Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Holidays from The Yellin Center

Each year before our holiday break, we set aside our serious blogging about learning, education, and related topics and indulge in a bit of poetic fun. This year our holiday blog author is Learning Specialist Lindsay Levy, Ed.M.

It’s just before Christmas
So as per tradition
We offer a rhyme
For some holiday wishin’

As this year concludes
And a new one comes near
We think about time
And the things we hold dear

Every day that goes by
We can learn something new
We’re so glad to help students
To learn as they do

In their time at our Center
They teach us as well
With the thoughts that they share
And the tales that they tell

With the drawings they chalk
On our board in the hall
They share their creations
We value them all

“Oh the thinks they can think!”
(In the fine words of Seuss)
We think of their thinks
And we find no excuse…

Not to give a big THANK-YOU
To all those who raise them
At home, school, and elsewhere
We must stop to praise them

Here’s wishing you all
A most wonderful season
Filled with good cheer
And for very good reason!

The Yellin Center will be closed from Wednesday, December 24th through Thursday, January 1st. We will reopen on Friday, January 2nd. We will, as always, monitor telephone calls to our general number (646-775-6646) and our general email box (info@yellincenter.com). See you in 2015!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Learn to Code With Codecademy

What's the most useful language to learn? There's a reasonable argument to be made for Mandarin, but we think the answer might be Javascript. Or HTML. Programming skills are increasingly important to know in the digital age, and jobs that didn't have tech components in the past are increasingly asking for candidates who understand basic programming.

Luckily, Codecademy can give young people an edge. Codecademy is a free web-based program that teaches users Javascript, Ruby, Python, CSS, and other languages. Its also available as an app for iOS devices. In addition to learning coding languages, users can learn to build an interactive website, a Rails application, and more.

Codecademy's founders Ryan Bubinski and Zach Sims believe people learn best by doing. So Codecademy's students discover concepts by actually building things, all the while getting feedback from their peers. Learners can join the millions of other Codecademy users in study groups, question-and-answer forums, and more. While those with a background in coding may find Codecademy a bit basic, neophytes are sure to find the site both eye-opening and enjoyable.

01000011 01101111 01100100 01100101 01100011 01100001 01100100 01100101 01101101 01111001 00100000 01010010 01101111 01100011 01101011 01110011!

(Translation: Codecademy rocks!)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Kindergarten Readiness: A Framework from Sesame Workshop

Preparing children for school, and ensuring they have the skills required to be a successful learner, can be a challenge for every parent. Parents are often left wondering what abilities their child needs to have mastered before entering school, leaving them with high levels of anxiety about how to best prepare their child for school, and what the commencement of kindergarten will bring.

Sesame Workshop, the educational research organization behind Sesame Street, commissioned the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to examine school readiness in today’s children. Their findings where released in the Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry report in July 2014. The report reveals discrepancies in kindergarten readiness, with 44% of children entering school with one or more risk factors that have the potential to impact their success in school.

In response to the data and in acknowledgement of the anxiety parents face around school readiness, Sesame Workshop decided to make their personal Kindergarten Readiness Framework available to the public. This document is the culmination of over 45 years of their independent research on early learning. Previously, Sesame Workshop has used this guide as their internal framework to help ensure that the content they produce is developmentally appropriate and supports the educational growth of their young audience. The document is robust, and highly supported by current research.

It does an excellent job of breaking down and detailing twenty key school readiness skills that are thought to help promote success in school settings. Furthermore, each content area (language, math, science, health, emotional regulation etc.) is sectioned by age, and offers developmentally appropriate skills that a child should be achieving in years two through five.

Hopefully, this guide is able to answer some of your questions about kindergarten readiness, and the key skills your child needs before entering the classroom. However, it is important to note that children progress and develop at different rates. Therefore, if you find that your child isn’t preforming at a level described in the framework, don't  be alarmed. This is only a guide, not a diagnostic tool. It is also only one tool of many to help you determine your child’s readiness for school. If you are still left with concerns over your child’s kindergarten readiness, you should start by talking to your child's pediatrician about how your child is developing and acquiring skills.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Youth Tobacco Use

The dangers of tobacco use are well documented and widely understood. A recent article in PLoS Medicine adds just one more data point to the argument against cigarette smoking: in Asia, where smoking is more widespread than in the United States, approximately two million premature deaths in recent years can be attributed to cigarette use. Victims generally died of cancer, cardiovascular disease, or respiratory disease. Men who had a history of smoking were nearly twice as likely to die from cancer as men who had never smoked and were fifty percent more likely to die from respiratory diseases.

