Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Seussical Celebration

Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss
This week marks the birthday of the late Theodore Geisel, known to generations of children as Dr. Seuss. It has been 75 years since his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published (after first being rejected by more than 25 publishers), and schools and libraries across the area are holding events as part of the Read Across America initiative to celebrate the Seuss phenomenon. 

An exhibit of Seuss illustrations opens this Friday at the AFA Gallery in Soho, with readings by cast members from Seussical the Musical

Local libraries have events scheduled events throughout New York City and Long Island. Shops and some area malls, such as the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, NY, are sponsoring March events to celebrate Dr. Seuss and his legacy. 

There is a special PBS showing on Friday, March 2nd of The Cat in the Hat knows Alot About That series. Parents and children may enjoy tracking down a copy of the 1971 musical cartoon, with terrific, creative songs, featuring the inimitable Allan Sherman.

And, of course, there are the more than 40 children's books -- The Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, Green Eggs on Ham and so many more that are part of our national children's literature. Most parents have at least parts of these memorized, after reading them aloud multiple times. The rhyme and rhythm of these books provide an important structure for beginning readers, too.

One lesser-known fact about Theodore Geisel was that he worked for a time as a book editor at Random House Publishers. In fact, Jan and Stan Berenstain of Berenstain Bears fame credited him with helping them when they first created their popular book series. One more feather in the many hats of Dr. Seuss!

Photo By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, February 27, 2012

Using Popular Media to Interpret Literature

Half of your students didn’t finish last night’s homework because they were glued to Facebook. Instead of getting mad, get even. Creative teachers can use kids’ fixation with social media, popular music, movies, and celebrities to their advantage. Consider some of the following ideas:

You Be the Casting Director
Tell your students they are in charge of casting a movie version of a book or short story the class is reading. Ask them to choose movie stars or other celebrities to fill the main roles and explain their choices. Maybe Tobey Maguire would play The Great Gatsby’s Nick perfectly because he is soft-spoken and meek, just like Nick, whose function in the book is to report all the action without really being a major player in its events. Perhaps Liv Tyler would be an ideal Ophelia because she is beautiful enough to make Hamlet fall in love with her, but her big eyes give her the look of a love-sick girl who ultimately falls victim to the combined whims of Hamlet and her father.

Play it Again, Sam
Pick several pivotal scenes in a text your class has read and ask them what background music would fit. Students can select songs based either on their lyrics, or their overall tone. “Soldier” by Eminem might be the perfect song to accompany the opening of Fahrenheit 451 when Guy Montag is determinedly setting houses aflame to burn the books inside. Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” (from Rodeo) might capture the frantic excitement of the boys in the beginning of Lord of the Flies when they first realize that they are in control of a tropical island.

Friend Holden on Facebook
Another strategy can build on an article by Elizabeth C. Lewis in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. Ask students to make a booklet with various pages showing what various literary character’s Facebook pages would look like. Who would write on Holden’s Wall and what would they say? What Favorite Quotations might Atticus Finch list? What Activities and Interests would Ebenezer Scrooge post on his page? To whom would The Crucible’s Abigail send a friend request?

Far from being frivolous, these kinds of activities promote the kind of deep processing that leads to learning. Students who engage in critical comparisons and creative interpretations are honing the kind of higher order thinking skills they’ll need to get the most out of literature, or any subject they study.

Images used under Creative Commons by uten44, Jay Cameron, and Kevin Stanchfield.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mental Health Issues on College Campuses

An excellent program, held earlier this week at Fordham University School of Law (also sponsored by the New York State Bar Association), focused on legal and practical issues raised by college students with mental illness. 

These students include those who first show symptoms of emotional difficulties while dealing with the academic or social pressures of college, as well as a growing number of students with long-standing mental illness -- mild or more serious -- who are now enrolling in colleges across the country. The consensus among the program speakers was that the number of these students is growing because of such factors as more effective medication that can mitigate the impact of mental illness and the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related statutes, which have required colleges to make reasonable accommodations for students with all kinds of disabilities.

There was a good deal of discussion during the program of the problems caused when college administrators and mental health counselors fail to take action or share information about students in crisis because they believe that doing so will violate federal law, specifically FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. All of the speakers - who included attorneys, mental health professionals, and college administrators (and a number of individuals who serve in more than one of these roles) -- were clear that they would rather deal with a lawsuit claiming that they breached a student's confidentiality under FERPA than face one in the aftermath of a tragedy. "There is no FERPA police force," one attorney stated. In addition, as we have noted before in this blog, there are numerous exceptions to FERPA, including when disclosure of information is necessary to protect the health of the student or other individuals.

