Wednesday, October 30, 2013

TV's Danica McKellar Writes on Girls and Math

Most readers of a certain age will remember Winnie Cooper, the object of Kevin Arnold’s (and many viewers’) long-standing crush on the TV series The Wonder Years. After the show concluded, Danica McKellar, the actress who played Winnie, continued to be crush-worthy off-camera, graduating summa cum laude from UCLA with a degree in math and helping to pen a groundbreaking mathematical physics theorem. She’s devoted to promoting math education for girls and by all accounts is a whiz with numbers, though apparently in middle school she was terrified by math. But then she began to make up “tons of cool tricks and ways of remembering things,” and math began to fall into place. And in her book, Math Doesn’t Suck, she shares those tips and tricks with middle school girls.

Math Doesn’t Suck is a breath of fresh air. The style is fun and engaging, and McKellar’s tips really are insightful. Girls will be drawn in by the style and held by the substance; they’ll actually want to read chapters of a math book from beginning to end! McKellar explains tricky concepts like the relationship between decimals and fractions, proportions, and percentages in ways that are easy to understand, and provides plenty of clear, interesting examples to give the concepts context. “Step-by-Step” sections provide handy lists of steps girls can use to get through procedures; these pages would be good to bookmark, though McKellar provides lots of memory tricks so girls may not even need to go back and reference them too often. There are also practice problems. The answer key is in the back of the book, and so is a useful Troubleshooting Guide with helpful advice about where to start when you don’t know what to do and lists of useful websites. One of them is McKellar’s own math website, which is available to everyone, whether or not they buy the book. Girls ready to take it to the next level should check out McKellar’s other offerings: Kiss My Math (pre-algebra), Hot X (algebra) and Girls Get Curves (geometry).

An important consideration to keep in mind is that this book is very “girlie,” at least on the surface. The subtitle is “How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.” Chapters have titles like “Choosing the Perfect Necklace” and “You Can Never Have Too Many Shoes.” This is the aspect of the book that is either brilliant or off-putting, depending on one’s perspective: McKellar uses all of these stereotypically tween-y topics to hook girls, explain mathematical concepts, and make it all feel relevant. “Choosing the Perfect Necklace” starts with a situation: The perfect necklace to complete your outfit is tangled up, so before you can wear you have to straighten it out. McKellar moves, unexpectedly and smoothly, to an analogy about complex fractions, which also need to be “untangled” before they can be used. Similarly, the shoe chapter is not actually about shoes; instead, it introduces the concept of multiples. If you have one pair of perfect heels, you have two shoes, but if you want to stock up and get two pairs, you’d have four shoes. Buy three pairs and you’ll have six shoes, etc. Four and six are multiples of two. Who knew math could be so stylish?

We urge those who bristle at the idea of over-feminizing adolescent girls to take a deep breath and read on. Yes, the headings are written in a font replete with curlicues, and the Step-by-Step sections are each adorned with an image of flowered, high-heeled shoes. But you can’t deny that the book has style – it looks compelling instead of dry. And McKellar has sprinkled in insightful quotations by adolescent girls about intelligence, and information about inspiring women, some famous (Eleanor Roosevelt) and some not (McKellar’s real-life acquaintances who use math to be successful).

In fact, the overall message of the book, which it is nearly impossible to miss in spite of all the pink, is that being smart is more than OK – it’s wonderful. McKellar and her book are living proof that intelligence and feminine style are not mutually exclusive. She seems to want girls to know that they don’t have to choose between being smart and being glamorous, if that’s they want. They can have it all. And they should. That’s a message that’s hard to object to.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Monitoring Screen Time

Most parents agree that kids need some degree of monitoring when it comes to technology. Whether it’s time limits on games, supervision when using social networking sites, or established bans on some sites until kids are old enough, protective measures are important to keep kids safe. But many parents struggle to find the time to hover over kids as they hover over screens. Luckily, there’s a techy solution for this techy problem: enter parental control software.

Daniel X. O'Neil

There are a multitude of options available when it comes to this sort of software, and parents must first decide what’s right for their families. Do they want to block certain sites from kids altogether? Limit the amount of time spent on sites? Monitor where their kids spend time? Here are some of the best options out there:

Kids Watch Time Management 6.5: This highly reviewed software allows parents to establish time limits for certain types of sites and block others altogether. The software is highly customizable and will send an email detailing the activity of each registered account user (i.e. your kids) daily, weekly, or monthly, prompting busy parents to remember to glance over their kids’ computer records. For more information, check out this review.

iDetective: Download iDetective to keep tabs on youngsters’ use of tablets (Mac or PC) to get detailed reports and summaries on the way a remote computer is being used. iDetective can even allow a parent to send messages to the device from another computer. Imagine the look on your child’s face when “I thought we agreed no Minecraft after 8:00…” pops up in the middle of his game!

