Friday, November 30, 2012

Online Mapping Tools for Literature and Beyond

ReadWriteThink, an outstanding website published by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, is packed with great tools of all kinds. Two of our favorite features, though, are free mapping tools that can help students make sense of a series of events in history or a story, or a process they might encounter in science or civics.


Timeline is a user-friendly tool that allows students to easily create functional, attractive timelines in no time. First, users type in the title and creator of the timeline. The next step is one that makes this a truly versatile tool: users must choose a unit of measure from options like Date, Time, and Event. After that, students simply enter each event by labeling it with a title, a time, and a brief description. The resulting timeline can be edited or printed. Before turning students loose with grade-level material, let them practice using this interface with a fairy tale like The Frog Prince or with short biographies from The Academy of Achievement.

Graphic Map

Graphic Map is a useful tool that allows users to easily create a concept map that charts highs and lows. Students can use it as a planning activity to help them visualize abstract ideas before writing a fictional piece, or as a post-reading tool to chart a character’s mood throughout a story or book. Creative teachers and parents can stretch its many uses beyond language arts by using it to chart spending over a given period of time, numbers of troops after key battles in a war, etc. The mapping tool is simple enough for students in fourth grade and up to use independently after a very brief tutorial.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

RAFT for Writing

Good writers understand that the perspective of the author, the audience to whom s/he is writing, and the form the writing takes are each as critical as the message they’re trying to convey. Adjusting writing in these ways can be a tricky concept for some students to internalize, however, especially if they have little experience beyond the famous five-paragraph essay. This is where RAFT comes in. RAFT is an acronym to help young writers remember these four important considerations when planning and executing a piece of writing:

R – role (who are you as a writer?)

A – audience (to whom are you writing?)

F – format (what’s the most effective format for the message you want to convey?)

T – topic (what information are you conveying in your writing?)

This simple, powerful writing procedure was developed by Dr. Carol Santa and her colleagues Lynn Havens and B.Valdez in 1994 and has since become something of a staple technique in the classrooms of many savvy teachers. Not only does RAFT help students remember the different considerations they should keep in mind when writing, it has huge potential for fun, creative writing assignments, particularly across disciplines. A history teacher could ask students to select the role of a colonist (details about the identity of colonist would be up to the student) and write some sort of communiqué in the format of the students’ choice to King George. A math teacher could ask students to write journal entries from the perspective of an athlete, which include different word problems as the athlete charts his/her nutrition, training, and competitive performance. A science teacher could ask students to take on the role of a negatively charged ion and compose a love letter to a positively charged ion.

The ideas behind RAFT are basic enough that parents or tutors can implement them at home even if a child has not learned the method in the classroom. Simply teach your student the acronym and then have fun planning different pieces of writing together by filling in the four categories. The more guided practice children experience, the more success they will experience using RAFT independently.

Write on!

For more information about RAFT as it was originally proposed, see Santa, C., Havens, L., & Valdes, B. (2004). Project CRISS: Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Photo: Creative Commons by dotmatchbox

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Research About The Neuroscience of Math

Last week, at the Learning and The Brain Conference Educating Diverse Minds:
Using Individual Brain Differences to Teach and Reach All Learners held in Boston, Massachusetts, I was fortunate to hear two fascinating talks by Dr. Daniel Ansari about the neuroscience of math. Dr. Ansari shared his groundbreaking research including the functional brain imaging that he used to discover the specific brain networks involved in basic numerical and mathematical tasks.

He has also identified atypical patterns of brain activation in children experiencing significant difficulty learning math. By correlating these imaging patterns with other measures of academic performance, Dr. Ansari’s work is already providing important insights into the diagnosis and treatment of math difficulties.

I look forward to sharing some of these exciting and important developments when I speak at The West End Day School this coming Wednesday, November 28 at 6:30 PM on "Why is Math So Hard?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Meaningful Thanksgiving

Whether your ideal Thanksgiving is a hearty home-cooked meal around a table filled with family and friends, or a dinner out at a favorite restaurant, or serving food to others at a shelter, Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, transcending culture, region, and religion.