Parents and students need to keep in mind that despite news reports when violence or suicide occurs at a college, a college campus is actually a very safe place. As Victor Schwartz, M.D., a psychiatrist who is Dean of Students at Yeshiva University in New York noted, the level of violence on campuses is lower than that in the communities in which they are located, and the rate of suicide among college students is one half that of students in the same age group who are not enrolled in college.
Attorneys Deborah Scalise, Melinda Saran (Vice Dean at SUNY
 Buffalo Law School), and Carolyn Wolf discuss ethical issues
Most mental health issues that face college students do not reach the serious levels of possible violence or suicide. For high school students who have a history of depression, anxiety, or mood regulation issues it is important to investigate the resources available at any college you are considering. What mental health services do they have on campus? How and when are students referred to community mental health providers? Will you be able to have prescriptions for medication filled near campus? And all students and parents should be aware that college can be a stressful time for young people and should learn about the kinds services a prospective school offers to support the mental health of its students.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Practicing Math Through Everyday Activities

Sometimes, the best learning occurs when children don’t even realize it’s happening.  With a little creativity, parents and caretakers can help even very young children practice math skills during everyday activities. Here are some ideas: 

Practice estimation. Play games in which you and your child guess how many of a given object there are (pennies in your hand, apples in a bowl, books on a shelf) then count to determine who was closer. Be sure your child can see all of the objects when estimating; guessing how many M&Ms are in a bag won’t help him/her develop a number sense. Also, for young children, it’s best to start with relatively small numbers of objects – no more than the child can easily count.

Bake something. Using measuring cups is a great way to expose children to fractions. Ask older children to halve or double the recipe for more advanced practice. Also, take advantage of food that is typically sliced, like pizza. Next time your family orders one, count the slices with your child and figure out what portion of the pie everyone should have. 

Clock events. Take advantage of the stopwatch on your mobile phone. How many total minutes of commercials are there during a favorite show? Which route is fastest for getting to school? Can your child get from Point A to Point B faster by running or skipping? How much faster?

Measure things of interest. Help your child measure the height of various family members, including the family pet! Record the height of a new houseplant every few days and record its growth. Challenge your child to find the longest book, blanket, or carpet in the house. Have an informal long jump competition!

Demonstrate multiplication. Explain that each member of the family should get two pieces of chicken for dinner and help your child figure out how many pieces should be put onto the serving platter. If each wall of a Lego house requires 8 pieces, ask your child how many pieces are needed altogether.

Demonstrate division. Help your child divide grapes for a snack, pencils for school, or cookies for friends so that everyone gets the same amount. 

Count money. In situations that allow for leisurely counting, like when paying at the end of a meal in a restaurant, help your child count out the bills that correspond with the amount on the receipt. Or give your child their allowance in coins or small bills, then tell them you need to break a larger bill and help them make change for you.

image courtesy of Daily Clip Art

Monday, February 20, 2012

Visiting a New NYC High School

There has been much news of late about the state of education in New York City’s public high schools. We had an extraordinary opportunity to see one of the new, small high schools in action last week and were impressed with both the students and staff we encountered.

Hillside Arts and Letters Academy (HALA) is a small school, in its second year of operation, located in the Jamaica High School building in Queens. HALA has approximately 200 students, divided between 9th and 10th graders, and will eventually grow to a four-year student population of roughly 400. The principal, Matthew Ritter, was previously Assistant Principal at Bushwick High School for Social Justice in Brooklyn, and has recruited a team of teachers who share his vision of an arts based curriculum for college bound students. For full disclosure, one of the HALA teachers is Matt Yellin, who has been a guest writer and a featured subject of this blog.

Our visit came on Portfolio Day, when each of the students presented several pieces of their work to their classmates and outside adults – parents, community members, and volunteers. These presentations were part of the project based learning that is a key part of the school’s approach. Each student shared a letter about themselves, their learning experiences, and their plans for the future. They then presented their selected work – a packet of math problems, an essay about the development of different religious beliefs in Asian cultures, a work of art, a poem. They explained why they selected a particular project to represent their work over the past semester and responded to questions from both their classmates and adult visitors.

