Monday, July 30, 2012

Helpful Tips for College Freshmen

It may still be mid-summer, but it's only a couple of weeks until freshman orientation begins on many college campuses. Along with high tech electronics and extra long twin bedding, there are some items that students with learning or attention challenges need to bring with them to get off to a good start.

Students who take medications for ADHD or for medical or emotional issues need to consider the logistics involved in both taking and refilling their medications. How will they best remember to take their medications regularly when caught up in their busy academic and social schedule? Some helpful tools include a pill tray for those who take multiple medications (which can be set up once a week), a watch or phone with a reminder alarm that is set to go off at the time(s) medications need to be taken, and a designated location in the student's dorm room where medication is both accessible to the student and safe from roommates or visitors.

What about refills? Controlled substances -- which include most medications for attention and emotional issues -- require a new prescription for each month's supply. Families should check with the prescribing physican and speak to the campus health center for recommendations for local pharmacies. Another option is re-stocking during visits home.There is no single best arrangement, but it can take time to procure a refill and the day the student runs out of his or her medication is too late to create an effective plan.

Students with learning difficulties or ADHD who need academic accomodations, such as extended time on exams, should have already been in touch with the campus Office of Disability Services to provide required documentation of their disability and to obtain appropriate accommodations. If your student has not yet done so, make this your first priority, since it takes some time for this process to be completed. You do not want your student to face their first exam without the accommodations needed for success.

There are a number of tools that can benefit all students that are particularly helpful to college freshmen with learning or attention issues. These include: 

  • A large white board to keep track of upcoming tasks and to break down extended assignments into workable segments 
  • A device for recording lectures. This can be a Smartpen, which can allow the student to link their notes to the recording so they do not have to listen to the entire lecture to get the parts they missed, or a smartphone or other device with a recording feature. 
  • A file box, set up with a separate folder for each course. Once a week, papers from each course should be filed and retained for studying for the final exam. 
  • For those students who qualify, authorization for access to audio books through organizations like Bookshare or Learning Ally. Most textbook publishers are required to make their materials accessible to students in multiple formats. 
  • An electronic or paper organizer. Electronic versions can provide reminders that help keep students on track. 

A little bit of planning can make a big difference for a new college student. Take some time now to smooth your student's start to college.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Moving Stories of Overcoming Challenges

I recently had the opportunity to attend an extraordinary graduation ceremony at the New York Institute for Special Education, where I am privileged to be a member of the Board of Directors. The Institute, originally founded in 1831 as the New York Institution for the Blind, has expanded its mission to include three distinct programs: the Van Cleve Program, for children up to age 13 who have emotional or learning difficulties; the Readiness Program, for preschoolers who are developmentally delayed; as well as the Schermerhorn Program for students from ages 5-21 who are blind or visually disabled.

Dr. Yellin and Dr. Bernadette Kappen, Executive Director of NYISE congratulate a graduate.
Together with the students, families, and staff gathered to celebrate students moving on to the next step in their education, I got to hear an inspiring speech from Felix Castro, valedictorian of the Schermerhorn Program. Felix, who has been blind since birth, took public transportation to school each day. Felix attended the New York Institute from age five, and is looking forward to using the skills he learned there to help him succeed in his college studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Rockland County in the fall. You can read more about Felix and his achievements in a story from the New York Daily News.

The valedictorian of the Van Cleve Program, for children who have emotional or learning difficulties, was Deonjay Yelverton, age 13. DJ told the assembled guests:

 " I never thought I would have the honor of speaking to you today and representing my graduating class, but here I am thanks to everyone’s hard work. I used to attend Northside Center from the age of 6 to 9. Although I did my work, my behavior usually kept me out of class and into the counselor’s office. I used to curse, yell, and disrespect students and staff. Since my mom did not feel that the school could handle my behavior, she decided to look elsewhere.

At the age of 9, I came to the Van Cleve program at the New York Institute. I thought it was a place that could help me with all my subjects and behavior, and the icing on the cake was when I found out there was a basketball team. I felt comfortable and started to make friends.