It has also become a day to shop, with many stores open on Thanksgiving itself, and others open in the very early morning hours of the following day.

Whatever your plan for this year, we hope you will take some time to remember what this holiday is all about. Parents and teachers can use video links from publisher Scholastic's website to access stories about the trip on the Mayflower, the life of the Pilgrims, and the first Thanksgiving feast. Last year at this time, our blog featured a number of Thanksgiving book recommendations, and you might want to take another look at the list. If you want to help others this Thanksgiving and beyond, you can check out the websites of New York Cares or look through the list of organizations involved in Hurricane Sandy relief.

The Yellin Center will be closed on Thursday and Friday of this week, as our team celebrates the holiday with their families.

We wish all of our patients and readers a Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo CC by Lizard10970

Monday, November 19, 2012

Motion Math Offers Innovative, Instructive Math Games

We’re back with yet another math app recommendation, but this one is special for several reasons. One is that Motion Math aligns nicely with some recent, exciting research* we've been reading about the cognitive processes that lead to math understanding. Another is that Motion Math offers games for kids across developmental levels, and while math apps for older learners abound, there aren't many good ones for children as young as age three. Here are summaries of Motion Math’s great offerings:

Hungry Guppy – ages 3-7

In this game, youngsters begin by simply matching the number superimposed on their guppy with a floating bubble containing the same number of dots; the fish can’t eat the bubble unless the numbers are the same. Things get more complicated, though, as bubbles containing different numbers of dots begin to appear. Children can use a finger to combine bubbles to obtain the right quantity of dots. For example, to feed a guppy with a 6 on it, they can drag together bubbles containing two dots and four dots, and bubbles containing three and three. Because of its interactive nature, the game does a nice job of helping children pair quantities with numeric symbols.

Hungry Fish and Wings

These games are appropriate for all ages; any child old enough to appreciate the concepts of addition and multiplication can play and benefit from them. In Hungry Fish, players must add the numbers in floating bubbles to attain the number displayed on their fish. (Unlike Hungry Guppy, players see numbers and not dots.) Wings teaches multiplication with an innovative combination of numbers displayed in various formats, including numerals, rows of dots, clusters of dots, and groups of dots so that students can use their visual skills to appreciate how multiplication works.

Motion Math Zoom and Motion Math HD

An understanding of the number line is critical to math. And even students who are comfortable with the number line when it shows whole numbers can have a hard time appreciating amounts when they’re shown as fractions and decimals. Both of these games allow students to practice these important concepts in interesting ways. Motion Math Zoom, best for children in first through fourth grades, asks players to place a number on a number line. Whole numbers are represented by frogs, and decimals are represented by ants to indicate that they are smaller. Ten ants are lined up on the ground next to each frog, and players must zoom in and out as they scroll along the line to place the numbers correctly. Motion Math HD, meant for learners who are ready for instruction in fractions, deals solely in fractions and decimals and requires players to tilt their iDevice back and forth to move the number around the screen. The goal is to get it to bounce down on the right part of a section of number line that goes from 0 to 1. Not only are both games fun, they provide an important bridge between appreciation of quantities and the symbols that represent them.

All of these great iOS games are available through the iTunes store. Prices vary according to whether the game is downloaded onto an iPhone or an iPad, but some are free and all are inexpensive.

*Gabriel, F., et. al. (2012). Developing Children’s Understanding of Fractions: An Intervention Study. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 6(3); and Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Sasanguie, D., Van den Bussche, E., & Reynvoet, B. (2012) Predictors for Mathematics Achievement? Evidence from a Longitudinal Study. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 6(3); and Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Vanbinst, K., Ghesquiere, P., & de Smedt, D.(2012). Numerical Magnitude Representation and individual Differences in Children’s Arithmetic Strategy Use. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 6(3); and Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Interim Changes to an IEP

Parents of students receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are generally familiar with the annual review process. This is a meeting that takes place each year, usually in the spring, which reviews the student's progress under his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP) and sets forth the plan for the coming school year -- services to be provided, goals to be met, and how and where the student will be educated. Every three years this review becomes a "triennial" and includes a re-evaluation of the student's level of performance and academic functioning.

