Monday, December 23, 2013

A Holiday Story

It has been our tradition for our last blog of the year to be in rhyme. Today we have updated a blog from 2010.

It was just before Christmas
And all through the town 
The lights were a-twinkle
Both uptown and down.

And here in the office                                                      
We were working away
When outside our windows
There flew an old sleigh.

We couldn't believe it
But then we all jumped.
From the roof right above us
There came a loud thump.

We heard heavy footsteps
And then he was there,      
Red suit and red hat 
And long flowing white hair.

"I'm Santa," he said
As he entered the clinic.
We all rolled our eyes
Like good New York cynics.

"I've got gifts for all students
(you don't need to believe)
But let me bestow them 
Before I must leave.

"For the youngest I've got books
To read with mom and pop,
Since once they become readers, 
The habit won't stop.

"For older kids, apps
That will help them learn math
And set them upon
A better school path.

"For high schoolers,  Smartpens
And a book filled with knowledge
About how kids who struggle
Can find the right college."

For teachers I've brought strategies
To use when they teach
To help every student
Their potential to reach

We said, "What about us?
We don't want to nag,
But don't you have something 
For us in your bag?"

Santa gave a big smile 
And packed up to go.
"You've all had the gift
Of the students you know.

"The great satisfaction
Of helping them grow
And making them realize 
Just how much they know

"You all need to realize
Your gift's what you do...."
And as he departed,
We knew that was true!

The Yellin Center will close between Christmas and New Year's and will re-open on January 2, 2014. We wish you all a happy holiday and look forward to blogging again next year!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mary Poppins Delights, on the Page and on the Screen

As enormous fans of Mary Poppins (the character, the book, and the movie), we can hardly wait to see the new Disney film Saving Mr. Banks. We’re eager to learn more about the transition from book to movie, which makes a number of changes to P.L Travers’s original work. Such adjustments are common enough in movie adaptations. But the differences between the Mary Poppins penned by P.L. Travers and the one filmed by Walt Disney go beyond simply condensing the plot to fit the time constraints of films. Saving Mr. Banks promises to tell some of the story.

Like many authors, Travers was loath to see her book change at all in preparation for the big screen, but Disney’s screenwriters had their reasons to tweak her masterpiece. Beyond standard concerns about time constraints, one major worry was the fear that the concept of a nanny would be too foreign to families in the 1960's to grasp. So Mrs. Banks’s character, as justification for needing assistance, was transformed from the meek, rather silly figure she cuts in the book into a devoted suffragette too busy to tend to her children – a role script writers must have hoped would strike a chord in audiences at that time.

Another major difference is the tone at the end. In the movie, Mary Poppins flies off under the power of her parrot-handled umbrella, her absence scarcely noticed by the blissful, kite-flying family below her. The Banks adults have learned to be the kind of parents their children need, and Mary’s work is done. This kind of emphasis on the importance of family is a hallmark of Disney and would have resonated with American families at the time of the movie’s release. Those who haven’t read the book may be surprised, however, to learn that it ends quite differently. Travers’s pages reveal a distraught Michael being comforted by a very slightly less so Jane when they discover that Mary, true to her word, has flown the coop when the wind changed. Jane, it is suggested, is starting to grow up and may not need a nanny any more, but Michael and his infant twin siblings (who were cut from the movie) surely will. The children have had a lot of wonderful adventures under Mary’s supervision, but she has wrought no lasting changes in the family’s dynamic by the end of the book.

Beyond plot differences, Travers’s Mary herself was far removed from the version dreamed up in Disney’s studios. Julie Andrews portrays hints of the original Mary’s sharpness, but she’s warm and wonderful beneath it all. We certainly loved the first Mary – it seemed clear to us that she was deeply caring beneath her strict demeanor – but less discerning kids may miss this subtlety that Andrews makes so apparent in the movie. Mary in the book is vain, forever admiring her own appearance, and is often very short with the children. She threatens to send Jane home from a shopping trip when Jane tentatively points out that they are going to the wrong shop for gingerbread. (The one to which Mary brings them is full of magic and wonder for the children, though Mary brushes off their amazement somewhat haughtily.) She is offended when Jane and Michael, the day after the elevated tea party portrayed in the movie, ask if her uncle is frequently so filled with laughing gas that he levitates; she snaps that her uncle is a sober, responsible man and that she’ll thank them not to make up silly stories about him. Still, these mood swings seem part of Mary’s mystery, and the children in the book are no less delighted by the magic she brings to their lives than the actors in the movie accompanied by the more genial Andrews.

