Monday, November 30, 2015

Using Infographics in the Classroom

One of the major principals of Universal Design for Learning is multiple means of expression. The underlying idea of this mandate is that students should be allowed to express their learning in multiple ways, particularly through their personal areas of strength. Traditional classroom environments rely heavily on students demonstrating their learning through written expression in the form of papers, oral communication during presentations, or test taking skills. However, there are a variety of ways for students to showcase their learning. For example, a student could draw a picture, create a photo essay, or devise a song. One new medium that media outlets and businesses have been using to synthesize, display, and share information is infographics. Doug Newsom and Jim Haynes (2004) define an infographic as “a graphic visual representation of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly”.

With infographics becoming popular, there are now a variety of child-friendly tools that enable students to create their own visually pleasing, graphic representations of their learning. The following tools are a few of the resources available for creating infographics: describes itself as “a website that features thousands of free infographic templates and design objects which users can customize to create and share their visual ideas online.” The big merit of is that it is incredibly user friendly. The website allows students to drag and drop images and input their own text and information to create robust visual representations of the concepts they are learning in class. Don’t just take our word for it. also received the Best Websites for Teaching and Learning Award in 2013 from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) - and it's free! allows students to input information and data into the site and then organize it into a visual, infographic, or chart. This tool would be especially useful in mathematics classrooms during a unit on data analysis and graphing. is a subscription-based tool. However, its reach extends beyond the classrooms as it also has the capacity to be used by teachers and administrators for professional development purposes or reporting student performance data. 


Piktochart has the potential to be more complex than the aforementioned tools, as the scope of this program extends well beyond classroom usage. Piktochart was created as a way for non-graphic designers to build high quality, engaging infographics.  As a result, a teacher may elect to use this resource only with older grades or tech savvy students. Although more intricate, Piktochart is still incredibly user friendly. Students are able to create high quality infographics and presentations using a variety of templates and embedded high-res images.

Doug Newsom and Jim Haynes (2004). Public Relations Writing: Form and Style. p.236.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


It's the day before Thanksgiving, and our thoughts may turn not only to turkey preparation and family travel arrangements but to gratitude. The holiday reminds us to appreciate the harvests on our tables and in our lives. Of course, every day—not just the fourth Thursday of November—offers an opportunity to give thanks. Whether or not this opportunity will be seized, however, seems to be somewhat related to a person’s age.

To be grateful for someone or their actions, one must be able to take that person’s perspective and understand their kind intentionality. This perspective-taking ability, or theory of mind, begins to develop around the ages of three to five; so children younger than this are lacking key building blocks for gratitude. 

After this, however, gratitude may not only grow but become more readily expressed, as language skills develop. This tends to taper off, though, during the adolescent years. Gratitude involves acknowledging a sense of dependency, and this goes against the teenage inclination to assert independence. Adulthood then shifts the gratitude slope in a new direction. 

Research has suggested that as adults age, their brains become less reactive to negative information while equally or even more reactive to positive information. This translates to a generally more positive outlook, which facilitates more gratitude. Psychologists have also noted that accumulated life experience along with a shortened sense of time seem to factor into the increase in gratitude that tends to come with aging.

Photo credit: anjanettew vis flickr cc

Monday, November 23, 2015

IDEA and High Expectations

This month marks the 40th Anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – the IDEA – first signed into law November 29, 1975. As most of our readers know, IDEA is the basis for educational services and supports for most students in pre-K through high school with a wide range of disabilities, including specific learning disabilities.

To coincide with this anniversary, the U.S. Department of Education has released a new guidance document for State Education Departments, noting that the IEP (Individualized Education Program) for a student who receives services under the IDEA must be aligned with the academic content standards for the grade in which that student is enrolled. This guidance has been welcomed by parents and advocates who have been concerned that students with disabilities are not being held to high enough standards. As noted by The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), “the power of an IEP written with high expectations and its impact on a student’s ability to achieve” are important to students’ lifetime success.

Although exceptions are made for students with the significant cognitive disabilities, even students who are far behind their peers will be held to these academic content standards. However, where students without significant cognitive disabilities are “performing significantly below the level of the grade in which the child is enrolled,” the IEP should contain goals that are “ambitious but achievable.” The Department of Education notes that schools should provide children with specialized instruction to help close the gap between their level of achievement and state standards.

While we welcome high standards and expectations for all students, we will take a “wait and see” position as to whether schools can properly support students with IEPs who are below grade level in one or more subjects, especially those with specific learning disabilities that impact a particular aspect of learning, such as math. While high standards for all students are a laudable goal, the "devil is in details." Such standards need to be reasonable and relevant, not arbitrary.