Parents who have worked with this system for a number of years know that the annual or triennial review is the time to bring up concerns and seek different or additional services. This is a time when they are a mandated part of the team that decides how their child will be educated and the other folks around the table usually are those who know their child best -- classroom teacher, special education teacher, school psychologist, and others.

But what parents sometimes do not know is that the IEP that emerges from the annual review is not etched in stone and the requirement for an annual review is a legal minimum, not a maximum. So, parents and schools can seek a new meeting at any time. Furthermore, changes to an IEP can be made without the need for a meeting. The IDEA specifically provides:

Section 614(d)(3)(D) Agreement.--In making changes to a child's IEP after the annual IEP meeting for a school year, the parent of a child with a disability and the local educational agency [the school district] may agree not to convene an IEP meeting for the purposes of making such changes, and instead may develop a written document to amend or modify the child's current IEP.

The regulations which amplify the law, further go on to state:

Section 300.324(a)(4) (ii) - If changes are made to the child's IEP in accordance with paragraph (a)(4)(i) of this section, the public agency must ensure that the child's IEP Team is informed of those changes.

So, parents should keep in mind that they have options if they are not happy with how things are going under their child's IEP. They can contact the head of their IEP Team, raise their concerns, and if agreement can be reached, the IEP can be modified without need for another meeting. If that does not work, they can seek another meeting of the IEP Team, even if they are not "due" for another annual meeting, and bring their issues to the full IEP team. It's their right to do so.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Search For and Organize Information for Higher Education

Students in higher education these days spend less and less time hitting the books and more and more time hitting the screen. Many assigned readings are available as PDFs now, and students required to do research are likely to find much of the information they need through online searches rather than from paper pages. This shift results in lots and lots of saved files, which can be hard to manage. Enter Mendeley

Mendeley is a free service that helps users intuitively organize computer documents so that they’re easy to find and use. After downloading the program for free, readers can simply drag and drop a PDF file onto the Mendeley icon on their desktop where the program will extract key information like the title, author, and keywords, then store it. Users can choose how to organize all their stored files, and if they still can’t find a file they’ve stored, they can search for it easily. Always hated typing up Works Cited pages? You’ll be happy to know that Mendeley compiles them automatically. Not only does Mendeley make organization easy, it allows readers to highlight and make notes on PDFs as they read, and to collaborate with other users by designating documents as “public.”

One of Mendeley’s most interesting features is its ability to function as a search engine. The research catalogue, made up of the millions of papers stored in Mendeley by all its users, is searchable, and users can type in a few keywords to access a list of papers that might contain useful information,although it should be noted that not all of those papers will be available for free. Click on the title of a paper that sounds like it’s on target, and more information about it, and about other related papers will appear.

Mendeley is available for free download.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Time to Move on College Applications

November seems to be rushing by, especially if you (like your blogger) spent much of the last two weeks in the dark after Hurricane Sandy brought her wrath to the New York metro area. Once our lights came back on yesterday, it suddenly dawned on us that Thanksgiving is just over a week away -- and so is the ideal date for college bound students to complete their applications.

Yes, we know that even early decision applications are not due until the very beginning of December, but we have always urged the students with whom we work to consider Thanksgiving weekend to be their unofficial deadline for completing all of their applications, even for regular admissions. There are several reasons for this. First, many colleges have rolling admissions and are literally "first come, first admitted." You want to give yourself the best chance possible to gain admission so waiting until the school has filled its allocated spaces doesn't make any sense. Even for schools without rolling admissions, the simple fact is that an earlier application generally gets reviewed earlier and by an admissions officer who has not been reading applications every day for months. You may not get acted upon sooner, but you have a better chance to make a good first impression. In addition, colleges want to see strong interest from the students they admit. They understand that students who need to see their financial aid package may not be able to apply "early decision" since this would bind them to accepting a place without knowing if they had sufficient financial aid to attend. But submitting your "regular decision" application early will make it clear that you are very interested in that school even if you are unable to apply "early decision."