Characters who get only small bits of screentime in the movie are delightfully fleshed out in the book, another major difference. For example, we love the story of Andrew, the coddled dog from next door who longs to be a common dog; his rebellious speech to his overbearing owner is translated by Mary, who, of course, can understand his barking. Fanny and Annie, mentioned in a single line of a song in the movie, are major characters in one of the book’s chapters, initially selling gingerbread to the children and then helping their mother to hang stars in the sky in the middle of the night. And many episodes from the book simply didn’t make the screenwriters’ cut, such as Mary’s late-night birthday party with the animals at the zoo, or the ten-minute trip she takes around the world with the children in tow. Kids who missed the book will be delighted to follow Mary and her charges on these additional, fanciful adventures.

We encourage families to revisit both the Mary Poppins movie and book. The passage of time has not tarnished the charm of either, different as they are. The book is on a sixth grade reading level, so parents of younger kids may wish to read it aloud. It would be great fun to watch the movie afterward and discuss both with youngsters. Ask them what differences they noticed, why they think the movie changed the book’s characters and events, and which they prefer. And unlike the movie, the original book is the first in a series, so kids can continue to enjoy the magic of Mary Poppins after they’ve turned the last page of the original.

Some of the information above came from a fascinating New Yorker article by Caitlin Flanagan.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Related Services

Both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), the two federal laws that families rely upon when their children need help in school because of learning or other disabilities, mandate that children be provided with "special education and related services." We've written before about both of these laws and how they work, but our focus here is on the related services that both laws require schools to provide for students.

What are related services? The IDEA defines such services as:

"...transportation, and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services (including speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, social work services, school nurse services designed to enable a child with a disability to receive a free appropriate public education as described in the individualized education program of the child, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services, except that such medical services shall be for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only) as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes the early identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children.

The IDEA specifically notes that related services do not  include a medical device that is surgically implanted, or the replacement of such device. These devices can include a cochlear implant for students with hearing loss or an insulin pump for students with diabetes. Section 504 refers to "related services" without such an extensive definition, but districts generally apply the same definitions as they do to IDEA services.

Let's look at each of these services and see how they might apply to your child.

Transportation above and beyond regular bus service provided for all children may include bus service to and from school in a regular bus, or service in a bus with a bus aide, or transportation to school related activities. For students who have been placed by their district or parents in private special education schools, this can include transportation beyond the distances generally allowable to other students. Note that special transportation services must be specifically provided for in a student's IEP or 504 Plan; such service is not automatic.

Speech-language services include a wide variety of services provided by a licensed speech and language pathologist. These services are generally provided in small groups, but can be individual. They go beyond correcting difficulties with articulation and can be very helpful to students with expressive language problems of all kinds. Note that the IEP or 504 Plan needs to specify the frequency and duration of such services and the student-therapist ratio. In an IEP this can look like: "Student will be provided with speech-language services three periods of 45 minutes per week in 5:1 setting (ie: one speech therapist working with a group of five students)." Usually, the smaller the group, the more intensive the services provided.

Audiology, interpreting, and orientation and mobility services are provided to students with hearing and/or vision difficulties or blindness.

Occupational therapy is often provided to students with graphomotor (handwriting) issues and can assist these students with both handwriting and keyboarding.

Physical therapy helps students with mobility, balance, and movement difficulties manage their movements around the school. Note that these services, as well as the other services discussed, all must be specified in the IEP or 504 Plan as to frequency, ratio, and duration.

Other related services that can be included in an IEP or 504 Plan can include counseling, social work, and psychological services, all of which can be provided to any student who needs them. Medical services can also be provided, but are limited to diagnostic services. This distinction between educational and medical services is consistent with the focus of the IDEA on providing only those services which help as student to obtain a benefit from his or her education.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Math Games

For your gaming pleasure, here’s our latest list of recommended math games! All of the games below are web-based, so no downloading is necessary, though you will need an internet connection. Have fun!

Cool Math Games  - grades 2 - 7

Students can practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and work with negative numbers and decimals, with this huge selection of games. One we particularly enjoyed, Crazy Taxi, let us drive a cab into cars that had specific multiples on them while avoiding cars that didn’t fit the pattern.

Caution: Parents, be aware that this site is host to plenty of games that have little to no educational value, too. Keep an eye on screens to be sure kids choose games that have merit, or make a list of games your child is allowed to play before turning them loose.