We were struck by the insight even the shyest students had developed about themselves as learners and what they would need to do to meet their academic and future goals. We thought the quality of the work they presented was strong, but it was the informal interactions we had during the day that were, perhaps, the most impressive aspect of our visit. The administrators we met were aware of every aspect of the school and their commitment to excellence was clear from their focus on how the students were doing and what the school could do better. The teachers we spoke to were serious about their dedication to their students and to project based learning. Students were lively, but unfailingly respectful to each other and to adults. They spoke about how they were glad to be there and how they had come to understand what they needed to do to succeed in school and in life.

You can read a terrific blog post about how the HALA students and faculty collaborated with artist Ryan Seslow to create a logo for their school. 
Our visit to HALA was a snapshot of one day in the building of a school, and we know that creating a new school is a complex process, one that is complicated by co-location in a large building which has other new schools, the number of English Language Learners, and the reliance on testing as a measure of a program which seeks to build a real understanding of learning concepts. Still, we came away with a sense of optimism about what can be accomplished by a dedicated team in a small public high school, and look forward to returning to HALA next year to see their progress.

Friday, February 17, 2012

"Flagging" on Law School Admission Tests

In a recent blog, we wrote about a report from the Government Accountability Office that looked at how testing companies were complying with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At that time, we noted that the one testing organization that did not participate in the interviews or provide written information for the report was the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT, the test which accredited law schools use in their admissions process.

Now, the American Bar Association (ABA), with almost 400,000 members, has called for the LSAC to change its policies on dealing with individuals with disabilities and to bring its test into line with such other high stakes tests as the SAT, ACT, and GRE. What makes this American Bar Association resolution so important is that it comes from the organization that accredits law schools and that requires law schools to use an admissions test. Although the ABA does not control the LSAT, it tacitly endorses its use. Pressure for change from the ABA may prove the best hope for change in how the LSAT functions and may move the LSAC to comply with the ABA resolution that the LSAC ensure that, "the reporting of test scores is consistent for all applicants and does not differentiate on the basis that an applicant received an accommodation for a disability."

The ADA requires that all testing organizations provide individuals with documented disabilities with accommodations such as extended time, extra breaks, or auxiliary aids, which aids should "best ensure" that the test reflects the test taker's abilities and not his or her disabilities. But most of the high stakes testing organizations go further and report the scores of individuals taking their test with accommodations in the same manner as those who take it without accommodations; they do not "flag" a score as having been earned through "non-standard administration." That was not always the case, and only happened after settlement of a federal lawsuit in 2000 and subsequent action by testing companies. The SATs continued to flag scores for students who received test accommodations until 2003.

What has the American Bar Association and others concerned is that the LSAT -- along with the MCAT, the Medical College Admissions Test -- continues to flag scores of students who take their tests with accommodations, in contrast to every other major high stakes test. The LSAC has stated that they continue to flag because, "it would be misleading to report scores earned with additional test time without some indication of the non standard administration." They further note, that "scores earned with additional time are not comparable to standard scores," even though the other testing organizations have concluded that this is not the case with their tests.

As might be expected, there have been lawsuits against the LSAC and even agreements with the Justice Department, but no case has resulted in changes to the flagging policy. We hope that this welcome action by the American Bar Association will be key to changing the flagging policy for the LSAT.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Educating All Kinds of Students in NYC Public Schools

Two articles this week in The New York Times focused on New York City public schools, offering perspectives on how children are being educated in creative ways and how international families, new to New York City, are enrolling their children in the public schools.

At P.S. 142, an elementary school in lower Manhattan where, according to the Times article, almost all of the students qualify for free lunch, teachers are eschewing lessons specifically focused on reading skills and, instead, are exposing their students to life experiences that more affluent students take for granted. Students are building their reading comprehension by reading street signs, going to the market, and visiting a parking garage -- all of which help them broaden their life experiences and the "frame of reference" they bring to reading.

These students practice such traditional skills as making predictions about what they will read when they visit a hospital or learn math by calculating market purchases and how many quarters they will need to put into parking meters. They are encouraged to use play centers in their classroom well beyond kindergarten, and to enrich their lives with experiences that they can use to better understand the world around them, as well as to help them master the language, math, and other skills that students from middle class environments encounter in their daily lives. 

Meanwhile, a separate article looks at the trend for "the foreign-born affluent" -- families with incomes of over $150,000 per year where both parents were born abroad -- to enroll their children in New York City public schools at a rate (almost 68%) that is nearly twice that of American born parents with similar incomes. The figures cited by The Times are even more striking for families with incomes of  $200,000 per year or more, where foreign born parents send their children to public schools 61% of the time, compared to 28% of the time for American born parents at the same income levels. The numbers are similar whether the foreign born parents are in the United States temporarily, for work, or have moved here on a permanent basis and seem to hold true in cities outside New York as well.

