Friday, June 28, 2013

Recommended Reads: Hank the Cowdog

It's time again for our Friday series Recommended Reads, when we review books or series written for children or young adults. Today we take a look at the Hank the Cowdog series by John R. Erickson.

Hank the Cowdog (series)

Ages: 8 and up

Adult Themes: None. A rootin’, tootin’ good time for all cowpokes.

Concept: The Hank series is narrated by its hero Hank, the self-titled Head of Ranch Security on a ranch in Texas. Hank will be the first to tell you that a cowdog’s job is tough, but someone’s got to protect the chickens, keep Pete the Barn Cat in line, supervise his dimwitted deputy Drover, and chase dangerous prowlers like badgers off the property. Of course, as readers will quickly discover, Hank barks better than he bites. His operations often result in blunders, like mixing up porcupine tracks with raccoon tracks and ending up with a snout full of quills, or finding that he has attacked the milk cow because she looked like a horned monster in the dark. None of this diminishes his dignity or conviction that he is the only one standing between the ranch and ruin, however, and he nobly, if a bit bumblingly, meets danger head on.

Our Take: Erickson, who worked as a ranch cowboy in Oklahoma and Texas in his youth, wrote the first Hank the Cowdog book in 1982. Since then, he has penned more than 50 more books about Hank’s exploits. This is great news, because after an introduction to Hank, kids won’t be able to get enough of the humor and adventure in this series. The books are filled with dramatic irony – Hank’s perspective on what’s going on is often a little different than his human counterparts’ interpretations. For example, in the first book in the series, Hank enters a yapping match with some distant coyotes one night. When Loper, the owner of the ranch, bellows about the noise, Hank is gratified that Loper seems to agree with him about the noise. He continues barking, and when Loper yells, “Shut up that yapping, you idiot!” Hank, never suspecting that Loper is hollering at him, reflects that Loper must not realize that there is more than one coyote out there. Kids will find the books hysterically funny, and, so, for that matter, will adults. Hank’s highfalutin but rather misguided references (like giving his opponent a "coop de grass") and explanations (such as informing readers that M.O. stands for Modus of Operationous) will leave parents snickering as they read aloud at bedtime.

Good to Know: Yeehaw! Odyssey Pictures announced in 2011 that they were ready to begin work on an animated Hank the Cowdog movie! It’s still in development, but should be hitting the silver screen before soon. For those who just can’t wait that dern long, the official Hank the Cowdog website  is always open for business. Visit to learn more about the books and their author as well as to join Hank’s Security Force, play Hank-themed games, meet the ranch gang, view Sally May’s recipes, browse the official shop, enter contests, follow Hank on Facebook and Twitter… boy howdy! Get your tail over there!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Happy Birthday, TKTS!

Today marks the 40th "birthday" of the TKTS booth in New York City, a terrific resource for locals and visitors of all ages. A project of the nonprofit Theater Development Fund, the booths can be found at Times Square and in Downtown Brooklyn. A third location, at the South Street Seaport, fell victim to hurricane Sandy and is closed indefinitely.

Jim Henderson

The booth in Times Square offers day-of-performance tickets to both matinee and evening performances of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. The Brooklyn booth offers same day tickets to evening performances and next day tickets to matinee performances, as well as tickets to Brooklyn arts events. Discounts are generally from 30-50% off face value, plus a service charge of $4 per ticket, which helps support TDF (ticket prices go directly to the theaters, which determine the number of tickets available and the discount offered). You can download the free TKTS app from the iTunes store to keep abreast of current offerings and discounts.

Whether you are coming to New York for an evaluation at The Yellin Center, or a family vacation, or just a day in town from your home in the suburbs -- or whether you live right here in the City -- the TKTS booth is a great way to make the wide range of Broadway and Off-Broadway offerings more affordable. There are lots of shows and plays that are suitable for children and a love of theater is a gift that can stay with a child for a lifetime. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Study Suggests Connection between Internet Gaming Abuse and Addictive Disorders

Parents who can't get their children to stop using their phone or computer may complain that their child is "addicted" to the internet. There is more truth to this idea than an exasperated parent may imagine!

