Friday, January 23, 2015


Promoting global citizenship among my students was one of my most important goals as a classroom teacher. One of my favorite, top-notch resources for infusing global education into my classroom has always been TeachUNICEF, which houses a rich wealth of units, lessons and multimedia tools that are all available to teachers and parents. The best part of this resource is that every single one of  the beautifully and thoughtfully crafted resources is free. Not only have I used these tools in my classroom, but I have had the opportunity to meet some of the small but incredibly talented and passionate team behind TeachUNICEF. Each TeachUNICEF person I have had the privilege to speak with is not only passionate about global education, but also has a background working with kids both in and out of classrooms and understands the environments for which they are creating their resources.

The resources are designed to be cross-curricular, and all align with current educational standards. This means you will find a variety of social studies, math, science and language arts content on the TechUNICEF website. Furthermore, most topics are broken down into grade specific ranges which allow you to select the appropriate resource for your population. We have written before about how the best way to bolster students' reading and writing abilities is to simply have them read and write often. Furthermore, to develop vocabulary we need students to read and write about a variety of topics across multiple genres- including fiction as well as non-fiction. However, motivating reluctant or struggling readers and writers can be a challenge for any teacher or parent. What I have found to be so valuable with the TechUNICEF resources is that they use authentic, true stories from real world events to get their message across. The high quality photographs, diagrams and videos further bring the content to life to offer multiple means of engagement for each student. I have found that even my most reluctant students engage with the TeachUNICEF content, as they are inspired by the tales and activities to make a meaningful difference on their global community. In my experience, these tools not only help cultivate a sense of global citizenship in students, but also get them avidly reading about current events while learning new vocabulary and non-fiction text features. So, go explore the TeachUNICEF materials, and if you are interested to see what U.S. Fund for UNICEF is doing beyond the TeachUNICEF program check out their website as well.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Don't Delay Your FAFSA

What are you doing this weekend? If you're a college-bound young adult hoping to get financial aid to help with your tuition, your answer should be "filling out the FAFSA." Nearly all schools require that students fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for each year that they hope to receive financial assistance. And most experts suggest that even students who aren't sure whether they qualify should submit a form just in case; after all, students who don't definitely won't get financial aid.

The form is available on January 1st every year, and while different states and colleges have different deadlines, students who fill it in early tend to be awarded more aid money. Data suggest that students who file the from between January and March, for example, receive twice as much aid money as those who wait longer! One reason is that some state grant programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

Students will need information from their schools, like the school's code, which is usually found on the school's Financial Aid webpage. They will also need financial information from the past year, a trickier proposition as tax forms bearing these numbers are sometimes not yet available. Those who don't want to wait, however, can use estimated financial information from past years, then update their information when they receive it.

A recent New York Times article contains additional information and resources for filling out the FAFSA. Good luck!

photo via flickr

Friday, January 16, 2015

Finding Logic in the English Language

Many people will tell you that English is a crazy language. Because it is derived from so many disparate languages—English is based mostly on a West Germanic language but peppered with influences from Greek, Latin, and other European languages—there are plenty of exceptions to English spelling patterns, grammar, and punctuation usage. Sympathetically agreeing with a child that English spelling doesn't make sense or that rules governing comma use are simply crazy may seem like a kind gesture. After all, the rules can seem endless and complicated, and we don't want to make kids feel bad about their errors.

But simply falling back on the excuse that English is just wacky and devoid of logic is not only damaging to kids' motivation to improve, it's untrue. English does contain exceptions, but there are actually plenty of rules that govern correct usage. These rules are not only fascinating to learn about, they're tremendously helpful.

For example, the /ər/ sound at the end of words that define a person's job can be spelled in two ways: "-er" (painter) and "-or" (senator). Though the two suffixes are pronounced the same way, they're spelled differently and many people will tell you that the only way to know which one to use is to memorize the word in question. Not so, according to Solving Language Difficulties, a fascinating and useful book of exercises by Amey Steere, Caroline Peck, and Linda Kahn. Although there are a few exceptions, spelling of the /ər/ sound corresponds with the level of education needed for the job. An "-or" spelling is generally used for someone whose job requires a great deal of education (doctor, editor, governor) while the "-er" is used for someone who doesn't need as much training (barber, farmer, waiter).

Want more? TED-Ed is an outstanding source of interesting educational videos. A great one to get you started is a fun, story-like video that anthropomorphizes the comma, lending logic to rules about when commas are called for and when they're unnecessary. 


