Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Learn to Add with Addimal Adventure

Wouldn’t it be great if few Ph.D.s from Columbia University’s Teachers College could be on hand 24-7 to teach your child to add? If you have an iPad, download the free Addimal Adventure app from the iTunes store and you’ll get just that. 

Addimal Adventure is the brainchild of Teachley, a foundation that creates interactive electronic learning tools based on cognitive science research. In Addimal Adventure, Captain Memo and his pals will recruit your child to defeat the evil Professor Possum. The sharp graphics pop off the iPad’s screen appealingly, looking more like a show on Cartoon Network than an educational computer game. There’s a storyline here, and an engaging one at that, and your child will giggle at the characters’ funny quips and delight in being included in the adventure.

Addimal Adventure isn’t just great at catching and holding your child’s attention, though. It teaches genuinely useful strategies for learning and using addition. In each “Tool Round,” simple problems are presented and children can choose which strategy they want to use to solve each one. For example, the “Count All” button will present the problem using digital manipulatives. Kids count them, then indicate the answer using the number line at the bottom of the screen. Three additional, more advanced strategies are also taught. Between Tool Rounds, kids can watch the plot of the game unfold in short scenes, then practice their fact speed in the Speed Round. If they’re stumped, they can choose to get a hint that will remind them how to use one of the strategies they've learned. 

Addimal Adventures keeps track of all the facts a child answers correctly and incorrectly and displays them between rounds. The result is a motivating display of all the facts kids got right, which grows as they progress through the app.

Currently, Addimal Adventures is intended for home use. In January, however, Teachley will be launching a pilot data- reporting system for classrooms that will allow teachers to track students’ progress. Think your school might be interested in participating? Sign up now.

Monday, November 25, 2013

When Must School Districts Pay for Evaluations?

Parents sometimes ask us if they can have their school district pay for their child's evaluation at The Yellin Center. The simple answer is "maybe, under certain circumstances," and we thought it might be helpful to explain the laws and regulations that govern this area.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) recognizes that an evaluation of a student in all suspected areas of disability is a crucial first step to determining whether that student is eligible for IDEA services and what kind of services will help that student to succeed in school. In fact, the "clock begins to run" with respect to the time limits set forth in the IDEA only once the parent consents to an evaluation of the student. The law anticipates that the school will then conduct an evaluation of the child and share the results with the parents and the IEP team, the committee that creates the student's Individualized Education Program. 

It's Our City
In many situations, this works out well for all concerned. The school district conducts an evaluation at no cost to the family; the findings make sense to the parents; the findings are incorporated into the student's IEP; and nothing more needs to be done. 

However, sometimes families do not agree with the findings of the school district evaluators and feel there may be something more going on with their child. Sometimes parents have had a long history of difficulties with the school and simply do not trust them to do an evaluation. Some parents of children enrolled in a private school do not want to have to work with the local public school district (especially in New York City). And, quite often, parents want the kind of in-depth, multi-disciplinary kind of evaluation done here at The Yellin Center, rather than a more "cookie-cutter" series of tests given by their school's evaluators. In each of these situations, the parents seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) such as the ones we conduct here at The Yellin Center.

Before we look at specific rules and scenarios, we need to emphasize one important point. Parents have the absolute right to have their child independently evaluated and federal law requires that the public school district must consider the results of such evaluation. Dr. Yellin and his team frequently attend IEP meetings (via phone or other technology) to discuss the results of our evaluations and have been universally well-received by schools. However, the law does not require that districts follow the recommendations of our reports (or any outside evaluator).

So, when can a parent have a district pay for an IEE? 

  1. The parent must disagree with the evaluation conducted by the district or consider it inadequate and notify the district of their intention to obtain an IEE.
  2. The district must then either file for a due process hearing with a State Hearing Officer or agree to pay for the IEE.
  3. The district can set criteria for the IEE's they will fund -- how much they cost, the geographic location of the evaluator(s), and the specific qualifications of the evaluator(s). However, the U.S. Department of Education notes that, "the district must allow parents the opportunity to demonstrate that unique circumstances justify an IEE that does not fall within the district's criteria. If an IEE that falls outside the district's criteria is justified by the child's unique circumstances, that IEE must be publicly funded." So, even if your district tells you that you are restricted to using the private evaluators on a list they provide, that is not strictly correct and you can and should push back to obtain the services of the evaluator you choose. 
  4. An IEE can also be ordered by a State Hearing Officer as part of a due process hearing when aspects of an IEP are in dispute. 

