Special Education // Color-Coding: Above & Beyond Art Class

I remember when I was in 1st grade and my teacher told me she loved they way I colored. I was so proud of myself after that and felt so good that all I wanted to do was to color. Lucky for me, this passion grew into an organized chaos in which helped me learn best in school.

A lot of the accommodations that I use with my students is color coding words, phrases, texts, and anything that may help them organize their thoughts and keep everything in order.

Color coding can be beneficial to any student from any age. Did you know that color-coding improves recall time and can be an effective performance factor? It’s amazing really, what a little bit of color can do to help your child stay organized and on track with their assignments. Although we use it a lot at school, there are definitely some things you can try at home:

Color-code To Do’s: Do you have a system in place for after school activities but your child has a hard time keeping on task? A few colored sticky notes, or highlighted tasks  can help them remember when it’s dinner time, homework time, and play time!

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Rainbow Spelling: At school, a lot of our spelling words involve color! With just 2-4 different colors, you can have students learning to spell words correctly. First start with a light color then build up colors spelling that word. It’s a fun way to switch things up!

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Highlighting key words/symbols in word problems: This one would help everyone doing any basic computation! Start by highlighting math symbols so you know your student is computing problems correctly. At school, I usually highlight the subtraction sign for students who struggle to compute subtraction problems to remind them that it’s a “take-away” problem instead of addition. Sometimes they just need a little reminder. For word problems, I have students highlight key words that may help them solve the problem. For example,

“De’Andre had 8 markers. Liza borrowed some markers. De’Andre now has 3 markers. How many markers did Liza borrow?”

In this problem, we highlight the word ‘borrow’ as well as any important numbers we
need to solve the problem. This helps keep their thoughts organized while knowing
which operation to use. In this case, students would use subtraction.

It’s always fun to add some color to get away from the ordinary. Enforcing these habits early on might help them in the long run when they are more independent with their learning!

1st Grade Crew // Mindful Moments

Take 5 deep breaths. How do you feel? Do you feel calm? Were you able to focus and ignore distractions? Taking moments throughout the day to clear one’s mind and reset helps our students stay focused during the action-packed, content-rich first grade school day.

Practicing relaxation techniques, which we call “mindful minutes”, are a valuable and integral part of our day. For example, after our 50-minute recess/lunch period, the daily practice helps students gain self-regulation and relaxation. When our first grade students come back to the classroom, they go straight to the carpet and as a crew we take 2-3 minutes to focus on various breathing techniques including: “balloon breath” (deep breath in, deep breath out pretending to have a balloon to blow up in one’s hands); “bunny breath” (3 short breaths in like a bunny, 1 deep breath out); “bee breath” (deep breath in, gentle buzzing sound out), etc.


Once I see that all students are resetting, they may choose their next “mindful” activity. For example, they can get a pillow from our calm corner to place on their desk or the carpet to rest their heads, they can get a coloring sheet to color independently, or even participate in yoga from one of our favorite websites—Cosmic Kids Yoga!

This month our crew will begin using another powerful calming technique called “Smell and Tell”. I will pass around something fragrant, such as an orange peel or lavender sprig for students to close their eyes and breath in the scent.

In addition to our set time, we take various “brain breaks” throughout the day to get our “wiggles” out. These brain breaks are a great way to release energy and have fun in a productive way. We typically use a variety of brain breaks from GoNoodle.com such as dancing, call and repeat singing, or meditation.  

Regardless of which of technique we choose, a different tone exists in the classroom after taking a mindful minute--one in which students are clam, focused and engaged. The time we carve out to reset sets the tone for our afternoon and the work we have left to do.

Social Work // An Introduction to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

When students are referred to me for behavioral or social / emotional support one of the most common tools I will use is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT has been proven to be successful in treating students suffering from anxiety, depression, lack of assertiveness, poor diet, specific phobias, grief / bereavement and many other common problems for children.

CBT is different from traditional “talk therapy” because it does more than offer advice to the client; it builds skills. A key component to CBT is it is a collaborative process in which the students are asked to test their learning or understanding of the skills in the real world.

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The basics of CBT is teaching how feelings, thoughts and behavior influence each other. By working on recognizing their thoughts, and challenging unhealthy or problematic thoughts, students are able to better their emotional state and improve behaviors.