The Times piece discusses the comfort level of foreign parents with public education and these parents' desire to have their children educated in a heterogeneous environment. It also notes that parents carefully select neighborhoods with strong public schools.

It is a positive sign for public education in New York City that creative approaches are being implemented to help the most disadvantaged students, while families from across the globe are recognizing that their children can get a quality education in a diverse environment here.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Sharon Terry

Friday, February 10, 2012

Life After High School on BlogTalk Radio

Susan Yellin, Esq., the Director of Advocacy and Transition Services at The Yellin Center, was interviewed yesterday for a segment on BlogTalk Radio about her award-winning book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010).

Listen to the segment here.

Susan Yellin, Esq.
The half-hour interview was part of a series hosted by Beth Polner Abrahams, an attorney in Nassau County, New York, whose practice is focused on estate, tax, and special needs planning for families, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities. The wide-ranging conversation focused on the laws that protect students with learning and other difficulties in high school and college, steps students and families should take when thinking about college, alternatives to traditional college programs, and the practical issues involved in obtaining accommodations for college exams.

Mrs. Yellin will be appearing at several area schools and libraries in upcoming weeks:

Check out The Yellin Center's events calendar for more details.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Effective Studying Techniques

Recent research in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition has shown that test-taking can be an effective form of learning and, in fact, is a more effective tool for retaining material than merely studying the subject matter involved. Students who have practice tests available to them, such as those in course review books, can use these tests to help learn the materials covered. Although many instructors do not circulate old tests so that they can re-use the questions, when old tests are available, students should use them to solidify their knowledge of the the material they cover.

For students who prefer to use flashcards, we like the website Quizlet, which offers students ages 13 and up access to millions of free flashcards or the opportunity to make up their own flashcard set using the Quizlet online tools. The site also offers study games, audio in 18 languages, the opportunity to create your own study groups, and associated apps for smartphones and other devices. It's still studying, but it doesn't have to be boring!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dealing with Bullying - Books for Children and Adults

Stories are a great way to for kids to navigate the difficult waters of growing up. Literature allows children to safely explore tough issues like potty training, jealousy, divorce, or the death of a loved one. Bullying can be one of the most painful issues many kids contend with in their daily lives, and books can present them with the heroes they need to deal with difficult and hurtful experiences caused by bullying.

Whether a child in your life is the victim or the instigator of bullying, these books can provide a medium for thinking about their feelings and actions:

The Meanest Thing to Say – by Bill Cosby
Ages 4 and up

After engaging in a mean game with some of his friends, Little Bill gets some good advice from his dad about how to keep both his friends’ respect and a clear conscience.

My Secret Bully – by Trudy Ludwig
Ages 5 and up

The protagonist of this book deals with a friend who can be downright mean sometimes. My Secret Bully is prefaced by a statement from the founder of the Ophelia Project and includes helpful tips, discussion questions, and other resources for helping girls deal with bullying.

Mr. Lincoln’s Way – by Patrician Polacco
Ages 6 and up

The kindly, insightful principal in this book sees through “Mean Gene’s” unkind behavior and tries to help him, and the other students at his school, understand that being different is special.

For adults, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye explores the painful relationship between a protagonist and her childhood “friend,” who dishes out a combination of sweetness and cruelty that is both confusing and hurtful. The book delivers surprising insights into what it’s like to contend with “mean girls” lurking in schoolyards without discounting these girls’ hidden anguish.

For a fantastic list of other titles, visit the Santa Clara County Library’s "Books About Bullying" page. Browse suggested fiction and nonfiction titles for kids in grades 3 through 8, and check out recommended titles for adults to learn more about bullying.

Friday, February 3, 2012

New Apps, Sites, and Guides for Students and Families

We're always on the hunt for new and useful tech tools that can aid students and families in their pursuit of learning achievement. Today, we present our latest findings. As always, if you have a tip on a tool that's new to us, or if you have a personal story you would like to share about how you and your family are using apps or web tools to enhance your academic experience, let us know in the comments.

Starfall ABC’s

This site is divided into four sections so that kids of different skill levels can all benefit. Level 1 is dedicated to learning letter sounds, Level 2 does a nice job of walking kids through the process of sounding out words, and by Level 4, kids can choose from plays, Greek myths, comics, and other genres to practice their reading skills; a child can click on an unknown word and the website will read it correctly.