StayFocused: This Google Chrome plug-in restricts time for specific websites or certain types of websites. Once a user has used up all the time allotted, the plug-in will block the site for the rest of the day. StayFocused goes beyond the basics to give clever options, like blocking all subdomains (i.e. all social media) or specific in-page content (i.e. all videos).

And remember, there are no-tech solutions that can help kids manage their screen habits, too.

  • Some parents choose to keep a record of their children’s email and social media passwords so as to monitor their accounts. Expert advice is split on this policy: some advocate it, while others view it as an unforgivable violation of a child’s privacy, so be sure you know where you stand before taking action.
  • Establish areas of the house in which technology is not welcome (like the dining room, perhaps) to make room for real (what’s-it-called?) conversation. Another tack: forbid technology in all but certain rooms in your home. Remember that you have to abide by your own laws, however, so don’t make changes you’re not prepared to live with!
  • We’ve saved the best for last: Talk to kids about their online interactions. It could get uncomfortable, but they might learn something valuable. Discuss the choices made by their friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Raise questions like, “What do you think she’s trying to communicate by posting a picture like that?”, “What reaction do you think he’s hoping that post will get?”, or “How do you think this status message could backfire?” For an interesting take on opaque social networking, check out one mom’s policy on keeping her teenage boys, and their friends, in check.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A History of Young Adult Literature

Recently, we enjoyed reading a chronology of young adult literature by CNN's Ashley Strickland that was full of both facts and insights. Some highlights:
Photo: (Duncan) via Flickr, modified
  • 16- to 29-year-olds check out more books from libraries than any other age group.
  • The first book considered to be written specifically for teenagers, Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, hit the shelves in 1942.
  • In the early days, most books for young adults centered around two themes: sports (for boys) and romance (for girls). This changed in 1967 with S. E. Hinton’s gritty classic The Outsiders, which provided teens with a less rosy, more dramatic and realistic story.
  • Through the 1980s and most of the 1990s, most books for adolescents covered the joys and pains of adolescence (romance, heartbreak, divorce, drug abuse, fitting in, being misunderstood, finding one’s place) in similar ways. All that changed when Harry Potter flew onto the scene in 1997, opening the door for more fantasy like the Twilight series. 
This seems to be the era of dystopian novels. Lois Lowry’s The Giver is probably the best-known early offering in this genre, though it came out in 1993 and didn't inspire too many imitators – at least, not right away. Now, however, series like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and Uglies are flying off the shelves. What is it about this style that young people find so appealing? Perhaps it’s the genre’s ability to blend the fantastic with the realistic. CNN's Strickland postulates that young people prefer books that feel “real,” and dystopian novels can capture the imagination while still presenting characters and situations that feel relatable.

The article also states that theme of transformation and change will always be a hallmark of successful young adult books because it reflects the issues teens confront in their own lives. Young people, it seems, can find comfort in the chronicles of characters also struggling to navigate their changing landscapes. Despite the dark themes in many young adult books, nearly all of the heroes emerge victorious in the end, if somewhat battle-scarred by their journeys. These triumphs, perhaps, give young people confidence that they, too, can be successful.

We’re thrilled that teenagers have so many appealing books to choose from. We’re also happy that so many of them star bold, admirable female heroes. In fact, though there are certainly plenty of new books more likely to appeal only to girls or to boys, an increasing number of novels seem to be equally popular with both genders. We love this unifying trend in literature – the line between men and women’s roles in our culture is becoming increasingly blurred, and it seems appropriate that books are echoing this drift.

Engaging adolescents with compelling young adult literature is a wonderful way to cultivate a love of reading that will last into adulthood. And studies show that reading widely and frequently improves vocabulary, builds background knowledge, enhances empathy, and exercises higher thinking skills. There has never been a better time to be a reading teen!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Study Indicates that Caffeine Slows Brain Development

The Swiss National Science Foundation has recently released the results of a study that indicates that caffeine may be more harmful to young people than most of us suspected. The research team has uncovered evidence that a moderate amount of daily caffeine consumption slowed brain development in pubescent rats.

