Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It Takes Patience to be a Parent

We suspect that more than a few graduates -- from kindergarten through college -- received a copy of the 1990 book by Dr. Seuss (the late Theodor Seuss Geisel), Oh the Places You'll Go!, as a graduation gift. It's an inspiring rhyming promise of what lies ahead for a young person moving on in life, with the terrific Seuss illustrations that can't help but make you smile. And, of course, it's very silly while sending the sometimes serious message that life is not without its pitfalls. If you haven't gotten a copy as a gift or thumbed through it in a book store -- or online --  to mark a graduation or other milestone, it's worth doing.

We recently were reminded both of this book, and of the virtue of patience for parents, when we came across a copy of the book that we had bought not long after it was published and gave to a teenage boy we know to mark his 13th birthday. It was not the only gift he received, but it was the only one he complained about, noting how dumb it was to give a Dr. Seuss book to a teenager, and how it was even dumber that we inscribed the book with our heartfelt hopes for his future. Parents of teenagers know that they can sometimes do nothing right and wonder how long that state of affairs will last. We can't predict the timetable for every family, and we know that most teenagers gradually come to appreciate at least some aspects of their parents as they leave adolescence.

We had found the book while helping the young man who received it to move after completing graduate school. He picked it up and showed it to us and asked if we remembered giving it to him. "Of course," we replied. "And you weren't very happy about it."

He looked sheepish for just a fleeting moment, and then said, "Well, I guess I really am a grown-up. I found it while I was packing and re-read it, including the note you wrote in the beginning. It brought a tear to my eye. I guess I was too young to appreciate it, but I certainly do now."

Parenting takes patience.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mobile Phone Dilemma

A new report from the Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs of the Council of Europe, an influential body representing 47 European countries, has raised significant concerns about the safety of cell phone use among children and teens.

The committee urged immediate action to ban all mobile phones and wireless networks in schools and to set thresholds for levels of microwaves emitted by mobile phones. The Committee noted that "waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case in the past with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco." The report also raised concerns about such other common items as baby monitors and wireless internet networks. It makes clear that although "safe" exposure levels exist at the present time, preliminary research indicates that levels below these current thresholds have the potential for hazardous biologic impacts on humans, particularly among children.

Even assuming that parents can or would limit cell phone use by their children, Wi-Fi networks are ubiquitous, not just in schools, but in office buildings, train stations, buses, and parks, to name just a few locations. Here at The Yellin Center, we have a wireless network for both our staff and visitors and have no plans at the present time to disable it. But, as the technology we use every day becomes more sophisticated, all of us, especially parents and those working with children, need to stay on top the latest research on the long-term impact of this technology.

This alarming report adds one more dimension to a very practical issue that parents and schools have been grappling with for some time -- cell phone use by students. Most schools now ban cell phone use in their buildings, but more extensive bans, such as the one in New York City that bans students from having a cell phone on their person when they enter school, even if it is kept in a bag or their locker during the school day, raise some practical concerns for students, parents, and teachers.

As one New York City high school teacher explained to us, "I am really of two minds about the ban on phones. As a teacher, I know that even if the phones were in their backpacks, students would be using them during class and they would be a constant distraction. Teaching in a cell phone free environment is definitely the way to go. But my students come from all over the city, some traveling by bus or subway. I worry about them when they leave the building and I know their parents want to be able to monitor them as they travel to and from school. So the convenience store on the corner has set up a system to allow student to check their phones for $1 per day. That's $5 a week to allow the students to travel safely, and that's money my kids really can't afford. There has got to be a better system."

Photo used under Creative Commons by Dru Bloomfield

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anxiety and Gender Issues in Math Education

A survey of studies looking at math anxiety and how it relates to math learning appeared in a recent issue of Education Week. The article built on information from the Learning and the Brain Conference held in Chicago in early May of this year where Sian L. Beilock, a professor of psychology from the University of Chicago, was a featured speaker. Dr. Beilock and her colleagues look at how emotions, such as anxiety, affect complex cognitive skills, such as solving mathematical problems.

Like so much of learning, math anxiety has several different aspects. One is the social acceptability of math difficulties, since many people will readily confess to "being terrible at math" but would not make the same kind of admission about another academic skill, such as reading. There are also gender issues, with female elementary school students being more likely to have difficulties with math if their female teachers have some anxiety about math themselves. This is particularly important because the vast majority of elementary school teachers are female; of note, this finding does not apply to male students.

Other findings noted in the Education Week article include documented changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (which controls active working memory, a key function for math calculations) when students are faced with even such minor anxiety provoking stimuli as a picture of a frowning face. Math anxiety can also diminish a student's number sense, a part of sequencing, making the anxious student less likely to be able to quickly determine which of two numbers is larger.