Another video we love provides a brief, fascinating explanation of how English spelling that seems completely illogical, like the "tw" in the word "two" is actually reasonable and meaningful.


Learning these rules is empowering for kids. After all, nothing is more frustrating than being told that the guidelines don't make sense but you have to learn them anyway. And young people generally enjoy discovering explanations for concepts that were previously shrouded in mystery. Solving Language Difficulties and TED-Ed are just the beginning. But be warned: start digging and you may become hooked.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Classroom Organization: Google Classroom

We often work with students who struggle with difficulties with executive functions, which make it hard for them to manage their time, organize their materials or plan their studying and homework. As a teacher, one has to be the ultimate multitasker who can organize, prepare, track and document everything from attendance to assignments to grades for a classroom full of students. Even for those with impeccable executive functioning skills, this can be a major challenge. When I was a classroom teacher I jerry-rigged my Google Apps account into my own learning management system to help me streamline my home-school communications, track my grades and prepare, organize and distribute my lesson materials. However, as of this past summer an educator no longer has to attempt their own variation of a learning management system, because Google has now launched Google Classroom. Not surprisingly, Google’s version is much more insightful and user friendly than my makeshift attempt. Google Classroom is a learning management system that was designed to simplify a teacher’s process for creating, distributing, and grading of classroom assignments. The added benefit is that it does so in a completely paperless way. Google Classroom is available for free for anyone who has access to Google Apps for Education

Now, with the advent of Google Classroom, teachers can easily create assignments, distribute materials to all students, provide feedback and track grades all in one paperless space. It also offers a space to store student work, and organizes each student’s assignments into their own drive for easy accessibility. On the assignments page, students are able to see what has been assigned and when it is due, which they can access from both home and school. In addition, teachers are able to easily see who has completed their assignment and make notes and provide feedback to any students who appear to be struggling. When work is completed, teachers can grade the assignment and track all grade metrics right in the Google Classroom framework. All of these combined features make classroom management a much more effective, seamless process. 

The video above does an excellent job of highlighting the simplicity of using Google Classrooms, as well as the key features that will help streamline any teacher’s organizational burdens. A summary of the features of Google Classroom is also available as an online document. Many schools already have proprietary systems in place to manage some or all of the functions of Google Classroom. But for those teachers for whom such a system is not available, or who want specific features that Google offers, Google Classroom can be an excellent asset.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Build Number Sense with Native Numbers App

Ever heard someone say that they're just not a math person? Native Brain's Dr. Michael Connell, developer of an innovative app called Native Numbers, doesn't buy it. Connell believes the idea that there are people who simply understand math and those who never will is not only false, it is damaging. His app, Native Numbers, is designed to teach any child aged four and up to intuitively understand numbers deeply enough to succeed in math in kindergarten, first grade, and beyond.

Before a child can easily crunch numbers in elementary school, a skill known as computational fluency, he must develop a solid number sense. The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) defines number sense as the knowledge that allows students to understand numbers and ways of representing them, appreciate relationships among numbers, and comprehend number systems.

Sound abstract? Much of it is, and it's precisely those abstract aspects of number sense that Connell worries are being left out of young children's early math education. Memorizing number symbols and learning to count in preschool is only a fraction of the number sense young children need to learn to be successful in math, according to Connell. The rote memorization that allows many kids to learn to count fluently is misleading; many of those kids don't possess a deep understanding about quantity and number relations. And as a result, they're not arriving in elementary school ready to learn computation. This leaves them with a flimsy foundation on which to build higher math skills, a worrying status for a subject as cumulative as math.

Native Numbers is much lauded by both parents and educators, and for good reason. Its carefully designed, adaptive curriculum provides youngsters with thousands of activities that will help them develop the kind of number sense that both NCTM and the developers of the Common Core Standards for math agree are critical. The app teaches kids number concepts, number relations, number ordering, and counting, and they're required to demonstrate mastery before the app allows them to progress to the next level of difficulty. Each activity has been thoughtfully crafted to discourage mindless jabbing at icons on the screen, and there aren't lots of bells and whistles thrown in simply for the sake of fun. Young children find Native Numbers enjoyable because it is designed to motivate them intrinsically, but it is a serious app without a shred of frivolity.