Through the collaboratively setting goals and outlining agendas students have an opportunity to identify cognitive distortions, maladaptive thoughts and beliefs. After they have identified these pitfalls, we work to put them on trail, challenging the way the student thinks. We activate positive behaviors and see behavioral change.

CBT is just one tool that can be utilized when students receive extra social-emotional or behavioral support. It is proven effective and holds students to a high standard of being in charge of their change.  

4th Grade Crew // Field Study!

As part of the second module of our 4th grade curriculum, the 4th grade crew has been studying animal defense mechanisms. We began our time as researchers and scientists by learning more about various animal defense mechanisms. Then, the crew broke into four “expert” groups to research more about the defense mechanisms used by the ostrich, monarch butterfly, springbok gazelle, and three-banded armadillo. Students researched about their animal’s habitat, physical appearance, predators, and, of course, their defense mechanisms. They then wrote an informative piece that included all their research and explained how their animal uses its defense mechanism.

After we had done our research and become experts on our animal, it became time to work on our final product -- “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narratives featuring our expert group animals as the main character! Not only did we need to transition from informative writing to narrative writing, but we also needed to learn more about the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” format. This was a new format to us, and is very unusual -- we would have to write in the second person point of view and come up with multiple choices or “paths” for our animals to take throughout the narrative.

In order to become experts of the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” format, we traveled to 826 Michigan’s Robot Factory in order to learn more! When we arrived, Jose showed us around the Robot Factory and demonstrated their “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” generator, which allowed us to read an example “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narrative written by other students! Jose led us in a discussion of our animals, and as a group we wrote an exciting introduction that included all four of our animals. After our crew came up with two exciting choices for our animals, we split into two different groups and wrote with next pages with the help of the Robot Factory experts. Then, we split again and continued to add more twists and turns to our animal narrative. The crew was excited to share all their expert knowledge with our hosts at the Robot Factory, and our hosts were very impressed with the crew’s knowledge -- our hosts never knew that ostriches make a “booming call” sound to scare away predators! Finally, each student showed off their creativity and wrote their own individual ending to our narrative.

At the end of the trip, each member of our crew got their own copy of the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narrative we had written -- with all of our different choices and endings! We know that these narratives are going to be an excellent guide for us as we continue our own “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” narratives in class!   


Special Education // Disabilities vs. Differences

A Habit of Character at our school I absolutely love is compassion. We intentionally put time and effort into teaching and demonstrating how compassion looks, feels, and sounds. We find amazing ways to celebrate each other’s differences! Not one student is the same, not even twins! The same goes for students who qualify for extra support under the special education umbrella.


There’s always an initial shock when schools or outside services tell a parent their little one qualifies for special education under a specific disability (learning disability, autism, emotional impairment, etc). We understand the anxiety these words may cause due what most of us have experienced in education. Disability is defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities”  but the special education world is constantly evolving towards the student and how we can help them be successful as we support them through their school journey. At our school, we believe every student can achieve beyond what they think they are capable of and our students are capable of doing their best and more- there are no limitations of what they can do and our students are always surprising us! Which is why we use the term differences instead of disabilities. This may be a shift for a lot of educators and our community as special education has grown so much over the past few years, but we still have a ways to go.


In the mid-18th century, people with disabilities were seen as a liability in social and economic participation but in the early 19th century, the French brought pioneers on special education to the US and Canada and soon enough, institutions began developing new ways to help people with disabilities, in other words,  exceptional individuals. In those days, however, the goal of these institutions was to protect the “vulnerable” children with needs from the world, which in a way, was very limiting. Move forward to the 1900’s and we see the development of special classes in which many of us grew up seeing in schools. Then in the 1980’s, education was going under major waves of reform and special education began to shift from special education classes to mainstreaming and inclusiveness which is where we are today.

Although those special classes still exist in some schools, the beauty of what we do here is that we are helping our special friends be in the least restrictive environment. We help them be part of their community without hindering their talents and special abilities. Together, we are making our world a more inclusive one that celebrates each other instead of ostracizing those who are different than most of us.