I’m a day student on level 5 which is the highest level you can earn based on your behavior. I had to work very hard to achieve this goal. Even though I had this level 4 times in the past and lost it, I managed to remain on it this whole school year. Clap for me!!! I’m proud of myself. I’ve made many friends, Cantrell, Nelson, Earl and many more. Little by little, one step at a time, picking myself up when the old DJ came back, I started to notice I was becoming a better person.

With the help of my mom, [and] my coaches, ... I began to mature into the young man that you see today... I know it was real tough at times, but thanks everyone for never giving up on me. I’ve been on level 5 this whole year. My academics and behavior have greatly improved too. Other wonderful things also happened to me this year. I was the captain of the Big Stars basketball team and guided them to an 11-2 record. Way to go guys!!! I received the MVP award. I was even a tutor for the younger ones. While at the New York Institute, I’ve learned that to get respect, you have to respect others. I’ve learned that good things come to those who do well, and I’ve learned that if you try hard enough you can succeed.

After I graduate, my new school will be Greenburgh Academy in Yonkers. There, I will strive to continue to work hard in my academics and be a force on the basketball team.

To my fellow Van Cleve graduates, I hope we stay in touch and that you stay strong and accomplish everything you set your mind to. Ms. Nora used to say, "I can lead a horse to water, but I can’t force it to drink." Stay thirsty my friends and become the best person you can be." 

There are terrific photos of all of the graduates and their families on a special page on the New York Institute's website. It was truly inspiring to hear from the students at the New York Institute and I look forward to attending their graduation ceremonies for many years to come.   

Monday, July 23, 2012

Technological Innovation for Individuals with Reading and Print Disabilities

I spent time this past week in Bellevue, Washington, just outside of Seattle, at the AER International Conference, sponsored by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Jim Fruchterman
Before I gave my own presentation on Understanding the Individual Learning Needs of Visually Impaired Students, which looked at the professional development The Yellin Center is doing with the New York Institute of Special Education, I had the opportunity to attend a terrific talk by Jim Fruchterman, founder and Chairman of the Board of Benetech. Fruchterman is a former rocket scientist and a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship winner (among other accolades). Benetech grew out of his interest in reading machines for the blind and has grown into an organization that uses technology to address unmet social needs -- from making reading materials accessible to all readers to improving landmine detection.

Fruchterman spoke about Benetech's signature program, Bookshare, which "provides people with print disabilities in the United States legal access to more than 50,000 books and 150 periodicals that can be converted to Braille, large print or synthetic speech." Bookshare's resources are provided free to most students and at a nominal cost to the public. (Read an earlier article from our blog about Bookshare).

Fruchterman discussed his work, and that of Bookshare, in making print media broadly available, not only in Braille, but to individuals with reading and print disabilities and ADHD. He discussed iPad, iPhone, and Android applications directly connecting to Bookshare and spoke about the importance of making all materials available in MP3 format. It was particularly interesting to hear of a major initiative now underway to make visual material, such as maps and graphs, more accessible to those with visual disabilities.

Take a look at the Benetech website to get a full sense of the important work they are doing in so many areas.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reading Recommendations for Writers

The following writing guides are among the best out there for those looking to get inspired or improve their writing skills. Appropriate for all adults, most high school students, and even precocious middle school students, these books will have even the most reluctant of writers racing for paper and pen.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser, is a classic resource for people who have to do lots of non-fiction writing. His advice is useful for students and professionals alike; Zinsser provides great tips for writing formal essays or simply writing an email to a colleague. The first part of his book contains writing principles and discusses various methods of getting words on a page. The second half is dedicated to specific forms of non-fiction like business, sports, memoirs, travel, etc. We are particularly impressed by his tips on rewriting and the way he explains how to banish “clutter” (i.e. extraneous words) from sentences and paragraphs.

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is more than just a writing guide. This is the kind of book that turns browsers into readers; dip into it for tips and you may find yourself reading it from cover to cover. Potential users should be aware that this is not a book to reference if you’re looking for very specific writing tips. It seems to be equal parts zen and instruction. Goldberg shares many of her own experiences and offers great advice on how to choose verbs, getting first thoughts out, and how to listen (because, she claims, “writing is 90% listening”). Goldberg believes that writing is not necessarily about the final product – though the final product is important – but about the self-discovery that occurs while creating the final product. Her short, witty chapters and warm tone may give reluctant, anxious, or frustrated writers the confidence they need to pick the pencil back up and begin again.