As groups such as the STEM Education Coalition work to raise awareness about "the critical role that STEM  education [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century," it is important to be aware of such barriers to math competence and enjoyment as anxiety and gender issues so that more students, boys and girls, can enjoy and succeed in math and related fields.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Helpful Tips for Students from Google Student Blog

Google Student Blog is a nice resource for mature, tech-savvy students in grades 8-12, college, grad school, and beyond. The blog, along with its corresponding Twitter feed, @googlestudents, is rich with interesting tips and content geared directly toward students.

Often, tips focus on how to leverage Google's array of products for educational purposes -- most of them completely free of charge for personal use; this week, however, @googlestudents has been sharing some of the best and most popular study tips they have collected from student readers of the feed and the blog for upcoming end-of-year exams and finals.

While some of these may seem obvious, we often forget that identifying and consistently utilizing simple strategies for studying can make a big difference in many instances. Here are a few of our recent favorites:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

High School Diplomas

As graduations loom, the issue of high school diplomas has come up in several forums. Our colleagues at Wrightslaw have dedicated their latest newsletter to reminding families to be mindful of the kind of diploma their child is on track to receive. They discuss the importance of obtaining a regular high school diploma if a student will want to attend any level of college. They also include a link to a terrific review of national policy and practice on this issue which appeared in a recent issue of the National PTA Magazine.

Meanwhile, here in New York, the New York State Board of Regents, which sets the rules state-wide for education policy, has just issued new rules clarifying diploma options for students at all ability levels.

As far back as we can remember, New York has offered an academic high school diploma, the Regents diploma, which signified that a student graduating high school met particular standards in a specific roster of courses. Students who did not pass the required number of Regents examinations (and passing the exam was a required part of passing the Regents course itself) could still graduate with a local diploma, but would not be eligible for Regents scholarships, which could offset some of the tuition in colleges located within the State and which signified that the student met a high standard of academic performance.

For the past number of years, in a laudable effort to raise the academic standards of high school students throughout the State, a push has been on to require ALL high school graduates from New York State public schools to receive a Regents diploma in order to graduate. The problem is that such a "one size fits all" standard doesn't recognize the realities of the State's diverse student population. For high achieving students, the Regents curriculum and accompanying exams are secondary challenges to the Advanced Placement coursework and exams. These high achieving students can earn a Regents Diploma with Advanced Standing or Honors. For students with very profound cognitive or other disabilities, an IEP "diploma" -- in reality a certificate of completion of the goals set out on the student's IEP -- may be a reasonable goal. But for a number of students with mild to moderate learning challenges that make Regents level courses and exams a real barrier, needing to pass these exams has been a significant hurdle.

New York has responded by postponing the implementation of an across-the-board Regents exam requirement, and permitting Regents Competency Tests (RCTs) for students with disabilities who could not pass the regular Regents exams. Now, the New York State Board of Regents has just announced that "the option to take the RCTs will not be available for any student entering grade 9 beginning in September 2011 and thereafter." After this cut off date, students with disabilities who pass Regents exams with a grade of 55-64 can receive a local diploma and all students will have the option to appeal their Regents scores and re-take Regents exams, with some limits.

Families and students in all states need to start planning early to consider what kind of diploma a student will seek to obtain, and what the options are if some of the courses or exams required for such a diploma are problematic for such students. Since an IEP "diploma" can limit post high school options, like admission to colleges and some tuition loans, students need to work towards the highest level diploma that they are capable of reaching.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Protecting Children from Gun Violence

Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have been working for years to ensure the safety of children in countless ways -- by advocating for such fundamental safety issues as automobile car seats, bike helmets, prevention of sports injuries, and avoiding dog bites -- just to name a few issues. Now, they and the pediatricians and family physicians who care for children, are under fire (pun intentional!) from the State of Florida, for promoting gun safety.

Let's be very clear about what is going on here. There is no action proposed by the AAP or its gun safety partners to limit gun ownership. There is a strong move to have parents ASK if there is a gun present in a home where their children play. Think about it. Even if you can control what goes on in your own home, what about your child's friend down the street? Might there be a gun in that household? And, if so, is it properly secured so that it is impossible for children to find it, and use it? Wouldn't you want someone offering advice on that issue to other parents?

The Florida House of Representatives and Senate have both passed a bill that would prohibit physicians from asking parents about whether there are guns in their homes, if that could in any way be considered "harassment." The question, when asked by a pediatrician or family physician, can open the topic of gun safety and allow the doctor to counsel the parent about what is needed to make sure that their own and other people's children are kept safe. Proponents of the bill, which is expected to be signed shortly by Governor Rick Scott, believe it is needed to prohibit doctors from recording which of their patients own guns and from refusing to accept patients into their practices who won't discuss gun safety issues. The numerous opponents of the law, including the AAP and Pax, which partners with the AAP to raise awareness of gun safety concerns, point to limits on a physician's judgment, freedom of speech issues, and the appalling number of children injured or killed by playing with guns found in their home or another house at which they play.