Funbrain  – grades 1 - 8

The math arcade is the best part of this large site. Students will start on the first square of this digital “gameboard” and progress forward as they pass challenges. (The game will save kids’ place if playing is interrupted.) This format gives students less control over which games they play, but provides great incentive to keep trying. The challenges are refreshingly inventive.

Caution: Same as above. Monitor screens to be sure kids don’t stray into playing other games that are simply for fun.

Decimal Squares  – any student struggling with decimals

This site links to eight very high quality games all about decimals. Decimal Squares gives kids a fun way to work on traditionally tricky concepts like place value and estimation through fun games like blackjack and darts. There are also some two-player games here, which provide motivation and discourage mindless clicking.

Subtangent  -3rd grade and up

There are quite a few fun, unusual math games to choose from on this site. We found Broken Calculator to be especially enjoyable. The player is shown a calculator with missing keys and challenged to make certain numbers using only the few number and sign keys left. We also liked Matching Game which challenges students play a version of memory by turning over digital cards to look for matches like equivalent fractions, multiplication facts and their answers, shapes and their names, etc.

Remember, you can always visit our Resources page for links to our favorite games and resources for math, reading, writing, studying, and more!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Welcome to the German Gymnasium—Now Get Lost!

Today we have a guest blogger, Darrel Moellendorf , who writes about his family's experiences with German education.

I recently accepted a position as a professor at a German university. This is relatively unusual for an American, but several of the most prominent German universities are seeking to “internationalize” their faculties and student bodies in an effort to compete with their U.S. and British counterparts. I have been warmly welcomed and supported by my university. My son’s experience with the German school system could not be more different.

A bit of background is in order. He was an “A” student in California. And although he was 12 when we moved here, he had been learning German in school since age four and visited the country often. So, his German is very good, and he is proud to speak without the typical American accent. He also has minor learning challenges, which earlier in his school career required support in order to keep him organized and on track in school. His most obvious and enduring problem is dysgraphia. By the time we left California the only accommodation he still required was for his handwriting.

The public educational system in Germany is very different than that of the U.S. Children are tracked from grade five onwards into three streams, one of which is the college track. Traditionally these kids go the Gymnasium (grades 5-12 or 13). Future technical and office workers go the Realschule and go to an apprenticeship after 10th grade. Future tradespeople and laborers go to Hauptschule and go an apprenticeship after grade 9. The apprenticeship system seems very good at providing vocational skills. There was a reform in the 1970s that created unified comprehensive or Gesamtschule, where the tracking is internal.

After arriving in Germany we sent our son to the local public Gymnasium, which has a reputation for being one of the best. We now understand that part of what people seem to understand as "best" includes it being very traditional, with an incredibly narrow approach to the kind of learner that fits and an amazing amount of discretion in the hands of the teachers.

We were surprised to find that 50-65% of a student’s semester grade in each class depends upon class participation, defined mostly—but not only—as raising one’s hand. The best justification that we have heard of this grading practice is that it encourages important discursive abilities. But among my son’s many friends it is widely viewed as corrupt, allowing a wide field of arbitrary assessment in which teachers reward their favorite students and punish those whom they dislike.

Being somewhat reticent to speak in class when he was new, our son began to be perceived by his teachers—despite the obvious explanation of being in a foreign environment—as an inadequate student. His music teacher used the sophisticated pedagogical technique of pubic shaming to announce in front of the entire class that unless he participated more he would certainly fail her class. Incidences such as these, of course, did nothing to bolster his self-confidence.

The hostility to him has been distressingly widespread. We asked his German teacher if he could have some additional time for writing an upcoming test. She said that she had not heard of many cases of such handwriting difficulty and seemed a bit incredulous. Although she agreed to give him a little extra time, when the day came she did not honor the request. Given the conditions, we did not expect a high mark, but we were surprised when he received a nearly failing grade. So, we showed the test to a retired German teacher and a teacher of German as a second language, and both, independently, said that the grading made no accommodation for German not being his native language. Both noted too that it was evident that the arduous task of writing had interfered with the exposition.

We subsequently learned that there is no official legal recognition of dysgraphia here in Germany and people at Gymnasium seem never to have heard of it! Kids who have such difficulties either get pushed along another track or find a means of survival in the Gymnasium environment, which can be openly hostile to learning differences.

We formally requested that the school accommodate our son simply by allowing him to type his homework and by granting him more time to write his tests. Between the time of that request and the formal answer, our son’s history teacher announced to the entire class that even if our son had a learning disability, his main problem is laziness.