There’s a reason the stereotype of teenagers sleeping until (at least) noon on weekends has gained traction: the teenage brain requires lots and lots of deep sleep for development. While their bodies are at rest, adolescents’ brains are hard at work, forming more connections between brain cells (synapses) than they ever have, or ever will again, in their lives. All this restructuring requires lots of high-quality rest, and researchers found that rats who consumed the caffeine equivalent of three or four rodent-sized cups of coffee weren't getting it. Their deep sleep time was reduced, and their brains matured more slowly compared to rats given only water to drink. Caffeinated rats displayed different behavior, too. The control group became more curious and investigative as they matured – par for the course for a young rat. But the group that had consumed caffeine was more timid and cautious.

Brian Legate

Especially troubling is the scientists’ observation that differences between the two groups persisted for many days after the administration of caffeine ended. Rats who had consumed caffeine continued to sleep for less time and less deeply even days after they’d been drinking only water, and were also less curious about their environments. This study comes at a time when young people are consuming caffeine at a higher rate than ever; according to the researchers, young people’s consumption has gone up 70% in the past 30 years.

More research is needed, of course, but because there are quite a few parallels between the development of rat brains and human brains, the study raises some legitimate concerns. Just to be on the safe side, parents may wish to steer their children toward decaffeinated sodas (or, better yet, water or real fruit juice) and herbal or green teas, which tend to have less caffeine than black. For teenagers already hooked on coffee, try decaf or a “half-caf” instead. And remember that caffeine can be hidden in unexpected places, like chocolate, so a scoop of vanilla ice cream or sorbet, or a piece of fruit might be a better nighttime treat than a mug of hot chocolate or a chocolate chip cookie.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Musical Minds are Faster, Sharper Minds

The ability to play a musical instrument well can give musicians a wonderful outlet for self-expression. Research has also consistently linked playing music to improved academic outcomes. For example, we have previously blogged about how studying music can help children who have difficulty excluding extraneous noises while processing language and how it makes students better listeners, even into adulthood. Recently, another study from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland indicated that time spent playing musical instruments may also help people process information more quickly, and perhaps delay or prevent the onset of dementia or deterioration due to mental illness.

Eaglebrook School/Flickr

In the study, a small group of subjects was divided into groups based on how many hours of their lives they’d spent practicing a musical instrument; the high group, for example, reported spending more than 5,000 hours practicing, while the lowest group had spent less than 200 hours. Next, they were given a series of “conflict tasks” commonly used by psychologists. Conflict tasks typically present subjects with several stimuli at once but require them to respond to only one of them.

The results of the study showed that the more hours the subjects had logged practicing instruments, the faster they could accurately respond to conflicting stimuli. The authors postulate that musical brains might be faster brains. And that’s not all; subjects who had devoted more hours to music were also able to detect and correct their errors more readily.

Here at The Yellin Center, we've worked with countless students who find solace in music. We have advocated music lessons and band and orchestra participation almost without exception because of the numerous benefits—fine motor development, mental wellness, improvement in self-esteem, etc.—music can provide. This study gives us just one more reason to urge that parents feel good about making time in kids’ busy after school schedules for music.

Interestingly, the brain functions musicians seem to command so much more easily are the first to suffer from aging or from mental illnesses like depression. Perhaps playing a musical instrument could be a good preventative measure for those with higher risk for these maladies. The authors of the study urge that it is never too late to begin learning to play music, so even older adults should not be deterred. And for those with impossibly frantic schedules, or ten thumbs, or those who just too daunted to pick up a trumpet, simply listening to music has been shown to reduce stress and give one’s immune system a boost.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Study Suggests Reading Literary Fiction Can Improve Empathy

Worried that your favorite little bookworm might be missing out on critical development of social skills? A recent study from The New School just may put your mind at ease. The surprising results of this research indicate that reading literary fiction improves theory of mind, the understanding of complex social relationships. Another term for this is empathy.


In the study, participants were asked to spend just a few minutes reading an excerpt from one of three types of text: genre fiction, literary fiction, or non-fiction. (Keep reading for an explanation of what these terms mean.) A quarter of the group served as the control and was not given a reading assignment. After reading, or not reading, subjects took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to make inferences about another person’s emotions, expectations, or beliefs in given scenarios. The verdict: readers of literary fiction were better able to identify the feelings and thoughts of other people accurately than any of the other groups. The researchers indicated surprise that a mere three to five minutes would yield such clear-cut findings, though of course the longevity of these improvements has not yet been examined.

