and says you better watch out. He “had to give up hugs years ago” and is always reminding you to “be careful.”
My-Time Margaret, who counts the number of minutes she got for lunch, complains about serving one more day of car-rider duty than anyone else, and knows precisely what time she’s legally required to be in the building each day (not a minute earlier).
And Good-Old-Days Judy, who hates anything new and never fails to mention how much better things used to be.
Be especially vigilant during PDs, when you’ll find yourself in a veritable forest of walnut trees. It will be the worst when the presenter asks you perform some task – read student work, for example – in groups. The trees will slowly turn toward the center, leaves rustling, snarky comments dropping off their branches like walnuts whacking the table. It won’t matter how potentially interesting the activity might be, as soon as they huddle up it will be snark, snark, ugly, ugly, hate, hate. When this happens, recognize that you are surrounded, hold tight to your roots, and remember your marigolds.

Get What You Can, Where You Can

Your search for marigolds will yield imperfect results: Not everyone is all-marigold or all-walnut tree. There will be some in the building who just make you happy – go to them for a mood boost. Some who aren’t terribly good at the teaching part, but love the kids to death – seek them out when you need to be reminded of how much you love them, too. Others will take care of you – encourage you to rest, slack off a little, not beat yourself up. And some who are intensely into the craft, who always have a great strategy on hand and keep up on current research – they can really help you stretch your abilities. Learn who has what marigold qualities and get what you can from each of them.
Finally, try to find some compassion for the walnut trees. Their toxicity comes from a place of real pain, and they themselves probably fell under the influence of the walnut trees who came before them. Plus, it’s not like their complaints have no basis in reality. Teaching is a ridiculously hard job, some say almost impossible – like climbing Mount Everest (if you’ll allow for one last metaphor). Still, you’re aware of the difficulty, and though many before you have failed, you have accepted the challenge.
Before you climb that peak, you’ll need to choose a sherpa to escort you through the trek. The first option is Walter Nutt, who starts by asking why in the world you’d want to do something like this. He describes the many others who have died trying to do this climb, how sick you’ll get, how people have polluted the trail, all but destroying what was once a pristine and beautiful mountain. The second option, Mary Gold, congratulates you on your courage, sits down with you to map out some important strategies, and finishes off by saying It’s a crazy-hard, mammoth task, but you know what? We’re going to kick that mountain’s ass.
Who do you want leading you up that peak?
Find your marigolds and stick close to them. Grow big and strong. Kick that mountain’s ass. ♦
Thank you Jennifer!  Be sure to visit her website at and sign up as a subscriber!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Teambuilding Lessons

Here are  four some simple team building lessons that require minimal preparation and are great to do with grades 3-5. I have enjoyed doing these lessons over the years with my students.  I hope you and your students will enjoy them as well.

The first is my Introduction to Team Building.  It gets the students thinking about their various team experiences and what it takes to make a team. Student groups are challenged to arrange themselves in different configurations. Watch for who's a good listener, leader, or encourager in this activity.

Next is an activity called Snowbound.  I got this one from a Cooperative Learning workshop I attended many years ago.  Students must decide as a team what supplies to take as they leave their plane crash to search for help.

Students will enjoy getting their creativity going by Building a Car.  The idea of  teamwork on an assembly line is the main focus here. Everyone  must cooperate to "build" (draw)as many cars as possible before the competitors finish theirs. Also a great lesson for career week.

Cooperation Spelling gets two groups of students competing with one another in a team spelling bee. Teams must  organize themselves and spell their word using  pre-made  alphabet index cards and the brainpower of the team. Teamwork and cooperation are a must to beat the clock and spell your team's word correctly.

The Handcuffs Puzzle is a lot of fun too.  You will need long pieces of string or yarn and plenty of room for this one.  This is more of a "small team" activity because two students, each with a long piece of yarn tied from one wrist to another  and criss-crossed over each other, must work together to figure out how to get themselves separated with out cutting or breaking their yarn.

