Friday, September 23, 2016

NoRedInk for Improving Writing and Grammar

It is no secret that writing is a tricky subject for teachers to teach and grade. Much of writing can be subjective, but there are also some very concrete grammar skills that a student must master to be an effective writer. Finding an engaging, effective way to help support students in building these skills can also be a challenge. Grammar workbooks just don’t really cut it for most students.

NoRedInk is free website created by teachers to help students improve their writing skills using engaging, personalized content. The program strives to use high-interest content to teach children concepts by generating questions and activities related to their favorite celebrities, TV shows, or friends. The program is also adaptive, meaning it will adjust subsequent questions based on what a student gets right or wrong. NoRedInk also believes in “playing with language” and they designed the program to be interactive by allowing students to click on words to capitalize them or drag and drop to add or delete punctuation.

For teachers, NoRedInk is able to provide data on what areas they need to focus on in class and where their students’ skills are lagging. Teachers are also able to track student progress toward common core and state standards. Many teachers also seem to  be using NoRedInk for standardized test prep classes as well to build foundational grammar skills. NoRedInk has published two study guides to help map out the concepts NoRedInk can help build for the SAT and the ACT. exams. If you are curious how other schools have used the program, you can read the case studies they have published. NoRedInk also has several onboarding guides to help both teachers and students understand how to effectively use the program.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Improving Professional Development with PDredesign

The topic of professional development has come up before on The Yellin Center blog, when we wrote about DIY ProD and Professional Learning Networks. We also view professional development programs as an important part of our work with schools and organizations and Dr. Yellin leads frequent workshops and webinars to educate teachers and other professionals about our neurodevelopmental framework for learning.

Teaching teachers has always been a huge professional interest of your blogger. It started back in undergraduate school, where my undergraduate research project involved looking into the best practices in professional development. This led to the creation of a series of training workshops and resources to support professors in integrating new technology into their pedagogy. It is really exciting to see time being invested, tools being developed, and new research coming out that will result in improving professional learning for educators. We spend so much time thinking about the best practices for helping a student grapple with a concept, and yet we rarely use the same teaching practices when training our educators.

The Gates Foundation has set out to change the way teachers are taught with their creation of PDredesign, a digital tool kit aimed at transforming professional learning. The ties between education improvement and the Gates Foundation go back years, and span multiple areas of national and global import. Your blogger had an opportunity to see this work in action back in 2015 at a Gates Social event. All of their projects are thoughtfully researched and seem to address a fundamental need in a very impactful way. However, this new tool to help empower districts to better support their teachers has us exceptionally excited.

Research on adult learning tells us that  instruction for adult learners needs to be specific to the particular needs of the learner. This is where the PDredesign readiness assessment comes in. This tool helps district officials identify and understand the learning needs of their staff. The program also houses tools for building an inventory of the products and resources already in the district. Using these tools, district officials are able to see what resources and ideas teachers aren’t using, while simultaneously highlighting the resources that are working, ensuring they are serving their staff’s needs. Using PDredesign allows districts to glean “actionable qualitative and quantitative data to design and implement a system” of professional learning that is correlated to the specific learning needs of their staff. Better yet, there is also a collaborative feature of the program that will allow districts to connect to other districts that are similar to them and share ideas about what is working and what isn’t.

Friday, September 16, 2016

National Data Highlights Absentee Issues

While we were busy this past spring, we missed the release of important data from the U. S. Department of Education on chronic absenteeism in our nation's schools. The data was collected  "from nearly every public school in the country ... to help ... understand who is chronically absent, at what grade levels chronic absenteeism tends to occur, and how chronic absenteeism compares community-by-community and state-by-state." It is presented in an accessible, interactive web format, enabling readers to clearly view, for example, how students with disabilities are more likely than most to be absent, while those who are English language learners have fewer than average absences.

We've looked at this issue before, especially at how frequent absences can be a particular problem for children living in poverty.

The newly released data found that 13% of American children -- 8 percent of all students -- missed 15 or more days in 2013-14, the period in which this data was collected. This adds up to a loss of 93 million school days! It should be noted that, although this data is several years old, the interactive report has been updated and corrected in several places.