We also encounter situations where a district paid evaluation at The Yellin Center is part of an ongoing discussion between a family and a school district, especially when the district has not been successful in addressing a child's educational needs. And families need to keep in mind that The Yellin Center has always had a sliding scale for families who need assistance in paying for our services. 

There are countless resources available to explain this process to parents and school administrators, but some you might find useful are:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Testing as a Way to Boost College Achievement

While parents and students throughout the country lament the constant testing of students in elementary and high schools, a new study has found that frequent testing of college students -- each day of class -- boosted achievement of all students, especially those from lower income backgrounds.

Robert S. Donovan
The findings, from a team of psychology professors at the University of Texas at Austin, were published in the online science journal PloS One. The professors were co-instructors of two large introductory psychology classes, with a total of over 900 students. They had taught the same course for several years and thus had data on student performance to compare to the classes in which they implemented the daily testing. Students were advised to bring their laptops to class and were given personalized online quizzes containing eight questions at the beginning of each class, one of which was a question that the student had gotten wrong on a prior quiz. Students could drop their lowest quiz grades and could take a limited number of quizzes outside class. The quizzes included material from both the course lectures and the assigned readings.

The professors found that the students in the classes subject to quizzing did better not just in the introductory psychology course, but in other courses that semester and in courses in subsequent semesters. There was also a significant reduction in the difference in performance between students of higher and lower socioeconomic standing, something that had been notable in prior sections of the course.

The professors noted that the improvements they observed "most plausibly reflect changes in students’ self-regulated learning – their ability to study and learn more effectively." They also noted that attendance was high in the classes where quizzes were given, which would also influence student performance. It stands to reason that when students attend class regularly and do the course reading, that they will learn more and that their performance on tests will be improved. No one likes testing, but it can help keep students -- at least college students -- on track for success.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Importance of Being There

When most parents think about student absences from school, they think of high school students who skip school or cut classes -- something we generally think of as truancy. But absence from school is also an issue for students as young as kindergarten and first grade and the organization Attendance Works notes that, "one in 10 kindergarten and 1st grade students misses a month of school every year. In some districts, as many as one in four students in the primary grades are missing too much school time."

Students in primary grades are rarely absent without parental knowledge. Many parents don't really think too much of having a young student miss school for a family event, or even just parental convenience. For many families the impact of occasional absences may not be significant, but for students who are at risk of failure -- whether because of poverty, English language barriers, or unstable family situations -- absences even in early grades can have a cumulative impact upon academic performance. A seminal paper on this topic, Present, Engaged, and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, from the National Center for Children in Poverty, found that for students in ninth grade, missing 20 percent of the school year is a better predictor of dropping out than test scores.

Furthermore, students with chronic or frequent illness may have excused absences, but unless efforts are made to continue their schoolwork or to make up missed work, something that is often difficult or impossible in less affluent school districts, the fact that these absences may be unavoidable does not diminish their impact upon future performance and graduation. 

In an effort to raise awareness of the impact of absences, The Advertising Council and the U.S. Army created a website, which includes tools to help parents understand the impact that absences can have on student achievement. There is also a link to a student-focused tool which enables students to sign up for celebrity wake-up calls. As Woody Allen is credited with saying: "80 percent of life is just showing up." Showing up for school, even in early years, can have an important and positive impact on a student's educational success.

Monday, November 18, 2013

American Heritage College Planning

High school students and their families are always looking for useful sources of information about college planning, colleges, and everything related to the process of moving beyond high school to the next step in a student's education. There are countless articles, books, websites, and colleges themselves to learn about, but it is difficult for students and their parents to keep up with the constant flow of information and the seemingly endless lists of colleges to consider. High school guidance counselors and web-based college planning programs can be helpful, but we have found another terrific resource for students, parents, and their counselors alike.

American Heritage College Planning is a Facebook page administered by Luciana Mandal, M.Ed., Director of College Planning at American Heritage School, a private Pre-12 school (with over 1400 high school students) in Plantation, Florida. Featuring the oft heard quotation attributed to Frank Sachs, Past President of the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC), "College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won," the page includes links to current books and articles, information about specific colleges, and planning tips that can be useful to all students thinking about college. 