Nathanial Burton-Bradford

A study by a team of researchers at Seoul National University in Korea used magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of 15 adolescents who were addicted to internet gaming, to see if there were brain changes that would be typical of individuals with addictions to drugs or other addictive behaviors. The determination as to what level of internet gaming constituted an actual addiction was made by looking at such measures of addiction generally as: "tolerance, withdrawal, preoccupation with playing it, repeated unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop it, negatively influenced mood when attempting to reduce it, and neglecting important relationships or activities because of it."

The teens were screened to exclude those with psychiatric disorders. The researchers were looking at the region of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is known to be thinner in individuals with addictions. The results of the brain scans evidenced a clear thinning of the OFC in the internet addicted group as compared to control subjects. While the researchers stress that this was a small study and that more investigation is needed, they note that their findings were consistent with prior research and that there is a " shared neurobiological mechanism between internet addiction and other addictive disorders." They also note that the connection between brain changes and addiction -- and which comes first -- needs to be examined further.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Camp Tips for Parents

Parents -- or grandparents -- of a certain age may remember the late comedian and singer Allen Sherman and his hilarious take on summer camp homesickness, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah". But for those families whose children are leaving for sleep-away camps in the next few days, homesickness is a real concern, especially for first time campers.

The American Camp Association, in conjunction with Dr. Christopher Thurber, an educator and psychologist who has written extensively about camps, has developed a guide for parents about ways to prevent and to deal with homesickness at camp. Among the suggestions:

Julia Freeman-Woolpert
  • Prepare your child by arranging overnight stays with friends; this way their first night at camp isn't their first night away from home
  • Involve your child in the decision to attend camp so he or she can "own" the decision
  • Send along a personal item from home, such as a stuffed animal. One parent we know created a hidden pocket in what looked like a standard "throw pillow" to hold a beloved stuffed animal that her son was embarrassed to bring to camp, but wanted to have with him. It helped.
  • Check with the camp director if you believe your child is in serious distress. Some signs that may mean your child is suffering from more than transient homesickness may include not eating or sleeping, or distress that lasts more than a few days. Trust your instincts and don't consider it a failure if camp does not work out on the first try. 
The American Camp Association has a DVD and CD (for listening to in the car after dropping off your child!) which are available on their website. These feature tips for a successful camp experience for child and parent alike. Check with your child's camp to see if they can provide a copy for you. Here's to a great time at camp!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reading is Doctor-Recommended: Reach Out and Read

When Dr. Yellin delivers the Keynote Address at Reach Out and Read of Greater New York's Annual Meeting in New York City this morning, his talk will include a look at the emerging research on the importance of early exposure to language and enrichment on brain development in young children.

That premise is the driving force behind Reach Out and Read, a national non-profit organization which began in 1989 in Boston, when a group of pediatricians at what is now Boston Medical Center began distributing books to their patients. By 2012 Reach Out and Read had almost 5,000 programs, including programs for military families, and distributed 6.5 million books to 4 million children, including more than one-third of American children living in poverty.

Pediatricians and pediatric clinics that participate in Reach Out and Read have unique access to young children and their parents. By using a three part approach, they can bring reading and books, and the language skills they build, to families that might not otherwise have access to this crucial building block of cognitive growth. First, children are exposed to books and reading in the waiting room, where volunteer readers read aloud to children waiting to be seen (and every parent knows that that can sometimes be a long wait). Next, the pediatrician or other health provider discusses with parents the importance of language development and how to build the language skills of their child in an age appropriate way. Finally, children leave their visit with a brand new book of their very own -- something which may be highly unusual in families dealing with poverty. An excellent discussion of the goals of Reach Out and Read can be found in a paper delivered a number of years ago by Perri Klass, M.D., Medical Director of Reach Out and Read. The evidence is clear that this program works.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Summer "To Do" List for High School Grads

The end of high school is an exciting time, filled with special events like prom and graduation and, for most students, the anticipation of starting a new adventure at college in the fall. There is an understandable urge for students and parents alike to want to spend the summer catching their breath and relaxing. But for students with learning or attention issues, relaxation will have to wait. As we have written about in prior blogs, this is the time to make sure you have your accommodations in place for the fall and are setting yourself up to succeed in your college courses.