Fans of Stephen King’s literature will be surprised to see that the cover of his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft features a bright window in a clean, white house with decorative flowers planted beneath. And this is the guy who kept us tossing and turning after reading The Shining?  There’s nothing spooky about this part-memoir, part-guide, however, except maybe how addictive it is. King recounts his experiences as a writer, and his keen observations about the links between writing and life will inspire and empower would-be writers everywhere. The book contains a writer’s “tool kit,” a reading list, various assignments writers can sink their teeth into, a story with corrections so that readers can appreciate the importance of editing, and more.

For those who wonder why they should take advice on writing from authors they've never heard of, Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights will be a welcome relief. The book is a collection of statements about all aspects of writing from people across the ages who demonstrated their prowess with a pen, from Aristotle to Toni Morrison. Though the book is intended to be more entertaining than instructive, readers will certainly find inspiration and wisdom in the words of some of their favorites, like Kurt Vonnegut’s tip: “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water,” and Hemingway’s suggestions to: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Eliminate every superfluous word.”

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Award-Winning Audiobooks

We love audiobooks. Not only are they entertaining, they allow children whose decoding skills are less developed than their language skills to access important literary concepts, vocabulary, and background knowledge. Students who read along with audiobooks reap even greater rewards because seeing words while hearing them builds fluency. And of course audiobooks are perfect for summer, when a good story can make hours in the car fly by.

The selection of titles available in audio format is growing, making it difficult to choose good ones. For those unwilling to be stuck with a subpar recording of an otherwise great book, the Audie Awards are a lifesaver. The Audies are sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association and presented to recordings that demonstrate excellent narrative voice and style, vocal characterization, appropriateness of audio format, and enhancement of text. As well as the award for audiobook of the year, outstanding books are considered for awards in a wide variety of categories, like biography/memoir, classics, humor, business, and mystery. There are also categories for books read by the author and for multi-voiced performances. Young people should check out the finalists and award winners in the Teens, Children Under 8, and Children Ages 8-12 categories. The website of audiobook magazine AudioFile presents list of finalists and winners in each category, and would-be listeners can access full reviews and even hear a short sample of texts that seem appealing.

In addition to the awards lists, AudioFile is host to a wealth of audiobook reviews. So before committing to that book intended to entertain your family in the car for the next 30 hours, consult this list to be certain you’ve picked a winner. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Preparing to Face College Tuition: The Net Price Calculator

Everyone knows college is getting more and more expensive. Each year, it seems, institutions across the country hike up tuition a little more. However, are rate hikes as steep a they seem? A recent analysis by NPR's financial blog Planet Money found that just as college sticker prices have risen, available scholarship and grant money is on the rise too. The upswing in tuition and grants almost matches, meaning that the net cost of attending college may actually not have risen as much as is popularly believed.

This sounds like great news, but what can students realistically expect to pay? To help families grapple with this question as they prepare to confront the cost of sending their children to universities, colleges are now required to post a very useful net price calculator on their websites. Planet Money explains that the calculator poses questions about the student's performance and his/her family's financial situation, then calculates what the likely tuition will be. For many students, the cost is considerably lower than the advertised sticker price once applicable scholarships and grants are figured in. The National Center for Education Statistics has a  useful page containing more information about the calculator; it's worth a visit for anyone who plans to pay for higher education in the near future.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Health Benefits of Dogs and Dirt

A study of almost 400 infants in Finland has demonstrated the positive impact of early exposure to dogs on the health of the children. The study, just published by the journal Pediatrics, found that children with dogs at home had fewer repiratory or ear infections and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than children who had no exposure to dogs.

Further, the study determined that the greatest positive impact occurred when children were exposed to dogs that spent a significant part of their day outside of the house. The authors note that this might be due to the increased amount of dirt brought into the home by dogs who spend much of their time outdoors. They state, "In other words, less dirt is brought indoors by dogs who live mainly indoors". The study noted some positive impact for exposure to cats, but not as significant as that for dogs.

Another recent study, this one using mice, looked at the impact of a germ free environment and found a negative correlation between such an environment and tolerance of cells to conditions such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. The authors conclude that early exposure to microbes is critical for building tolerance to later disease exposure. 