Because we did not see ourselves as requesting that heaven and earth be moved, we were dumbstruck when the teachers and the principal turned down the request. Not only was it rejected on grounds that the diagnosis providing its justification is from an American doctor, the teachers and the principal also opined that the real problem is that our son simply is not working hard enough. In reality, he works very hard just to perform the writing they demand of him.

Although dysgraphia is not legally recognized in Germany, schools are legally required to accommodate disabled students. EU member states, such as Germany, are signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). [Editor’s note: which the United States, incredibly, has not joined!] The EU Disability Strategy 2010-2020 was developed to implement the UNCRPD, and it calls for an inclusive education for children with disabilities. But, so far, the culture of elitism in the gymnasium system has not yielded much to the demands of human rights. And it seems that most German parents who do not want to foreclose the opportunity of their children going to college but whose children don't fit the narrow learning profile send their children to the Gesammtschule rather than having them go through the humiliation of the Gymnasium.

When we discussed the situation with our son’s pediatrician, she was not at all surprised. Her husband--who is a professor of education--wrote a book criticizing such practices in schools and it was considered very controversial. Apparently, many teachers see it as part of their professional prerogative to treat children in that manner. She said that in her experience, students who deviate even slightly from the standard learning profile are told by means of shame, humiliation, and hostility that they don’t belong in the Gymnasium. Eventually they leave, and the teachers have one less problem to deal with.

One important function of human rights is to protect those who are vulnerable to the arbitrary use of power. Children who are struggling to succeed in a hostile environment, made possible because of the wide latitude for arbitrary evaluation by adults, are especially vulnerable. If a socially privileged American kid with minor learning difficulties is made to suffer so at the hands of adult educators, the plight of children far less fortunate must be much worse. The message these kids are being sent is you’re different; you don’t belong here—get lost!

About the author:
Darrel Moellendorf is Professor of International Political Theory 
at Goethe University Frankfurt

Monday, December 9, 2013

Specific Learning Disabilities in College

As we have written before, students who have graduated high school are no longer covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which comes to an end either upon graduation or when students who will not be graduating with a standard diploma "age out" of their eligibility for public education under their state's laws (usually age 21). Instead, students in college are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The protections afforded by the ADA are broad, but there is one particular area where it differs from the IDEA that can make college entrance and college completion a problem for students who have specific areas of learning challenge.

The IDEA permits modifications to curriculum. So, for example, a student with a language disability may not be required to take a foreign language in high school, or a student with a disability of mathematics may not be required to take the same math courses as their classmates; the curriculum for each of these students can be modified in their area of specific learning disability. Note that these students may not be eligible for certain academic diplomas if their curriculum is significantly different than that of their classmates, but they are usually still eligible for a "local" diploma, one that is accepted by colleges, employers, and the military.

The ADA does not require colleges to make any modifications to curriculum. It requires accessibility, in both a physical and academic sense, but a student must be "otherwise qualified" for admission and graduation. What that means is that colleges can set standards for qualifications for students they admit, and they need not admit students who are lacking certain courses (staying with our example, this could be students who are lacking advanced math or foreign language courses), and even if such students are admitted, they may not be permitted to graduate without taking required courses or obtaining a waiver of such requirements from a college committee charged with granting such waivers.

This issue is of particular concern to some students in community colleges. These colleges are generally "open enrollment" in that they accept all high school graduates from their community. Because they do not rely on the stricter standards of selective colleges, they need a way to make sure students are prepared for college work. For students who have taken SAT or ACT exams, good scores in these exams are a way to demonstrate such preparation. Students who cannot submit strong scores on standardized tests, often because their learning disabilities impact their performance, must take placement tests to demonstrate their proficiency in areas such as reading, writing, and math. Those who cannot pass these tests are required to take remedial coursework and to pass such remedial courses in order to fully matriculate. Then, like all college students, they must also take the courses required for their major in order to graduate. Furthermore, students have to pay for remedial coursework just like they pay for regular courses, but do not receive credits towards their diplomas for these. And, often, they are limited in how many times they can take a particular course -- a "three strikes and you're out" approach.

The issue requires a balancing between the legal right of a college to set standards for admission and graduation and the rights of students with specific learning or other disabilities to be able to access a college education. There is no easy answer and it raises some fundamental questions that we expect courts to deal with at some point in the future.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Dr. Yellin Contributes to New Book on Medical Education

We are pleased to announce the publication this week of Remediation in Medical Education: A Mid-Course Correction, featuring a chapter by Dr. Paul Yellin on "Learning Differences and Medical Education."

