Friday, December 19, 2014

Learn to Code With Codecademy

What's the most useful language to learn? There's a reasonable argument to be made for Mandarin, but we think the answer might be Javascript. Or HTML. Programming skills are increasingly important to know in the digital age, and jobs that didn't have tech components in the past are increasingly asking for candidates who understand basic programming.

Luckily, Codecademy can give young people an edge. Codecademy is a free web-based program that teaches users Javascript, Ruby, Python, CSS, and other languages. Its also available as an app for iOS devices. In addition to learning coding languages, users can learn to build an interactive website, a Rails application, and more.

Codecademy's founders Ryan Bubinski and Zach Sims believe people learn best by doing. So Codecademy's students discover concepts by actually building things, all the while getting feedback from their peers. Learners can join the millions of other Codecademy users in study groups, question-and-answer forums, and more. While those with a background in coding may find Codecademy a bit basic, neophytes are sure to find the site both eye-opening and enjoyable.

01000011 01101111 01100100 01100101 01100011 01100001 01100100 01100101 01101101 01111001 00100000 01010010 01101111 01100011 01101011 01110011!

(Translation: Codecademy rocks!)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Kindergarten Readiness: A Framework from Sesame Workshop

Preparing children for school, and ensuring they have the skills required to be a successful learner, can be a challenge for every parent. Parents are often left wondering what abilities their child needs to have mastered before entering school, leaving them with high levels of anxiety about how to best prepare their child for school, and what the commencement of kindergarten will bring.

Sesame Workshop, the educational research organization behind Sesame Street, commissioned the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to examine school readiness in today’s children. Their findings where released in the Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry report in July 2014. The report reveals discrepancies in kindergarten readiness, with 44% of children entering school with one or more risk factors that have the potential to impact their success in school.

In response to the data and in acknowledgement of the anxiety parents face around school readiness, Sesame Workshop decided to make their personal Kindergarten Readiness Framework available to the public. This document is the culmination of over 45 years of their independent research on early learning. Previously, Sesame Workshop has used this guide as their internal framework to help ensure that the content they produce is developmentally appropriate and supports the educational growth of their young audience. The document is robust, and highly supported by current research.


It does an excellent job of breaking down and detailing twenty key school readiness skills that are thought to help promote success in school settings. Furthermore, each content area (language, math, science, health, emotional regulation etc.) is sectioned by age, and offers developmentally appropriate skills that a child should be achieving in years two through five.

Hopefully, this guide is able to answer some of your questions about kindergarten readiness, and the key skills your child needs before entering the classroom. However, it is important to note that children progress and develop at different rates. Therefore, if you find that your child isn’t preforming at a level described in the framework, don't  be alarmed. This is only a guide, not a diagnostic tool. It is also only one tool of many to help you determine your child’s readiness for school. If you are still left with concerns over your child’s kindergarten readiness, you should start by talking to your child's pediatrician about how your child is developing and acquiring skills.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Youth Tobacco Use

The dangers of tobacco use are well documented and widely understood. A recent article in PLoS Medicine adds just one more data point to the argument against cigarette smoking: in Asia, where smoking is more widespread than in the United States, approximately two million premature deaths in recent years can be attributed to cigarette use. Victims generally died of cancer, cardiovascular disease, or respiratory disease. Men who had a history of smoking were nearly twice as likely to die from cancer as men who had never smoked and were fifty percent more likely to die from respiratory diseases.

According to the Center for Disease Control , cigarette use among youth in the United States has seen encouraging declines in recent years. It is particularly important to track rates of tobacco use among young people because nearly all adult smokers begin using tobacco during their youths. CDC surveys show that nine of out ten adult smokers began using cigarettes by the time they were 18 years old, and 99% of smokers had begun smoking by age 26.



Cigarette smoking among youth declined between 2000 and 2011, which is certainly a positive trend. However, the use of electronic cigarettes, a product whose advisability is hotly debated among health care professionals, and which are often manufactured in China without oversight as to safety issues, doubled between 2011 and 2012. During that same period, hookah use among high school-aged youth increased as well. In 2012, the most recent year for which data were available, 6.7% of middle school students and 23.3% of high school students used tobacco products.

Declines in cigarette use are certainly good news, but the risks that accompany tobacco use are frightening enough that parents, teachers, and mentors must continue to work with physicians to ensure that teens understand them. Resources are available through the Surgeon General, including conversation cards for parents and doctors to guide talks with young people about tobacco. Adults can also help by reporting sales of tobacco to underage customers, which is illegal in every state; consumers who witness an illegal tobacco sale in New York, which includes sale of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes to minors or sale of loose cigarettes, should call 1-800-458-1158.

Photo credit: Wlodi via Flickr CC

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools

Last week your blogger and Dr. Yellin attended a program on "American Education and the Separation of Church and State" sponsored by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Hunter College here in New York.

The two speakers brought very different perspectives on the issue. Professor Philip Hamburger,
Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law and a nationally recognized expert on the separation of church and state, discussed the origins of the concept of separating religion from government and how this issue has been dealt with in the courts over the years. His scholarly presentation gave this issue context and an historical perspective.

