Thursday, January 19, 2017

3 Things to Know About Betsy DeVos

Okay teachers, it's time for some REAL TALK. "Controversial" is a pretty familiar word these days, especially when referring to Mr. Trump's Presidency. Betsy DeVos is possibly our next Secretary of Education, and as educators, we need to understand that her lack of knowledge regarding basic education competencies will drastically impact every area of our classrooms. Here are 3 things you need to know about Betsy DeVos. 

1.) She is an avid proponent of school choice. 

What's school choice? Allowing children that attend "failing schools" to choose a new school to attend. It doesn't sound so bad, and quite honestly, it sounds pretty great. When school choice is actually being played out, it's a whole different story. When you move children from school to school, it never addresses the actual concerns that deemed their original school "failing" in the first place. School choice, in essence, is a bandaid. Additionally, not every school that a family could choose to send their child to is being held to the same special education standards. Many children with IEPs are left in the shadows because the other school options are not "equipped" to service them. School choice leaves children with special needs (arguably our most vulnerable students) out to dry. Check out a fabulous and informative post regarding school choice here, by The Designer Teacher. 

2.) DeVos has limited to no understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

During Betsy DeVos' confirmation hearing, Senator Hassan asked her questions regarding IDEA. This act (as I am certain many of you know) ensures that all students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education in our country. DeVos stated that she would like each individual state to decide if they choose to follow IDEA, to which Hassan replied is illegal, because IDEA is a federal law. While DeVos' lack of understanding about the law is shocking, it is truly appalling that if given the chance, would not protect our kids with IEPs. Ms. DeVos' experience in education only lies in charter schools, which are notorious for serving extremely low numbers of children with IEPs. 

3.) She will leave it up to the states to decide if they will allow guns in schools.

The confirmation hearing also uncovered a tender point when Senator Murphy from Connecticut asked her about her stance on guns in our schools. While her embarrassing "grizzly bear" blunder is one that will likely follow her for years to come, it's not the worst part. DeVos told Senator Murphy (who is an avid gun control proponent after Sandy Hook) that she would allow each state to determine whether they choose to allow guns in schools. 

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it's clear that Betsy DeVos does not have the background, competency, experience, or candor to handle the incredibly important job of running our school system. Taking a stand against her is our duty as educators - this is our life's work!  Her policies and her lack of knowledge will be utterly damaging to our students futures. I urge you to contact your senators to vote NO to Betsy DeVos.


Friday, January 6, 2017

6 Unique Ways to Rock Donors Choose

By now you've prooooobably heard of Donors Choose. It is an incredible crowd-funding website that hosts projects posted by public schools teachers/service providers. Anyone can visit the website and make a donation to a specific project so the classroom can get their requested materials funded. Umm, amazing!

Donors Choose has completely transformed the way that I fill my classroom, and ultimately, the way I teach. My first year of teaching I was in an extremely underfunded school on the southside of Chicago. I taught middle schoolers with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. I had ten desks and ten pencils, several text books from the 1980s, and a whiteboard. That was literally it. I had no idea what I was going to do with them, and was told by my administration that I needed to use the materials I had, and none would be purchased. WHAT?! By the end of the year, it was filled with materials from places like Lakeshore Learning - I'm talking math manipulatives, reading series, brightly colored supplies for each child, sensory tools, snack foods, flexible seating options... I really have no idea what I would have done without the generosity of others. Teaching is hard enough when you have what you need, no less when you are buying everything from paper reams to Kleenex boxes with every paycheck.

Special education classrooms need SO MUCH in terms of specialized materials. Even if you're in a school or district that gets allotted appropriate funding, you need more than you have. You can't have enough PECS books, lamination pouches, rolls of Velcro, cheese-its, hand sanitizer, fidgets... I mean, the list goes on. And none of it is cheap. But let's not let funding and price tags get in the way: your kids NEED it, you NEED it to teach them effectively, so let's get you those materials!

My success with Donors Choose has not happened without some research and creativity. I am constantly asked how I have been so successful with my classroom funding. When I started, I vowed that I would not be hounding my friends and family weekly to donate to my classroom. I really doubt there is one person in the world that actually enjoys contacting people for money. Over my years using Donors Choose, I have found 6 unique and useful ways to use the website in the best ways - not one of them includes incessantly asking your loved ones!