According to the Center for Disease Control , cigarette use among youth in the United States has seen encouraging declines in recent years. It is particularly important to track rates of tobacco use among young people because nearly all adult smokers begin using tobacco during their youths. CDC surveys show that nine of out ten adult smokers began using cigarettes by the time they were 18 years old, and 99% of smokers had begun smoking by age 26.

Cigarette smoking among youth declined between 2000 and 2011, which is certainly a positive trend. However, the use of electronic cigarettes, a product whose advisability is hotly debated among health care professionals, and which are often manufactured in China without oversight as to safety issues, doubled between 2011 and 2012. During that same period, hookah use among high school-aged youth increased as well. In 2012, the most recent year for which data were available, 6.7% of middle school students and 23.3% of high school students used tobacco products.

Declines in cigarette use are certainly good news, but the risks that accompany tobacco use are frightening enough that parents, teachers, and mentors must continue to work with physicians to ensure that teens understand them. Resources are available through the Surgeon General, including conversation cards for parents and doctors to guide talks with young people about tobacco. Adults can also help by reporting sales of tobacco to underage customers, which is illegal in every state; consumers who witness an illegal tobacco sale in New York, which includes sale of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes to minors or sale of loose cigarettes, should call 1-800-458-1158.

Photo credit: Wlodi via Flickr CC

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools

Last week your blogger and Dr. Yellin attended a program on "American Education and the Separation of Church and State" sponsored by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Hunter College here in New York.

The two speakers brought very different perspectives on the issue. Professor Philip Hamburger,
Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law and a nationally recognized expert on the separation of church and state, discussed the origins of the concept of separating religion from government and how this issue has been dealt with in the courts over the years. His scholarly presentation gave this issue context and an historical perspective.

The second speaker was Matthew Yellin, Social Studies Teacher and Curriculum Coordinator at Hillside Arts and Letters Academy (HALA), a New York City public high school in Jamaica, Queens (and son of your blogger and Dr. Yellin). HALA is one of New York City's new small schools, with a current enrollment in grades 9-12 of 470 students with over 40 nationalities represented. More than 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of the economic challenges faced by the students and their families. HALA has had only one graduating class thus far, with a graduation rate of 83% (well above the average rate for New York City). As Matt noted, at any point in time, his classes have students with at least five different religions present, usually Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Buddist, as well as one or more Caribbean traditions.

Matt noted that teacher education programs rarely mention First Amendment issues and both teachers and students have what he calls "Folk Understandings" about talking about religion in the public school classroom. As a result, when religion is mentioned at all, it is in "fact bundles", a collection of facts which are taught because they are going to be on the New York State Regents exam: "The three tenets of this religion are...." He notes that this may make even students who follow that religion uncomfortable since they may practice it another way, and the use of fact bundles makes discussion difficult and dry. Instead, he suggests that there is room for meaningful teaching about religion that would include allowing open issues for discussion and talking about religious conflicts in the students' own communities. Further, he noted that the establishment clause does not apply to students and students can and should be encouraged to discuss religion through interview projects and personal narratives. Finally, he noted that  a school that has made respectful interaction the norm in classroom discussions makes all kinds of conversations easier, since students have learned to listen and respect the views of their classmates. 

The full program is available on the website of the Institute and in the link below. 

Matt Yellin's Presentation Begins at Minute 28

  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions
  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions
  • Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, plus a variety of other (mostly Caribbean) traditions

Monday, December 8, 2014

Books to Teach Social Skills

The Importance of Building Social Understanding

Developing social skills is a critical part of child development. However, it can be complicated to explain to students the importance and relevance of different behavior modifications in an engaging, meaningful way. As a classroom teacher, I often relied heavily on creative books to help set the stage and open a dialogue with students about behavior and behavior management. The following are a sampling of books that tackle multiple social areas that can be hard to explain to students. In my classroom, I always read social development stories in a whole class setting, and then engaged in a teacher directed discussion about the lesson behind each tale. Furthermore, having a framework of a story can be beneficial as a reference when giving students directives about the behaviors. For example, the story Decibella and her 6-inch Voice introduces a five-point voice scale to students, so often when I wanted to temper the vocal volume of student I would ask them where their voice was on the Decibella scale, and follow that prompt up with where it should be. It was a strong tool in helping manage the classroom environment, while also promoting behavioral self-monitoring in my students.