I love teaching team building with these activities, I hope you and your students enjoy them too!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The School Counseling Circus

Friday night was an amazing evening! Our county School Counselor Association hosted its annual awards banquet.  Usually we do this at the end of the school year, but decided there was no better way to celebrate and advocate for School Counselors at the end of National School Counseling Week than with an awards banquet.

As last year's winner of the Elementary School Counselor of the Year Award, I was given the honor of  being the guest speaker.  I am sharing below my speech to the Elementary, Middle and High School Counselors in my county.

The School Counseling Circus
You know, when you think about it, being a School Counselor is a lot like being a circus performer.  You have the clowns, tight rope act, lion tamers, plate spinners, jugglers, dancing bears, acrobats, the motorcycle dare devils riding in the cage of death,  the human cannonball, contortionists, magicians  and of course, the ringmaster.

Are you the plate spinner?   Your day starts with an emergency drop-in conference before you can get your ancient computer on and booted up... which runs right into your first class, which when you leave you are stopped by 2 teachers, a student whose dad was arrested and a call on the radio to see the Assistant Principal AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!!! You have students whose families are in a neighborhood feud, a call to make to Child Services, behavior plans to check, new students to meet, an outside referral to make for drug use, lunch with the latest round of girl drama, and a report on bullying. Can you keep them all in the air…. safely spinning at the same time?

 Maybe you’re the clown?  You do your best to make others happy and feel comfortable. But, some people act like they don’t like you, and some act like they are afraid of you.  The truth is they don't understand you or what you do. You are always trying to please and prove your worth, but some of those darn "clown-a-phobics" just don’t want any part of what you have to offer. They may say things like, "Why do you want to talk about THAT?"  If  you bring THAT up it will just make the problem worse!  What do School Counselors do anyway?

What about the tight rope act?  There you go precariously balancing  a thin line between doing what is right for students and being a team player in your school... where maybe your administration isn't quite sure what a School Counselor does or why we even need School Counselors. You try to make time for all the “other duties as assigned” that come your way and still find the time to see your students and offer guidance as to which classes to take and all they need to know to prepare for college.

Perhaps you are the human cannon ball.  Forget the to do list! Each day starts off like a shot!  You are constantly in, motion moving with lightning speed from crisis to crisis, all while answering emails, returning phone calls, checking on students, writing letters of recommendation, and dealing with drama… You are going from one fire to another and putting them all out, all while secretly fearing  their still smoldering ashes are likely to erupt into flames again at any time.

Are you the lion tamer?  The person they radio because there’s student in crisis who is standing on a table, a desk, a file cabinet or bookcase... or has a chair heaved high overhead ready to hurl it in the blink of an eye!  Or the student who is standing menancingly with a pair of scissors in hand ready to lunge at you as you offer soothing words and suggestions for calming down?

Are you the contortionist who tries oh so very hard to crunch your very tired mind and body into a very small and narrow box created for you by teachers, administrators and parents who just don’t “get” what you do.  Who try to shove you into what they believe a “guidance” counselor is or should be. These self-informed individuals have no idea what you do. And because they have no understanding of your education and qualifications or what School Counselors can do to assist ALL students, you are assigned whatever tasks they need done which have absolutely nothing to do with school counseling.

Are you the dancing bear?  Smiling, dancing, twirling around… just doing what you’re told all in an effort to please and entertain the crowds and prove your value as a member of the circus team? 

Are you the juggler trying to be super counselor, super parent, super colleague and all you feel is just super tired?  Do you volunteer for everything, try to implement every program, try every new idea, read all the latest literature and try all the latest technology?  Are you sponsoring clubs, helping with testing, and participating in extra duties because you are trying to prove you are a team player­­­? 

What about the acrobat?  You have incredible range and flexibility.  You can cope with anything, anytime, anywhere!  Flying by the seat of your pants? Well, that’s just how you roll! You’ve been doing this so long you have an innate ability to assess a situation on the fly and give adequate and sometimes brilliant advice. You can come up with a classroom lesson, a group activity or an individual student intervention right off the top of your head, because there is so much experience in there you can access it without a thought.

