Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Finding Educational Research from Harvard and Elsewhere

The faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) are engaged in a wide range of research projects, many of which have practical application to teachers, school administrators, and others interested in the most up-to-date findings on education and educational policy. Up until now, however, there has been no central clearinghouse for all of the research undertaken by the Harvard educational community; research findings and reports have been published in academic journals and dissertations and sometimes mentioned in Ed., the magazine of the GSE, but finding information on a specific subject or project has been a bit of a hit-or-miss process.

To address these issues, the GSE has just launched a new initiative, Usable Knowledge, designed to make all of the research generated by the Harvard GSE community accessible to those who can benefit from it.

As noted by Jim Ryan, Dean of the GSE, "...No research finding — no matter how profound — will make much difference in the lives of students if it is simply left to dwell in the Ivory Tower. If we hope to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes, it is imperative that we make our research findings accessible to those who can act on them. Enter Usable Knowledge — a project that will take new ideas and innovative solutions generated by our faculty and our students and put them in the hands of teachers, principals, superintendents, policymakers, and others who can have a real impact on students, schools, and education more broadly."

Of course, there are other helpful resources for those seeking information on educational research. ERIC, the Educational Research Information Center of the U.S. Department of Education, is celebrating its 50th Birthday this year. ERIC is one of a number of programs of the Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, including the What Works Clearinghouse, which has been the subject of a previous Yellin Center Blog. With a budget of $200 million and a staff of nearly 200 people, the Institute is itself a rich resource for those interested in research on educational subjects. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Back-to-School Help

For New York City students, the excellent website InsideSchools has a list of free and low cost programs that offer supplementary instruction for students in elementary through high school, designed to allow them,  "to explore new interests, get extra support, and supplement what is being taught during the school day." As  Liz Willen, one of the InsideSchool bloggers notes, New York City Schools have still not recovered from significant budget cuts and that, coupled with increased specialization of many schools -- music, art, technology, etc. -- means that some students lack access to programs they want or need. This list is one way to access such programs or skills.

Now that school is well underway, homework is something both students and their parents need to deal with on an almost daily basis. A website from the New York City Department of Education has a list of resources to help students at all levels (and their parents) with homework and test preparation. The Brooklyn Public Library has homework helpers at many of its locations, ready to assist students in grades one through eight. Families from other areas should check with their local library; many have in-person or online assistance available.
photo: bgilliard/flickr
And don't forget some of the "tried and true" resources for homework and academic support - websites like Kahn Academy, with video instruction in almost every subject in which a student might need assistance, and Spark Notes study guides and Spark Charts instructional materials for students at all levels, including medical and law school.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Different Ways to Think About and Apply to College

High school students, especially seniors, can't help but think about college. So much of their high school career -- coursework, extracurricular activities, grades, and standardized exams -- have been undertaken with thoughts of how these will translate into college acceptances by the second semester of senior year. Many students have spent time in recent months visiting campuses and deciding where they want to submit applications this fall.

Before you or your senior decides where to apply and, ultimately, where to enroll, we'd like to make a suggestion that may help inform your decision process.

Take the time to read or re-read the book Colleges That Change Lives: 
40 Schools That Will Change the
Way You Think About Colleges, by Loren Pope. Originally written in 1996, with a current 2013-14 edition updated by Hilary Masell Oswald, this book is a breath of fresh air in the world of competitive admissions, large schools, and ivy envy that permeates many students' college search. The narrative descriptions of these almost universally small colleges focus on the quality of teaching, the engagement of students with their professors, curriculum, and classmates, and the impact that this kind of personalized instruction has on alumni long after graduation.Most of the schools in this book accept a large percentage of applicants -- and a large number are SAT/ACT optional and take a goodly number of "B" students. But the education they provide is rigorous and meaningful, with many having a required core curriculum that gives students a deep understanding of their world and its unifying themes. Most have significant study abroad components, and it is clear that the authors believe this gives their students a significant advantage after graduation. 

