Wednesday, March 14, 2018

One of Those Days...

It's one of those days with lots to think about...

It's Pi day again - March 14th - when those with a mathematical inclination think about the beauty of a circle. We only get to use a very few of the digits of Pi (technically π, the Greek letter), unlike in 2015, when we could celebrate 3/14/15. Still, it's a good time to think about numbers and to learn a bit about this amazing mathematical constant. TIME has a good discussion you might want to read.

Today is a day of student protest across the country, with students walking out of their classrooms at 10 am local time, in light of the latest school shooting in Florida,  to protest gun violence and the failure of politicians to take action to end the plague of deaths of students and adults in schools and elsewhere. Districts differed in their response as these protests were planned over the past few days. Some, like New York City, were supportive of the students' actions, while others threatened students who left class with suspension or other discipline. There is an updating story in The New York Times as this unfolds.

It's also a day to think about the wisdom of pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, who died yesterday at the age of 99. Dr. Brazelton's common sense approach to parenting made him a logical successor to Dr. Benjamin Spock (who died in 1998), who first helped parents move away from strict rules to more common sense and child centered ways to parent young children. In fact, according to an excellent piece in The Washington Post about his life, his patients included Dr. Spock's grandchildren. Dr. Brazelton was the author of two dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles on child development and pediatrics and created The Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) to help pediatricians examine newborns and young infants.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tools for Empowering Dyslexic Students

Note: This post is the last in a three-part installment that describes a problem I faced in designing curriculum for dyslexic students and the solution I discovered. In the first post, I explained my role, introduced my students, and described the problem and my idea for combating it. The second post explained my rationale for that solution. Here, I’ll share my procedure and the resources I’ll use to implement this project in my classroom. The links for the tools and worksheets are embedded in this post and also appear at the end.

I always like to show models when teaching writing, and I wanted to do the same for this project. However, I had difficulty finding a self-advocacy letter I liked, so I wrote my own Sample Letter. The first step will be explaining the purpose of the letter and reading through it with my students. We’ll talk about what points the writer included, and I’ll guide them to determining the purpose of each.

Next, we’ll do some self-reflection. I want my students to think about themselves as people, not only as learners, so the Reflection sheet  I made will guide them through that line of thinking. Before and after they complete it, we’ll talk about how their thoughts will inform their letter.

Such a complex document has to be heavily scaffolded for any group of young students, and this is particularly true of my class. So I made a very thorough Organizer for them to use. It follows the order of the ideas in the Sample Letter so that students can hold one up to the other to orient themselves. Writing is a tremendously demanding process for dyslexic learners, and the Organizer will guide them to devote their attention to each task (crafting topic and concluding sentences, listing points, and justifying each point) separately. Once they have written down their ideas, I’ll help them check their spelling on so that when they draft their letters from their Organizers, they won’t have to think about that tricky aspect of writing. Writing, in this case, will be the easy part; their ideas will already be documented and partially edited and all they have to do is put the pieces together.

I’m excited to use this project in the spring as a way to review our year and preview next year. I’m certain that I’ll make some tweaks after seeing how this plays out in the messy, real world of my classroom, but I hope these materials and ideas help other educators create similar opportunities for their students to learn, reflect, and self-advocate.

Sample Letter
Reflection sheet

Thursday, March 8, 2018

An Approach to Empowering Dyslexic Students

Note: This post is the second in a three-part installment that describes a problem I faced in designing curriculum for dyslexic students and the solution I discovered. In the last post, I explained my role, introduced my students, and described the problem and my idea for combating it. This post will explain my rationale for that solution. In the next post, I’ll share my procedure and the resources I’ll use to implement this project in my classroom.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the year-end project of a self-advocacy letter would tick an enormous number of boxes.

1.  Reflective learners are better learners. To write this letter, students would have to do lots of self-reflection as they figured out how to introduce themselves to their teacher. They’d need to think carefully about what approaches work for them as learners, which is an important revelation for anyone (and for kids with learning disabilities, in particular). I’d be sure to format the letter in such a way that students would have to list strengths along with their challenges, since kids with learning disabilities need frequent reminders that they have plenty of talents and skills.

2.  To write their letters, students would need to learn about the condition of dyslexia. Kids who are diagnosed at an early age often aren’t even sure exactly what dyslexia means. Knowing the nuts and bolts of their particular brain wiring can help their experiences make sense and give them confidence. All of my students struggle with attention, too, and one has severe anxiety that affects her classroom experience, so crafting this letter would give all of them the chance to research and put into words the effects of, and strategies for, all of these conditions. I hope it will give them a sense of agency and ownership.