"The media can often skew information," Ms. Mandal noted. "So, when we see well-written and accurate articles in the media that represent our real experiences in the field, we like to make them available to anyone who follows our Facebook Page." She continued, "The practice in our college office at American Heritage is to guide students individually, based on family and student priorities. We believe that education is a process and not a race, and that the college degree is a step toward a career. That "good fit" college is what we seek for each student, so having toured over 250+ colleges (collectively in our department), we know much more about the college fit than where it sits on a rank list. Therefore, the articles we post present important angles not well-known to the public."

It's easy enough to keep up with the information posted by Ms. Mandal and her colleagues; just add the page to your "friends" list and be prepared to be informed.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Recommended Reads: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Ages: Teen and young adult                                                  

Sequels: Divergent is the first in a trilogy. Look for Insurgent and Allegiant once your teenager whips through this first installment.

Plot: Sixteen-year-old Beatrice lives in dystopian Chicago, a world of absolutes. After undergoing an aptitude test to determine which of five traits they possess, all sixteen-year-olds must choose the faction (i.e. social group) to which they will devote the rest of their lives. Their choice can be based on the trait they’ve been shown to have, or the trait they most wish to cultivate. Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, the faction chosen by people dedicated to selflessness and charity. Her aptitude test reveals that she is an aberration, however, meaning that she displays equal aptitude for more than one trait. Beatrice’s tester, alarmed, warns her that if anyone finds out that she is divergent, she is as good as dead. (Sounds a bit dramatic, but the reasons are explained later.) 

Resolved to hide this fact, Beatrice enters the choosing ceremony still torn between factions. Knowing that she has qualities of both Abnegation and Dauntless (the brave faction), which should she select? She surprises everyone by pledging herself to Dauntless in a last-minute decision and begins a highly competitive, brutal initiation process that only a fraction of the candidates will pass and some will not survive. Beatrice invents a new identity, changing her name to Tris and adopting a new wardrobe, style, and attitude in attempts to leave her past behind her. Tris learns to use weapons and fight, but also to take risks and face her fears. And, of course, she falls for one of her instructors, a slightly older Dauntless named Four. Just when it seems that Tris will finally triumph over the initiation and those who wish her harm, she stumbles upon a sinister plot hatched by the leaders of the Erudite faction, domain of those who prize intellect and learning above all else. Tris must put her life on the line and fight to save her family, her friends, and her whole world.

Adult themes: Some mild sexual references and themes of violence

Our Take: Divergent is the first book of yet another dystopian trilogy. But it is an unquestionably engrossing read that fans of books like The Hunger Games and Uglies will devour. The premise is intriguing and most of the characters are reasonably well developed. The book’s strongest asset, though, is its page-turning plot, which will feel compelling even to those who have read many books of this genre before. It’s predictable in some places but there are still a few surprises here. Young readers will enjoy exploring themes like control, fear, bravery, individuality, loyalty, and strength of all sorts with Tris’s story.

Good to Know: Divergent will hit big screens in March of 2014, with Kate Winslet in the role of primary antagonist Jeanine. Watch a trailer here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Pitch Painter App Introduces Kids to Musical Composition

Painting and playing music may seem, at best, to be loosely related to each other. They’re both forms of art, of course, but is there really more to it than that? Composer and so-called Godfather of Electronic Music Morton Subotnick thinks there is. Subotnick is a classically trained musician turned rogue. He catapulted into fame with his revolutionary album Silver Apples on the Moon in 1968 (now on CD) and has been pushing barriers, entertaining presidential families, and winning awards ever since. Most recently, he's developed an app that can introduce children to musical composition in a characteristically fresh, innovative way.

Morton Subotnick (source)

Pitch Painter is Subotnick’s latest effort to put electronic music-making tools in the hands of the young. Subotnick says the idea of recording, as opposed to live performance, has always appealed to him. He likes the idea of being like a painter, who gets to look at a piece and perfect it before sharing it, knowing that viewers will see is just what he wanted them to see. With electronic music, Subotnick had that ability. Now, with Pitch Painter, children between the ages of 3 and 5 can have it, too.

Pitch Painter is a simple app that allows children to experiment with sound and musical composition with a few taps of a finger. First, a child chooses from a variety of familiar and exotic musical instruments. Next, the child “paints” on the screen with a finger, perhaps sticking with just one instrument or maybe adding a few more. At any time, she can play back what she’s painted. A long, straight line down the middle of the screen will result in a single, mid-register note held for a long time. Upward swoops will lead to higher-pitched sounds. Single dots will be played as individual notes. Each instrument shows up on the canvas as a different color, so children can layer them, listen to the resulting piece, then go back and make changes.

