Wednesday, November 22, 2017

How is the School Year Going So Far?

Most years, on the day before Thanksgiving, our blog post contains lists of things we are thankful for, or Thanksgiving books for kids,  or a discussion about gratitude. While we are no less grateful for family, friends, colleagues, and so many other things in our lives, this year we are taking a different approach to Thanksgiving -- using it as a good time to pause and take stock of where your child might be at this point in the school year. 

It is now around three months into the academic year and students have had at least one report card. Review of last year's work has been completed and new content has been taught for a while. So it is a good time to pause and see how things are going so far -- and yet it is early enough in the year to make changes that can make the school year more productive and satisfying for your student. 

For all Students
Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to clear out backpacks. Far too many students will have failed to do this since school started. Ideally, older students should do this on their own, but students with organizational or executive function issues of all ages may need some support with this task. Papers that aren't needed currently should be kept in a "reserve" file, since they may be needed to prepare for year-end tests. Other items can be tossed or, if current, replaced neatly into the backpack - ideally, in clearly marked notebooks or folders. If this task is repeated regularly, perhaps every couple of weeks (or, failing that, at each holiday break throughout the year) some order may prevail. 

Parents may want to find some quiet time this weekend to speak to their student about how things are going in a general way. Is her reading group a good fit? Does she have friends in her class? Does she get along with her teacher? Although many of these kinds of issues come up informally in day to day conversations, having a targeting discussion can be fruitful, and can sometimes reveal issues that parents need to address before more of the school year goes by.

For Students with IEPs or 504 Plans
Hopefully, you had reviewed the IEP or 504 Plan when it was created or revised, likely last Spring. Are your child's teacher(s) following the IEP/504? Is he getting the accommodations and/or services it provides? Sometimes, schools may delay a week or two before they begin related services such as speech or occupational therapy, or academic supports such as resource room. They may need to get staff in place or determine appropriate groupings. But, by now your child should have been getting the supports and services to which he is entitled under his IEP/504 for quite some time. If this isn't the case, you should contact the school (case manager, head of guidance, or principal, depending on who heads up the IEP team). 

If your student is getting what is provided for in the IEP/504, but things are not going well, this is the time to call for a new IEP or 504 meeting. You are entitled to do so at any point, not just annually. But a formal meeting is not required to make minor changes, and you may find that you can effect the changes you want more quickly by meeting informally with the head of the IEP/504 team and putting your agreed-to changes in writing.

For High School Seniors
If you haven't completed your college applications, this holiday weekend might be a good time to do so. Those who are applying early decision or early action will have submitted their applications earlier this month, and most other students are aware that they have until the end of the calendar year, or even later, to finish up their applications. But many places have rolling admissions and once their places are filled, even strong applicants will not be accepted. In addition, students who are applying to specialized college support programs need to keep in mind that these programs are generally small and admit on a first come - first serve basis. While latter applicants might be accepted to the college itself, they can be closed out of the support programs they need to succeed. 

So, Thanksgiving can be more than a time for thanks. It can be a time to take stock of how things are going for your student and to take steps to improve things if there are problems that need to be addressed.

In the meantime, all of us here at The Yellin Center wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!





Friday, November 17, 2017

The December Dilemma

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and the Christmas season is already evident in stores, advertisements, and decorations. In a year when the political climate has been challenging for diversity of religion and culture, it may be a useful time to think about how public schools handle religious holidays, how schools can accommodate students' differing religious traditions, and how historical and secular aspects of religious holidays can be celebrated in public schools without making some students uncomfortable or crossing the line between secular and religious education.


We've looked at this subject before, in the context of a presentation by Matthew Yellin, then a NYC public high school social studies teacher (and now Assistant Principal at the same school) on how "separation of church and state" does not require that teachers refrain from teaching students about religion or letting students discuss religion. In fact, Matt noted, "[religion] is an explicit part of my curriculum. Not only is discussing religion in public schools allowed, it is actually mandated by my curriculum."

This topic has also been addressed in a series of resources looking at the legal issues surrounding religious and holiday celebrations in public schools and best practices for teachers that can help them teach about religion as a historical and cultural part of society, while avoiding religious teachings that take a particular position, or are insensitive to the multi-cultural aspects of public schools, their students, and their mission. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League has created a multi-page list of religious and secular observances that teachers can use to infuse their classroom with an understanding of the many ways that a wide range of religions and religious practices impact our culture and our lives.

As you ponder these issues, enjoy your school's holiday concert - religious music and carols are fine, so long as they are part of a larger array of musical offerings. Have a happy and inclusive holiday season!


