Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What's Cooking?

Any parent who is faced with providing dinner for his or her family knows that eventually this can become a chore. Deciding on a menu, having the ingredients on hand, and doing the preparation and cooking, not to mention the clean-up, can challenge even the best cooks and most dedicated moms and dads. Furthermore, making sure that everyone gets healthy food and finds something they will eat can add to the job. It's one reason that prepackaged meals that come in a box, ready to cook, are finding an audience.

But neither boxed meals nor dining out is a practical every night solution for most families, and certainly not for those who are concerned with nutrition and budgets. One solution is to enlist children to help with nightly dinners. Sure, busy parents may not want to take the time to involve their children in dinner preparation. It can slow things down and require more thought than working parents can bring to this task. All they want, much of the time, is to get dinner on the table as quickly and easily as possible.

But, with a bit of planning, parents can involve children in this job, making it a time for family interaction, and getting real assistance while teaching children important skills.

Start on a weekend. Spend some time discussing what everyone likes to eat and what might be a healthy way to include that in family dinners. Have kids do a bit of a kitchen scavenger hunt, checking to see what ingredients are on hand. Work with them to make a shopping list for the week's menus. Planning makes everything easier and the skills involved in this part of the job are important ones for children to master. And have the menus for the week readily accessible. 

  • Involve children in shopping. Specific lists are a must. Not just "vegetables" but "two red peppers and three green peppers;" not just "chicken" but "one package of chicken drumsticks, about 10 drumsticks." If you have multiple children, old enough to be on their own in a supermarket, you may want to break the list into parts. If you shop in small neighborhood stores, you may want to have your child ask the counter person for a specific item. And once the shopping is completed, have the children help to unload and put the groceries in their proper place. 
  • Prep in advance. Lots of elements of recipes can be prepared in advance and stored for several days. Chop vegetables and portion and freeze packages of meat or fish. 
  • Assign tasks. This can be by the day - with one child helping on Tuesdays and Thursdays and another on Monday and Wednesday. Or by job, with even the youngest children able to set the table or put bread on a bread board. What about other days? Pizza night works well for many families, as does breakfast for dinner. It's not easy to cook, especially with children, every night and a couple of nights each week of something simpler can keep things doable. 
  • Older children can do real cooking, especially if they have been working up to it with simpler tasks. And everyone can pitch in with clean up!
  • Don't forget the skills that cooking can build: reading directions, writing out lists, measuring, working on the sequential step-by-step tasks involved in cooking. 
With some planning and patience, family dinner preparation can be helpful for everyone.

Photo credit: sydney Rae

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Going Easy on Homework Help

It is rare to speak to a parent who is not somehow involved in their child's homework. From making sure their student has a time and place to work, to answering the occasional question, to actually sitting with their child and providing lessons and guidance, parents seem to be part of the homework process, especially for younger students.

Often, homework is a chore for both child and parent, one that both may dread. Are there ways to make children more independent when it comes to this inevitable part of most school programs? What works best to build skills without fraying tempers?

One answer seems to emerge from a study out of Finland. The First Steps Study is a wide-ranging long-term examination of learning and motivation in some 2,000 Finnish students from kindergarten through high school. In this component of the study, reported in the journal Learning and Instruction, researchers looked at 365 second through fourth graders and at how their mothers supported their children's homework. They found that the more opportunities for independent, autonomous work that the mother offered the child, the more persistently the child worked on his or her school assignments. This, in turn, resulted in the mothers offering more opportunities for independent work.

In contrast, when mothers offered their children concrete homework help, the children were less independent in their work and the mothers responded by offering more and more help. Note that this effect persisted even when the child's ability level was controlled for. Notably, the study does not mention interventions by fathers. The study authors posited, in a press release from The University of Eastern Finland, that,

"One possible explanation is that when the mother gives her child an opportunity to do homework autonomously, the mother also sends out a message that she believes in the child's skills and capabilities. This, in turn, makes the child believe in him- or herself, and in his or her skills and capabilities."

Similarly, concrete homework assistance - especially if not requested by the child - may send out a message that the mother doesn't believe in the child's ability to do his or her homework.

It is difficult for some parents to draw down their level of homework involvement. It seems, however, that doing so may have long term benefits for students, and likely for their parents as well.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

One Thousand Blogs!

Today marks our 1000th blog post and we are celebrating this milestone with pride.

We began blogging in August 2009 as a way of reaching out to the families we were seeing, to share information about learning, legal issues, schools, and strategies that they would find helpful. Over the years, we have expanded our subject matter and our roster of regular bloggers, including many of our Learning Specialists. Each writer brought their special interests and expertise to their posts, making for a rich array of topics and information.

Beth Guadagni wrote about language and reviewed books, and continues to blog from her current position as a teacher at a school for students with dyslexia. Renee Jordan shared educational games she had created for her own students when she was a classroom teacher, and Lindsay Levy wrote posts on a wide array of subjects, especially how we think and learn.