A word about the types of texts: Most people are comfortable distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction, but the line between genre fiction and literary fiction is considerably more blurred. Although the difference between the two can be subjective, we’ll share a few tips for telling one from the other. Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, often falls into clear-cut categories. Romance, fantasy, detective novels, and thrillers are some examples. While it’s easy to pigeonhole Danielle Steele, however, some other authors offer more of a challenge. Take Ender’s Game. On the surface, this futuristic, sci-fi novel seems a dead-ringer for genre fiction. But readers won’t get more than a few pages in before discovering that the writing is excellent and the characters and themes are intricately and expertly wrought.

Remember that literary fiction requires work on the part of the reader. Authors of literary fiction tend to show, not tell, leaving the interpretation largely up to the reader. (It is suspected that this is the very trait that lead subjects to demonstrate better theory of mind in The New School’s study.) Ever had a debate about what the author was really saying in a book? Chances are you were talking about a piece of literary fiction. Did it win a Pulitzer/Nobel/ National Book/Man Booker (adults) or Newberry/Geisel/Printz (young people) award? Definitely literary fiction. Think of genre fiction as one of those movies people see just for the special effects, even though the acting and/or storyline is somewhat, uh, uninspired. This mind candy is fun, easy to follow, and quickly forgettable. Literary fiction offers more than meets the eye and tends to stay with you.

The idea that literary fiction seems to heighten people’s ability to empathize with others raises some interesting questions. Many reading teachers, rightfully, are happy to see kids reading anything, especially struggling readers. If Gossip Girl will get a child hooked, she’ll be practicing decoding and building fluency every bit as much as if she were reading Sense and Sensibility. (Exposure to valuable vocabulary is another matter…) As you now know, Gossip Girl falls solidly into the category of genre fiction, while Sense and Sensibility is a thoroughly literary piece of fiction. But should teachers be a bit wary of popular fiction now, fearing for students’ emotional aptitude? Educators familiar with the Common Core Curriculum will find that the study raises another interesting question: If the CCC encourages teachers to weight class readings heavily in favor of informative non-fiction texts, will we see a nationwide decline in empathy as a result?

One small study, of course, should not be enough to send educators and parents abandoning everything they know about reading. But it might be a good idea to break up your child’s R.L. Stine binge with A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, or Kira-Kira.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

To Type or Not to Type? For Young Kids, It’s Not a Question

Adults of a certain age (in this case, over, say, 40) would notice a very startling difference between the college lectures of their university days and the lectures of today if they sat in on a class. Sure, some professors might use PowerPoint presentations instead of the whiteboard (or chalkboard, for those much older than 40). But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking, instead, about the laptop revolution. Students who take notes on paper with actual pens are fewer with each passing year. Instead, the professor’s voice floats over a sea of muffled bursts of staccato as students frantically type their notes into word processing programs (or, to be fair, chat with their friends on social media).


For some students, being freed from a pencil and paper is a lifesaver. Kids with graphomotor difficulties and real spelling problems benefit enormously from keyboarding and access to all the editing tools that are included in word processing programs. And by college, or even high school, most students can type much more quickly than they can write. But for the average student, is making the switch from hand writing to typing a good idea? A recent article in Scientific American unequivocally urges young children to step away from the keyboard.

The article discusses a series of studies that examine the relationship between handwriting and literacy tasks, like learning letters, spelling, and writing quality discourse. Highlighted findings include:

  • Subjects who hand wrote foreign letters were better able to recognize those letters later as they endeavored to learn them.
  • More brain activity was measured in subjects who looked at letters they had learned to hand write than in subjects who had studied the same letters by typing them. Interestingly, activity was found in both visual and motor areas of the brains of the former group.
  • Legible, automatic handwriting in young children was the single best predictor of spelling ability and quality and quantity of writing generated in written compositions when those same children grew older.

It seems that there are many good arguments for developing handwriting, even in the digital age. Here at The Yellin Center, we notice that children who don’t use systematic patterns of pencil strokes to form letters tend to produce sentences and paragraphs of lower quality; the act of forming letters seems to sap their cognitive resources too much to come up with strong sentences, choose good vocabulary, and remember the rules of written mechanics. We encourage teachers and parents of young children to scrutinize a child’s letter formation, not just the legibility and uniformity of the letters that end up on the page. If it is determined that a young child forms letters slowly and laboriously, instructional programs such as Handwriting Without Tears can be enormously helpful. On the other hand, older students—third grade and up, or so—may be better off learning to keyboard quickly.

Little research exists on handwriting versus typing in older students and adults, but Teachers College professor Stephen Peverly notes that his students, especially after learning about handwriting’s role in memory and knowledge acquisition, tend to leave their laptops in their bags when they come to class.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Art to Support Learning

Students generally relish the chance to create art. They love the opportunity to express themselves and enjoy experimenting with different media. Fitting art into an already full school day, alas, can be a challenge. But according to Mariale Hardiman, co-founder and director of the Neuro-Education Initiative at Johns Hopkins’ School of Education, choosing between art and core instruction may not be necessary; it seems the two can support each other quite well. Her research has found that the use of arts in the classroom does more than make students happy: it can improve their retention of information.