The second speaker was Matthew Yellin, Social Studies Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator at Hillside Arts and Letters Academy (HALA), a New York City public high school in Jamaica, Queens (and son of your blogger and Dr. Yellin). HALA is one of New York City's new small schools, with a current enrollment in grades 9-12 of 470 students with over 40 nationalities represented. More than 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of the economic challenges faced by the students and their families. HALA has had only one graduating class thus far, with a graduation rate of 83% (well above the average rate for New York City). As Matt noted, at any point in time, his classes have students with at least five different religions present, usually Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Buddist, as well as one or more Caribbean traditions.

Matt noted that teacher education programs rarely mention First Amendment issues and both teachers and students have what he calls "Folk Understandings" about talking about religion in the public school classroom. As a result, when religion is mentioned at all, it is in "fact bundles", a collection of facts which are taught because they are going to be on the New York State Regents exam: "The three tenets of this religion are...." He notes that this may make even students who follow that religion uncomfortable since they may practice it another way, and the use of fact bundles makes discussion difficult and dry. Instead, he suggests that there is room for meaningful teaching about religion that would include allowing open issues for discussion and talking about religious conflicts in the students' own communities. Further, he noted that the establishment clause does not apply to students and students can and should be encouraged to discuss religion through interview projects and personal narratives. Finally, he noted that  a school that has made respectful interaction the norm in classroom discussions makes all kinds of conversations easier, since students have learned to listen and respect the views of their classmates. 

The full program is available on the website of the Institute and in the link below. 

Matt Yellin's Presentation Begins at Minute 28


  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions
  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions
  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions

Monday, December 8, 2014

Books to Teach Social Skills

The Importance of Building Social Understanding

Developing social skills is a critical part of child development. However, it can be complicated to explain to students the importance and relevance of different behavior modifications in an engaging, meaningful way. As a classroom teacher, I often relied heavily on creative books to help set the stage and open a dialogue with students about behavior and behavior management. The following are a sampling of books that tackle multiple social areas that can be hard to explain to students. In my classroom, I always read social development stories in a whole class setting, and then engaged in a teacher directed discussion about the lesson behind each tale. Furthermore, having a framework of a story can be beneficial as a reference when giving students directives about the behaviors. For example, the story Decibella and her 6-inch Voice introduces a five-point voice scale to students, so often when I wanted to temper the vocal volume of student I would ask them where their voice was on the Decibella scale, and follow that prompt up with where it should be. It was a strong tool in helping manage the classroom environment, while also promoting behavioral self-monitoring in my students.

Book Recommendations
Skill taught: Understanding and Expressing Emotions

Grades: Preschool through Third Grade

Summary: An excellent book, with beautiful illustrations to teach students about complex emotions such as pride, fear, pain, curiosity, anger and disappointment. The story also gives students a way to articulate the emotions they are feeling, and an understanding how one might act when feeling a particular way. The text uses bias-free language and vocabulary to give students a framework to express their feelings.


Skill taught: Behavior Management

Grades: Preschool through Fifth Grade

Summary: An accompaniment to The Way I Feel, this book explains and details character traits such as compassion, curiosity, capability and bravery. The story uses beautiful illustrations and verse to describe behavior in different contexts and how different types of children act differently. Furthermore, the text defines new vocabulary describing behavior in a judgment-free way, and gives students a new wealth of language to describe their own actions. 

 
My Mouth is a Volcano by Julia Cook and Carrie Hartman
Skill taught: Managing thoughts and words without interrupting

Grades: Preschool and up

Summary: An award winning book created to teach children about controlling their thoughts and expressing their ideas at an appropriate time. The book is written in friendly, witty verse that is accompanied by beautifully illustrated imagery. The story provides teachers, parents and interventionists a fun way to teach students to listen to others and wait their turn to speak. 


Decibella and her 6-inch Voice by Julia Cook and Anita De Falla
Skill taught: Listening and Communication

Grades: Kindergarten through third grade

Summary: A colorfully illustrated and thoughtfully written story about a girl who learns to use and her adjust her voice to communicate with confidence. This story teacher students about the five voice volumes, and how one must adjust their levels for different settings. The story uses humor to teach students effective communication techniques, and also provides a section of tips for parents and teachers. 





Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook and Carrie Hartman

Skill taught: Respecting personal Space

Grades: Preschool and up

Summary: An exceptional book that uses humor to teach children about respecting and maintaining personal space in a way that is witty and engaging.



Grades: Kindergarten and up

Summary: A great team building book that uses humor to teach students the value of working together and sharing their resources. This book is part of Ms. Cook’s Best Me I Can Be! collection, which includes many other titles that are also worth exploring. The additional titles cover topics such as peer pressure, making friends, asking for help and receiving feedback.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Toys for Learning and Development

In our last post we offered gift suggestions for teachers. Today we look at two sources for gifts for children with special learning needs. We hope you find these helpful as you do your holiday shopping!