Just a few examples of the different programs described in the book are:
  • Emory and Henry College in Virginia, where, as the book notes, they do "a very good job supporting students who haven't hit their stride yet" with strong academic support services.
  • Cornell College in Iowa (which the authors stress was the first Cornell, founded some dozen years before the ivy league Cornell), whose 1200 students study under a Block Plan, where they take one course at a time in an academic year of eight blocks of three and a half weeks each.
  • Goucher College, in Maryland, where the 1500 students are required to spend at least one term abroad -- even if just the three-week January term or a summer. The book notes that around 30 percent of the students go abroad twice. One aspect of Goucher that is newer than even the most up-to-date revision of this book is that students can apply in one of several ways, including via video. The video application, only available for students who are applying via the non-binding, early action application, asks students to submit a short video about themselves and their goals. It is not the only way to apply to Goucher, but it may be just the way for some students to best demonstrate what makes them a desirable candidate. Take a look for yourself and see what you think. We hope this becomes a common way for other schools to learn about their applicants. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Nutrition News... And More

Sometimes it seems like one subject just shouts out to be the subject of a blog post -- and today that subject is nutrition.

First, we came upon an engaging new book called Jesse's Magic Plate - The Fun Way for Kids to Learn About Healthy Eating, by Donna Daun Lester, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and teacher.

Written as a read-aloud story for children as young as three and to be read on their own by older children, this colorfully illustrated book uses a magical plate to explain healthy eating in terms children can apply to their own eating preferences. Lester uses the idea of "power foods" and the benefits they bring to children to encourage children to try new, healthy foods. As the magical plate explains to Jesse when telling him about the importance of eating colorful fruits and vegetables, "We feel our best when we eat them, but it may take some practice to like some of them."

The book is based upon the USDA My Plate food guidance system, and Lester urges her readers to visit the site and use its wealth of information.

Jesse's Magic Plate includes separate sections with lists of healthy foods, broken down by category -- protein, grains, vegetables, etc. -- along with colorful illustrations of food groups. Several pages of illustrated faces and other components for children to use to make their own "magic" plates are also included.We particularly liked that this book is designed for children, to help them understand the benefits of healthy eating and the steps they need to take to make eating better part of their daily lives. Parents can't always be around to help children make smart food choices and it is crucial to empower kids to enable them to make wise food decisions on their own.

Of course, not every food is right -- or even safe -- for every child, and food allergies can be a huge concern for many families. We recently encountered the mouth-watering baked goods created by No Nut Nation, which are certified free of peanuts and tree nuts. If this is an issue for a child or an adult in your life, this can be a delicious solution to finding safe prepared baked goods.

And, finally, a new article published as a supplement to Pediatrics earlier this week, builds on studies of a group of about 1,500 children who were followed closely up to age one. The follow up studies looked at several aspects of the children's nutrition when they reached age six. Among the findings were that early preferences for fruits and vegetables -- and for sugary beverages -- developed during the first year of life were still evident at six years of age. As the researchers noted, "It is not clear whether these associations reflect the development of taste preference during infancy or a family eating pattern that manifests at various ages, but the studies do point to the need to establish healthful eating behaviors early in life."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fall News You Can Use

It's hard to believe that today is the start of Labor Day Weekend and that summer is essentially over, even if our calendar tells us we still have a few weeks left. If school hasn't begun for you or your kids, it certainly will do so next week.

So, we figured it would be a good time to corral all the "Back to School" news and fall events that have filled our mailbox over the past week or so and share some of these with our readers.

Manhattan's Symphony Space will be holding its Thalia Kids Book Club this fall, featuring favorite children's books and their authors. Special treats include appearances by author Lois Lowry (joined by actor Sean Astin and his wife Christine), in honor of the 25th anniversary of her Newbery Medal-winning book Number the Stars (October 19th); David Hyde Pierce and Jane Curtin celebrating E.B. White's classics Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little (November 16th); and Natalie Babbitt, who will mark the 40th anniversary of her book Tuck Everlasting (January 25, 2015). Past year's events have sold out quickly, so don't delay getting tickets.

On Sunday, September 14, the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn is holding a free program for children with special needs called "Special Day for Special Kids." Kids and their families can explore the museum before it opens to the public.

Another program at the New York Transit Museum recognizes the particular appeal that trains hold for many children on the autism spectrum. The fall Subway Sleuths program for 2nd-5th graders has opened registration. Contact the Museum's Education Manager Elyse Newman at elyse.newman@nyct.com to learn

The Museum of the City of New York has a series of family "drop in" programs scheduled for fall weekends and school holidays. These are free with museum admission.