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The IDEAL School of Manhattan

The IDEAL School, a K-12 private school, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, incorporates its goals of diversity and inclusion in every aspect of its program. Your blogger had the opportunity to visit IDEAL School during a recent Open House and saw these principles in action. Students and teachers alike spoke about their experiences, and it was clear that all of them valued this nurturing and accepting school community.  
The student body includes typical learners, students with some learning or other challenges, and a  number of students with significant learning or developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome.  Individualized instruction at a foundational, standard, or even honors level, is the key to providing instruction for students with different learning needs. Small class size, embedded support and services, and a "no pull out" policy (where services are provided during elective periods so as not to remove children from the classroom) helps students at all levels build critical thinking skills and creativity. 

IDEAL has two specialized programs in addition to its standard curriculum - the Zenith Program, in which about one-third of their student body of approximately 180 participate, and the Dylan Program. The Zenith Program is designed for students needing an additional level of academic, behavioral, and related services support. The Dylan Program is for students with more significant needs, often 1:1 support, which IDEAL provides by an associate teacher. Both the Zenith and Dylan Programs may be paid for by a student's public school, using Carter or Connors funding.

The arts and technology are both important parts of the IDEAL curriculum, for all students. Drama, art, music, and dance are part of academic content through cross-curricular units. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) classes in the middle school (continuing as electives in the high school) include robotics and film making, with tools such as a 3-D printer and a green screen to help enhance the creativity of students.

The Lower School and Upper School are located in separate buildings, a couple of blocks from one another. This year, IDEAL will graduate its first students since it was founded in 2006. A program to extend the IDEAL education for students with IEPs who are entitled to publicly funded education through age 21 and who need more time to build skills, has begun and IDEAL has also engaged a college advisor  for its 11th and 12th graders who plan to attend college. 

As we visited classrooms and saw students of all levels of ability in their classrooms, it was clear that this is a special place, where every student is learning at his or her own pace, as part of a diverse student body. For families who share its values and approach to learning, this may well be an IDEAL school option. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Financial Education

Most parents teach their kids about manners, good nutrition, how to drive, and hundreds of other tasks and skills that they need to learn on their way to becoming competent, independent adults. But how many families include educating their children about finances and money management in this list? Although more than half of families expect their children to be financially independent by age 21, at least 72 percent of parents express some reluctance to discuss financial matters with their children, according to a survey on Parents, Kids, and Money by the financial firm T. Rowe Price.

Clearly, parents need to incorporate money and finances in the skills and values they pass along to their children. And many of them do. But, according to the Council for Economic Education, a nonprofit whose mission is "to reach and teach every child in America about personal finance and economics"
  • More than one in six students in the U.S. do not reach the baseline level of proficiency in financial literacy.
  • Nearly one-quarter of millennials spend more than they earn.
  • 67% of Gen Y have less than three months worth of emergency funds.
Earlier this year, we wrote about several apps and tools that could help young people manage their finances. And while these can be helpful, an even more powerful tool for enabling young people to  understand and manage their financial lives is a school course focused on personal finance. While a number of states require some coursework on this subject, it is usually only a part of a larger curriculum. Only five states require a separate, stand alone course in personal finance and only 20 states require an economics course for graduation.

The Council for Economic Education seeks to address the need for financial education by providing programs and tools to help families and educators give kids the tools they need to manage and improve their financial lives. These programs include "Never Too Young", designed teach personal finance to K-5 students in after-school/out-of-school settings.


The Council for Economic Education has numerous programs for students of all ages as well as educators and districts. If your child's school does not provide financial education, this might be a good place to begin to persuade them to do so.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Emotional Toll of Dyslexia

If you’ve been following the posts in this month-long series on dyslexia, you know by now that people with dyslexia are bright and creative, that they can achieve excellent outcomes with the right instruction, and that there are plenty of great tools to help readers and writers with dyslexia navigate the challenges of literacy. All of this sounds optimistic - and it should. But parents and educators should be aware that students with dyslexia may suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and frustration related to their academic challenges.

Feedback from their teachers, even the most well-meaning, can be discouraging for children with dyslexia. Because of the types of errors they tend to make, particularly in spelling, dyslexic children are often told to try harder or pay more attention. Their errors may be labeled as “careless” or “lazy.”  Some teachers, confronted with an obviously intelligent student who is making the simplest of errors, assume she just isn’t trying. In fact, many children with dyslexia are some of the hardest workers in their classes, so being misunderstood as careless can be especially frustrating.