The report notes that "the reasons for chronic absenteeism are as varied as the challenges our students and families face—including poor health, limited transportation, and a lack of safety—which can be particularly acute in disadvantaged communities and areas of poverty." Furthermore, frequent absences can impact the acquisition of early academic skills in young children and with a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school in older students.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Case for Single-Tasking

If you had to guess, how often do you think you switch between tasks on your e-devices, from Facebook to a Word document to a news site, back to your work on Word, then to your phone to answer a text, and back to Word for a bit before finding yourself looking up reviews of that new restaurant? Turns out, college students switch between windows on their laptops every 45 seconds, on average. Even more shocking is how long it might take us to refocus after a short distraction – up to 25 minutes. Some might call this multi-tasking (which have looked at in a previous post), but what’s really happening is better described as “rapid juggling” – and humans aren’t very good at it. We’re not really capable of doing two things simultaneously; our brain is actually going back and forth between the tasks, and that takes a lot of mental energy.

There’s been a lot of research over the past few years (and an excellent piece in The New York Times) about how this constant juggling of incoming information affects adults in the workplace, but recently researchers from the Departments of Informatics and Education at the University of California – Irvine have been working on figuring out how college students are affected as well. Not only does this rapid switching increase stress, but it also lowers our achievement, perhaps by 20%. That means that students who are trying to write a paper or take notes often have to use a lot more mental energy to finish the job than they should, because a lot of that energy is spent jumping around from window to window, or device to device. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon even found that the expectation of an incoming phone call or text can steal your focus enough to hurt your performance.

Interruptions to our mental focus and flow can come from others (email, texts, knocks on the door) or from ourselves (rapid juggling between windows), and the research shows we are our own most common interrupters. So how can college and high school students set themselves up for success and avoid a day of drained mental energy and too much tweeting? There are quite a few tips and resources for dealing with these habits.
  •  Let your friends and family know you’re going to be busy during a specified time, and turn your phone on airplane mode during this time so calls and texts can’t get through. Turn off all other notifications for the time being as well. 
  • Schedule your breaks, and make sure to indulge your human side – take a walk through nature, have a snack, or just look away from the screen and do some simple stretches. In between the breaks, stick to the one task at hand. 
  • Consider using free software like, which can make you aware of how often you’re switching, or an app that allows you to block yourself from certain websites for a set amount of time (StayFocused for Chrome, ColdTurkey for Windows, or SelfControl for Mac).

  • Take the Infomagical Challenge from WNYC, which gives you a week full of tasks that will help you regain control over where you exert your mental energy. Day one starts with single-tasking. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Teachers Pay Teachers

With the start of the new school year, teachers are putting the finishing touches on their lesson plans. Yellin Center Learning Specialist and blogger Renee Jordan shares her experiences as a classroom teacher creating and sharing her instructional materials.

As a new teacher, I spent hours roaming through local teacher stores and scouring education books at the library for activities, handouts, and materials for my students. I often found that so many of the reproducible materials had some great ideas, but they weren’t perfect and needed some tweaking.

I like to consider myself fairly tech savvy, so I began creating my own handouts and learning materials with my rudimentary InDesign skills. I doled out extra copies to interested coworkers who happened upon my materials on the photocopier. They were always so appreciative and it felt good to make the busy lives of my fellow teachers easier by providing them with materials that were tailored to specific student needs. It felt so good that I actually went on to study instructional and curriculum design in graduate school to better perfect my skills at developing learning materials. However, as the school year amps up, a teacher’s time becomes limited and there aren’t many hours at end of the day to spend creating and perfecting your own materials.

This is where Teachers Pay Teachers comes in to save the day. Instead of stumbling upon great learning materials in the copy room recycling bin, teachers are able to search for resources across age ranges and curricular areas that other exceptional educators have created.  Teachers Pay Teachers is the Etsy of the education world – an online marketplace for teachers to connect, both on and offline, and share the tools that have worked in their classrooms. Teachers are also able to sell their materials, garnering a supplemental income. As noted in The New York Times, some teachers are becoming very, very successful using Teachers Pay Teachers, with some materials having generating thousands of dollars of income for some truly innovative teachers. It is a sharing economy of high quality materials that have been created and vetted by seasoned, creative educators around the globe.

