Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Games and Conversations without Screens

Summer is fast-approaching, and for many families this means lots of waiting. Road trips and seemingly endless minutes waiting to sit down at a restaurant, board a plane, or see a doctor leads lots of parents to thrust iPads at squirming kids. Why not use conversation and games instead of technology to make the minutes pass? Here are a few of our favorite ideas:

  • Play 20 Questions – One person, the Chooser, should think of a person, place, or thing ("thing" includes animals, foods, etc.). The Chooser can tell the other players, the Guessers, what category they've chosen, or keep the category a secret for extra challenge. Then the Guessers take turns asking yes-or-no questions to try to guess what or who the Chooser is thinking of (e.g. "Is it furry?" "Can it fly?"). The Chooser keeps track of the number of questions asked, and they win if the Guessers ask twenty questions without figuring it out. And yes, guesses count as questions!
  • Tell Circle StoriesOne person starts a story by saying a sentence, and each person adds their own sentence in turn. Decide in advance how many sentences each person should contribute, or simply let the story grow!
  • Compose Circle Poems – A Circle Poem starts like a Circle Story: One person says any sentence. But the next person must say a sentence whose last word rhymes with the last word of the first sentence (e.g. "Is this the right route?" "We need to find out." "Someone should go scout.") The one who starts the game should be careful to end with a word that has lots of rhyming possibilities. You could use a point-keeping system like in the basketball game Horse in which the first person who can't add a rhyming sentence gets a letter (and the first person who accumulates all the letters in Horse is "out"), or you could just play for fun.
  • Use Conversation Starters – Open-ended questions that encourage imagination and critical thinking can be lots of fun. Start a conversation with questions like, "If you could be any animal for a day, what would you be and why?", "Would it be worse to be eight feet tall or two feet tall?', and "If you could make one rule at your school that everyone had to follow, what would it be?" (This can be followed by questions about the downsides to the rules proposed or how a child might convince the principal to adopt the rule.) You could use the cards from You've Got to be Kidding, a would-you-rather board game available from toy stores, or simply make up your own.
  • Play Categories – For younger kids, take turns suggesting a category and then going around the circle listing as many things that fit into that category as possible (e.g., for sports: "soccer," "tennis," "baseball," etc.). Use a scoring system like the one from Horse (described above) or simply play for fun. For kids who can write easily, give them a minute or two to write as many items as they can in particular category, then ask them to read their lists aloud. They get a point for each item they listed that is unique, but if one of their items appears on someone else's list (for example, if two people wrote "Hawaii" when listing US States), neither player gets a point for that item. 

You'll be amazed at how fast time can fly without the aid of flickering screens. In fact, you may find your kids groaning instead of cheering at the end of a long drive!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Reading

Keeping up with educational issues and news isn't easy. From time to time we want to share some articles and resources we have encountered and hope you find them as informative and helpful as we have.

Section 504
An excellent discussion of Section 504 by Mary Durheim looks at what this law can do for students, how it is implemented, and what to do if you believe it has not been appropriately applied to your student. It's a particularly thorough review of a law that parents can often find confusing.

Adaptive Equipment
A recent article in the New York Times features a public school physical therapist who uses an innovative approach -- and some strong carpentry skills -- to create custom furniture and other adaptive equipment for children with physical disabilities. We love the way he thinks through what these students need to be part of classroom activities and hope his approach, which is very low cost and highly effective, can inspire parents and professionals to "think outside the box" when addressing the needs of students with disabilities.

What Do Students Need to Learn?
As students are in the midst of Common Core testing, and as a record number of parents here in New York and around the country have elected to "opt out" of these tests, it is timely to think about what students should be learning -- and why. Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) Professor David Perkins has addressed this question in a new book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, and you can read an article summarizing his perspective in ED, the magazine of the GSE.