Unlike in high school, where students with IEPs or 504 Plans could rely upon their school to make sure they got the necessary accommodations in their classroom or on tests, in college the full responsibility for arranging for accommodations and making sure they are implemented is on the student -- not the school. This is because the law that governs learning and other disabilities changes upon graduation from high school – from the IDEA to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As your blogger often tells students and their parents, “there is no IEP in college!”

So, students who will need accommodations, such as extended time on exams, a quiet exam room, specialized software, a note taker, or any one of what the ADA calls “academic adjustments, auxiliary aids and services, and modifications” need to take several steps to make sure these are available for them.

First, the student must disclose his or her disability to the college. This happens after the student accepts a spot and sends in the deposit. The disclosure is made by advising the Office of Disability Services (every college is required by law to have one, although they sometimes go by another name) and submitting documentation of your disability. You can find the specific requirements and forms for this on the website of your college’s Office of Disability Services.

After the college has reviewed and accepted the documentation, you will need to let them know what accommodations you require. This is usually a discussion - and sometimes a negotiation - where you let them know what you have used in the past and they may suggest other accommodations that can be helpful. This discussion can take place as late as during Freshman Orientation, but we urge those students who can do so to make an appointment to visit (or for a virtual visit) with the Office of Disability Services during the summer to finalize the accommodations that will be offered.

Only once the Office of Disability Services has approved the accommodations can the student take the crucial step of advising his or her professors of their accommodations, so they can be implemented. For those readers who have a copy of Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, you can find more specific information on documenting disabilities in Chapter 4 and on arranging accommodations with your professors in Chapter 12.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Recommended Reads: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

We continue our occasional Friday series, Recommended Reads, which looks at book recommendations for children and young adults, with R.J. Palacio's critically acclaimed Wonder.

Ages: 8 and up (Note: Most eight-year-olds will be able to read the words in this book and understand the plot, but it’s appropriate for kids through middle school as well; the themes are that complex and compelling.)

Awards: Wonder has received laudatory reviews and awards too numerous to list, but which can be found on the website of its publisher, Random House.

Plot: Wonder tells the story of August Pullman, a pretty typical ten-year-old—on the inside. But Auggie was born with a dramatic facial deformity, so serious that he has never been able to go to school because he’s been in and out of the hospital for surgeries (27 of them so far) and needed constant medical attention. But the year he turns ten, he nervously enters a school for the first time on the first day of fifth grade. Auggie’s year is rough in a lot of ways. All he wants is to blend in, but with a face like his, that’s impossible. Some of the other kids tease him behind his back, and most others simply avoid him. But gradually Auggie’s sweet disposition, intelligence, grit, and wicked sense of humor start to win over some of his classmates.

Our Take:
Holy cow. Stop whatever you’re doing and read this book. Now. Buy a copy for every kid you know. In fact, buy a copy for every adult you know, too. Wonder is one of the most compelling books we’ve read in a long time. This story is sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and always uncannily real - so real that it’s difficult to believe that R.J. Palacio is a normal-looking adult woman and not a boy with craniofacial abnormalities. Auggie is brave but still very human and fallible, as are his parents who struggle to walk the line between shielding their son from the cruelty of the world and being over-protective. Very vivid portraits of other people in his life, like his sister and kids in his class, accompany Auggie’s in this character-driven book.

The first part of Wonder is told in first-person from Auggie’s perspective, but then, without warning, the narrative is taken over by various family members and friends before turning back to Auggie again. The result is a rich, nuanced portrait of Auggie’s experience, allowing the reader to walk around in Auggie’s skin but also to come to know him from the more objective perspective of others as well. This is the kind of book that will cause kids to wrestle with big, abstract themes like compassion, indifference, friendship, popularity, growing up, and fitting in versus standing out. Auggie’s attitude as he plays the tough hand life dealt him is inspirational. As it turns out, he’s a beautiful person.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fun Ways to Practice Math Facts

We’re always on the lookout for fun ways to practice math facts!  Fact automaticity is an important area of focus in the early grades, and although instruction doesn't center around facts in upper grades, as students advance to more complex mathematical concepts, fact knowledge remains critical to math success. After all, a student can’t devote all of his mental resources to learning new algebraic concepts if he’s still struggling with basic multiplication. Here are some great ideas, one we developed ourselves and two websites we recently discovered, that are perfect for fun practice!