For example, schools need to focus not just on content mastery, but also on competencies and skills that students can use to help them succeed in the future. Students need to have access to content and methodologies for demonstrating/assessing mastery that take into account their specific disabilities. These methodologies must not be inherently discriminatory and need to conform to the principals of Universal Design for Learning, including multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression. For instance, for some students, schools should consider a portfolio component of assessment.

We would hope that this new guidance does not result in grade retention for students who do not meet grade level assessments, when their failure to do so may be due to years of inappropriate instruction and inadequate methods of demonstrating mastery.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Book on Autism wins the Samuel Johnson Prize

The Samuel Johnson Prize is the UK’s most prestigious literary award. This year, Steve Silberman’s popular science work Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently took home the prize for nonfiction. This is the first time in a decade and a half that a popular science work has taken home the esteemed award.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterized, to varying degrees, by impaired social and communication skills, as well as the presence of repetitive, habitual behaviors. Currently, there is no definitive or singular cause for autism. However, researchers have begun unearthing several rare gene mutations that are being linked to ASD. Even with these advances in the research, the academic and medical community is still left with many unanswered questions.

Being the recipient of the Samuel Johnson Prize is not the first time Mr. Silberman has garnered acclaim for his writing on neurodiversity. He is an award-winning investigative journalist with bylines in The New Yorker, Time and Nature. His reach, however, extends beyond the realm of pencil and paper. His TED talk, “The Forgotten History of Autism,” has left a palpable impact and been translated into thirteen languages.

In his book Neurotribes, Mr. Silberman explores the history and shifting attitudes toward autism, as well as the complex science behind the childhood developmental condition. He digs into the social and political landscapes throughout history that have shaped our present understanding of autism. He traces the history of ASD all the way from its origins in the research of Hans Asperger to the modern day. He even goes as far as to try to tease out answers for why there has been an apparent explosion of ASD diagnosis in the past decade.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of his book is his discussion around the growing body of "neurodiversity" activists. Mr. Silberman details how professionals and persons with ASD are coming together to promote self-determination by seeking accommodations and technological advances in the workplace, as well as in education. The underlying message of Neurotribes is that as a society we should stop drawing sharp divisions between what we assume to be "normal" and "abnormal." Instead, he urges that we be cognizant that everyone, regardless of the presence of a learning difference, has a uniquely wired brain. This is a sentiment that we here at The Yellin Center wholeheartily believe in, and a philosophy we try to propagate in our daily work. Mr. Silberman paints an optimistic picture of how the world can become a better, more accepting, increasingly understanding place for those with learning differences.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tips for National Scholarship Month

Happy National Scholarship Month! College costs are on the rise (a recent calculation from Bloomberg estimates tuition costs 1200% more than it did in 1978), but a college education is more important than ever. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a young person with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn about $20,000 more each year than a peer with only a high school diploma. Loans are one option, but we encourage young people to apply for as many scholarships as possible; it will cost only time, and students could end up earning substantial funds to put toward their school fees.

 courtesy pictures of money via flickr:cc

Here are some helpful tips for scholarship applications, culled from the National Scholarship Providers Association and our own research:
  • Many scholarship providers send information to high school counselors. Students should visit their counselor’s office periodically to check for scholarship opportunities applicable to them.

  • High school seniors should talk to representatives from the admissions or financial aid departments at their college (they may have to wait until they are accepted) to find out what kind of financial aid is available. Those who know what they’ll major In should communicate with that particular department as well; sometimes, departments will offer (or know of) scholarships available for students in certain fields of study. 

  • Fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available in early January (a very recent change permits using information from the prior year, allowing families to have the required information to submit earlier than in the past). Students should do this ASAP; there is evidence that those who complete the FAFSA early receive more scholarship money.

  • Students should use resources like and Local organizations like the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, community foundations, and private foundations are also good sources for scholarship information. Other websites that may be helpful are and, for all things dealing with financial aid. 

  • If a student knows what she will study or what line of work she will go into, she should look into organizations—both local and national—that may offer scholarship money to young people studying to enter particular fields. Insider tip: Local scholarships tend to award less money but a student’s odds of being awarded a local scholarship are much higher. Students should prioritize accordingly and be sure to apply for as many local or smaller scholarships as possible.

  • Look into work-study opportunities, or consider a working part-time. Lots of time in college is unstructured and many students find they have time to take on a job. And studies show that students who work part-time tend to develop better time-management skills, often leading to better grades.