1.) Find national and state match offers

Donors Choose has supporters all over these days that want to help fund projects in specific subject areas. Check the list here!

2.) Organize your project 

When you first start posting projects on Donors Choose, it's easy to get carried away. There is so much we need in our classrooms! It's tempting to post a request for $2000 worth of Hokki stools and beanbag seats for flexible seating. But here's the thing: smaller projects get funded faster. Try to keep each project between $200-$300. If there is a large order you need for a class project, split it up into multiple projects! It's more than okay to have more than one project up at a time.

Next, repeat after me: check Amazon first. Amazon is my favorite retailer on Donors Choose because of their wide variety, the cost, and my favorite part: your materials come in 2 days! When you shop for your project materials on Amazon, it requires you to choose items that are Prime eligible only. This means once your project is funded, you'll have a box in the office in 2 days! Now, who doesn't love the sound of that?!

Project title... be specific! Say the age group and subject in the title somehow. Here's some examples: 3rd Graders Today, Biologists Tomorrow!, Special Ed Superstars Becoming Scientists, English Language Learners Sitting in Style! See what I mean? Many donors will search for specific ages and subjects when they look for a project. Also, don't forget to add this as your classroom category when prompted!

3.) Always have a project posted

Flash funding on Donors Choose comes about once or twice per year - and you don't want to miss out! Big funders like Google and the Bill Gates Foundation have been known to flash fund all the projects in a certain state, city, or subject area. You never know when it's coming, so be prepared!

The end of the year is another time that is HUGE for donations. Between Giving Tuesday & donors wanting to get their end of the year tax-deductible donations in, it's a jackpot for our classrooms. In December 2016, I had 6 projects funded in a row!

4.) Get inspired

In order to always have projects posted, you need to have ideas. There is always something we need in our classrooms, or something we are always spending money out of pocket for. Snack time foods? Prize box toys? Stickers? Astrobrights paper? Gum? Lamination pouches? Velcro? What about a printer and colored ink so you can stop exclusively using your personal home printer? Need more inspiration? Check out my page and scroll through my funded projects, and then use the search feature on Donors Choose. Looking at other teachers projects is a great way to get your wheels turning!

5.) Use your community for funding opportunities

Now you've put in all this effort - how do you get your projects funded? First, I suggest linking your Donors Choose page to your Facebook page. When you first sign up, the website will prompt you to link your account. This means a post will appear on your personal Facebook page every time you post a project or you receive a donation. It helps keep your Facebook followers updated without you constantly inundating people with asks. I have found it super useful and have gotten tons of dollars to my classroom this way!

Does your District have a parents Facebook page? How about your town. community, or neighborhood? What about an Autism Support Group for your region? Ask to join the group! No matter what type of District and/or community you teach in, parents and community members want to help. I have received an outpouring of support from parents across my school district donating to my projects after bringing them to their attention. I have heard of other teachers getting support from Rotary and Lions Clubs as well. Be creative!

6.) Create amazing "thank you" notes

After a project is funded, you, the teacher, are required to write a note of thanks to the donors, as well as take pictures of your students using the materials. In many cases, you also need to have your students write thank you notes to the donors as well. I have many repeat donors to my projects who do not know my classroom, but they love the thank you notes! One of them sent me a private message saying that is why she continues to support my classroom - she loves the personalized notes.

I try to make them fun for the kids to make, and something that will really make the donor's day. We have done thank you notes as simple as coloring pages pasted on construction paper cards and as complex as doing a letter writing unit that concluded with writing a donor letter. A crowd favorite was the letter "mad lib" that we did when we were learning about adjectives. The students had to add adjectives in to specific spots in the letter to make it their own and practice their new skill. I always let the students draw a picture, it's their favorite part!

Need some help? Here's one of my favorite products from my TPT store - ready-to-go, differentiated thank yous. We use them for every project in my classroom!

So, what do you think? Now that it's 2017, it's time to make your classroom dreams a reality! Are you ready to tackle Donors Choose? Are you ready to make your page more donor-friendly?  What have YOU done that has made your experience on Donors Choose successful? Comment below, I want to know your secrets, too!