Book Recommendations
Skill taught: Understanding and Expressing Emotions

Grades: Preschool through Third Grade

Summary: An excellent book, with beautiful illustrations to teach students about complex emotions such as pride, fear, pain, curiosity, anger and disappointment. The story also gives students a way to articulate the emotions they are feeling, and an understanding how one might act when feeling a particular way. The text uses bias-free language and vocabulary to give students a framework to express their feelings.

Skill taught: Behavior Management

Grades: Preschool through Fifth Grade

Summary: An accompaniment to The Way I Feel, this book explains and details character traits such as compassion, curiosity, capability and bravery. The story uses beautiful illustrations and verse to describe behavior in different contexts and how different types of children act differently. Furthermore, the text defines new vocabulary describing behavior in a judgment-free way, and gives students a new wealth of language to describe their own actions. 

My Mouth is a Volcano by Julia Cook and Carrie Hartman
Skill taught: Managing thoughts and words without interrupting

Grades: Preschool and up

Summary: An award winning book created to teach children about controlling their thoughts and expressing their ideas at an appropriate time. The book is written in friendly, witty verse that is accompanied by beautifully illustrated imagery. The story provides teachers, parents and interventionists a fun way to teach students to listen to others and wait their turn to speak. 

Decibella and her 6-inch Voice by Julia Cook and Anita De Falla
Skill taught: Listening and Communication

Grades: Kindergarten through third grade

Summary: A colorfully illustrated and thoughtfully written story about a girl who learns to use and her adjust her voice to communicate with confidence. This story teacher students about the five voice volumes, and how one must adjust their levels for different settings. The story uses humor to teach students effective communication techniques, and also provides a section of tips for parents and teachers. 

Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook and Carrie Hartman

Skill taught: Respecting personal Space

Grades: Preschool and up

Summary: An exceptional book that uses humor to teach children about respecting and maintaining personal space in a way that is witty and engaging.

Grades: Kindergarten and up

Summary: A great team building book that uses humor to teach students the value of working together and sharing their resources. This book is part of Ms. Cook’s Best Me I Can Be! collection, which includes many other titles that are also worth exploring. The additional titles cover topics such as peer pressure, making friends, asking for help and receiving feedback.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Toys for Learning and Development

In our last post we offered gift suggestions for teachers. Today we look at two sources for gifts for children with special learning needs. We hope you find these helpful as you do your holiday shopping!

Learning should and can be fun. Even if learning vulnerabilities exists, it is entirely possible to help develop your child’s skills in an engaging, play-based manner. Toys are an interactive, screen free way to develop and hone critical areas of child development. As a teacher, some of my favorite play-based learning materials came from Melissa and Doug and Plan Toys. This article primarily focuses on toys for special education purposes. However, it is important to note that all children will benefit from play-based developmental learning. So, although these resources are deemed effective for students with diverse learning needs, they will also be beneficial for the overall development of all children.

If you are looking to acquire play based learning materials for your home or classroom, the first resource to explore is Melissa and Doug, an award-winning American toy company that offers an array of toys designed for special needs students as well as typically developing children. The toys detailed in their special education section were selected from Melissa and Doug’s traditional toy line by Dr. Melissa Liguori, for parents and special educators to use develop their students’ unique skills. Melissa and Doug offers toys across a number of developmental categories, including, social and emotional, oral, gross and fine motor skills, cognitive skills, speech and language, life skills and sensory awareness. Beyond detailing each toy, each developmental skill category is also explained by Dr. Liguori and tips are offered on how to implement and utilize the resources available. For an even deeper analysis and more robust skill building tips I found that as an educator the Melissa and Doug Special Needs Toy Guide was an invaluable resource.

Your next resource to explore is Plan Toys, another award winning toy company that prides itself on designing green, sustainable and safe wooden toys for young children. On the Plan Toys website you will find listings of toys that promote learning across different key areas of child development. Many of the categories are similar to Melissa and Doug, and unlike the former there isn’t any additional material on how to implement the resources. However, the materials that Plan toys offers that I have found to be valuable are a variety of their toys for concentration, their sign language alphabet tiles, their braille alphabet tiles and their mood memo toy for helping express emotions.