For me, Teachers Pay Teachers makes my life simpler by giving me easy access to exactly the type of learning materials I am hunting for. However, being a part of the Teachers Pay Teachers community is also inspiring. I love seeing the creative genius in my fellow educators across the continent; it fuels and spurs my own ideas of how to develop (and share) my own resources. When I share my materials in my Teachers Pay Teachers store I also benefit from the feedback other teachers provide on what worked in their classroom and what struggles they had with an activity I devised. This exchange of ideas helps me revamp and augment my learning materials. It may sound trite, but I truly become a better educator when I am able to connect and collaborate with the great teaching world through Teachers Pay Teachers. The Teachers Pay Teachers vision really says it all; they state that their “dream is to make the expertise and wisdom of all the teachers in the world available to anyone, anywhere, at any time." From my personal experience, they are really living that dream.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Podcasts for Growing Minds - Part III

Today we wind up our three-part series on podcasts with those aimed at parents. Our earlier posts looks at podcasts for children and teens

Podcasts Just for Parents

 1. The Longest Shortest Time (30-60 minutes) 

This parenting podcast is hosted by a journalist-turned-podcaster who was inspired to create the show after her experience with pregnancy, childbirth, and adjusting to parenthood. It sees itself as a “bedside companion” for new and seasoned parents alike about topics ranging from balancing parenthood with a career all the way to how to make placenta pills. Two particularly memorable episodes featured a US veteran who struggled to care for her children amid deployments (ever wonder what it’s like trying to breastfeed in a war zone?) and a professional clown who uses his clowning skills while parenting.

2. On Being (52 minutes)

This podcasts can help parents get into their zen zone whenever they have a chance for some down time. Host Krista Tippett interviews religious leaders, artists, scientists, psychologists, lawyers and political activists about their work and many more of life’s unanswerable questions. A recent favorite of ours broke format (typically a single interviewee each week) to share stories from 16 Americans celebrating Ramadan about “the delights and gravities of Islam’s holiest month.” It was our first time really getting a feel for what Ramadan means to Muslim Americans, and it helped us feel connected to the great diversity of our country. Although this podcast often features religious leaders and touches upon some religious concepts, it is wholly non-denominational and spiritual rather than religious.

3. Only Human (25-40 minutes)

Sometimes, parents don’t have time to read the news every morning or catch up on current events. Sometimes, parents don’t even have time to engage in the thought-provoking activities that keep their brains running. That’s why it’s nice to be able to listen to a podcast like Only Human that forces you to think critically about some of the most pressing issues in physical and mental health. We’ve learned a lot about the history of medicine, new scientific advances, and what it means to be “only human” in the face of chronic illness. The reason we're recommending this podcast for parents, however, is because of its focus on mental health, relationships, and connecting with others. Many of its episodes thoughtfully explore the relationships among parents and children, doctors and patients, siblings, and even med students and their training cadavers. The podcast reminds us to stay connected to others in the face of hardship and doubt, and it stretches our critical thinking muscles in the process. We recommend starting with episode one, in which the host discusses her own experience of fighting cancer while pregnant.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Podcasts for Growing Minds - Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series on podcasts. Earlier this week we looked at podcasts created for children. Today we are looking a those that will especially appeal to teens (although many parents will find them of interest too). And we will end the week with a discussion about podcasts specifically aimed at parents. 

Podcasts for Teens

1. Radio Rookies (5-30 minutes)

This is a recommendation for the 15-and-up crowd. Radio Rookies is a WNYC series "that provides teenagers with the tools and training to create radio stories about themselves, their communities and their world.” It covers difficult subjects through the eyes of New York teens experiencing them, including race, poverty, domestic violence, parenthood as a young adult, and graduating high school against the odds. Some of our favorite WNYC reporting is done by these radio rookies, who offer a fresh perspective and mature insights into issues that aren’t always truly understood by grown-up professional journalists. This radio show is a good way to show teens their potential and their value, especially if they’re interested in journalism or politics.