Resources for Children with Special Needs 
This nonprofit organization operates only in New York City, but they offer an array of resources - hotlines for questions, workshops, and special programs (most in English and Spanish) -- for students with a wide range of disabilities. Take a look at a video describing what they do and how they do it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bright by Three

There seems to be little doubt that, for many people, text messaging has become the most common means of communication. Phone calls have fallen by the wayside: If people want to convey a quick piece of information they seem to prefer typing it out to talking it out. This makes sense; texting is fast and easy and one can get and receive texts anywhere, even places where loud phone conversations are inappropriate.

A Denver non-profit called Bright by Three is taking advantage of the popularity and ease of text messaging. According to Bright by Three, 85% of a child's intellect, personality, and social skills are developed during the first three years of life. Since children aren't in school during this critical period, Bright By Three aims to help parents engage their little ones in ways that are proven to develop these important components. Last year, Bright by Three reached over 21,000 families in Colorado. But, thanks to text messaging, their reach can extend even farther.

Bright by Text is their latest innovation. Parents and caregivers anywhere can enroll in the program for free (though data rates may apply) by texting "BRIGHT" to 444999. They'll be asked for their child's age in months, and then the fun begins. Bright by Text sends weekly messages that correspond to the child's age and stage of development. Texts include learning games that develop physical and cognitive skills, health and wellness tips, and relevant information about child development and important milestones. Each text also contains a mobile-friendly link to additional resources. Bright by Text is available in both Spanish and English.

If you, or someone close to you, has a young child, we encourage you to take advantage of this free service. Tips are research-based and timely, and the format couldn't be more convenient for families on the go.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Math App that Makes Practice Fun

We're big fans of the games from Motion Math, and have written before about their games for kids from 2 to 12, which include Hungry Guppy, Hungry Fish, Wings, and Zoom. Now, one of our favorite math game creators has done it again. Match, the latest addition to their stellar line-up of neurologically-based math games, is sure to please both kids and adults.In Match, tiles with either single digits (e.g. 7) or partial number sentences (e.g. 4+2) appear and players must tap the two that show the same quantity. Both correctness and speed will earn points, which go toward in-game prizes. As a student's number skills improve, the game gets more challenging. Match allows kids to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It may be simple enough for a four-year-old to play, but Match provides enough challenge for students in upper elementary school, too.


We love Motion Math's games because they are based on research about the way the brain develops number sense, or numeracy, and Match is no exception. For example, mixed in with digit tiles are tiles with images on them showing a quantity of objects to continually reinforce the link between numerical symbols and actual quantities.

Match is presently available for the iPad for $2.99. Other Motion Math games are available for iPhones as well.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

April is Occupational Therapy Month

The American Occupational Therapy Association has designated April as Occupational Therapy Month. It's a good time to look at what occupational therapy -- often called "OT" -- is and how it can help students.

OT services are designed to support individuals with the tasks they encounter in their daily lives. For adults, this can mean helping them recover from an injury or overcome a disability to manage tasks at home or in the workplace. For students, OT supports such school-based activities as handwriting, keyboarding, and adapting the school environment to promote success. An occupational therapist can help connect students with both high-tech solutions, such as computers, software, and digital tools and low-tech aids, such as writing implements with special grips and notebook paper with textured lines. Services are provided by a licensed occupational therapist, who has trained in a master's level program and passed a licensing exam.

OT is a "related service" available to students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504, provided by the school during the school day, without cost to the family. It can be a "pull out" service, where the student leaves the classroom for a period to work with the occupational therapist, usually in a small group but sometimes individually. Or it can be a "push in" service, where the therapist comes into the classroom and works with the student or students as they go about their daily activities. This is a particularly effective way of providing services, since research demonstrates that skills are better mastered when they are practiced in the environment in which they occur. The frequency and duration of these sessions need to be specified in the IEP or 504 Plan. Some families choose to work with an occupational therapist who has a private practice outside of a school.