What if you still haven't decided where to apply or even if you want to go right to college or take a year off to work or travel? Don't panic. Many schools accept applications well into the spring. And almost all colleges will allow a student who has been admitted to defer admission for a year to travel, work, or volunteer. The time to apply for such deferment is after you have been accepted.

So, where does this leave a high school senior? Try to finish your applications by Thanksgiving, but understand that there are options even for those who are still not finished applying by Presidents' Day. And, whenever you apply, please make sure your applications are complete and have been carefully edited before you press "submit!"

Friday, November 9, 2012

Food for Thought: Using Snacks to Learn Math

Food as an incentive in the classroom is hardly a novel concept. Students are often given a treat if they earn a high score, and whole classes may be rewarded with a pizza party for behaving well or demonstrating certain learning goals. Food is an effective motivator, but we have some great ideas for turning snacks into learning tools for math as well!

Cheez-Its, for example, can be great tools for teaching geometry. Measure one of the crackers and draw a series of squares or rectangles so that an even number of Cheez-Its can fit inside. After handing out a shape and a handful of Cheez-its, explain that each cracker represents one square unit and ask kids to fit them into the shape. Once they’ve done this, it will be easy to count the number of crackers inside the shape to determine its area. Next, ask kids to count the number of crackers lined up along the length and the width of the shape, then multiply the numbers together. This tasty, hands-on activity will help them to move beyond simply memorizing that area = length x width. They will understand the reason for the formula, and be more likely to recall it and to use it correctly. (Thanks to Day in the Classroom blog  for the great idea!)

Hungry for more ideas? Foods that come in different colored pieces, like M&M's, Skittles or Fruit Loops can be excellent tools for teaching all kinds of mathematical concepts. Possibilities abound for helping younger learners appreciate basic number concepts. For example:

  • Ask students to categorize the pieces by color, then count and write numbers to show their results.
  • Use food to practice the concepts of “more” and “less.” After they have divided the pieces into color groups and counted each, ask students to construct sentences to compare different color groups. (e.g. “There are more purple pieces than green pieces.”) If working with more than one student, make it a competition to see who has the highest number of yellow, red, etc.
  • Write an equal sign (=) on one index card and a greater than/less than sign (>/<) on another. After kids have divided the colors into groups, ask them to place the cards between groups of colored pieces to show that one group has more or less than another. Challenge kids to figure out how to use just one greater than/less than card to show any relationship. (Answer: They can turn it to face the other direction.)

Colored food pieces are also ideal for practicing statistics. Try the following ideas:

  • Practice calculating percentages and fractions by having students count the total number of pieces they are given, then breaking the amount down by color. (To make this really concrete, be sure each student or group of students is given exactly 100 pieces of food.)
  • Have students practice making bar graphs, line graphs, or pie charts to reflect the number of pieces of each color.
  • Go online to find out the color distribution followed by M&M producers. Ask kids to count up a small number of M&M's and then compare them to this average. Then give them a larger number and ask them to repeat the exercise. Guide them to notice that the larger the sample size, the closer their numbers should come to the published averages. This is a great lesson in real life statistics, because in some cases larger sample sizes won’t get closer to the “right” average. Help kids understand why this is.

One cautionary note. Many schools have policies about food in the classrooms as part of their food allergy or healthy eating policies. M&M's, for example, have a "may contain peanuts" warning on their labels. So check carefully before implementing these ideas in classrooms.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Word for Brainstorming Practice

Brainstorming can be tough for a lot of young writers, who may dread sitting in front of a blank sheet or staring at a blinking cursor as they wait for inspiration to strike. Free writes (or free talks) – timed exercises dedicated to writing (or talking) about anything related to the topic that comes to mind for one or two minutes – can be great places to start; students can read back over what they’re written or replay their recorded talk and begin to get some ideas to write about.