Advocates for Children of New York has a Start of School fact sheet for New York City parents whose children receive special education services under an IEP (Individualized Education Program). And a fact sheet for families who are new to the public school system, whose child has not been assigned to a New York City school, can be found on the website of the New York City Department of Education.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Study: Real-Life “Thinking Caps” Improve Learning Outcomes

“Put on your thinking cap” could soon be more than just a colloquialism. Psychologists at Vanderbilt University have developed a “cap” that caused subjects to make fewer errors when learning a novel task.

Robert Reinhart and Geoffrey Woodman, coauthors of the study, were interested in the negative voltage produced in our brain’s medial-frontal cortex when we make errors. They hypothesized that we learn from errors in response to this electric impulse. Animal trials indicated that it was possible to regulate these electrophysiological impulses so that they were stronger or weaker in conjunction with a subject’s errors. The technique had never been tested with human subjects before, though.

In their study, Reinhart and Woodman fitted subjects with an elastic headband that held two electrodes in place on subjects’ heads. One electrode was placed on the crown of the head, and the other lay on the subject’s cheek. The electrodes delivered a very gentle electric current through the subjects’ skin and skull and into their brains. (Don’t worry, it didn’t hurt! Subjects reported that the sensation felt like tingling or tickling.) Each subject was randomly assigned to receive stimulation according to one of three conditions: 1) a current running anodally, from crown to cheek, 2) a current running cathodally, in the opposite direction, from cheek to crown, and 3) no current at all, but a sensation designed to simulate the feeling of one. Subjects weren’t able to tell which of the three stimulations they were receiving.

After 20 minutes of stimulation, subjects began a learning task. Through trial and error, they had to figure out which buttons on a game controller corresponded with colors displayed on a screen. Since they had to make decisions very quickly, they made plenty of errors, resulting in lots of opportunities for their medial-cortexes to fire.

During the learning task, Reinhart and Woodman monitored the electrical activity in the subjects’ brains. The results of this monitoring, and of the subjects’ learning outcomes, demonstrated a clear trend: 75% of the subjects who had received anodal stimulation (crown to cheek) produced much more negative voltage with each error than the cathodal (cheek to crown) group; they demonstrated much smaller spikes in medial-cortex negative voltage when they answered incorrectly. Strikingly, negative voltage spikes were strongly associated with better performance on the task. The anodal group mastered the matching game more quickly, while the cathodal group made more errors and required more time to learn the task.

Reinhart describes the results as “extraordinary” since an external stimulus was able to make subjects more cautious, less error-prone, and more adaptable. It should be noted that the error rates between the two groups differed very little, only four percent. However, Woodman observes that this rate is far better than rates found in studies of pharmaceuticals or psychological therapy. The effects of the electrical stimulation transferred to other tasks and lasted an average of five hours.

These “thinking caps” certainly have implications for improving learning. Further, they could prove beneficial for the treatment of conditions which are associated with performance-monitoring deficits, like ADHD and schizophrenia.

The full study can be found in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Five Years of Blogging at The Yellin Center

In August of 2009, the Yellin Center team was looking for a way to share information with the families, students, and educators we serve. We can't remember which one of us came up with the idea of creating a blog, but we soon became bloggers - learning how to post our pieces and to add links, photos, videos, and labels. Five years and almost 800 posts later, The Yellin Center Blog is still rolling along, with new posts two or three times each week. Some of these feature specific authors, like the terrific blogs by Learning Specialist Beth Guadagni, or the legal blogs by Susan Yellin, Esq., our Director of Advocacy and Transition Services, or the blogs on medical or policy issues written by Dr.Yellin.

Even well after they are posted, our blog posts continue to help us answer questions from parents and students. Some topics -- especially questions about special education laws and procedures -- just make more sense when they are set out in writing and parents tell us it is very helpful to be directed to a specific blog as a starting point for helping them with a question.

Each of our posts is "tagged" with labels, noting the topics it covers. When you look at the home page for our blog, you can either search a specific topic, or you can browse the topics we have covered and just click on the one that interests you. The list of topics has variable type size; the more posts that include that particular topic, the larger the font in which it appears. So, subjects like books, reading, research, and resources have appeared quite often, while we have only written one blog about snow days.

We welcome guest bloggers and have had parents, students, and teachers write about their personal experiences. Please let us know if you would like to contribute a guest blog. The list below does not have live links to our posts, but we thought you would find it interesting to see the wide range of topics we have covered. You can find the active version of this list at the blog home page and click on those subjects which interest you. Happy reading!

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