LWT Gunnersbury Triangle

In a simple, elegant experiment, Hardiman compared groups of students who simply learned facts about history with groups who learned history with an art component. For example, students might draw a picture to illustrate historical events, put historical facts into songs, or write creatively about historical information. After learning, both groups of students were tested, and initially there weren't any differences between their scores. But when the students were tested again three months later, the arts group demonstrated much better retention than the control group.

We think incorporating the arts into learning wherever possible is a great idea, and not just because it seems to promote better memory for facts. Adding an art component to classroom work allows artistic kids to shine in a way that they sometimes can’t in a purely academic setting, building self-esteem. And, of course, art encourages children to be creative, flexible thinkers and to experiment with symbolism and abstract concepts.

Want to provide opportunities for your students to pair art with curriculum? Here are some ideas:

Creative Writing


Ask students to write a poem about what they’re learning. Use models and get creative. Show kids some limericks and ask them to write their own about a character in a novel. Rewrite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets to become an ode to a plant cell, a planet, or the Constitution.


Challenge students to take on the role of a historical figure or a fictional character and ask them to write a letter (or an email) to another figure or character. This isn't a new idea, but it can become really fun when kids are given unexpected roles. A student could write a letter to a cloud from the perspective of a plant who is hungry and needs exposure to sunlight so it can use photosynthesis, for example. Students struggling with algebra? Have fun with tricky concepts such as like terms by asking students to write a love letter from the perspective of 2x explaining why s/he adores 5x but has no interest in mixing with 6y.

Short Stories

Creating fictionalized accounts can make academics come alive. Challenge kids to write a story about the experiences of an oxygen molecule who is breathed in, circulated through a body, then breathed out. Ask kids to imagine that they are Louis XIV’s footman or Genghis Khan’s horse. What would they hear and see in these roles?

Visual Art

Comic Strip

Ask students to tell a story (the plot of a novel, the series of events during an important time in history, the transition of water from a solid to a liquid to a gas) frame by frame.

Cause-Effect Panels

For students struggling with causes and effects, illustrating the relationship can be very helpful. Set the stage for cause-effect panels by asking students to fold a sheet of paper in half. On the left side, they can illustrate the cause, and on the right, they can draw the effect or effects. If a student is studying the effect of temperature changes on matter, for example, he can draw a picture of a thermometer with rising mercury on the left, and molecules bouncing into each other with frantic arrows between on the right. Sometimes, students may need to divide the right side of the paper to show several effects. For example, The Stamp Act caused the colonists to both boycott British goods and to form the Sons of Liberty, so a cause-effect panel illustrating that relationship would have two parts to its effect side. This activity can be enriched by assigning a short piece of writing to describe the cause-effect relationship shown, or by asking a student to explain their work orally.


Need to learn about the anatomy of the heart or the difference between Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns? Sometimes the best way to commit lots of small details to memory is to draw them. Ask students to draw and label their own diagrams showing the details of these complicated concepts. Color-coding can make diagrams even more valuable; perhaps students could color the pathways of blood into the heart in blue and the pathways out of the heart in red, or shade the columns’ similarities in yellow and their differences in green.

Performance Art


Really talented musicians will love the opportunity to come up with their own songs about academic topics. For students who don’t play music or write songs, challenge them to rewrite songs they know so that they lyrics are about an academic topic they are studying, like the events in a novel, the Bill of Rights, or the order of operations.


Challenge kids to write and perform short skits that illustrate important events and concepts. Perhaps they could perform a short dialogue between nobles as they discuss the merits and potential risks of presenting King John with the Magna Carta. Have students act out word problems to help them visualize the situations being described. Assign students the roles of different elements and ask them to come up with a skit about what would happen if some of them ran into others at an element party or on a bus; what reactions would occur? What would passers-by notice?

Staged Debates

Comparing and contrasting the ideologies of historical figures, the concepts of different geometric shapes, or the arrangement of plant and animal cells? Give pairs of students opposing roles and ask them to generate some arguments about why their perspective is superior to that of their opponent. Costumes can bring this idea to life!

Icon credits: Itzik Gur (paint, music); Design Contest (pencil).