1st Grade Crew // The Importance of Teaching the Habits of Character

Detroit Achievement Academy emphasizes the importance of the whole child. This means while we focus strongly on academic content learning we place equally high importance on social and emotional learning. This focus (social and emotional learning) helps nurture students into empathetic, caring, responsible individuals capable of building lasting relationships and becoming civically engaged, successful adults. We teach six habits of character and embed their meaning throughout the day. As students grow and move from grade to grade, they learn another facet and deeper meaning of each specific habit of character. The habits of character DAA teaches include: compassion, cooperation, integrity, curiosity and creativity, responsibility, and perseverance.

Each day when we come together for morning crew we read our habit of character focus, which remains the same throughout the week to help students deepen their understanding. Students participate in discussions and initiatives relating to the habit of character. These initiatives push students to think critically about the specific habit of character and drive discussion and reflection for the day and week.

For example when we focus on cooperation, a learning target might be ‘I can show cooperation by working with others to overcome a challenge.’ The goal is for students to resolve conflict independently and respectfully through cooperative process. Students will act out various scenarios (i.e., someone took a pencil from another student, someone doesn’t want to play with someone else at recess) to practice what it feels like to go through the cooperative process. This role-playing helps students when they need to resolve a conflict with others independently in a cooperative manner.

In addition to morning crew, students reflect on how they show their habits of character during lesson debriefs and closing crew. During lesson debriefs teachers generate questions relating to how students showed any of their habits of character. For example, how did they show perseverance when they faced challenging work or how did they show compassion and cooperation within a small group?  In thinking about their answers, students make connections between their interactions throughout the day and their habits of character.

Providing a space to have “teachable moments” relating to habits of character helps students recognize, relate, understand, and practice our habits of character.

6th Grade Crew // Middle School Advisory

This year, DAA expanded to have a 6th grade crew, which means we officially have a middle school! These middle schoolers are spending an hour of their day in an “advisory” class. Depending on the day, middle school advisory is spent in many different ways: some advisory periods are split by gender, others by preference, and each span a range of topics which interest and appeal to a middle school student body. These topics could range from personal finance to health and hygiene. Etiquette may be explored one week, while stereotypes and societal norms will be discussed the next. Many of the middle school advisory topics were selected by the students. In expanding their curiosity and responsibility, our students chose topics that would be relevant to their experience not only as middle schoolers but as future high schoolers and active members of our Detroit community. 

In a recent middle school advisory meeting, students explored elements of cooperative play - an element of middle school in which students practice, discuss and discover sports which they may experience in high school. This has become a time when our middle school students have been able to express themselves, push their comfort zones and feel safe and comfortable in the presence of adults (outside of regular crew meetings). These meetings are intentionally geared towards the mindset, skill-set and unique stage of life of the middle schooler. The focus remains on relationship building between students and also with their teachers. 


With high school and college on the horizon for our middle schoolers, we hope to be teaching the whole child to achieve in the range of settings in which they will be placed. Middle school advisory teaches, challenges and practices the social, emotional and fundamental pieces of maturing into adulthood, and is a treasured time in the day of students and staff.

5th Grade Crew // Extending Research of the Module Topic through Labs Block

In the first module of our 5th Grade curriculum, we explored the question, “What are human rights, and how do real people and fictional characters respond when those rights are threatened?” During our module lessons, we read the novel Esperanza Rising which is about a young girl who moves from Mexico to California during the Great Depression. In addition to reading the novel, we also did close readings of numerous articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We used what we learned from reading the UDHR to identify events in Esperanza Rising where a character’s human rights were threatened.

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While our thinking about human rights and what it looks like to have those rights threatened could have stopped there, we used our labs block time to take it a step further. Students broke into groups and read articles about current and past events. They then worked to identify how the articles provided examples of human rights being threatened. For example, one group researched the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a successful African American physician who moved to Detroit in 1924 and bought a house in a predominantly white neighborhood. Students identified how his “Right to Property” (UDHR Article #17) was threatened when white mobs attacked him and his family shortly after they moved into their new house. Another group looked at examples of voting rights violations and identified how UDHR Article #2, “Don’t discriminate”, was threatened in those instances.