Currently, our writers include Dr. Jacqueline Kluger, who brings her insights into research and behavior, and Susan Yellin, who writes about legal issues and serves as editor of the blog. Even Dr. Paul Yellin blogs from time to time, when his schedule permits. And no discussion of our blogging team would be complete without noting the enormous contribution of Jeremy Koren, who was our Operations Manager when the blog first started and has written posts, helped with technical issues, and probably had the idea for writing a blog in the first place. From his current job on the west coast, he is always available when needed.

Thanks, Jeremy and all of our writing team, past and present. This celebration is only a brief pause in our mission to keep the students, parents, educators, and others who we serve and who read this blog, entertained and informed about our work and issues related to learning and education. Thank you for taking the time to read our posts!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Schoolhouse Rock

For those folks who were children in the 1970's and 80's, ABC Television's "Schoolhouse Rock!" was most likely a part of their education. The television series ran from 1973-85, and was then brought back from 1993-99, with both new and old material. Finally, new segments were released directly to video in 2009. Many versions of the videos are available online from numerous sources. 

We've been thinking about this show and its impact on generations of students since we heard about the death of Bob Dorough, who died on April 23rd at the age of 94. Dorough -- a jazz pianist and singer -- was approached by the father of a child who was struggling to learn multiplication, even though he had no trouble remembering songs. The initial song, "Three is a Magic Number" was the first one in the Schoolhouse Rock! series.

Not all the Schoolhouse Rock! videos were sung by Dorough, although he had a hand in almost all of them, either as writer or music director. And the series did not stick just to multiplication or even just to math. Grammar was one of the early topics tackled, and Dorough wrote (but did not do vocals) on "Conjunction Junction", which used trains to illustrate the role of conjunctions.

Music is a great way to learn, and Bob Dorough and his colleagues were able to reach children through a medium that got their attention and conveyed information that stuck with them. Dorough was a Grammy winner and was involved in all aspects of writing and recording music over a career that spanned more than 50 years. But the best way to appreciate his diverse and creative endeavors is to hear directly from him, as he explains his life and work, using song,  in a TED-X talk from 2017. Thanks, Bob. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rewriting Equalities to Build Numeracy - Part 2

In our last post, we wrote about the work of Dr. Barbara Dougherty, the Director of the Curriculum Research and Development Group at the University of Hawaii. Dr. Dougherty's work emphasizes the importance of of instilling a solid sense of numeracy (being able to reason with numbers and other mathematical concepts) and operations (recognition of the relationships among addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to provide students with a true understanding of math.

One way to do this is to teach students to "Rewrite Equalities", a process that begins with understanding the meaning of = .

How do we do this?

Step 1: Establish an understanding of =

= does not represent “the answer” (as most kids think it does). It means that whatever is on one side has the same value as whatever is on the other side.

This seems simple, but it’s a big intellectual leap for kids. One of the biggest revelations will probably be the insight that it’s possible to have multiple numbers on each side of the =.

Try modeling this with manipulatives and sticky notes. Start with this:

Then show students that you can also do this:

Or this:

Or even this:

In all of the examples above, there are still a total of seven pennies on each side of the =. Challenge them to build their own models.

Step 2: Entry-Level Equalities

When it’s time to move from manipulatives to numbers, the teacher should demonstrate how to rewrite an equality in a few different ways. Begin by writing and explaining a series like this:

3 + 5 = 8

8 = 3 + 5

8 = 4 + 4

7 + 1 = 8

Now, invite students to take over with their own ideas. How many can they come up with? 

The student who remembers the commutative property doubles the number of expressions s/he can write, but don’t tell them this! Wait for someone to figure it out.

In my classroom, after they’ve worked for a while, students pick their two favorite expressions to write on the board and explain to the class.

Questions to Push Thinking:
  • Can you rewrite the equality using a different operator, like a subtraction sign?
  • Can you rewrite the equality by putting two or more numbers on each side of the equal sign?
  • Can you rewrite the expression using decimals or fractions? What about negative numbers?

Step 3: More Advanced Equalities: Focusing on Operations

Challenge students to rewrite an equality using only the numbers in the inequality. They may use any operators and any format they’d like.

So a simple expression like this:

4 + 6 = 10

could be rewritten like this:

10 – 6 = 4

A more complex expression, like this:

3 x 4 x 2 = 24

could be rewritten like this:

2÷24 = 4 x 3

Students will notice that more complicated expressions can be rewritten in more ways.

I’m my classroom, we’ve learned that there is tremendous power in simple activities and procedures. I hope other educators find this activity to be as valuable as we have!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Rewriting Equalities to Build Numeracy - Part 1

Recently, I was fortunate to attend a two-day seminar on teaching math to struggling learners in the middle and upper grades, led by Dr. Barbara Dougherty. Dr. Dougherty, the Director of the Curriculum Research and Development Group at the University of Hawaii, is an insightful and innovative educator with a passion for helping all students develop of deep appreciation for math. If I could sum up the most important lesson I learned during my two days with Dr. Dougherty, it would be with a statement she repeated many times over the course of the conference: Pay now, or pay later.