The app, Subotnick confesses, won’t make symphonies. But it introduces young children to music in the same way that playing with building blocks introduces kids to engineering. Pitch Painter is available through the iTunes store for $3.99.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Logic Games and Brain Teasers to Sharpen Higher Thinking Skills

Practice is essential to honing any skill. Whether you want to juggle a soccer ball, master French, or solve algebraic equations with lightning speed, you've got to put in the time first. Research has long demonstrated that this principle holds true for higher thinking skills, too. Solving problems, deriving and applying rules, recognizing concepts, and using reason and logic are just some of the aspects of higher thinking, so it’s easy to see how those components are useful in school. People who practice using logic and problem solving skills are often better at thinking their way through problems more efficiently and flexibly. And games can be a great way to practice.

Here are some fun sites that provide opportunities for you, or young people in your life, to practice using logic to solve puzzles and brain teasers. (All games are free, unless specified.) Have fun!

The Set Game  – grade 4 and up

In this challenging game, players must group images on digital cards together to form a set based on concepts like the shapes, number of shapes, and features of shapes. This is a great exercise for concept-building, and the website provides a different challenge each day. Want more? The Set Game is also available through several apps and other websites, and the original card game version can be purchased from toy stores as well.

Traffic Jam  – grade 1 and up

This classic is now available online! Traffic Jam gives young minds a workout by challenging them to plan several steps ahead as they work to free the red car from a traffic jam. Cars on a grid block the red car’s path out of the jam, and users can only move the cars forward or backward to create a path. It will take several well-planned moves to do it! The site above shows the minimum number of moves required for solving the puzzle, so if kids figure it out in more moves than specified, ask them to try again with fewer moves. ThinkFun makes a concrete version of the game, for those looking for a more tactile experience.

Samorost  – grade 3 and up

Samorost is a delight. Players must help our hero Gnome navigate his way through a deliciously whimsical world to save his planet from an asteroid by solving a series of puzzles. Part of the puzzle, however, is figuring out what the puzzles are. We won’t give away too much, but rest assured that your kids (and probably you, too) will love clicking their way through this game to try to unravel its mysteries. Solved it? Check out Samorost 2, Machinarium, or some of Amanita Design’s other games. Although Samorost is free, some of Amanita’s other offerings require a fee.

One Hundred Doors – (age depends – see below)

Available for iDevices and Android through Google Play (search “100 Doors”), this game is downright addictive. The concept is simple: players must figure out how to open the door in front of them using clues they see around them. The reward for opening a door? Another door, which is slightly harder open. Sometimes players can find keys by knocking over objects with the swipe of a finger. Sometimes a code, hidden somewhere in the room, must be entered into the keypad. Sometimes ordinary objects will, upon closer examination, be arranged in a pattern that is critical to solving the riddle. The bottom line is that you should be ready for anything with 100 Doors! The first few doors don’t take much brainpower to conquer, but the puzzles get harder and harder as the game progresses. Younger kids will be able to pass the first few levels easily but may become frustrated with the later levels, so playing this game with a parent who can provide clues or making it a teamwork exercise with a friend could make it more enjoyable for everyone. Be warned, though: the later levels are bound to challenge even brainy adults! (Really stuck? You can find videos explaining how to solve each level on YouTube; simply type in the name of the game and the specific level.)

photo credit: flickr

Friday, November 8, 2013

Hi-Lo Books Are Great Choices for Struggling Older Readers

Older kids with weak reading skills face a real conundrum. Studies indicate that the best way to become a better reader is to read more. But books that are written on a level that older struggling readers can manage independently often have too-simple plot-lines, much younger characters, and center on themes adolescents find uninteresting. Books about topics and characters they like, on the other hand, are too hard.

Kenny Louie

For this tricky group of students, hi-lo books can be a magic bullet. Hi-lo is an abbreviation for “high interest-low readability.” Books that fall into this category have fast-paced plots. The characters are older, and the topics are much more interesting to readers in upper elementary, middle, and high school. Students will find that the content is not all that different from what their peers are reading, but the stories are told with more basic words and shorter sentences that make them easier to get through. Hi-lo books are available through a variety of publishers, including HIP Books, Stoke Books, and Lorimer .