It may also be emotionally trying for students with dyslexia to see their classmates learning to read and spell with an ease that is difficult to understand. As children develop proficiency with reading, they are often asked to read aloud in front of the class, placed in leveled reading groups, or sent to the library with their classmates to check out books. All of these scenarios could be uncomfortable for a  child with dyslexia, especially one who has not received a diagnosis. All she knows is that she is in the lowest reading group and that she struggles with the easiest books while her classmates are graduating to chapter books.


Social struggles can continue outside academics, too. Some individuals with dyslexia struggle with language-even oral language-and may not understand complex social scripts. Some also have difficulty understanding sequencing, making blindingly fast social interactions governed by cause-and-effect relationships seem bewildering. Finding the right words is another language-based challenge that impacts people with dyslexia, so even if a child understands what is being discussed, the process of adding his insight can be frustrating. An additional hurdle, more relevant now than in the past, is the constant presence of text in young people’s social worlds. Rather than chatting on the phone, a majority of kids socialize via text messages and social media platforms, which can make it tough for  kids with dyslexia to follow what’s going on with their friends and add their own contributions.

One of the best things that can happen to a child (or adult!) with dyslexia is a diagnosis of dyslexia from someone who can help him understand what this disability really is. He must be shown, over and over again, the difference between the kind of rote learning that his brain doesn’t master as easily and the kind of high-level thinking at which he excels.

Children with dyslexia need opportunities to feel successful, whether or not these occur in the classroom. Sports and the arts have been critical confidence-boosters for innumerable students with learning challenges. Volunteer opportunities, particularly those in which they can play a leadership role, are also excellent places for young people with dyslexia to build feelings of success and self-efficacy.

Finally, kids have trouble appreciating that things tend to get markedly easier for people with dyslexia once they finish school. School has made up an enormous part of their life experience for about as long as they can remember, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s any other system. Luckily, there is. The real world is kinder and more accommodating than school often is, and there are a variety of ways to build and measure success rather than a single report card.



photo credit: Redd Angelo

Monday, October 23, 2017

Assistive Technology for Managing Dyslexia

Having dyslexia can be tough, but the breadth of innovative tools available to help with literacy tasks makes dyslexia a lot easier to manage than it used to be.

Below is a limited list of high-tech assistive technology (AT) to help dyslexics with literacy tasks. But first, an important consideration: Be aware that simply choosing a great tool and giving a student access is not going to solve any problems. Adults must carefully consider the parameters of the task the student struggles with as well as the setting. Speech-to-text software is great, but if the student doesn't have a quiet place to go when it’s time to dictate his ideas, it’s not going to be a successful tool. Similarly, an app that reads text to a student won’t help if she’s too embarrassed to be the only one in the class using headphones.

After selecting the right AT, parents and educators must realize that even today’s tech-savvy youth need lots of training. Would-be users have to understand all the ins and outs of the tool they’re given, including what its capabilities are (and aren’t) and when and how to use it. Plenty of kids have given up on technology that would have been extraordinarily helpful because they couldn’t understand how it could work within their specific academic requirements.

The AT suggestions we’re sharing below are great for students, but even individuals with dyslexia in the professional world may benefit from them.

Tools for Reading

Snap&Read

Snap&Read is an excellent text-to-speech program. A small sampling of the many sites it reads aloud include Google docs, Moodle, Bookshare, Evernote, The New York Times, and even social media sites like Facebook and Instagram (which is a great way to get reticent kids to start experimenting). Snap&Read also reads screenshots and PDFs. This software has some other capabilities beyond its reading services. For example, the Simplify tool provides definitions for difficult words. With the Capture tool, users can enter notes on what they read (either by typing them or copying and pasting from the text), which is useful for writing papers. Snap&Read also words in other languages.


Cost: $3.99/month

Learning Ally and Bookshare

With a letter certifying that a person needs their services, both Learning Ally and Bookshare provide users with audio versions of texts. Their libraries include more basic selections, like audio versions of novels, and hard-to-find texts, like periodicals and textbooks that students can listen to. Though on the surface Learning Ally and Bookshare are similar, there are some important differences. There is a yearly fee associated with Learning Ally, for example, while Bookshare is free. Texts on Learning Ally are read by people, whereas Bookshare uses computerized voices; this sounds like a negative aspect, but some learners find that they like the computerized voices better because it is easier to modulate their speed and pitch.



Cost: Bookshare is free, and Learning Ally costs $119 a year.