OneWord is a web application that gives students a consequence-free place to practice this skill. Each day users can log on to get sixty seconds to write about the word of the day. If they want to share their writing (they can choose a username so as to ensure anonymity), they can upload their response to the site. Students can view other users’ responses as well. This final feature is a particularly helpful one, as students will have plenty of examples to consider to prepare them to write about the next day’s word.

In our perusal of the site, we did not find any objectionable content. Still, parents should be aware that entries are not subject to approval before they are posted, and that there is no feature for reporting inappropriate material. As such, this site may be best for high school students or for younger students who are supervised during use.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Great Math Apps for iOS

These math games win our admiration for their solid skill-building potential paired with creativity that makes learning fun!

For Using Coins

Coin Math
Free for a limited time for iPad and iPhone; ages 5 to 12

Younger children will benefit from the early levels of the game, which allows them to practice identifying various coins by name and value. As they gain skill, older players can practice paying for items and making change, all using coins. A piggy bank feature even helps kids investigate the concept of saving money while they’re “shopping.”

Two Player Games

$4.99 for iPad; 5th grade to 8th grade

This app allows children who are close in age to help each other learn. It’s a fantastically imaginative game that pits the North Pole against the South Pole. The screen is divided into two hemispheres oriented so that players can easily read their own half of the iPad as they add and subtract simultaneously. The goal is to arrive at the same total using different numbers. With every successful equation, the globe spins, changing day into night and night into day. The seasons also change. Players must be prepared to weather storms of multiplication and division, and ripening bananas in spring act as parenthesis, requiring players to take order of operations into account.

Everyday Mathematics: Multiplication Baseball
$1.99 for iPad and iPhone; ages 3 to 10

In this new spin on the old ball game, players pass the device back and forth to take turns “batting” by answering multiplication problems. The higher the answers, the farther the batter runs around the bases. After three wrong answers, the player strikes out and must hand the phone over to his/her opponent.

Other Great Games

Math Ninja HD
$1.99 for iPad and iPhone; ages 3 to 10

For the student with a quirky sense of humor, Math Ninja is an addictive way to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Correct answers will earn skilled ninjas more weapons for their arsenals, like ninja stars and smoke bombs. The weapons can then be fired at the evil Tomato-san, a devious looking tomato, and his robot cronies shaped like wheeled cats and dogs. The graphics are bright and cartoonish, and although students will enjoy aiming poison darts at their adversaries, there is no blood, tomato juice, or oil shed during combat.

Splash Math
$9.99 for iPad and iPhone; 1st grade to 5th grade

This app has the same kind of quizzing and games as many other apps, but, impressively, all Splash Math apps are tailored to teach the skills designated by the Common Core State Standards for public education. Different apps are available for each grade from one to five, and students will enjoy the bright graphics and imaginative motivators (like the addition of different sea critters to their personal aquariums) as they practice a wide variety of important, grade-level skills.

Friday, November 2, 2012

After the Storm

It's been quite a week here in New York, and we hope you are reading this blog in your warm home, with lights on and family around you. The Yellin Center was closed at the height of the hurricane, but has been open and busy since Wednesday. We aren't sure how, but our building on West 29th Street somehow escaped the mandate that all power would be turned off south of 34th Street (and remains off for most downtown areas as of Friday afternoon).

Most of our staff, including Dr. Yellin, still have no power in their homes, and getting to the office has required patience and creativity. We've got folks sleeping in cold apartments, in the homes of friends who have electricity, and with relatives.

Still, we have no complaints. We are all safe, our homes are intact (if cold), and we know that things will be better for us soon. We know that is not the case for many of our patients, friends, and colleagues and we are deeply concerned about them. We know that this blog is read by folks all over the country, so we wanted to let you know that we are up and running -- and to share our concern about those who have lost their homes, their businesses and, most tragically, their loved ones.