Tips for Selecting the Right Hi-Lo Book
  • The right hi-lo book must fit the reader on not just one but two counts: reading level and interest level. A perfect match will ensure that your high school student is reading a book he will both appreciate and be able to decode on his own. Good retailers will make both of these numbers readily available. 
  • This is one case where it’s okay to judge a book by its cover. Weak readers don’t want to feel stigmatized or embarrassed because their peers see them carrying around “special” books, so look for books whose covers look just like those of standard, grade-level books. 
  • Let the student in question make the final choice. It might help to select several possible titles that would all fit the bill, then ask the student to pick one. Buying the book online? No problem. Good retailers’ pages will display the cover image along with a description of the book. Some even allow users to rate the books they've read, so kids can make a fully informed choice.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Use Practice Tests to Prepare for Standardized Tests

Casey Konstantin
If you follow trends in education, chances are you've heard about the importance of practice tests. To sum it up: Exciting research about memory has indicated that the best way to learn something is to take practice tests instead of traditional studying. Many education-centered magazines, newspapers, and blogs have been reporting on this idea and, for related content, you can access other posts we've written about this subject:
Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Taking practice tests to prepare for run-of-the-mill, in-class exams--such as a biology midterm written by the teacher--can be tricky, since ready-made practice tests don’t typically exist for tests of this kind; in these cases, we encourage students to make their own practice tests. But students preparing for a standardized test can access pre-made tests through a variety of sources. In the old days, students bought books of practice tests from companies like Kaplan, Barron’s, and The College Board. But increasingly, practice tests are available online, often for free.

The quality of free online practice tests varies, but there are some gems out there. For example, The College Board website offers practice questions for the AP exams and practice questions and a full-length, online practice SAT test. Students preparing for the ACT will find The Princeton Review’s full-length practice test useful. And Varsity Tutors has recently launched a very good “one-stop-shop” practice testing site  with access to practice questions, questions of the day, and sample tests for a multitude of exams, including the SAT, ACT, GRE, GED, ISEE, SSAT, and AP. Many of the tests feature a useful content instruction option that explains how to find the answer to several practice questions and problems; students can start here, then move to the flashcards to practice. As an added bonus, it’s possible to create a free account that will track one’s progress through the content.

Some online practice tests include a timer function. While this is not essential, it can be very helpful as students get a sense of their work pace in anticipation of a timed exam. One feature that is essential, however, is access to thoughtful explanations for correct answers. It’s important that students know more than whether they were right or wrong, and good practice sites will explain why the right answer is the best choice. Very good sites will even explain why the wrong answers are incorrect, tempting though some of them may be.

To make the most out of practice tests, students should keep the following points in mind:

  • Make sure the format of your practice test matches the format of the actual test. If you’ll be testing on paper, print out the practice test and take it with a pencil. Signed up for a computer-based test? Taking it on the screen is fine. 
  • Take the test under time constraints – at some point. For students who are nervous testers or those first encountering the test format, it may be a good idea to start out with an untimed practice round to test the waters. Students should be sure to take the test at least once under the time constraints they’ll face on the actual test day, though; it’s important that they know whether their natural pace is appropriate, and working under simulated pressure will help them feel more comfortable when taking the real test.
  • Make sure practice conditions match test conditions as closely as possible. Don’t curl up on the couch with a laptop to prepare for a computer-based test; sit at a table or desk in a quiet, distraction-free space instead. Have scratch paper ready if the test allows it. Don’t snack or drink while working. It’s important to gain familiarity with testing conditions, not just the test format and content.

Monday, November 4, 2013

NCTM’s Illuminations is a Fantastic Resource for Math Instruction

After sifting through a seemingly endless list of math apps and online math games recently, we were pleasantly surprised and energized to discover Illuminations. While much of the content we viewed on other websites was more of the same, Illuminations was, well, illuminating. A resource developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is bound to be impressive and insightful, and Illuminations, we discovered, is both.

Illuminations offers 108 online activities that teach a multitude of skills, from counting to calculus. With material for students in, and teachers of, kindergarten through 12th grade, there is almost certainly something here for everyone. Illuminations’s resources cleverly meld the “why” and the “how” of math so that students will not only understand what to do but understand the reasons they’re doing it.