Learning is fun, and it doesn’t have to look like traditional pencil and paper work. There are a variety of resources and methods to promote skill development while playing. Enjoy exploring all the alternative learning materials available.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gifts Teachers Really Appreciate

Giving holiday or end-of-year gifts to your child’s teacher is certainly not expected in most schools and may actually be prohibited in some public schools, but when you decide you want to show your gratitude to that extra-special teacher, finding the right gift can be tough. For those occasions when the “#1Teacher” mug or ubiquitous apple just won’t cut it, here are some fresh ideas:

Supplies: Too many teachers use their own paychecks to pay for classroom supplies. Put together a box of assorted classroom essentials like dry erase markers, pencils, sticky notes, staples, and packs of binder paper that are sure to go to good use. Or let the teacher choose his own supplies by presenting him with a gift card to an office supply store. Another idea is to set up a donation page and spread the word among other parents in the class. For example, www.adoptaclassroom.org provides a platform for raising tax-deductible donations that teachers can use for classroom supplies and equipment.

Books: If your child’s teacher maintains a classroom library, donate gently used books your child has outgrown. (If not, the school library may appreciate them; ask the librarian.)

Faculty Lounge Treats: If you’ve got several children at the same school, show your appreciation for all of their teachers, as well as for the administrative staff, by sending a supply of high-quality coffee and an assortment of good tea for the teachers’ lounge. Ask someone who works in the office what kind of coffee machine is available to the teachers to ensure you send something they can use. A fruit or vegetable tray or a fruit bouquet is also a generous gesture.

Customized Stamp: Writing his name in every book that belongs in his classroom is a time-consuming chore for your child’s teacher. Save him precious minutes by giving him a self-inking stamp that will allow him to mark books and other classroom supplies with ease. Most office supply stores will allow you to choose from a variety of customize-able stamps.

Donation of Your Time: Tell your child’s teacher that you appreciate all the work she puts in so much that you’d like to put in a little of your own. Many teachers will leap at the chance to involve another pair of adult hands in a big project or experiment. (If you’re artistic, offer to collect the supplies for an art project and lead it yourself.) Another idea is to offer your help with time-consuming tasks like taking down a classroom display of student art and setting up a new one, designing a display bulletin board, or helping pack up the classroom at the end of the year. A very innovative idea is to ask if the school would allow you cover the teacher’s lunch or recess duty or study hall. The time off will give your child’s teacher the chance to squeeze in some grading or simply relax.

Pampering: Time to one’s self is rare for most busy teachers. A gift card to a local spa for a pedicure or a massage is almost always welcome.

A Night on the Town: If you find yourself with tickets to a concert or sporting event you can’t attend, ask the teacher if she’d like to use them before you try to sell them. Many teachers would also appreciate a gift card to a local restaurant.

A Handwritten Note: Most teachers go into teaching because they dream of making a difference in the lives of children. Let your child’s teacher know he succeeded with a letter that tells him just how much you appreciate him. Include a specific memory, like the way you felt when your child, formerly a reluctant reader, couldn’t stop talking about the book the class was reading. A note from your child (act as scribe if she’s too young to write it herself) would be the icing on the cake. For extra credit, send a copy of your letter, and your child’s note, to the principal. This free “gift” is likely to be the one the teacher will treasure most!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fairytale Mail

Fairytale Mail is a resource I developed as part of my language arts curriculum. In the primary grades I did an entire comprehensive unit on fairytales that infused readers' theatre (for oral language development), fractured fairytales (to teach storytelling and sequencing), and imaginative writing.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to motivate students to write. I have found that this activity provides enough scaffolding and support to enable even my students who struggled with writing to produce a strong final product. Also, following a staged writing process has been shown to be a successful method for supporting students through the writing process (Spandel, 2009). As such, this activity is structured into stages to help organize the students as they progress through their writing.

Description of Activity

Fairytale mail provides a fun, engaging way for students to learn how to craft formal correspondence. I would normally begin this lesson by reading my students the story The Jolly Postman to help familiarize them with letter writing and a variety of fairytale characters. Then the students will pick a character that they would like to be and craft a letter to another fairytale character.

Materials Needed
Decorative stationery
Lined paper

Read The Jolly Postman to the class. As a class, discuss letter writing and the reasons why people would send a letter.

Teacher Modelling
Model how to write a letter and highlight the areas that each letter needs to have (e.g. to whom it is addressed, the content, a sign off and a signature). This would also be the time to teach your preferred writing and editing procedures if you haven’t done so already.

Have students brainstorm the two characters they will use for this activity. I often have my students use a chart to organize their thoughts, so they can write down their two characters and a list of ideas that these characters would discuss. They are then able to pick one idea before moving on to the draft.

Allow the students time to write their draft on lined paper.