Are you the dare devil motorcycle rider circling inside the cage of  death?  You work with high risk, high need populations and you love it!  The risks are real,but so are the needs of the students you are hoping to impact with your care and concern.  You take chances to offer them the kind of acceptance and hope no one has ever seen them as fit to experience. You take risks to offer them a future and a glimpse of life beyond the correctional system.

Are you the trapeze artist, flying high, without a net, holding on by your finger nails? You love your job, but sometimes it can just be…overwhelming.  You feel there’s so much to know and do in order to help the students in your school, so many things you want to try.  The needs of the students the teachers,  and the parents, are always nagging at the corners of your mind, even when you are trying to meet the needs of your own family.

Maybe you are the magician?  You make it look all so easy.  Problems  seem to magically disappear when you are on the scene.  You have the ability to say or do the right thing to calm the crazies, the cry babies, and the crackpots.  You always have a trick up your sleeve to help a student with whatever situation they encounter.  The teachers and administrators "ooo" and "ahhh" at your skills.  They just don’t see how you do it and to be honest, sometimes neither do you.

Are you the ring master? Trying to keep a department of plate spinning, lion taming, acrobatic,  contortionist  juggling, clowns in check?  Good luck ! You try to keep the program on track , but it is a 3 ring circus and you are also one of the performers in the "Greatest Show on Earth."  So you put on a face of confidence and support and encourage your performers. And if one drops a plate or falls off the tight rope, it's ok  because  we've all been there.  We have each other backs, because we are all in this together.

So, What part do you play in this circus act? Which performer or performers are you? At any given hour, on any given day, of any given week you may find yourself performing one or all of these acts... because School Counselors are very much like circus performers. Both require intense training and highly specialized skills, perserverance, agility and flexibility.

The truth is, we  seldom get to “perform” with our peers.  When it comes down to our daily tasks we are a solo act, performing a solitary job, many times in private, involving the confidential  hopes and fears, feelings, and experiences of our students, their parents, and sometimes our teachers. These jobs performed in private are often misunderstood and misrepresented, leading to inaccurate assumptions about who we are and what we do.  There is a constant need to prove our worth and the value we add to the students, parents, and teachers at our schools. We have a job that is frustrating and satisfying, depressing and joyful, infuriating and uplifting.  The need for self-care and collaboration is great, but not always available or encouraged.
So right now I want to encourage you.  I want you to know and believe how special you are. I want you to believe your programs, your lessons, your conferences, and individual counseling sessions make an impact on the lives of your students.
I want you to …
Believe you are amazing
Believe you are wonderful
Believe you make a difference
Believe your caring can crack the toughest nut
Believe students are better because of what you do. 
Believe that somewhere a parent is taking the time to connect with their child
Believe a student will stand up to a bully
Believe a family is healing from a loss
Believe a young woman will walk away from an abusive relationship
Believe an adolescent has started to dream about what their future can be
Believe a young adult is reconsidering drinking and driving
Believe a child will have their physical needs meant so they can focus on learning
Believe a young man will choose to live
Believe a student will take the step to overcome fear and uncertainty and be the first in their family to go to college
Believe you are a light in the dark, a safe place in a storm and a rock on sinking sand.

Because you are a School Counselor you give hope, you give love, you give strength ,you give confidence, you give life.
Because you are a school counselor you shape the future of our world.
Because you are a School counselor the world is better for it!
At the School Counselors banquet with my awesome AP who totally "gets it!"

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Second Look at National School Counseling Week

I have long been of the opinion that School Counselors should be appreciated or celebrated during National School Counseling Week. I felt foolish doing cutesy little things for teachers and trying to bring recognition to myself.  But after reflecting on my recent, disturbing and enlightening, visit with my state legislators (more about that in another post) I have come to the conclusion I was wrong. It’s not about anyone appreciating me or celebrating me, it’s about educating others to appreciate and celebrate a profession about which I am passionate!