Some activities are very simple, geared toward helping students to internalize a single concept. For example, Geometric Solids invites students to explore the relationship between the number of a solid figure’s faces, edges, and vertices by tallying up the numbers of those features on different three-dimensional shapes (all of which can be rotated by dragging the mouse and made to appear either opaque or transparent). Half Angle provides a simple, visual explanation for why bisecting the angles of a triangle can reveal the location of the center of a circle inscribed within that triangle. For the most part, though, the tools focus more on the exploration of broader concepts and skill building. Here are a few more examples of activities found on Illuminations:

Coin Box

Young students mastering money can move coins around the screen as they count them, practice trading coins for other coins of equivalent value (for example, five pennies can be exchanged for a nickel), and drag coins onto a grid with 100 squares to help with making change from a dollar. The coins even make a satisfying clinking noise as they are moved!


To teach why a number can have multiple pairs of factors, Factorization provides a 100 square grid and invites students to draw rectangles. The number of squares within the rectangle (i.e. its area) is displayed as the rectangle grows or shrinks, and when students get the number they want they can count the squares on each side of the rectangle to find the factors of the number. The activity indicates how many factorizations there are for each number so students will know when to keep drawing for more solutions. For example, if the number to be factored is 18, the game will prompt the student to draw three different rectangles as they work to factor it (i.e. 18x1, 9x2, 6x3)

Algebra Tiles

This insightful activity allows students to represent algebraic expressions visually using colored squares and rectangles for terms. Once students have set up the expression (Illuminations will check to be sure they’re right), they can move terms from one side of equation to the other and change colors to indicate whether terms are negative or positive. The “cancel out zero pairs” button makes instructions like “subtract from both sides” concrete and visible.

One big caveat applies to this wonderful site, however. The activities are fantastic teaching tools, but most students will have trouble using them independently. This is the kind of site that a frustrated parent or teacher could turn to when the umpteenth explanation of a concept doesn't sink in, but they’ll likely need to sit next to the student and explain how to use the activities and the relationship between the activities on the screen and the paper math work the student must complete. But please, don’t be deterred. We are enormously impressed with the astute instruction provided by Illuminations and recommend it without reservation for both instruction and practice.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Recommended Reads: The First Part Last

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Grades: 7 and up

Awards: Printz Award, Coretta Scott King Award

Plot: Sixteen-year-old Bobby tells his story in an unconventional way. Sections are titled either “then” or “now,” to show how he simultaneously copes with his challenging reality and reflects on the events that led him to his current situation. And Bobby’s situation is a tough one indeed: he is raising his infant daughter alone. Bobby’s memories of learning that his girlfriend Nia was pregnant, being advised by everyone to put the baby up for adoption, and trying to wrap his head around the idea of a baby are interspersed with his new reality of caring for baby Feather. His parents, loving but disgusted with his choices, have made it clear that it is up to him to take care of the baby, and he struggles to finish high school while coordinating her care. A twist near the end reveals why Nia is no longer a part of his life (we won’t give it away), and the book ends as Bobby finally gains a sense of clarity about his new role.

Adult Themes: Surprisingly few, given that this is a book about teen pregnancy and parenthood. Occasionally there is language that some may find objectionable, however.

Our Take: Few novels for young people explore the realities of teen parenthood, and fewer still do so from the perspective of a teen father. This theme coupled with The First Part Last’s unconventional layout makes this novel an unforgettable book. Johnson’s writing style is simple and poetic. Most characters are well developed, and she is able to convey a visceral sense of Bobby’s fatigue and confusion, but also of his wonder at his daughter and the aching love he feels for her. And don’t worry – Bobby is in awe of little Feather alright, but The First Part Last in no way glorifies teen parenting. Bobby’s confusion, heartache, isolation, and exhaustion ring loud and clear from virtually every page of this book.

While we think The First Part Last would be a great book for any adolescent, it’s a particularly good choice for at-risk readers for several reasons. For one, the story itself is compelling and the characters are relatable. Also, the text is arranged in short paragraphs and even individual sentences that form their own paragraphs, so the pages are appealingly sparse; there are no intimidating dense blocks of text here. While the reading feels accessible, some readers may need a bit of support while they get used to the interspersed plot lines. We highly recommend this book. Its simplicity allows even struggling students to get through it, and its complexity ensures that the story will stick with them long after they finish it.