I always did a two staged editing process where the student self-edits first, and then either has a peer or myself edit a second time. The student then makes the appropriate corrections to their work to make it ready to “publish”.

Now the student can write their good copy on the Fairytale Mail handout. As part of the publishing processing, I also gave my students envelopes for them to address since learning how to address a letter so that a postman is able to deliver their correspondence is important. They would make up their own street names and addresses, and I always encouraged creativity.

For students who finish early I often would allow them to color their letter, create their own stamp for their mail or add embellishments to the envelopes that they feel would represent their character.

How this activity aligns with Common Core Standards:

Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure.

Write routinely over …. shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Spandel, V. (2009). Creating writers through 6-trait writing assessment and instruction (5th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Wunderlist: An App to Keep You Organized

Numerous apps exist for helping organize your busy life, but a standout among them is Wunderlist . Its ease of use and sharing capabilities make Wunderlist an invaluable resource for parents and young adults.

Wunderlist is a simple, powerful way to organize lists. Users can create separate lists and organize items within each list by due date. For example, a practical, daily to-do list might remind you to book a plane ticket for a friend's wedding tonight and to make a dentist appointment tomorrow when the office opens. But Wunderlist will also manage lists that aren't time sensitive, like the things you need from the grocery store and all the movies you've been wanting to watch. Users can access Wunderlist on tablets or phones via an app, or by logging onto the website. Changes to a list made from any device will sync automatically so you can rest assured that your lists are always up to date.

But the best reason to use Wunderlist is its collaboration capabilities. Users can invite others to create accounts, then make group lists and assign tasks to different members of the group. The app will send reminder emails, and the organizer of the group can easily see which delegated tasks have been completed. Parents of teenagers could assign tasks to their kids in advance (pick up milk on the way home, remember to talk to their math teacher after school, etc.) and program the app to send reminder emails. This would provide the nudge many kids need without parents having to nag.

Wunderlist is great for college students as well. It's easy to attach files to tasks, making the app an excellent tool for coordinating group projects. One innovative idea we came across involves creating a list of tasks for each day of the week. This is a great way for college students, who sometimes struggle to manage their time in a the structured environment found in higher education, to prevent procrastination.

Best of all, this highly recommended app is free! We hope you find it as useful as we do.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Quadrilateral Find Five: A Geometry Game

Quadrilateral Find Five
Quadrilateral Find Five is a game I developed for my geometry unit as part of my math curriculum. Identifying shapes and being able to connect the terminology with the visual representation are important skills that students must master. Furthermore, using games to teach math has long been a standard teaching strategy. Mathematical game play has been shown to support learners who struggle with motivation, promote positive attitudes toward math, and improve overall learning of mathematical concepts (Davies, 1995).

Description of Game

Quadrilateral Find Five provides a fun, engaging way for students to practice geometric naming and identification. Furthermore, providing students with opportunities to learn and hone their game play skills is also important to their overall development. Therefore, having students engage in a game-like activity will also reinforce the social learning of turn taking, sportsmanship, strategic play and peer collaboration.

In my own classroom, I have used Quadrilateral Find Five as an independent, stand-alone lesson, as an "early finisher" activity, and as one option in a math game day lesson. I found that my students really enjoyed this activity. As such, I wanted to have permanent game boards available to my students, as well as to be able to eliminate the time spent cutting out the game pieces from subsequent lessons. Therefore, after the first time I played this activity in a new class I would hand out one large zip top freezer bag, and two small sandwich size zip top bags to each pair. I would then ask each player to put their shape word pieces into one of the small bags and place the game board and the bag of shape word pieces in the large bag. This allowed me to easily store the activity for next time.

Materials Needed
  • One playing board per every two students
  • One set of word pieces for each student. These should be printed on different colored paper or in different ink colors to differentiate each player's word pieces 
  • Scissors 
  • Pair students with a partner and distribute materials. 
  • Have the students cut out their own word pieces and have each student place their word cards in their own pile directly in front of them. 
  • Explain the rules of the game and highlight the text at the top of the game board where the students can refer to the rules in case they forget. 
  • Each partner will take a turn pick up a word card from their own pile 
  • They will read their shape word, and locate a shape on the game board the corresponds with their word and place their game piece on it 
  • If a student inaccurately identifies a shape, they have to pick up their incorrectly placed word card and miss their turn 
  • The first student to find five consecutive shapes wins 
  • Allow the students’ time to play the game. If time is left, have the students find a new partner and play again. 
How this game aligns with Common Core Standards: 
  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.2.G.A.1 Recognize and draw shapes having specified attributes, such as a given number of angles or a given number of equal faces.1 Identify triangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons, and cubes. 
  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.G.A.1 Understand that shapes in different categories (e.g., rhombuses, rectangles, and others) may share attributes (e.g., having four sides), and that the shared attributes can define a larger category (e.g., quadrilaterals). Recognize rhombuses, rectangles, and squares as examples of quadrilaterals, and draw examples of quadrilaterals that do not belong to any of these subcategories. 