Based on what they learned from their research, students then wrote monologues from the perspective of someone who lived through the event they studied. During their module block, students worked to understand what makes an effective monologue by studying model monologues and analyzing the characteristics that made them engaging. Again, we extended that work into our labs block as students worked with their groups to write their monologue using the details they had learned during their research.

Finally, it was time to get ready to perform our monologues! Students identified the attributes of fluent readers and then practiced, practiced, and practiced some more in order to prepare to perform their monologues. While we love the learning that takes place during our module lesson, we are so thankful for the opportunity to extend our learning during our labs block!

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Academic Intervention // Support Team

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DAA is excited to continue offering academic intervention to all grades K-6 with Mrs. Bradley (2nd-6th grade), Mr. O’Brien (K, 2nd, & 4th grade), Ms. Turner (1st grade), Ms. Shanell (Kindergarten), and Mrs. Stoeckle (3rd & 4th). Academic intervention is provided to children with the most need and opportunity for growth in each classroom based on NWEA MAP data, reading levels on the Fountas & Pinnell assessment, and benchmark assessments to measure where a child stands academically in math. These tests are given to help us create groups of children that need the most assistance in math and reading. We then use these data points to create an instructional plan that addresses their biggest weaknesses.

At the beginning of the year we tested all children to find out baseline data for reading and math. After all of the initial testing, we rolled out the official start of intervention using Fountas & Pinnell’s (F&P) reading intervention or a scope and sequence that works on important reading skills for each grade level. Number Worlds for math. Each round of academic intervention will last six weeks with the same caseload. After six weeks, each child in intervention is re-tested in math and reading using the F&P test and Number Worlds assessments in order to see if they are still the most in need of intervention or if they can graduate off of the caseload.

The Fountas & Pinnell intervention is a curriculum for small-group reading instruction that gives students access to books on their level to build them into successful readers. These lessons will help create a foundation for our readers in order to move from learning to read to reading to learn. Number Worlds is a math curriculum based on Michigan state standards that allows kids to play games that apply the math that they are working on to real world problems. The games have proven to be very engaging and keep our kids focused on the math.

Each child is seen at least three times per week in group and are given a short assessment at the end of each week in order to ensure that they are internalizing the information taught that week. Through intervention we aim to give our children the opportunity to do well and grow to or above grade level and be successful without additional intervention.

2nd Grade Crew // Building Relationships

“We are crew, not passengers.”

I recall when I first became a Lead Teacher at DAA, and we learned about Crew. I thought, “Wow! This is just like how I facilitate my morning meeting, but BETTER!” I used a structure, similar to crew that included a morning greeting, a share, an activity, a debrief, and a morning message. Through morning meetings, I was confident that I was starting our day off on the right foot, and that students were building community through activities and sharing. However, what I didn’t realize when I began teaching was just how valuable a daily morning meeting was to the social and emotional development of a child.

What is Crew Culture? According to EL Education, “Crew is a ritual, a coming together, and the creation of a close-knit student community. An integral part of the EL Education model, each school in our network brings students together in a consistent and supportive group. Crew is a place where character education, adventure, and team building are intentional, assuring success for all students. It’s a structure that fosters a sense of belonging within students, and a place where they can be their best selves while lifting up their peers to achieve more than they think possible.”

The motto We Are Crew, Not Passengers is shared amongst student crews as well as adult crews across the EL network. Being apart of a crew means you have a team to work together with to solve problems, and depend on. A crew encourages one another, compliments each other’s faults and strengths, and pushes everyone in the crew to achieve great things! As with all schools, kids move and change schools for various reasons. When a new student comes to DAA, Crew is a vital resource to share an inclusive community where everyone feels welcome and cared for. To build that inclusive community, it is so very beneficial to incorporate moments for students to laugh together, build trust, and practice communication and social skills. This will lead to students eventually sharing personal things about themselves that make them unique and special, students being vulnerable to discuss challenges in order to address and overcome them, and even spark new friendships!

Crew gives students opportunities to practice social interactions and to be apart of a community where they can feel safe to be themselves and take risks to grow and succeed. By nurturing students social emotional skills during this time, we can help learners to manage emotions better, effectively communicate with others, and build a communal environment where all crew members feel safe and welcome.