The statistics are staggering. According to research from the last decade compiled by PAX:
  • Nearly 1.7 million children, under the age of 18, live in homes with firearms that are both loaded and unlocked in the United States
  • Over 40% of American households with children have guns
  • 8 children and teens were killed by firearms every day in 2006
We are deeply concerned about this effort to keep doctors from doing their primary job -- keeping our children safe.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Life After High School Wins Bronze Medal at IPPY Awards

Congratulations to our own Susan Yellin on winning a bronze medal in the 2011 IPPY Awards.

We've just learned that Susan's recent book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students With Disabilities and Their Families (co-authored with Christina Cacioppo Bertsch) tied for bronze in the Education/Academic/Teaching category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Read more about the book here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Limitations of some E-Readers

We see them everywhere -- Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other e-readers that hold digital versions of the books we read. But a recent study from The University of Washington  suggests that at least some of these devices (or the current iterations thereof) may be more suited to leisure reading than to the kinds of reading that students do with their textbooks.

The study notes that graduate students provided with a Kindle Dx (a larger version of the e-reader sold by Amazon) found that students often needed either a personal computer or a sheet of paper to supplement the reading they did on the e-reader. The computer allowed them to look up references they encountered or to take notes with a word processing program. The study noted that when the students read traditional format books, approximately 75% of them made markings -- margin notes, underlinings, and highlighting passages -  while reading. This was not feasible in the same way with the Kindle. Some students even tucked sheets of paper into the carrying case for their e-readers to facilitate taking handwritten notes.

The study also found that traditional textbooks allowed students to switch back-and-forth between reading techniques, such as skimming a chapter or reviewing the references at the end of a chapter or article before going back and reading the full text. The Kindle e-reader did not have the same capacity for this kind of switching, and students were less likely to use the e-reader as a result. We often recommend that a student approach reading a textbook by using previewing techniques -- looking through a chapter to note the questions at the end, the highlighted passages, and italicized words -- to help get a sense of what the authors believe to be the most important information. This allows students to then turn to the beginning of the chapter and read it in its entirety with some sense of familiarity with the vocabulary and knowledge of the key points that the chapter is making. This can be useful for all students, especially for those who tend not to process what they are reading with sufficient depth to gain true understanding. This kind of reading can be more difficult to do with e-readers.

Of particular note, the researchers conducting the study noted that using the Kindle made it more difficult for some students to recall what they read. Because of the way text is laid out in some e-readers, students have more difficulty employing a technique called "cognitive mapping" to recall where certain information appeared on a page or in a chapter, which can be helpful in actually remembering the information itself.

One can hope that the limitations of the Kindle and similarly-designed e-readers will help guide their manufacturers as they develop new models and software applications, as well as related forms of technology, to make reading both more accessible and more effective for students. Already, in the iPad, Android tablets, and new iterations of the Kindle and its ilk, many of which are essentially tiny personal computers as well as e-readers, we have seen improvements which seek to replicate these functions - such as using annotation apps like iAnnotate or Neu Annotate to highlight and make notes, or using built-in or online access to dictionaries and encyclopedias to help increase depth of comprehension and recall. Many electronic reading platforms now mimic pagination and layout in a fashion that is more typical of printed books.

In the meantime, although we are big believers in the ways that technology can help students, it might be a bit premature to go all digital, all the time, for all kinds of students. We recommend taking a measured approach, and carefully evaluating all new technology options on a student-by-student basis.

Photo used under Creative Commons from texqas.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sources for News You Can Use

We all receive emails from stores or websites we have visited, and often delete them without checking their contents. But there are some organizations or websites that provide such helpful information that we not only welcome their occasional emailings or newsletters, but have actively signed up to receive them. They are all free. You may find them helpful too.

They include:

Wrightslaw, a commercial website (which includes announcements of upcoming seminars and publications) that publishes The Special Ed Advocate, focusing on the legal issues impacting education and special education. This publication and the website itself have a national scope and an extensive archives, in addition to topical articles.

LDonline, which offers broadly based and highly informative newsletters, as well as articles on their website written by a wide range of experts. They are national in scope, based out of Washington, D.C.

Disability Scoop is broader in scope than some of the other sites we read, focusing beyond educational issues to physical and cognitive disabilities, but they are quick to note news, legal decisions, and research findings that impact individuals with learning disabilities.

The Arise Coalition, which brings together educators, advocates, parents, and students to improve education in New York, especially for students with special needs.

Inside Schools, which keeps families informed about issues relating to New York City Public Schools, including reviews of schools, important dates, and issues of concern to families.