Davies, B. (1995). "The role of games in mathematics" Square One. Vol.5. No. 2

Game Board
You will need one board for each set of two players

Download a copy here: http://www.filedropper.com/findfivemathgame

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Numbers Game: Standardized Testing and Student Ability

Unless you happen to be particularly interested in educational policy in the state of Texas, it's likely that you missed news of a legislative hearing that took place in Austin in June 2012. The Texas House Public Education Committee had met to interview experts about the relationship between learning and standardized testing. Although Texas had injected new rigor into its state-wide tests, student achievement wasn't improving and the committee wanted to know why.

Dr. Walter Stroup, a tenured professor at the University of Texas, was one of those experts. When his turn came, he spoke about what standardized tests do and what they don't do. His research, he said, indicated that tests don't measure what the test-taker has learned. They measure how good the test-taker is at taking tests.

This was a controversial statement (particularly to an organization that had invested tens of millions of dollars on the tests in question), and Stroup's testimony launched a complicated series of events. A recent, lengthy article in the Texas Observer provides detailed information about the fallout, which is ongoing. But regardless of how things continue to play out in Texas, Stroup's perspective on testing reflects, in many ways, our perspective on assessment at the Yellin Center.

Assessments are the cornerstone of our work, and assessments include numbers. But, as each of the students and families with whom we work has no doubt heard Dr. Yellin say, "We're not big numbers people." This perspective is evident in our reports. We don't put the tables of scores front and center; instead, they appear in the back of the report. This format is deliberate. We don't present scores first because our reports are written to capture our authentic, three-dimensional impressions of a student and her mind, and numbers often fail to tell the whole story.

In fact, sometimes numbers tell a story that can be misleading. This can happen for myriad reasons, but here is one example: If a student has an expressive language disability, she'll have difficulty expressing her ideas. She is unlikely to be able to communicate the complexity of her thoughts and cognitive processes using language. But if she is given a full-scale IQ measure, she'll have to use words and sentences to respond to much of the test content. Her overall score is likely to be low because even if she is able to think of the right answers, she may not be able to articulate them. Her oral and written output will not reflect the intricacy of her mind. Simply reporting a low IQ score obtained with such measures for this student without putting this score in the context of her expressive language difficulties would do her an injustice.

We see this kind of scenario frequently at the Yellin Center. Parents will bring us their student and explain that the standardized test scores they've seen just don't fit the child they know. And so, we set to work. It's true that many of the measures a student completes during an assessment at the Yellin Center are standardized. But our clinicians are equally, if not more, interested in the qualitative information that can be gleaned than in the scores the measure yields. We analyze errors to find patterns, and we ask questions that many assessors may not, so that we can figure out how students attained the right answers and which aspects of tasks gave them difficulty. This approach allows us to view scores as just one piece of the puzzle as we work to determine an accurate, actionable cognitive profile for each student.

As Dr. Stroup suggests, standardized tests serve a purpose, but they shouldn't be used as standalone measures. It's pretty nice when a renowned expert affirms something you've been saying all along.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia

The phrase "research-based" is thrown around a lot, these days, but what does it really mean? And how can one be sure that educational programs and policies are soundly based on reliable research? Those without easy access to professional journals will find the Best Evidence Encyclopedia  to be an excellent resource for answering all manner of education questions.

You may be familiar with other resources for evaluating educational programs and policies. Our blog has featured posts about the What Works Clearinghouse, operated by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education and Usable Knowledge, a new initiative from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The BEE is designed to be an especially accessible resource of this kind.

The Best Evidence Encyclopedia, or BEE, is a free site created and maintained by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education (CDDRE). The goal of the site is to provide teachers, principals, policy makers, and researchers with balanced, authentic information that will help them choose curricula and tools that are most likely to work in K-12 classrooms. The BEE, which is organized by both academic discipline and grade level, is easy to navigate. Users can also search for a specific term, or browse the sections on early childhood education and comprehensive school reform.