Friday, October 11, 2013

Great Graphic Novels for the Middle Grades

Finding reading material for kids in the middle grades can be tough, especially when those kids are resistant to reading in the first place. Luckily graphic novels can be a wonderful bridge from picture books to chapter books, and there are a multitude of high-quality offerings for kids in the third through sixth grades. Below are some of our favorites; the humor and outside-the-box style of these gems should entice suspicious youngsters to keep turning pages under the covers long after lights-out!

The Adventures of Tintin series by HergĂ© – grades 3 and up

These classic books are beloved around the world. Kids will love reading about reporter Tintin’s madcap adventures, which are infused with elements of humor, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and political intrigue. There are quite a few to choose from, too, so get your student hooked and you won’t have to worry about what she should read next for months. Don’t forget that there is a Tintin movie as well, which would work well as incentive for reading a Tintin book or as a way to whet kids’ appetites before they crack open the paper version.

Akiko series by Mark Crilley – grades 3 and up

Students with an interest in manga will enjoy this series, which is reminiscent of the wildly popular Japanese genre. The books tell about the adventures of ten-year-old Akiko, who dashes around this world and other worlds in a series of adventure stories.

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga – grades 3 and up

Remember Choose Your Own Adventure books? This graphic novel is like that, only better. On the first page, our hero Jimmy must make the seemingly simple decision of whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream, kicking off a series of further decisions with different outcomes. How many? The book claims to contain 3,856 possible plotlines! Meanwhile is non-traditional even by graphic novel standards, and may be unique enough to tempt even the most reluctant of readers.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier – grades 3 and up

Unlike many graphic novels, this one is geared toward girls. Sixth grader Raina thinks the prospect of getting braces is bad enough, but when she trips and injures her two front teeth, the series of unpleasant medical treatments, painful surgeries, and embarrassing orthodontia that follows makes plain old braces seem downright appealing. In the background of Raina’s medical drama are crushes, complications with friends, and a major earthquake, making for a fast-paced, rich story. This book serves up a lot of realistic issues in a light-hearted, often humorous format and will be enormously appealing to girls. Smile is not part of a series, but fans will want to check out author Telgemeier’s other, similar offerings.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick – grades 4 and up

If you’ve heard of Selznick, it’s probably because of his sensational first book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an enormous tome filled with complex, mesmerizing art that helps to tell a rich story. Wonderstruck follows the same format, this time chronicling the adventures of friends Ben and Rose as they set out to find the pieces they feel are missing from their lives. Artistic children in particular will be spellbound by Wonderstruck.

Calvin and Hobbes series by Bill Watterson – grades 5 and up

OK, these books aren’t exactly graphic novels, but to call them “comic books” is to sell the series short. Calvin and Hobbes is chock full of sophisticated vocabulary and philosophical quandaries, blended so seamlessly with space adventures, snowball fights, and schoolroom shenanigans that kids won’t know they’re learning. Some of the humor in these strips may be a bit much for younger kids (how many fifth graders are going to double over laughing when Calvin polls “household six-year-olds” to present his father with approval ratings?) but they’ll appreciate a lot of Calvin’s antics.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

How Do We Know What Babies Know?

Babies, it seems, do something new every single day. Before they are even able to control their own body movements, they are engaged in a furious observation of the world around them, learning from just about everything they see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Although there is a wide range of “normal,” of course, lots of studies have determined which concepts babies understand at certain ages and stages. For example, there is evidence that babies recognize their mother’s face in as little as three days after birth and that they have a keenly developed number sense by six months of age.

But how can scientists determine what babies know? Asking a newborn whether the woman holding him looks like his mother isn't likely to elicit a useful response. One way to get a read on babies’ thought patterns is by performing a brain scan. But this technique isn't ideal. For example, a functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) provides great images but is very expensive, and electroencephalography (EEG) is cheaper but doesn't yield information about impulses deep within the brain.

Instead of measuring brain activity, researchers have learned that babies’ behavior in response to stimuli can reveal a surprising amount of information about what goes on inside their heads. Most babies respond in predictable ways to novelty and many experiments take advantage of this tendency. Careful observation of babies has led to some useful, measurable methods that help researchers as they work to probe the minds of the very youngest people around.