Dr. Dougherty was referring to the time it takes to build numeracy skills and operational sense. These two critical components of math education are often given a mere nod in the classroom, if not overlooked completely by teachers scrambling to cram as many procedures into students’ memories as possible before exam time. This rushed approach, while understandable, is a mistake, according to Dougherty. A solid sense of numeracy (being able to reason with numbers and other mathematical concepts) and operations (recognition of the relationships among addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) underlies a deep understanding of math. Happily, these competencies are available even to students who struggle with numbers and even those with dyscalculia. But learners need time and the right platforms for exploring the relationships between numbers.

There are lots of ways to set the stage for this kind of inquiry, but one of the simplest is an exercise in which students rewrite equalities. This powerful strategy is deceptively simple: give students an equation and ask them rewrite it, keeping both sides equal. So,

6 + 4 = 10

might be rewritten as

10 = 6 + 4

9 + 1 = 10

15 – 5 = 10

5 x 2 = 10

7 + 3 = 20 – 10


My fifth graders have loved this activity, and even those who will swear they hate math cheer when I announce that we’ll be warming up for class with a new number sentence to rewrite. There are lots of reasons to try this in a classroom setting or with an individual student. 

Rewriting equalities:
  • It's fun! – My students, without any guidance from me, treat these challenges like riddles, and they are tickled when they come up with novel solutions.  
  • Builds operation sense – Crunching numbers with a real goal in mind makes practice relevant and motivating. 
  • Builds numeracy – With practice, students develop a sense for how to point the magnitude of a quantity in the direction they want; for example, they discover that most of the time, multiplying by a positive number will make a quantity much larger than adding by the same number. 
  • Accommodates a wide range of skill levels – More advanced students can use fractions, roots, exponents, etc., while those still building basic skills can gain comfort with simpler operations like subtraction or multiplication. 
  • Sets the stage for algebraic thinking – Many teachers take for granted that students who have only ever seen a mathematical expression with a single number to the right of the =, structured like this:  5 + 3 + 1 = 9 will be able to transition to algebra, when problems may have multiple numbers and variables!) to the right of the =, like this: 5 + 3 = 9 – x.
A misunderstanding of = is often behind the confusion because students haven’t been taught to think flexibly about an equality. (Check out Part 2 of this post for examples of how to implement this process in the classroom and for more about the “equals” sign.)

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Quad Preparatory School

Yesterday, Dr. and Mrs. Yellin had the opportunity to visit Quad Prep - The Quad Preparatory School, located in lower Manhattan. Quad Prep was founded to serve "twice-exceptional" or "2-e" students - gifted children with learning differences.

It was actually a second visit to Quad Prep. Their first visit was shortly after the school was founded  by Dr. Kimberly Busi, a physician who is the parent of a 2-e child, who believes that parents should not have to choose between settings that foster gifted children's enormous academic potential and those that provide appropriate support for their areas of challenge, without sufficient academic stimulation. Dr. Busi took action to address these concerns and Quad Prep was founded with just a handful of students in an East Village location.

Now, only a few years later, the growth and development of the school is astonishing. The attractive and open physical space is on one large floor of an office tower, and has been designed to foster the individualized learning model that is fundamental to Quad Prep's approach. Classrooms have places for one-on-one instruction as well as group activities and there are numerous "nooks and crannies" where support services or individual or small group work can take place. Students range from kindergarten through 12th grade, divided into multi-age groups (within two years) of eight to ten children, based on the students' needs and abilities. Even this arrangement is individualized, so that a third grader with extra skills and interests in chemistry, for example, can work on that subject with a more advanced, older group.

The academic curriculum is rigorous, with emphasis on both STEM subjects and the arts. Upper school students take a foreign language, currently selecting from Latin and Arabic as well as more traditional choices.

However, academics are far from the whole story. Each classroom features a team of teachers, including both academic instructors and clinically trained psychosocial teachers who support the school-wide social-emotional curriculum and who act as liaisons with  the therapists and other specialists who work with each child. There are weekly phone conferences with parents and any outside providers, supplementing the individual instruction and support with a team approach to each student.

The students were saw were thoughtful and engaged in a wide array of challenging activities. As the school notes:
"...If you have met one twice exceptional child, you have met one twice exceptional child. No two Quad Prep students are the same and there is not a specific mold into which we expect or even hope our kids to fit.... We pride ourselves on how well we individualize attention: rather than expect a child to fit us, we truly fit ourselves around each of our students. In turn, each child is given the opportunity to capitalize on their strengths and further develop their passions, while also receiving empathic support and empowerment to cope with challenges."  

These are impressive goals and, for the right student, this is an impressive school.