Both parents and experts have been mightily impressed with Native Numbers. And since this hefty, research-based curriculum is available for free on iTunes, anyone with an iPad and a young child should give it a try.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

E-Books and Sleep Disruption

We've written countless times on the importance of sleep - just click on the topic "sleep" in the searchable index on the right hand side of this post. But now we need to sound a cautionary note about a recommendation that we often make to students -- to use an E-reader, such as a Kindle or an iPad for most of their reading. We recommend these devices for many reasons. They allow students to easily click on the definition of unfamiliar words without needing to put down a book and seek out a dictionary. Many versions allow students to highlight text. They enable students who struggle with reading decoding to easily increase the size of the text they view, something which research has shown makes it easier for some students to decode the words on a page. And they often have audio capacity, which allows students to hear the words pronounced while reading them on the e-Reader page, something that enhances the connection between the written word and the spoken sounds and builds comprehension.

In short, we are big fans of e-Readers and the accessibility and convenience they offer. But a recent study by Harvard Medical School researchers has demonstrated that E-readers, which the study refers to as LE-eBooks (for light emitting electronic books), can have a negative impact on health and sleep when used before bedtime. As noted in an online report in Harvard Medical School News:

“We found the body’s natural circadian rhythms were interrupted by the short-wavelength enriched light, otherwise known as blue light, from these electronic devices,” said Anne-Marie Chang, corresponding author and associate neuroscientist at Brigham and Women’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. “Participants reading an LE-eBook took longer to fall asleep and had reduced evening sleepiness, reduced melatonin secretion, later timing of their circadian clock and reduced next-morning alertness than when reading a printed book.”

Different e-devices have different levels of brightness and the study used only iPads. Still, they all use blue light in some form and can be expected to have some impact on sleep.

So, what does that mean for parents and students? E-readers still have significant benefits and their use can provide not just convenience for everyone, but real help to those who struggle with reading. But this well-crafted study should prompt families to think about how -- and when -- these devices are used. The bedtime story, whether it is one you read to your child, one your child reads by himself, or your own end-of-day reading time, will be better for all if done from a paper book.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: Essay Express Software

Essay Express: A Teacher-Focused Review

Ages: Grades 4 through 8

Content Areas: Language Arts

Cost: Varies depending on the license purchased. More information can be found on their website. Of note, a 30-day free demo is also available for you to explore before making a purchase. 

Last year, we reviewed the software program Animation-ish, created by one of my all-time favorite children’s authors Peter H. Reynolds and FableVision Learning. While researching the animation program I discovered Essay Express, which is described as “a powerful combination of interactive strategy-based exercises which use engaging stories, humor, and music to teach students how to structure a successful short essay”. FableVision Learning teamed up with Dr. Lynn Meltzer, Dr. Bethany Roditi, and a team from the Research Institute for Learning and Development (RILD) to create a researched based, creative learning tool to help develop students’ written competencies.

As a Learning Specialist, I often assess and work with students who struggle with the writing process. Writing is a complex task that requires multiple cognitive abilities to be deployed simultaneously. The breakdown in the writing process that causes students’ difficulties can manifest in a number of areas, including challenges generating ideas, effectively sequencing information, formulating a sentence or appropriately executing standard written conventions.For many classroom teachers, it can be challenging to pinpoint the specific area of weakness in a student, and subsequently devise evidence-based interventions to strength those deficiencies.

Essay Express is one very valuable tool educators can use to bolster their students' abilities, while feeling confident that the research that backs this program is instructionally sound. This writing program provides foundational skill development by employing nine cognitive strategies which break down, teach and strengthen each skill that is critical in crafting a well-structured essay. Essay Express is designed as a step-by-step process in which students can progress at their own rate, allowing the program to meet the needs of your student at the level of their writing ability. As such, it is a beneficial writing program for both special education and mainstream settings - all students, regardless of learning needs, can benefit from continually strengthening their writing ability. Furthermore, as teachers, the program provides you with a student performance tracking system, and ability to customize your essay questions to meet the specific needs of your curriculum.

If you are curious about what this software can do, or how an educator could utilize this program in their classroom, a detailed and robust Educator’s Guide is available. There you will find detailed instructions on how to use the progress tracking portion of the software, as well as lesson extensions and printable resources included in the software. In addition, for a great video summary of the merits of this program, FableVision Learning has created an excellent animated video to showcase Essay Express. Beyond this resource, Mr. Reynolds and Fable Vision Learning also offer a variety of tools for creating a creative classroom, which are worthwhile to explore. Most are literacy based and infuse elements of high quality art or animation to inspire learning among your students.