Linguists, for example, are interested in the way very young babies hear sounds. Speakers of certain languages often cannot hear the difference between sounds in a foreign language; for example, Japanese and Chinese speakers struggle to differentiate between the /r/ and /l/ sounds, and /v/ and /w/ sound the same to speakers of Hindi and Thai. Are babies hardwired to speak a particular language from the moment they’re born, or is this selective deafness a learned trait?*

To determine what babies hear, scientists use the concept of novelty. Babies are provided with a high amplitude sucking device to measure their responses, then are exposed to sounds. To the baby, a high amplitude sucking device feels like a pacifier, but in fact it is connected to a system that measures the rate at which the baby sucks it. During the experiment, the baby listens to a recording of one of the target sounds over and over again. For a baby born in an Arabic-speaking environment, for example, researchers might choose to play “pah, pah, pah...” When the sound begins, the baby will begin to suck the pacifier at a faster rate, but as it grows accustomed to the sound, it will demonstrate its boredom by sucking more slowly. Then, suddenly, the recording will change; the baby will begin to hear “bah, bah, bah...” Adults and even young children who speak Arabic have great difficulty hearing the difference between /p/ and /b/, and most don’t notice when “pah” switches to “bah.” But most babies begin sucking much faster the instant the sound changes; their curiosity is aroused by the difference, and they become attentive and interested. To their older counterparts, the stimulus appears unchanged, but babies demonstrate a much keener sense of sound discrimination.

Another way to measure a baby’s perception is to record the amount of time she spends looking at something. Just as babies suck faster when they hear something new, they tend to look longer at things that are different from what they know or that violate their expectations. This concept, known as “preferential looking,” was first developed in the 1960s, and scientists still use it today. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, demonstrated that babies understand the limitations of the physical world by showing them a series events and recording their looking times. Some of the events were deemed “real,” in that they were possible, but some “magic” events were physically impossible. In one “real” video, a ball rolled up to a wall and bounced off. Babies weren't too captivated by that, but they couldn't take their eyes off a “magic” video of a ball rolling into, then through, a solid wall. This fascination indicates that babies as young as two and a half months had gained a great deal of knowledge about the physical properties of the world.

Babies may spend a lot of time gazing around them, reaching for objects, listening intently, knocking things over, and banging on surfaces. But the serious learning going on beneath the surface is anything but child’s play.

*Interestingly, the reason older children and adults can’t hear the difference between similar sounds in other languages has nothing to do with their hearing. The answer is found, instead, in the brain. Babies are born with more than 80 billion neurons (brain cells) and synapses (connections between brain cells) in their brains – more than are found in any adult. This means that they are prepared to detect all kinds of stimuli in the world. The problem, however, is that having lots of extraneous neurons and synapses means that information and impulses don’t travel very quickly. Imagine searching through a suitcase for a particular item; if the suitcase is filled with things, it takes a long time to find what one wants. Similarly, the multitude of structures in the infant brain can make it work more slowly. Just as taking out half of what’s in the suitcase can cut down on search time, babies’ brains reduce the synapses in the name of efficiency. As the baby observes and interacts with its environment, the cellular connections that aren’t needed get the boot. This regulatory process is known as pruning. So after spending a year or so in a Chinese-speaking environment, where the /r/ and /l/ sounds don’t contribute to meaning, the brain of an infant there would determine that being able to detect the difference between the two sounds is unimportant. That synapse is pruned, making way for more efficient synaptic connections that the baby has noticed are relevant. Pruning is thought to result in learning, as the brain customizes itself to perform optimally according to observed environmental factors.

Monday, October 7, 2013

What Should I Write About? Write About This!

To some kids, a blank page is an exciting opportunity. They love the freedom of a wide-open writing assignment. They’re eager to let their imaginations run wild and seem to overflow with ideas before the tip of their pencil even hits the paper.

For other kids, nothing could be more intimidating than facing a blank page. For them, a writing assignment without parameters is a nightmare. Their minds seem to freeze. They wrinkle their foreheads and look desperately around the room for inspiration. If only someone would give them just the smallest shred of an idea…

A fourth grade teacher named Brad has a great solution. Brad noticed that his students loved to make up stories and poems based on photographs, and so he developed an app called Write About This to make inspiration easy for any elementary school child with access to an iDevice. Write About This is home to hundreds of interesting, idea-sparking photographs arranged by curriculum, season, and theme. Adults can choose whether kids see just the picture for an open-ended response, or whether a prompt is displayed (the level of complexity is customizable) along with the picture. For example, an image of a bike entirely covered with mud has prompts like “What is the messiest you've ever been? Tell about where you were and how you felt” and “How would you explain this to your parents without getting in trouble?”

The app is a handy source of inspiration, and a single image can be shown to a small group or a whole classroom full of students with paper and pencils. But it becomes even more valuable if individual kids can get their hands on the iPad with the app. This way, they can type their writing directly into the app, record their voices as they read it aloud, and publish it with a single click. And students and teachers can import their own pictures and prompts – as written phrases or recorded audio messages – into the app, making it almost endlessly adaptable.