For kids just learning their alphabet and matching the sounds with the letters, there is an app available as well. Available for "iDevices," the Starfall ABCs app costs $2.99. It’s a fantastic tool with lots of repetition and imagery to help the sounds stick in children’s minds. There are even some simple games. It should be noted that the other reading levels available on the website are not currently available on the app. 

Montessori Crosswords

This app, available for $2.99 from the iTunes store, has earned continuously high ratings from users. Children are shown a picture and asked to drag letters from the alphabet into boxes to spell the word. They can hear each sound by tapping on it, reinforcing phonics skills. The game tracks the number of words spelled and also breaks the words into categories (“words with consonant blends,” “simple words with 3 sounds,” etc.)

Sound Literacy

Sound Literacy is an amazingly insightful tool for building a huge number of literacy skills. Children can use the app to practice learning basic skills like letter-symbol associations and phoneme segmentation or build sophisticated vocabulary using roots and affixes. Users can customize the letter tiles by adding their own letter combinations and colors (all short vowels can be blue, for example), and children can drag and drop the letters to carry out an almost endless variety of tasks. The biggest limitation to Sound Literacy, however, is that it is best used in conjunction with instruction. It is an excellent tool for students who work with a tutor, however, or whose parents wish to walk their kids through literacy-building exercises in more depth.


There are many apps that allow users to make and organize lists, but iProcrastinate has been among the best received. Like many other app offerings, tasks can be color coded, arranged in different ways, and synced between computers and devices. One of its most attractive features is its ability to offer ways to break tasks down into parts. This can be a blessing for any student with a tight schedule, but it’s an especially insightful and critical support for students who struggle with sequencing and for whom large tasks seem especially daunting.


For students who prefer to read on a screen, have limited space, or just want to save money, Kno website is an appealing option for accessing college textbooks. Instead of buying books from a store or online, students can purchase and download books through Kno. The service also allows students to practice good active reading techniques, like highlighting and note-taking with a sticky note feature, and students can record audio or video during lectures and take pictures of important notes on the board. Features not included in any textbook are three-dimensional diagrams (great for science courses) and a “quiz me” button that tests students on the material in portions of the textbook.


Phonemic awareness*, the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in language, is essential for learning to read. While most children don’t require much work to develop their phonemic awareness, others cannot hear the difference between ship and sip or determine that rock and sock rhyme but rock and rack do not. For children struggling to hear and differentiate between the sounds of language correctly, HearBuilder software may be a useful teaching tool. The software, designed for students from kindergarten to grade 4, helps children develop nine areas of phonemic awareness, including syllable blending, syllable segmentation, phoneme deletion, phoneme addition, and rhyming. The lessons can be set to different levels of difficulty according to student skill. Customer reviews have been positive, and research, available for perusal on the HearBuilder website, has indicated that the product is effective.

*Note: The terms “phonemic awareness” and “phonological awareness” are often used interchangeably, though their meanings differ slightly. Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to hear phonemes, or the smallest units of sound, in language. Phonological awareness involves both sounds and letters and so goes beyond simply hearing sounds.

NYC Elementary School Guide

Lacking the bells and whistles of the apps and software listed above, a decidedly low-tech resource may nevertheless be helpful to New York City parents of young children interested in finding the right public school match for their child. The Department of Education has just released its 2012-2013 Elementary School Directory, with information about the registration process and on individual schools.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Unlocking Science Vocabulary

Scientific concepts can be difficult enough on their own, and the long vocabulary words used in science can make the subject seem incomprehensible to some students. Happily, many common words in science can be deciphered by considering the word's morphemes. A morpheme is a small, meaningful part of a word; for example, “in-“ in the word “indivisible” means “not.” 

Some good morphemes to start with are micro- (“small”), therm- (“heat”), and photo- (“light”). 

How to Use Morphemes

Beginning with the target word to be studied (“thermometer”), present the definition of the word, and the crucial morpheme (therm-) and its meaning (“heat”). Ask students to determine how the morpheme’s meaning is related to the meaning of the word. Then ask the student to come up with several other known words that contain the morpheme (e.g. “thermal, thermometer”). In the case of “thermometer,” it may also be useful to teach the morpheme -meter (“measure”).

Finally, present students with other scientific words containing the targeted morphemes. Explain that -phile means “lover of” and ask them what a thermophile might be, or tell them to think about the word “altitude” and figure out what an altimeter does.

Students who enjoy this kind of detective work about the meaning and origins of words might want to sign up for's Word of the Day or check the Daily Buzzword at the Merriam-Webster website.