Parents who are concerned about having pets around young children and keeping their kids away from dirt should be heartened to learn that both dogs and dirt can be beneficial to their childrens' health.

Photo by Aaron E. Silvers via Flickr/Creative Commons

Monday, July 9, 2012

Flipping and Frontloading to Enhance Learning

A recent article by Jo Napolitano in Long Island's Newsday looked at the increasing popularity of "flipping a classroom" where teachers provide their lessons in video format prior to the class and students are responsible for accessing this new material independently, before the class period. In this educational model class time is then reserved for reinforcing the material presented in the video and expanding the lesson to encompass additional, generally enriched material. Students are expected to demonstrate that they have actually followed the video at home by taking notes and responding to questions set out in the materials. 

The benefits of this model include additional time for individual and small group instruction, the opportunity for students to pause the video, or to rewind and listen to some or all of a lesson again. This differs from the pace of classroom lecture, where once something has been stated, it is generally not repeated; a student who loses focus for a moment may miss crucial material. Some science teachers note that this model allows them more time for demonstrations and experiments in class. Detractors complain that students who do not have computers or smartphones readily available to view the lessons are at a significant disadvantage, even if schools make such devices available in libraries or elsewhere in the school building. 

What we find of particular interest in this educational model is how closely it resembles a low tech approach that we frequently recommend to students -- frontloading. Frontloading is the process of preparing to learn by becoming familiar with the concepts and vocabulary the student will encounter in a lesson. Some examples of frontloading include using available texts for clues about what is important by looking at questions at the end of chapters, bold-face headings, and section titles. Students can research vocabulary, read simple books on the subject, and search the internet for related materials. Teachers can faciliate frontloading by providing students with vocabulary specific to the upcoming lesson or by introducing a subject with models, artifacts, or even outside speakers on an important topic. 

What flipping and frontloading have in common is the recognition that by preparing students to learn a lesson they can better absorb the material and get the most out of their classroom experience.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: Lexia Reading

For children who may benefit from additional instruction and practice with reading skills, Lexia Reading, which provides reading support at home, may be a helpful solution. Many schools choose to purchase the Lexia classroom program for students, but in recent years Family Literacy, a national nonprofit organization that facilitiates establishing family literacy centers, has made Lexia available for use at home as well.

The computer-based program can be an effective tool for improving literacy in either setting. Lexia’s instruction is divided into three levels: Early Reading, Primary Reading, and Strategies for Older Students. When students begin using Lexia, they are given assessment activities and placed into the correct level. Then, based on their mastery of new concepts as they are presented, students will be automatically advanced through the activities and levels. Most of the exercises feel like games, which motivates students to continue learning as they play. Teachers or parents can monitor children’s progress easily to determine whether students need further support understanding concepts. 

Lexia is an appealing tool appropriate for the very youngest learners up through struggling readers in high school and beyond.

Monday, July 2, 2012

ADHD Medications and Teenage Drivers

We are frequently asked whether it is really necessary to take attention medications every day. Some students feel that they only need their meds when they have a major project, important test, or heavy workload. Many parents like to give their children a “break” over the weekend or during vacations. I believe that deciding whether and how to take medications is a personal decision best made in consultation with the prescribing physician. But making a wise decision requires the best information so each of us can weigh the potential benefits and risks in the context of our own lives. With that in mind, I think it is important to share interesting research that was published in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology in a study called "Long-Acting Methylphenidate Reduces Collision Rates of Young Adult Drivers With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder" (by Cox, Daniel J. PhD; Davis, Margaret BA; Mikami, Amori Yee PhD; Singh, Harsimran PhD; Merkel, Richard L. MD, PhD; and Burket, Roger MD). 
The investigators studied adolescents diagnosed with ADHD who had previously responded to medication, were not routinely taking medication, and were active drivers with more than one collision or citation in the past two years. Half of the participants received long-acting stimulants; the other half did not. Their driving was monitored for three months with in-car video cameras. (You are probably wondering how you can get a hold of one for your own adolescent driver). Compared to the untreated group, the group receiving medications had fewer video-documented collisions and “problematic driving events.” So, when making decisions about risks and benefits of attention medications, bear in mind that academic performance may not be the highest priority.