In addition to being valid, the information shared by the BEE is refreshingly easy to understand. CDDRE staff members write summaries of the studies that meet the BEE's strict criteria, then send them to the studies' authors for approval before they are posted on the site. Not only can users read the summaries for free, but they may also access the full texts of each article.

A strong background in upper-level statistics is not needed to make sense of the BEE's conclusions. Their program rating scale is simple and straightforward; programs and curricula are rated based on the overall strength of the evidence supporting their effects on student achievement. For example, programs with sufficiently large treatment groups and significant effect sizes are described as having "strong evidence of effectiveness." Programs rated as having "limited evidence of effectiveness" are ones for which no convincing studies demonstrating their merit have been published. It should be noted that this doesn't mean the programs are poor, only that no substantial research has yet shown that they work.

Want to stay in the know? Sign up for the BEE's bi-weekly electronic newsletter. The Best Evidence in Brief offers a quick round-up for current news in education research. It's an excellent resource for those who want to look behind the headlines to learn practical information about what works in schools.

Educators and others who are interested in sound teaching practices couldn't ask for a sounder, or more useful, resource.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading Website Review: Tumblebook

About TumbleBook
TumbleBook is a suite of online, multi-functional reading applications designed for use in schools or in public libraries. Although this is a Canadian technology, all of the materials are adapted to U.S. educational standards and aligned with the Common Core. 

Grade Level: All
There are various Tumblebook collections, each designed for a different age group. They include:
  • TumbleBook Library: Elementary Grades
  • TumbleBook Cloud Junior: Grades three to six
  • TumbleBook Cloud: Middle School through High School 
  • AudioBook Cloud: All levels (including adult)
Content Areas: Reading (with additional math skill practice if desired)

Price: Varies depending on product and subscription level

Our Take:
The TumbleBook Library is a collection of over a thousand online, animated talking picture books designed for elementary aged students. In addition to the collection of books, the TumbleBook Library infuses games, videos and other activities to help increase student enjoyment in learning. Popular children’s books by authors such as Robert Munch and Melanie Watt are available.

TumbleBook Cloud and TumbleBook Cloud Junior are online collections of ebooks and chapter books, non-fiction books, graphic novels, educational videos, and audio books. Both versions offer full narration capabilities, and sentence-by-sentence highlighting so kids can follow along. Word highlighting is thought to improve student vocabulary and decoding abilities.

AudioBook Cloud is an online collection of over fourteen hundred audiobooks. The genres of audiobooks offered span from literature to science fiction to best sellers. Audiobooks are an alternate format for readers to engage in texts, and can be especially beneficial for students who struggle with reading decoding.

Advantages for Teachers or Librarians:

TumbleBook Library

  • Includes lesson plans, quizzes, educational games and puzzles related to both math and language skills for your students.
  • Has a common core portal that aligns content with common core standards
  • Has ESL and Special Education adaptations to help all types of learners engage with the content
  • Remote access is available so your students can have access to the resources at home, thus making TumbleBooks an alternative in your home reading program. 
  • Books are available in French and Spanish as well as English

TumbleBook Cloud and TumbleBook Cloud Junior
  • Includes lesson plans, quizzes, educational games and puzzles related to both math and language skills for your students.
  • Has a common core portal that aligns content with common core standards 
  • Includes features for ESL and Special Education students in order to help all types of learners engage with the content. For example: 
    • Text highlighting
    • Adjustable text size
    • Adjustable spacing and line size
    • Adjustable font
    • Ajustable background color
    • Optional narration
  • Both applications offer the ability for your students to attach notes while they are reading, thus improving their comprehension of the material.
  • Remote access is available so your students can have access to the resources at home. 
  • Students are able to bookmark their spot so they don’t lose their place.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Exciting Resources for Teaching Current Events

National News Engagement Day was October 7th, but just because we missed it this year doesn't mean it's too late to get young people thinking about current events. Devoting just one day to something as important as global news is silly, anyway; in our opinion, engagement with news should be ongoing. The New York Times has compiled a thoughtful list of fifty excellent ideas for teaching with current events. Many can be tweaked to suit students of different ages, and parents can use many of the ideas at home to help kids discuss and understand the news they see, hear, and read.

The list is divided into the following categories: Reading and Writing; Speaking and Listening; Games and Quizzes; Photographs, Illustrations, Videos, and Infographics; Design and Creativity; Making Connections; and Building Skills. Some ideas, like an assignment to write an editorial about a newsworthy issue, would be excellent to implement as a regular classroom routine. Others, like creating a news-inspired theatrical performance, would be fun one-time projects.