In addition to helping students with graphomotor (handwriting) difficulties and keyboarding skills, an occupational therapist can help address such issues as the need for specialized seating in the classroom or on the bus, learning self-care (for students with significant disabilities), and practical matters such as managing a backpack or dealing with sensory issues such as intolerance for excessive noise or school bells and buzzers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Frontloading: Getting Ready to Read

Whether you are planning a trip, getting ready to prepare a complicated recipe, or starting on a project for work, preparation is an important first step and is crucial to success. It's the same thing for reading new material for school. Students who take the time to prepare before beginning to read -- a process called frontloading -- will get more from their reading and retain the information better. Frontloading can include scanning the material for main ideas, important details, themes, structure, and tone; researching new vocabulary; accessing or building background knowledge connected to the topic at hand; and creating or locating related visuals.

Here are some of the ways we suggest students engage in frontloading:

  • Think about the topic before starting to read, taking time to consider any prior knowledge that you may have about the topic. 
  • Do an internet search on the subject prior to reading grade-level material.  For fictional texts, you can read condensed texts like CliffsNotes or SparkNotes. This will provide you with prior knowledge and give you more of a sense of mastery when you try to read the more challenging text. You should also scan the text for any new and challenging vocabulary.
  • Before reading the assigned text, review any questions at the end of the chapter or which the teacher may have given out
  • Learn how to use information in textbooks, since they already have built-in cues to help determine important points.  For example,  make note of all titles and headings; scan for important information in pictures and captions; and look for key terms, concepts, or people that may be italicized, underlined, or written in bold type.
  • Consider developing a written and/or visual time line for historical and narrative events.  This activity can improve your appreciation of time sequences and causal reasoning. 
  • Consider using the website WordSift. This site will help you preview challenging text by identifying the key vocabulary, locating relevant images, and using the example source sentence feature to “skim” the text.   
Not all of these frontloading strategies will be helpful for every student, but trying them out and figuring what works for you can be a good first step to mastering challenging reading material.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Time for Kids Magazine

As a classroom teacher I always found it a challenge to find rich non-fiction resources that were tailored to a younger reading level. I routinely found a divide between the complexity of the text and the quality of the content. This made finding resources for current events, science, and social studies lessons difficult. However, one resources that manages to blend exceptional content with varied reading levels is Time for Kids.

Time for Kids is a weekly news magazine created by Time magazine (that means you get a 52 week subscription!). There are specific magazines created for different grade clusters, and all the content is created with Common Core in mind. The writers behind Time for Kids not only provide you with a magazine but also create printable teacher guides and lesson plans associated with the articles to further help children explore the topics discussed. The availability of both print and digital editions make it truly accessible for children both at school and at home. The digital versions infuse high quality video to increase engagement, and a vocabulary building tool called Power Words which highlights novel terminology for students to master. Furthermore, the digital magazine has an integrated read-aloud function which allows even struggling readers to access the content. You can get an overview of the features of Time for Kids on this video. Both in print and digitally, it is an excellent resource for getting children to read non-fiction material on a variety of current topics.

Beyond giving students access to high quality non-fiction content, Time for Kids also has an online resource titled Homework Helper which further helps to build literacy skills. This resource is open and available without a subscription.   Model papers are available under their A+ Papers section to teach students how to craft everything from a traditional essay, to a biography, to new articles. The Grammar Wizard allows students to practice and hone their punctuation skills, while Flash Card Maker provides flash cards across curricular areas or the option to create your own deck for studying. In addition, Writing Tips stages out the writing process for writers, making it easier for struggling writers to follow the step-by-step process involved in crafting high quality discourse. If students need further assistance, the Writers Toolkit provides links to vetted websites providing a children’s dictionary, thesaurus and vocabulary assistance. Finally, Time for Kids is constantly partnering with other educational institutions to develop programs and curriculum to teach students everything from financial literacy to engaging in community service initiatives. Teachers and parents can explore the programs which feature lessons, games and activities on the TFK Extras section of the website.

Whether you are simply looking to amplify a child’s exposure to current events and non-fiction topics or develop their literacy skills, Time for Kids offers numerous tools to help achieve your goal. The best part is that kids will have fun doing it!