3.  A letter is an easy format for transmitting information. I’ve seen approaches to self-advocacy in which a student gives a presentation to his/her teachers, and while I think it’s a nice idea, it’s not ideal for my population. My students all struggle with word retrieval. They’re also fifth graders. So setting them up to lead a session on their own learning in front of a crowd of middle school teachers they’ve never even met didn’t sound like a great idea. This, of course, was assuming the school could even manage to get all of their teachers and the relevant administrators in the same room at the same time at the frantically busy commencement of the school year. My experience working in large, public schools told me this was unlikely. Instead, I envision them walking up to their teachers at the beginning of next year, handing off their letter, and being done with it.


4.  A letter is adaptable. At the end of this year, each of my students will take home an electronic document that can grow and change as they do; I will encourage their parents to revisit the letter in the weeks before each new school year begins to provide their kids with an opportunity for reflection.

5.  A letter is, obviously, a real-world writing application. We’ve been working on crafting paragraphs that contain both solid points and justification for those points, but usually I’m their only audience. Their letters, on the other hand, will serve an actual purpose in their lives, and it will be easier for them to understand why they have to explain their points when writing.

6.  The letter will tie our curriculum together. Our class reads this year have included Al Capone Does My Shirts, The Cay, and Rules. I realized long after I had made these selections that each book features at least one character with some sort of physical handicap or learning difficulty, so I will use that common theme as a lens through which to analyze what we’ve read. After talking and writing about the strengths and challenges that each of these characters brings to the table, my students can put those analytical skills to work by turning the lens on themselves.

Look for the next post, where I’ll share the resources I’ll use to implement this project and explain the procedure I’ll follow.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Dyslexic Students: A Problem and A Solution

Note: This post is the first in a three-part installment that describes a problem I faced in designing curriculum for dyslexic students and the solution I discovered. Here, I’ll explain my role, introduce my students, and describe the problem and my idea for combating it. The second post in this series will explain my rationale for that solution. Last, I’ll share my procedure and the resources I’ll use to implement this project in my classroom.

I teach a group of bright, motivated fifth graders at Hillside School, a small school in Boulder, Colorado. Hillside is an unusual place: All of our students have dyslexia, and all of them attend Hillside for half the day and spend the other half in a mainstream setting. Every day, I do my best to help them learn the literacy skills they’ll need to be successful in an academic setting. Another important skill set, however, goes beyond literacy. Self-advocacy is a skill that students with all kinds of learning differences will need throughout their academic lives, and I need to include that in my curriculum, too.


Wrightslaw, an excellent resource for information about education law as it relates to students with disabilities, tells students that self-advocacy is “learning how to speak up for yourself, making your own decisions about your own life, learning how to get information so that you can understand things that are of interest to you, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help and friendship, and learning about self-determination.” Obviously, that all sounds important. But implementation gets sticky, especially for students, like mine, who are young and struggle with language.

It’s important that my students understand what dyslexia means for their learning. It’s also important that they learn to communicate their learning needs to their mainstream teachers; everyone in my class has an IEP, but I know too well that students and families often need to be assertive to ensure that these important documents are being honored. And it’s also important that I teach literacy skills. How, I wondered toward the beginning of the school year, could I get the most bang for my buck and cover all of these things well in the course of a single school year? 
I settled on a project that would tie all of this together: writing a self-advocacy letter that students could hand to their teachers at the beginning of the school year. This letter would serve as an introduction, both of the student and of their learning style.

To learn about the reasons I settled on this idea, look for the next post in this series.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Nuts and Bolts of Tuition Reimbursement

Based upon questions we have been fielding from parents recently, it may be time to revisit a subject that we first addressed in 2011 - how families can get reimbursed for private school tuition for their children who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

A good place to start this discussion is with understanding that parents have the right to enroll their child in any school they choose. Whether their child is a typical learner or a student with challenges, it is completely up to the parents to decide where and how they obtain their education (so long as they are, in fact, being educated, since attendance at a school or participation in an authorized home school program is mandatory). The issue in these situations is who will pay for this education.

It is also important to understand that states have a list of "approved private special education programs". The fact that these schools are "approved" means only that these programs meet certain criteria and follow certain rules - things like curriculum, school calendar, and participation in state testing. Local school districts that cannot meet the needs of a particular child may agree to place a student in one of these approved schools. The local district takes responsibility for the student's application and arranges to pay the tuition at this private approved school. [The state reimburses the local district for much of this tuition]. There is no cost to the family. Once the student is accepted into the approved private school, it  becomes the placement set forth in the student's IEP. 