C-Pen - The Reader Pen

C-Pen is a small device about the size of a highlighter that users can use to scan text, either a single word or whole sentences. The pen will read the scanned section aloud (it has a headphone jack for use in classrooms) in a computerized voice that users describe as natural. The pen can also provide definitions of words. Importantly, the pen accommodates both left- and right-handed users. Scanning takes a bit of practice, and the pen is best suited for reading a word here and there rather than large blocks of text.


Cost: $250

Prizmo

This app, which works only on iPhones, is a combination scanner and reader (unlike other apps that only scan but require a separate app for reading). It can read almost anything, and its portability is a huge boon. Users can scan passages they need for school, like worksheets and sections of books, but it’s a handy tool for reading tasks in the “real world,” too, and can be used for menus, maps, signs, time tables….

Cost: Free


Tools for Writing

Grammarly

The spell checkers built into word processing programs are better than nothing, but they’re famously inaccurate. Enter the amazingly accurate Grammarly, which catches spelling errors and finds usage mistakes, too. It’s good at using context to determine whether a word or phrase is correct, and it can even give users feedback about style. Grammarly works with Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and nearly anywhere one would want to write on the web. It is compatible with MS Word, too, but for now it works with Windows machines only. (Never fear, Apple fans: It’s easy to get around this by composing in the body of a Google Doc and then pasting into a Word document, if that’s the format one needs.)

What really sets Grammarly, apart, though, is the detailed explanations it provides about mistakes, so users can learn as they’re editing. It can also generate weekly progress reports, which can be motivating for students. Other neat features are genre-specific style monitors and a plagiarism detector.



Cost: Grammarly offers a basic version, which includes only basic checking and does not give access to explanations, for free. The premium version, with all the bells and whistles, costs $139.95 a year.


Text-to-Speech

Whether students use Dragon software, Google Read&Write, or simply dictate into their phones, there’s more to text-to-speech than you may think. Here is a useful guide to training students to use speech-to-text software successfully; it takes some time to get it right, but the results are worth it!



Reading and Writing

Google Read&Write

Probably the biggest advantage to using Google Read&Write is that users don’t need to use multiple forms of AT. GRW is the total package, offering both text-to-speech and speech-to-text. It works with documents, web pages and common file types in Google Drive (including: Google Docs, PDF, ePub & Kes). Like many good text-to-speech programs, GRW highlights each word as it’s read, making both following along and editing much easier. The dictionary is quite handy. For typists, the word prediction feature takes some of the heavy work out of spelling. And distractible users will be grateful that GRW simplifies and summarizes text on web pages to remove ads and other copy.

Cost: For an individual license, GRW is $145 a year, though many school districts provide it as a free accommodation to students with IEPs.



For Even More Information

QIAT, an Online Forum

This listserv for people who are interested in AT in education is free to join (and we recommend that you do!). Contributors include assistive technology specialists, students in higher education, educators, vendors, and parents. Send out any questions you have to the group —none are “silly!”—and brace yourself for a flood of knowledgeable responses. (You can adjust your email preferences at any time if it gets to be too much.) The group requests that users be mindful that every email sent goes to 4,000+ users, so it’s a good idea to respond with private messages when appropriate. There are lots of good resources on their website, too.



Look for one more Dyslexia Awareness Month post next week! We’ll explore the emotional toll dyslexia can take and offer suggestions to parents and educators.



Monday, October 16, 2017

Dyslexia Instruction That Works

A diagnosis of dyslexia can bring with it a range of emotions. Some people are crushed, thinking that their, or their child’s, potential is irrevocably limited. Some are relieved: There’s something empowering about being able to name a condition and, of course, it’s validating to have a professional verify that the affected student isn’t “dumb” or “lazy.” But one of the most common reactions is confusion. Parents may feel overwhelmed and lost. Is there a way to teach literacy skills to a child with dyslexia that really works? If so, how does one find it?

We are happy to say that the answer to the first question is an emphatic “yes!” There are several thoroughly researched, time-tested instructional methods that can help students with dyslexia make sense of language. This instruction can occur in a variety of formats, but parents should always look these indicators of a highly-effective program:

  • Curriculum is multi-sensory, explicit, and structured. Orton-Gillingham, and programs based on it, is the gold standard when it comes to instruction for students with dyslexia. There are lots of curricula (Wilson, Lindamood-Bell, Barton, etc.) that are O.G.-based, so don’t be thrown off by names. But research the curriculum to be sure it is grounded in this solid, well-researched approach.
  • Curriculum includes training in phonemic awareness by itself. Phonemic awareness (skills needed to recognize and manipulate the sounds in language), is a key component of good early childhood instruction, but older students with dyslexia need this kind of instruction, too; their brains are less able to develop these skills simply from exposure to language. Recent research shows that phonemic awareness instruction should happen by itself, not in conjunction with written letters, to be most effective. In other words, both phonemic awareness (sounds) and phonics (sounds plus letters) should be part of instruction.
  • Curriculum is administered by a certified reading or literacy specialist, or by an educator certified in an O.G.-based curriculum. No matter how talented, smart, or well-intentioned, standard classroom teachers and even special education teachers are not trained in the kind of reading instruction children with dyslexia need. (Trust me on this; I used to be one! It wasn’t until I obtained a masters degree in literacy, then was trained in Orton-Gillingham, that I was prepared to teach individuals with dyslexia.) 
  • Other parents give the curriculum a thumbs-up. Ask to speak with parents of other children with dyslexia (not just struggling readers) who have received instruction from the provider you are considering.
So now that you know what to look for, how do you find it? That’s often a little more complicated. High-quality instruction for students with dyslexia can occur in a few different formats.

Services in Public School

Your child is entitled to a free, appropriate instruction from her school, often referred to by the acronym FAPE. This will probably take the form of pull-outs, meaning that a special education teacher or reading specialist will take your child out of her mainstream classes to work one-on-one or in a small group of similar students. Please note what we said above about the qualifications of your child’s instructor. If your district doesn’t provide a qualified reading specialist, you may need to do some research and be prepared to demand that your child receive instruction from someone who is properly trained; this should be set out in your child's IEP.  Most special education teachers are not trained in the specific reading instruction students with dyslexia need.

Dedicated Schools

Special schools for children with dyslexia are few and far between, but if you’re lucky enough to live near one or are flexible and up for a new adventure, this might be worth considering. (Some families even move to new cities in order to be near top-notch institutions!) The benefits of a quality school that is dedicated to dyslexia instruction are enormous. Not only are the teachers knowledgeable and experienced in reading instruction, but curriculum that benefits students with this profile is woven into every subject. Most schools also teach students how to self-advocate effectively and use helpful technology that can assist them in college and beyond. And, perhaps most importantly, students become friends with other bright, creative, dynamic, wonderful kids who share their struggles.

Private Instruction (e.g. Tutoring)

Sending your child with dyslexia to a special school isn’t feasible for lots of families for a variety of reasons. For kids who need help beyond what the special education services in their public school provide, private instruction is a great option. This usually occurs through two channels: established organizations or private practitioners.

Tutoring companies that specialize in reading disabilities, like Lindamood-Bell, can be good options for families. Look for an office that administers lots of benchmark assessments throughout instruction that clearly demonstrate that your child is making progress. Avoid tutoring companies that don’t specialize in reading disabilities; most of these organizations (Kumon, Sylvan, etc.) may provide great homework help for typically developing readers but don’t staff the specially trained teachers students with dyslexia must learn from.

Private practitioners vary enormously in training and quality. One surefire way to find a good one is to check out the International Dyslexia Association’s provider directory. Even if one of these professionals can’t take on another student, they may be able to point you in the direction of someone who can. Another suggestion is to speak with the administration at a school for students with dyslexia or students with language-based learning disabilities. The expert teachers who work at these schools often tutor on the side. If they don’t, chances are the principal knows someone who will.

A few words about scheduling, no matter where your child goes for private instruction:

  • Set up at least two sessions a week initially. For younger children, shorter sessions (30-45 minutes) two or three times a week are better than an hour-long session once a week. Remember that your child will be working hard, and an hour in one go, even for older kids, may be too much at first.
  • Your child will likely be worn out at the end of a school day, so morning sessions work better than after-school sessions for some families. 
  • Some tutors will travel to your child’s school to work with him during instruction from which he gets little benefit, like spelling. While this can be an efficient use of time, some students feel self-conscious about being pulled out of class, making it hard for them to learn.
                                 
Summer Learning Opportunities

Summer slide, the tendency of kids to lose some of the skills they worked to gain during the school year, hits students with dyslexia particularly hard. It’s tempting to give kids a break for the summer, but they need at least some opportunities to keep their skills sharp to prevent frustration when school begins again. The summer months are a great opportunity for multiple weekly sessions at Lindamood-Bell or with a tutor. For older learners, excellent schools like Kildonan, the Landmark School, the Brehm School, and the Gow School offer residential summer camps that blend expert literacy instruction with opportunities to explore the arts, play sports, and have fun getting to know  peers with dyslexia.

Look for our post next week on high-tech tools to help learners with dyslexia (and adults!) with literacy demands.