I had to take a step back and realize it is not an appreciation day or week, but a time for advocacy. It is important to remember the week is not School Counselor Appreciation Week or School Counselor Appreciation Day, but National School Counseling Week.  It is our opportunity to tell everyone what it is School Counselors do and to show the value of every student having access to a School Counselor. 

Our Lament
Yes, we are an undervalued, under-appreciated, and largely misunderstood group. Our ratios are too
high, our job descriptions are too vague, our time encumbered, our PD irrelevant, and our variety of duties fall somewhere on the continuum from volunteer to para to hostess to clerk to substitute to administrative assistant and sometimes School Counselor.  Too many of our colleagues are being used in a way that does not allow the students, parents, and teachers in their schools to utilize the highly trained skill set of their School Counselor. Too many legislators, school boards, and administrators fail to see the ability we have to impact the social, emotional, academic, and career readiness skills of our students.  When those in power start looking at budgets and programs, how do we measure up?  Are those politicians able to say how students are better because of what School Counselors do?  It is an essential question and until everyone can answer it, we are left with the job of continuing to advocate for our profession.  So rather than have my usual pity party this year because I am not being appreciated like the secretaries, nurses, teachers, or bosses, I am going to get to advocating by educating!  

Advocating Means Educating  
I’m going to educate my parents, teachers, and administrators about the value I add to the life of my students and the school.  I am going to make them aware of my services with information home, connect ed phone messages and brochures about my counseling program. Advocacy starts small.  It’s local. It’s a grass-roots effort to educate and inspire the people with whom we have the greatest contact each day. Because if those closest to us don’t "get it,"there will be no one to join us in the push for district-wide or state-wide initiatives to increase counselor numbers, or positions, or protect the services we provide students. 

So, yeah, this next week I am going to celebrate School Counseling!  I’m even going to do a couple of cutesy, cheesy things along the way.  And as a result, if someone wants to appreciate or celebrate me along the way that will be just fine. But, since the reality of this profession which I love so much is that most people don’t "get it,"I’m going to do everything I can to advocate for School Counseling!

Here is a look at what I have planned for National School Counseling Week.

Daily:  Read the ASCAannouncements on the morning news show at my school.

Monday:  Put up ASCA posters (seen at the top of this post) in well-traveled locations around my building.  I had them blown up and laminated at Office Depot (so I can use them again).  Issue the “Counselor Challenge” to students at home and at school. The note going home to families tells them it is National School Counseling Week and asks them to participate in the Counselor Challenge. I found this idea on Pinterest and adapted it.  This idea originally comes from the South Carolina Counselor CafĂ© blogspot.
Check out the Counselor Challenge for Home and the Counselor Challenge for School.  These are printing a little funky from my Google Drive, so you may have to do some adapting.  I didn't want to post them in a PDF otherwise you would not be able to edit them to suit your school.

Tuesday: Something cutesy.  Have a problem? In a “Crunch”? Call your school counselor.  A little treat for teachers.  This cheesy idea is all mine. Get the template here.

Wednesday :  Ok,one more cutesy thing, but I couldn’t resist this one. Stress Reliever for teachers.  It’s a little poem with bubble wrap to pop. Got this idea off Pinterest.  Also  putting up another ASCA poster.

Thursday:  Book marks for the students that say what a school counselor can do for you. Another great way to let parents know what all we do!  I’m still working on these but I have a few days.  I got the idea from Pinterest from the from School Counselor Tonya Jesienouski. I will post my version in day or two.

Friday: “Open Office” for the staff with breakfast  and freebies.  I usually do this at the start of every school year, but this year it never timed out right. I have lots of leftover school supplies and some donated chapter books to put out for teachers to take. I will also put out my Counselor brochure. I will sent out an email to invite teachers on Monday and hang this sign in the lounge. Here is an editable verson of my invitation.

So there you have it, my efforts to advocate for School Counseling.  When you think about it, I’m not just advocating for School Counseling at my school, I’m advocating for School Counseling everywhere by starting with educating those closest to me. We talk to our students about how kindness ripples, I believe it's true of advocacy as well.  Let it ripple!

Happy National School Counseling Week!