Frequently, however, the local school district does not agree with the parents' contention that a particular student requires a private school in order to meet his or her needs. They offer an IEP that provides for the student to be educated in a public school, perhaps in a special class or with special supports. When that occurs and the parents believe that their child is not being provided with an appropriate public education - something universally referred to as FAPE (free, appropriate, public education), the parents may decide to enroll their child in a non-approved school that they believe will meet their child's needs. They may then file for a hearing before a state hearing officer to seek to have their tuition payments at the private school reimbursed to them. We recommend that the parents work with an attorney who is experienced in handling special education matters to represent them in the hearing.  Note that local school districts cannot and will not place a student in a non-approved private school, even if they think it would be helpful for the child. 

Under the IDEA, there is a three prong test, called the Burlington/Carter test, after two U.S. Supreme Court cases: Florence County. School. District. Four v. Carter and School Committee of Town of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts . 
  1. First, the local school district has the burden of establishing that their IEP, including the school setting, is appropriate. If they succeed in demonstrating this, then they will prevail at the hearing. 
  2. IF the district fails to establish that its IEP is appropriate, then the hearing officer will look to see whether the school in which the parents have enrolled their child is, indeed, an appropriate setting in light of the student's needs. Generally, a private special education school that works with students like the one at hand will be deemed appropriate. In contrast, a private general education program with little experience with students with disabilities will likely not be appropriate.
  3. Finally, the hearing officer will look at the equities, meaning that it will examine whether the parents have dealt fairly with the district by looking at the programs that the district suggested and not having signed a binding contract with a private school in advance of examining the programs the district recommends. Note, however, that the parents’ preference for a private school is not a bar to reimbursement.

Even parents who are successful at a hearing still must lay out the tuition and await reimbursement which can come more than a year after the fact, given the time involved in scheduling hearings (even without an appeal from the hearing decision by the district). And the hearing process needs to reoccur each year, unless the parties reach a settlement. There can be no guaranty that parents will be awarded reimbursement, although an experienced attorney looking at all the facts in a particular case can be helpful in weighing the likelihood of success. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Before School Exercise to Build Bodies and Minds

We all know that exercise is good for kids. But we often think about opportunities for exercise as something that happens after school or on weekends. A growing national (and now international) program, now in about 3,000 schools, BOKS (Build Our Kids' Success), changes that paradigm with a before-school program of exercise, activity, and skill-building that has been shown to improve both the physical and mental health of the children who participate.

Training from BOKS, an affiliate of the non-profit Reebok Foundation, is free and the start-up costs for schools (things like balls, jump ropes, and cones) are minimal. Trainings take place at several locations around the country or ,virtually, anywhere they are desired.

According the BOKS website, a typical one hour before-school session starts with check-in and free play. There is then a brief review of the lesson plan for the day and the "skill of the week". Next will generally come a running activity, which is a key part of every session, followed by practice of specific skills (things like push-ups or squats) through game playing. Classes end with a game designed to promote teamwork, and then the students stretch and cool down and discuss nutrition tips with the trainer.

While this all sounds like fun, the most impressive part of the program is the impact it has on the physical and emotional well-being of the children who participate. As noted in a recent piece in The New York Times, researchers looked at 707 students in 24 Massachusetts schools, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade. They all participated in a BOKS program for 12 weeks - some students twice a week and some three times weekly. The study found  that both the two and three times per week participants showed improvement in student engagement, positive affect, and vitality/energy measures. Changes in body mass index (BMI) were apparent in those students participating three times weekly, but not those who participated only twice each week.

If you are interested in implementing the BOKS program in your child's school, you can find the information to do so on the BOKS website.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dealing with Bullying in NYC Public Schools

We have written before about a number of issues relating to bullying:

and even about when kids are bullying -- or at least manipulating -- their parents.

To add to these resources, we have recently come across a very detailed and practical guide to policies and practices relating to bullying in the New York City Public Schools, prepared by Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), a wonderful nonprofit resource for New York City families. 

AFC’s Guide to Preventing & Addressing Bullying was issued in December 2017 and includes specific procedures, links, and telephone numbers that can be used when children and families are struggling with bullying. Also included in the Guide are discussions about what constitutes bullying, what happens once a complaint is filed, and how bullying can be prevented.

This is a worthwhile reference for every public school family in New York City. .