Math Tic-Tac-Toe

Got a stack of math fact flashcards to get through? Make drills fun with tic-tac-toe! To play, draw a standard tic-tac-toe board. Each player should draw a flashcard; the player whose sum/difference/product/quotient is larger goes first. The first player draws a new flashcard and calculates the answer. If it is correct, she puts an X or an O in a square on the board. If it is incorrect, she loses a turn. Next, the second player takes a card, solves it, and makes his move. Just like in regular tic-tac-toe, the first to get three in a row wins. If a parent is playing this game with a child, mom or dad may want to make “mistakes” now and then to give the child additional fact practice.


The MangaHigh website offers some of the most engaging math games we’ve come across for practicing basic facts, along with geometric concepts, number line principles, factoring, order of operations, and more. The games are quite ingenious; players recall facts as quickly as possible to whack piƱatas before they fall to the ground, add scoops of ice cream to ever-growing sundaes, or tunnel their way out of an Egyptian pyramid before they’re caught by an evil dog demon. Students can play limited versions of the games for free, or their teachers or parents can choose to register for either a free account, or an extended membership for a minimal fee.

Arcademic Skill Builders

It will be hard to tear your child away from Arcademic Skill Builders and its simple, yet thoroughly enjoyable academic games. Most games on the site are math-based, offering practice not only with basic facts but with money, time, and fractions, ratios, and decimals as well. The site allows students to simply play against the computer or to play against other contenders from around the web. The site features a smattering of games to practice other skills (spelling, word relationships, geography, and typing) as well. All games are free.

For more ideas, please read some of our past posts with ideas for in-person  and online math games; recommendations for math apps;  and learning facts through song and through everyday activities.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Tips for Test-Day Success

Djenan Kozic
Studying for an exam in the weeks and days before test day is a critical skill needed for successfully completing academic courses. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out our last post about test preparation. But preparation for a test means more than just studying. Students need to prepare so that they are physically alert and ready to work on test day, and they should have some strategies in mind for taking the test and dealing with pre-test jitters. Here are some of our best ideas to help ensure that a student’s hard work studying translates to a successful test:

  • Take care of your brain. To work well, your brain needs to be well rested. Be sure to get a full night’s sleep before the test; staying up late and cramming at that point probably isn’t going to help anyway. We think you should eat breakfast every morning, and it’s particularly important to fuel your brain on test day. Eat something similar to what you’re used to eating. If you usually have a banana and some toast, don’t sit down to a six-egg omelet, which may make you feel overly full and sleepy.

  • Have strategies for dealing with test anxiety. Some ideas include talking or journaling about your worries, reminding yourself of all the work you’ve done to prepare, doing physical activity before the test, trying some deep breathing or muscle relaxation exercises, using positive visualization, or repeating a calming mantra to yourself. If all else fails, consider this: stress can actually enhance your performance! For more complete information on test anxiety, see our previous post on exam-based fears, and how anxiety can actually help you.

  • Know some good test-taking strategies. For example:
    • Flip through the test before you start to get an idea of what you’re up against. If there are different sections, you may want to think about where it’s best for you to start.
    • For timed tests, skip hard questions initially. Be sure to circle them and dog ear the bottom of the page so you don’t forget to come back to them later.
    • If you’re taking a multiple choice test, cover the choices, answer the question in your head, then choose the answer that most closely matches your idea. If you’re still stumped, eliminate as many answers as you can, then pick the one that sounds best.
    • Jot memory aids in the margin of the test before you start working. This will save you from having to keep all that stuff in your memory, freeing cognitive energy to focus on the test content. For example, if you’re taking an algebra test, writing “PEMDAS” or “FOIL” at the top of each page can help you remember to use the right order of operations or guide you through the process for multiplying a binomial.
    • Use the margins to plan your response to essay questions, too. Take a minute or two to list some ideas you could include in your answer to center your thoughts before you begin to write. You could even go back and number your ideas so you’ll know what you want to say first, second, etc. Your answer will probably be better, and you won’t have to try to squeeze in all the stuff you realize that you forgot to mention when you proofread your answer. (By the way, don’t forget to proofread your answer!)