2.  Invisibilia (60-65 minutes)

This podcast is amazing long-form reporting on “the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”  It prompts teens to think more deeply about themselves and the world around them. They’re all amazing, but two recent episodes have looked closely at how our clothes can change our minds and our behavior, and how noncomplementary behavior can be used to prevent terrorism and help us manage our relationships.  There are two seasons out so far, with a total of 13 one-hour episodes that will leave your teens (and you) thinking twice about everything.

3.  Radiolab (35-65 minutes)

We’ve mentioned this fantastic podcast twice previously, but are including it one more time because it’s really a can’t-miss production.  Radiolab has been around for quite some time and has covered everything from the hidden world of plants beneath the ground to the heart-wrenching story of a child born on the cusp of what doctors call the age of fetal viability.  Some of the episodes focus on really difficult subject matter, like how to (theoretically) ration medical supplies during a pandemic when you know you can’t save everybody, or how parents cope with caring for a terminally ill child, but everything is presented in a truly beautiful format, complete with original music.  The podcast is a great way for teens to become engaged in deep moral thinking, as the hosts often go back and forth with each other and with themselves as they grapple with tough moral dilemmas.  

4.  MorePerfect (36-63 minutes)

A miniseries spin-off from some of the talented folks who make Radiolab, More Perfect is great for teens who are interested in government and politics, but without all the messy current events flooding the airwaves.  This six-episode series explores the history of the US Supreme Court and some of its most influential cases that you probably didn’t learn about in school.  The episodes cover issues like cruel and unusual punishment, how the court became the powerhouse it is today, and why it’s so hard to prevent race-based jury selection with a court ruling.  They even came up with a great jingle for remembering the names of all the current (and prospective) Supreme Court justices. 

5. Note to Self  (10-30 minutes)

Not all of the episodes from the podcast for “anyone trying to preserve their humanity in the digital age” will appeal to teens, but many are sure to strike a nerve.  Some of the best episodes look at tech etiquette around the world (phones at the table? Yes in Korea.  No in France.), FOMO vs. JOMO, and the weird world of mood-altering wearable devices.  There are also two challenges, Infomagical and Bored & Brilliant, that will prompt your teen to consider how she or he consumes media and uses electronics.  

6. Freakonomics  (30-60 minutes)

This is another long-time favorite, hosted by journalist Stephen Dubner and his sometimes-partner, economist Steven Levitt. The show uses the theory and methods behind economics to try and explain some very interesting, very non-economic issues.  Some memorable episodes have asked how much does the president really matter, why does everyone hate flying, do boycotts work, and why do people wear belts?  The show has covered a broad range of topics, allowing teens to get a feel for fields that interest them.  The host has interviewed US Senator Cory Booker, NYC pencil-shop owner Caroline Weaver, and everyone in-between.

7. The Moth (20-60 minutes)

The Moth podcast compiles true stories from people all over the world told live on stage without a script at Moth StorySlams and Mainstage events.  They have a regular presence in small NYC venues.  Both the live shows and the podcast are great for exposing teens to what life is like for different kinds of people in different kinds of places and situations.  It can also show young writers or poets models for different ways of expressing themselves and constructing their stories. 

8. ThisAmerican Life (60 minutes)

This is the podcast of podcasts.  The show has been around for more than 20 years, and it’s had the same host, Ira Glass, and his unforgettable voice since its inception.  We can’t tell you how many times this show has made me cry, or how many episode your blogger has assigned as required listening for my undergrads at CUNY, but we do know that the team at This American Life goes above and beyond every week to bring us stories about people and the interconnected lives we lead.  This podcast can help teens feel more connected to our world and to our neighbors.  Two of our recent favorites include #589: Tell Me I’m Fat, and the two-parter, #592/593, in which the producers spent time getting to know some of the people living in refugee camps in Greece.  They also have their own favorites list, currently topped with an episode about two schools right here in NYC that feel like they’re worlds apart.