Write About This is a simple idea with powerful possibilities. It is available through the iTunes store.

Watch a video about Write About This below:

Friday, October 4, 2013

Recommended Reads: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races
By Maggie Stiefvater

Grades: 7-9

Awards: Printz Award, Kirkus Best Book of the Year, Horn Book Best Book of the Year

Adult Themes: There are violent incidents throughout the book, but they are not overly graphic.

Plot: Maggie Stiefvater uses inspiration from a Celtic myth about water horses—beautiful, deadly fairy creatures that are part horse and part man-eating sea monster—to weave this gripping tale. Men on the island of Thisby have been catching and trying to tame the water horses for generations when the creatures emerge onshore in fall. The tradition has spawned the yearly Scorpio Races, an extraordinarily dangerous event in which riders jockey mostly wild water horses in hopes of winning a fabulous cash prize – if they’re not eaten by their own, or an opponent’s, mount in the process. The book opens with a scene in which young Sean Kendrick watches his father meet an untimely end during a race, then flashes forward: Sean Kendrick is now nineteen years old and the most renowned trainer of racing water horses on the island. Everyone knows he’s a sure bet to win this year’s race. But teenage Kate Connolly, otherwise known as Puck, has her eyes on the prize, too. She and her brothers were orphaned when their parents were eaten by water horses, and now her oldest brother plans to leave for the mainland. Puck must win the race to earn enough money to support herself and her younger brother, but she can’t afford to buy a water horse and so begins training her small pony to compete alongside the savage animals. Stiefvater winds the plot so taut as the book leads up to the race that it’s impossible to turn the pages fast enough.

Maggie Steifvater (Photo: Kate Hummel)
Our Take: The language in The Scorpio Races is easy to read (the average fifth grader could handle it without difficulty), but themes are sometimes dark, making this book more appropriate for middle schoolers. It would be an excellent choice for a high school student who struggles a bit with reading. Because chapters are narrated alternately by Sean and Puck, both girls and boys will find the book appealing. Although life on Thisby is harsh and dealing with the water horses and other competitors is inherently violent, humorous moments sparkle throughout the book, particularly when the impish Puck takes over the storytelling; she’s one of the most delightful characters we’ve come across in a long time. Though the myth of water horses is obviously the stuff of fantasy, Stiefvater’s style is otherwise realistic, so the book will appeal to lovers of fantasy as well as readers who steer clear of fairy tales and magic.

Good to Know: Warner Brothers is currently working on a film adaptation of the book. Unfortunately, readers who love this nail-biting book will have to endure yet more suspense: it is set to be released in 2015.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

School Visit: The Forman School

Yesterday was one of those perfect fall days we in the Northeast seem to spend all summer waiting for. Luckily for me, I got to spend it driving to and exploring The Forman School, a co-educational boarding and day school in Connecticut. Forman serves students with learning differences in grades 9-12+. 

The Forman campus is intentionally designed to resemble a small New England town, and there is a real sense of community among the students I had the chance to meet. They clearly thrive on the rich esprit de corps on campus; students have a dress code, actively participate in sports, and have a rich extracurricular life on campus.

I had the opportunity to meet with Head of School Adam Man and Associate Head of School Helen Waldron, along with Kelly Caldwell Miller, the school's psychologist. We discussed how Forman was actively connected to the field of Mind, Brain, and Education in that they were constantly seeking new ways to integrate evolving knowledge with academic experience. They noted that the Forman leadership has made it their mission to focus primarily on college-bound students with language based learning differences and ADHD.

My tour of the campus included a new, state-of-the-art science building. The student dorms all have resident faculty members and most of the faculty live on campus. The goal is to create a community in which students can build their independence with the care and supervision of adults.

Images courtesy The Forman School
A highlight of my visit was a lunch with students, all of whom spoke frankly to me about their learning differences. They were reflective, self-aware, and had strong self-esteem, and were mindful of both their challenges and their strengths. A newer student pointed out that although he had not been at Forman very long, he felt totally included in every aspect of the school.

Adam Man described a rich transition program for students preparing for college, focusing not just on academics, but on building the skills students will need in college and the wider world. This transition curriculum includes such skills as how to self-advocate, how to manage in large lectures (a big difference for students who have had the benefit of classes averaging eight students while at Forman), and how to obtain accommodations in college. Man noted that although Forman has a one-year post-graduate program, most of the students who attend are from other schools, where they did not get the kind of preparation for college that Forman provides its own students.