We wish everyone the best of luck on finals, though with solid preparation, you shouldn't need much luck!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Test-Prep Tips: Studying for Finals

The school year is winding down, which means shows and concerts, yearbooks, and summer plans. But first, students in middle school and high school need to get through (sigh) final exams. For most students, the prospect of preparing for cumulative exams is a daunting one. Here are some tried-and-true ideas for students to help make their test preparation a success:

  • Learn everything you can about the test. If your teacher has given you a study guide, great! If not, find out exactly which chapters or concepts you’ll need to know for the exam. If you don’t already know, ask how much time you’ll be given and whether your teacher will be allowing students extra time to finish if they choose to stay longer. It can also be helpful to learn the format of the test; ask your teacher if she will share the test directions with you before test day. Students who are slower workers can study the directions before test day so they don’t need to take time to read them while testing. 
  • Devise a study schedule. Sit down with a blank calendar and your study guide and start planning. Figure out exactly which days will be devoted to covering which classes and which specific topics/chapters. Don’t be vague or general - really spell it out. Be sure to plan some “padding” so that your schedule isn't completely thrown off if you need an extra day here or there to cover a topic in more depth. Planning your schedule should be the first step you take outside of class. Do this before you start studying.
  • Give yourself study breaks as you feel your mind starting to get tired. Taking breaks is not a waste of time, but studying when you’re mentally exhausted is. Your brain can’t absorb material when it’s worn out. Give yourself some time to recharge, preferably by moving around – just be sure your break doesn't last more than 10-20 minutes. When you return to hit the books, cover your notes and summarize for yourself everything you learned before your break. Then check your summary against your notes to make sure you didn't forget anything. This will help you get back on track, and will give your memory an extra workout. 
  • Test yourself. The biggest mistake we see students make is to read over their notes and believe this prepares them. It doesn't. To be truly ready for a test, you need to practice retrieving the information from your long-term memory. Instead of reading over your notes, cover them and ask yourself questions, answer the questions in your head or on paper, then check your answers against your notes. Flashcards are another great way to test yourself. You could also plan a study session with a friend and take turns quizzing each other. One of our favorite study strategies is to make your own practice test! Make up questions like the ones you predict will be on the test, copying the test format, if you can. Do this about a week before the test. Wait a day or two and take your test without looking at your notes. When you check your answers, you’ll be able to tell what you've learned and what you need to review. You may even want to trade your practice test with a friend for a little extra practice.

With these tips in mind, students should be ready to put in the kind of studying that will have them prepared for even the most comprehensive finals! Stay tuned for a future post about test-day tips and test-taking strategies.

Monday, June 3, 2013

School Visit: Bay Ridge Preparatory School

Last week your blogger had the opportunity to visit Bay Ridge Prep, a unique learning environment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and to speak with Wendy Freeburn, the Admissions Coordinator, and with Dr. Charles Fasano, the Head of the Lower School.

Bay Ridge Prep is an independent, college preparatory school founded in 1998, serving approximately 400 students in grades K-12. The Lower School (through Grade 8) is located in a spacious former parochial school and the high school is in a newer location several blocks away. Both programs were founded by psychologists, who brought an awareness of individual learning styles and differentiated instruction to the school they created. The result is an unusual integration of academic challenge with support for those who learn differently.

We were particularly interested in learning about two programs at Bay Ridge Prep that were created for students with learning and related difficulties. The Achieve Program is designed for students who need academic support in areas such as organization, reading, and writing, and provides such support -- along with academic accommodations such as extended time on tests -- through a combination of small group work and regular support in the mainstream classroom. The Bridge Program, available at the middle and high school levels for students with more significant learning challenges, has separate classes within the setting of this mainstream school. Both programs will implement IEP's for students who have been classified as needing special education services by the New York City Department of Education.

As we toured the school and had the chance to visit classrooms, it was clear that this is a school where creativity, the arts, and hands-on learning experiences enrich the learning environment. Sports are an important part of the school culture and the school sponsors interscholastic teams in most major sports.

We have visited many schools throughout the Metropolitan area, but the mix of academic challenge, support for those who learn differently, creative learning, and a wide range of student activities make Bay Ridge Prep something special indeed.