Families in Westchester, Dutchess, and other upstate New York Counties may want to receive the monthly newsletter from Littman Krooks, a law firm that works with individuals with special needs and their families. They provide extensive listings of local events and activities for their region.

If you are reading this, you have found our Yellin Center blog (which you can follow via your favorite RSS reader), but you might want to take a moment to sign up to follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Appreciating Teachers

This week is National Teachers Appreciation Week. We're not sure who declared it so, but we didn't check too hard, because we think it is a great idea to take some time to appreciate these oft-maligned professionals who shaped our lives and who shape the lives of our children. We asked some teachers what they would appreciate -- what would make their work easier, their lives better, and let them know that the work they do is valued. Here is what we learned:

Teachers want parents to care about what goes on in school. Some parents will be surprised by this, since they are incredibly involved in their children's education, but teachers tell us that too many parents are disconnected from what is happening in their child's class. Many of these are parents for whom long work hours, responsibilities at home, and possibly language or cultural barriers make it difficult for them to show up at teacher's conferences, or to send in a note, or respond to a telephone call. And it can be the parents of the most complex children who are least able to participate in the life of the school. Outreach to these parents from community and cultural organizations and opportunities to come to school at different times of the day or night -- possibly with child care provided -- can help raise the level of involvement of these parents.

Teachers don't want to hear about their short work days or long vacations. They spend innumerable hours outside the classroom preparing lessons, grading papers, and improving their professional skills. They advise school clubs and organizations and coach all kinds of teams -- from the debate team to the basketball team and all sorts of sports and activities in between. They don't get the chance to daydream in front of their computers or to close their office doors to take a break. They are "on" all day in a very intense way, where their every comment or action reverberates in their classroom. Teaching is hard work.

Teachers appreciate students who are prepared to learn. A child or teenager who has not done his homework is often not able to fully access the lessons of the next day. Worse, a student who has not had a decent breakfast -- or possibly even a decent dinner the night before -- or who hasn't had a good night's sleep, can't be expected to concentrate properly on what is going on in class. This can be an issue for all kinds of families, and programs like school breakfasts can help. One teacher tells us that he keeps healthy granola bars and similar foods in his desk, since students are often hungry when they come to class and feeding them helps them pay attention. 

Teachers appreciate the benefit of the doubt. No, teachers are not perfect and there are plenty of times where they do or say something that is wrong. But they are usually right about what your child needs or does, and would appreciate being given the benefit of the doubt when your child comes home with a tale of woe.

Teachers appreciate a thank you. "There is nothing that touches my heart more than a note from a parent -- or a student -- thanking me for making a difference," one teacher told us. "I don't expect to be thanked, but it helps me remember why I went into teaching in the first place -- to make a difference in the lives of my students." So, take a moment this week to help a teacher be more effective and to share your appreciation for their important job.

Graphic used courtesy of Gifs.cc

Monday, May 2, 2011

Graduation Gifts

May brings the start of graduation season, and whether you want to celebrate a student moving on from kindergarten or one graduating from law school or medical school -- or those in between -- we have some gift suggestions that can help students as they move on to their next challenges.

For Young Students
Even in this age of digital content, children like to get things addressed to them and delivered by a real, live, mail person.. Magazine subscriptions fill this role, and have the added benefit of coming regularly for a year or more. They give children an opportunity to build their reading skills, enhance their affinities -- such as sports, animals, or science -- and can help them engage with new areas of interest. Some of the magazines we have recommended to young students are ChickaDEE [ages 6-9; puzzles, crafts, animal facts, comics]; Your Big Backyard [ages 3-7; animals, nature, outdoors] and National Geographic for Kids  [ages 6-14].

Graduating  Middle School
Students this age are ready to expand their horizons into the larger world, but still need help shaping their interests. They might enjoy a trip to an event -- a show, a sporting event, an exhibit -- that will both entertain them and help them to spark an interest that they can build on as they get older.

For High School Graduation
As these students move on to college, the demands on their cognitive toolbox will increase substantially. One device that we have found helpful for college students is the Livescribe pen. This enables students to take notes in lectures and then play back the particular section of the lecture by tapping the pen on the relevant key word in a special notebook. It lets students focus on lecture content without concern that they will not take sufficient notes -- and let them take notes without worrying that they missed something the professor is saying.

For College Graduation and Beyond
If your student does not yet have an iPad and if this expensive item is within your budget, it will provide them with a tool for whatever path comes next. If an iPad is more than you would want to spend, another tool that will help them move into adulthood is a subscription to a major daily newspaper. It's a way of keeping them connected to the larger world as they become focused on their future studies or career. Whether they get it via digital device or delivered to their doorstep, it will help make them better informed citizens of the world in which they live.

Some photos used under Creative Commons from yto