As many of our readers are aware, Dr. Yellin works regularly with medical students and other young adults in professional and graduate schools, helping them to deal with newly discovered or long-standing academic challenges to their academic success. In his chapter, he describes the wide range of normal variation in how medical students learn, describing both "learning variations" and "learning disabilities." He discusses various aspects of learning, which he calls "constructs" -- memory, attention, language, temporal-sequential ordering, spatial ordering, and higher order cognition -- and how difficulties in any of these constructs can impact academic success in light of the demands of medical training. He goes on to discuss the legal implications of a disability of learning and to offer strategies and resources for both medical students who struggle and their instructors.

Remediation in Medical Education edited by Adina Kalet, MD, MPH and Calvin Chou, MD, PhD (Springer, 2014), covers a wide range of issues relating to medical education, from how medical schools can provide remediation for struggling students, to how cultural issues can impede effective communication, to medical students with underlying disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders, that affect their interpersonal interactions. Both editors have worked extensively in the field of medical education and effective communication between physicians and patients.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

IEP and 504 - What Parents Ask

Your blogger presented a webinar earlier today for ADDitude Magazine, for which she writes the "Your Legal Rights" column.  The topic was "IEP vs. 504 Plans: Which Does Your ADHD/LD Child Need and How to Go About Getting It." Hundreds of parents listened in and many of them had questions, some of which are no doubt shared by most parents who deal with these two laws. There is a link to hear the complete webinar but in the meantime, some of the most common questions -- and their answers -- were:

Can a student have both a 504 Plan and an IEP at the same time?
No. Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) specifically states that having an IEP (an Individualized Education Program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- IDEA) satisfies the requirements of Section 504. So, if a student would qualify for services under both laws, the student should get an IEP.

Which law would apply to a student with ADHD? 
It depends on the extent to which the student requires special education or related services because of his ADHD. If the student's attention problem is so significant that it seriously impacted his ability to learn, or if the student also has a specific learning disability, he would qualify for an IEP under the category of Other Health Impaired or Specific Learning Disability. [IDEA requires that a student fall within one of ten categories of disability in order to receive services.] If the student has ADHD but the impact is less significant and doesn't rise to the level of his needing special education services because of it, he would generally not qualify for an IEP but would be eligible to receive services under Section 504.

How do I start the process of getting my child an IEP or a 504 Plan?
First, parents should have met with their child's teacher and discussed how things are going in school. Once they have done so, if they believe that their child needs a 504 Plan they should make a written request to their school's 504 Team. Most schools have specific forms for this and you can obtain them from the school office or even the school website. Complete the form, along with any documentation you may have, and submit it to the 504 Team. You may be invited to their meeting, but the law does not require this and the procedure varies from place to place. The 504 Team will decide if more information is needed (and any evaluations they require will be at school expense) and will decide upon a plan for your child. 

To begin the IEP process, parents need to advise the school -- the guidance office or principal is generally the point of contact -- that they believe that their child requires special education services and sign a consent for their child to be evaluated. The evaluation process must be completed within 60 days of the consent and is followed by a meeting which includes the parents, to decide whether the student qualifies for IDEA services and to create the IEP, which must be in writing.

We have a written a number of blogs, linked below, which deal with some of these topics, including:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Social-Emotional Education

While academic skills are an important part of what schools need to impart to their students, there are a number of competencies that are as important -- and sometimes more so -- in helping children become happy, successful adults. These competencies are generally referred to as "social-emotional learning" and have been the subject of much attention from schools, researchers, and organizations in all areas of education. Here at The Yellin Center, we look at social and emotional issues as potential areas of strength or challenge for all of the students we see, and have long noted the importance of what we call social cognition as a part of success in school and life.

CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, is an organization whose mission is "to help make social and emotional learning an integral part of education from preschool through high school."

"Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.

Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.

Responsible decision making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others."

CASEL works with schools, districts, and policy makers at state, federal and local levels to advance legislation and programs that promote social-emotional education in schools. Their work is highlighted in the first of a series of reports entitled From Practice to Policy, from the National Association of State Boards of Education.

No discussion, however brief, of social-emotional competence can be complete without mention of Daniel Goleman, a co-founder of CASEL and generally credited with popularizing the term "emotional intelligence" or "EQ" (as opposed to "IQ) in his best-selling 1995 book of the same name. By bringing the concept of emotional intelligence into popular culture, he helped to lay the groundwork for applying its tenets to education and business, and facilitating research into the connections between social-emotional competence and brain development. And, in his new book, Focus, Goleman discusses how the pathways that regulate social cognition and attention are interrelated. Dr. Yellin has read it and strongly recommends it.