Learning should and can be fun. Even if learning vulnerabilities exists, it is entirely possible to help develop your child’s skills in an engaging, play-based manner. Toys are an interactive, screen free way to develop and hone critical areas of child development. As a teacher, some of my favorite play-based learning materials came from Melissa and Doug and Plan Toys. This article primarily focuses on toys for special education purposes. However, it is important to note that all children will benefit from play-based developmental learning. So, although these resources are deemed effective for students with diverse learning needs, they will also be beneficial for the overall development of all children.


If you are looking to acquire play based learning materials for your home or classroom, the first resource to explore is Melissa and Doug, an award-winning American toy company that offers an array of toys designed for special needs students as well as typically developing children. The toys detailed in their special education section were selected from Melissa and Doug’s traditional toy line by Dr. Melissa Liguori, for parents and special educators to use develop their students’ unique skills. Melissa and Doug offers toys across a number of developmental categories, including, social and emotional, oral, gross and fine motor skills, cognitive skills, speech and language, life skills and sensory awareness. Beyond detailing each toy, each developmental skill category is also explained by Dr. Liguori and tips are offered on how to implement and utilize the resources available. For an even deeper analysis and more robust skill building tips I found that as an educator the Melissa and Doug Special Needs Toy Guide was an invaluable resource.

Your next resource to explore is Plan Toys, another award winning toy company that prides itself on designing green, sustainable and safe wooden toys for young children. On the Plan Toys website you will find listings of toys that promote learning across different key areas of child development. Many of the categories are similar to Melissa and Doug, and unlike the former there isn’t any additional material on how to implement the resources. However, the materials that Plan toys offers that I have found to be valuable are a variety of their toys for concentration, their sign language alphabet tiles, their braille alphabet tiles and their mood memo toy for helping express emotions.


Learning is fun, and it doesn’t have to look like traditional pencil and paper work. There are a variety of resources and methods to promote skill development while playing. Enjoy exploring all the alternative learning materials available.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gifts Teachers Really Appreciate

Giving holiday or end-of-year gifts to your child’s teacher is certainly not expected in most schools and may actually be prohibited in some public schools, but when you decide you want to show your gratitude to that extra-special teacher, finding the right gift can be tough. For those occasions when the “#1Teacher” mug or ubiquitous apple just won’t cut it, here are some fresh ideas:


Supplies: Too many teachers use their own paychecks to pay for classroom supplies. Put together a box of assorted classroom essentials like dry erase markers, pencils, sticky notes, staples, and packs of binder paper that are sure to go to good use. Or let the teacher choose his own supplies by presenting him with a gift card to an office supply store. Another idea is to set up a donation page and spread the word among other parents in the class. For example, www.adoptaclassroom.org provides a platform for raising tax-deductible donations that teachers can use for classroom supplies and equipment.

Books: If your child’s teacher maintains a classroom library, donate gently used books your child has outgrown. (If not, the school library may appreciate them; ask the librarian.)

Faculty Lounge Treats: If you’ve got several children at the same school, show your appreciation for all of their teachers, as well as for the administrative staff, by sending a supply of high-quality coffee and an assortment of good tea for the teachers’ lounge. Ask someone who works in the office what kind of coffee machine is available to the teachers to ensure you send something they can use. A fruit or vegetable tray or a fruit bouquet is also a generous gesture.

Customized Stamp: Writing his name in every book that belongs in his classroom is a time-consuming chore for your child’s teacher. Save him precious minutes by giving him a self-inking stamp that will allow him to mark books and other classroom supplies with ease. Most office supply stores will allow you to choose from a variety of customize-able stamps.

Donation of Your Time: Tell your child’s teacher that you appreciate all the work she puts in so much that you’d like to put in a little of your own. Many teachers will leap at the chance to involve another pair of adult hands in a big project or experiment. (If you’re artistic, offer to collect the supplies for an art project and lead it yourself.) Another idea is to offer your help with time-consuming tasks like taking down a classroom display of student art and setting up a new one, designing a display bulletin board, or helping pack up the classroom at the end of the year. A very innovative idea is to ask if the school would allow you cover the teacher’s lunch or recess duty or study hall. The time off will give your child’s teacher the chance to squeeze in some grading or simply relax.

Pampering: Time to one’s self is rare for most busy teachers. A gift card to a local spa for a pedicure or a massage is almost always welcome.

A Night on the Town: If you find yourself with tickets to a concert or sporting event you can’t attend, ask the teacher if she’d like to use them before you try to sell them. Many teachers would also appreciate a gift card to a local restaurant.

A Handwritten Note: Most teachers go into teaching because they dream of making a difference in the lives of children. Let your child’s teacher know he succeeded with a letter that tells him just how much you appreciate him. Include a specific memory, like the way you felt when your child, formerly a reluctant reader, couldn’t stop talking about the book the class was reading. A note from your child (act as scribe if she’s too young to write it herself) would be the icing on the cake. For extra credit, send a copy of your letter, and your child’s note, to the principal. This free “gift” is likely to be the one the teacher will treasure most!