  • Here’s another insider tip: After a student has been accepted, received his financial aid package, and been awarded any private scholarships, he should crunch some numbers to determine whether there is a large gap between amount of aid he has earned and the amount of tuition he and his family can afford to contribute. If he will not be able to afford college even with aid, he should ask his school about options for appeal. Many colleges have an appeal process that may yield more aid if a student’s campaign is successful. There is no guarantee, of course, and students should not take advantage of the system unless there is genuine need.

Finally, a cautionary note: DO NOT pay for scholarship or financial aid information. Frequently, these are scams, and even if some of these for-profit services are legitimate, there are too many free resources to make the cost worthwhile.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Understanding -- and Countering -- Procrastination

“Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” the old adage goes. Evolutionary psychology explains that the inclination to procrastinate is not a personal defect but rather a part of human nature that developed as an adaptive survival mechanism. When frequently faced with important survival goals in our immediate surroundings, it would have been maladaptive to focus attention and energy on long-term tasks. A student in today’s classroom is likely not preoccupied with finding shelter while avoiding being attacked by a jaguar; however, his brain is similar to that of an ancestor faced with such concerns. Therefore, while attention to a long-term research paper may certainly be important, it is certainly not natural.

Understanding this is key not only to explaining procrastination, but to countering it. People like to feel that their actions will be beneficial now or in the near future, and even non-survival tasks can be facilitated by linking them to the prospect of such benefits. For example, breaking long-term goals into short-term goals and connecting them to one’s personal interests is a way to capitalize on our brain’s natural reward systems to help counter procrastination. A recent article explains this and shares some other helpful tips for doing today what you could put off until tomorrow. These tips include keeping charts to track progress and breaking tasks down into smaller, more achievable steps. Why not give them a try... maybe tomorrow?

Photo Credit: Vic via flickr cc

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Math Apps for Building Spatial and Reasoning Skills

We recently took a look at spelling apps, recommending those that we think do the best job of providing critical orthographic skills while being fun and engaging. Today, we turn our attention to math apps we think are worth investigating.

Carstens Studios designs, creates and illustrates dynamic learning applications for young children. Daren Carstens, the owner of Carstens Studios, shares that his goal for each app is to inspire the love of math in children by giving them a new way to conceptualize mathematical concepts. Math requires spatial and sequential understanding, as well as a great deal of reasoning and logical thinking skill. 

There are an abundance of tools for building foundational numeracy and sequential skills. However, it can often be a challenge to find dynamic ways to build a child’s spatial understanding or reasoning skill. Carstens Studios offers a variety of fun, engaging tools that help students build their spatial understanding of math while encouraging reasoning and problem solving. We have detailed some favorite apps below that would add value to any math curriculum.

In the introduction to this app, Mr. Carsten shares that when he was in school, math just looked like squiggles to him, leaving his mind to wander and him to doodle on the edge of his notebook. He soon realized that there were places for doodles in math, and that doodling helped him better understand the mathematical concepts. Building on this notion, each game in the Math Doodles app gives players choices for displaying the numbers in different ways (as words, Roman numerals, currency, etc.). Furthermore, each math puzzle encourages students to experiment while developing and strengthening their strategy and problem solving skills. Math Doodles builds a wide range of critical math skills, including building basic mathematical and number sense, as well as teaching basic operations, time, money and geometric concepts.

It is true that math is more than numbers. It takes more to master math than merely mastering numeracy skills. Mr. Carstens states that, “The key to understanding math is understanding patterns.” Therefore, the Attributes app is comprised of a series of seven games, designed to challenge kids' mathematical thought processes through tables, patterns, and the concepts of attributes. The games help late-elementary children develop the abstract reasoning skills required in higher-level math. By playing the Attributes games, students will build their understanding of pattern sequences, Venn diagrams, logic, and classification.

Symmetry Shuffle 

As we have mentioned, spatial reasoning is an important element of mathematics, especially in geometry. The mathematical puzzle Symmetry Shuffle,allows students to explore line and rotational symmetry while developing their spatial sense. Through the game student will build her understanding of slides, flips and rotations of two-dimensional shapes, as well as the concepts of congruence, similarity and symmetry.

We can’t go into detail on every resource, but Carstens Studios has other apps that are also worth noting. So, if you are looking to provide students with extra addition and subtraction practice, check out Unknown Square, Sum Stacker or Connect Sums. Each of the apps has received numerous accolades and awards. But their biggest achievement is that they truly make math learning fun.