Of course, the ideas on this list can be used to support kids in exploring any news source, not only The New York Times. One of our favorite resources for non-fiction texts is NewsELA. The site allows teachers to adjust the readability of news articles to fit their students' reading levels; this means that students in the class can read differently leveled articles about the same topic and discuss it together, even if they have widely differing reading skills.

A recent Times experiment may also be of interest to educators. A new feature allows young people to pick the Times articles that interest them most and either tweet about them using the hashtag #NYTLNreads or post about them in the articles' comment sections. In a sentence or two, readers should explain why they think their peers would enjoy reading the article, too. Check out the page where, once a week, The Times features a compilation of articles selected by students in individual classrooms around the country.This feature is in its beta stage, but educators should investigate it and encourage their students to participate. Young people can also submit their choices independently.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Blends Bingo Game: Practicing Letter-Sound Connections

Description of Game
Blends Bingo provides a fun, play-based way for students practice their letter-sound connections. Letter-sound relationships are critical to the development of a child’s early reading skills. Mastery of this fundamental phonological awareness skill has been linked to overall success in reading decoding and comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000). A good analysis of the importance of developing a child’s phonemic awareness can be found in a research paper from Scholastic, titled Building Phonemic Awareness and Alphabet Recognition through Purposeful Play.

Blends Bingo was originally developed for special educators or reading specialists to use in small group settings. However, it can be easily adapted for a whole class setting. It is important to note that every sound is on every card. Therefore, you should expect to have multiple winners at a given time. The reason every sound appears on every card is that this is a purposeful play activity, which is an evidence based practice for improving literacy learning (Clawson, 2002). Purposeful play is a learning framework that offers activities with structured learning objectives, while prompting children to interact and play with the material. As such, Blends Bingo has the objective of each student participating by locating a new sound every time a new playing piece is drawn by the teacher. There is no waiting in this activity, and every child is able to continually work to manipulate sounds.

Blends Bingo also has merits in terms of formative assessment. Since the teacher should observe every student locating a sound every time a new card is drawn, they will be able to easily identify the students who cannot match the sound to the letters. This gives you valuable insight into which students are struggling and what sound blends are posing the most difficulty. In addition, this game can be paced by the educator, so if you observe a student missing certain sound blends the teacher could take the time to write down the student’s name and the blends that are proving challenging. This will serve as great informal assessment data, which can help teachers target which word families or sounds to work on with a given child.

Sample Game Board
Materials Needed 
  • One game board handout per student 
  • Crayons, markers or bingo chip (for the students to mark their sounds when they are called) 
  • One set of teacher game pieces
  • Create your teacher game pieces by cutting out the different sounds on the student handout 
  • Put teacher game pieces in box or bag 
  • Hand out one game board to each student 
  • Ask students to pull out a crayon or marker to use to color in their square when the sound is called 
  • Explain the rules of the game 
  • The teacher will pull a game piece from the box or bag, call out a sound, and repeat it slowly three times. 
  • Each student must locate the sound on their game board and color in the corresponding square 
  • First person to fill in an entire row wins 
  • Explain that the pictures are there to help as prompts since each picture represents a word that goes with that sound. 
Additional Game Variations: 
  • Have your students play “blackout” where they have to fill the entire card 
  • Have your students play “framing” where they have to fill in all the outer rows 
  • Give your students an entire word using a specific sound and see if they can locate it; avoid using the same word as the picture to ensure students are hearing the sounds and not relying on picture cues 
How this game aligns with Common Core Standards:

Clawson, M. (2002). "Play of language: Minority children in an early childhood setting". In J. L. Roopnarine (Ed.), Conceptual, social-cognitive, and contextual issues in the fields of play (Vol. 4, pp. 93-116). Westport, CT: Ablex.

National Reading Panel-NRP. (2000).Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implication for Reading Instruction. Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Monday, November 3, 2014

The New MCAT: What Future Doctors Need to Know

Medical training is filled with rites of passage. To become a physician, one must dissect cadavers, sit through endless lectures, and often incur substantial loans during medical school. Even after graduating, newly minted doctors need to survive on little sleep and money for years during residency. But the first challenge comes before medical school even begins: the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. And that rigorous test is about to get even more difficult. 

Observing that an older and more diverse population brings new challenges to the practice of medicine, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has rolled out some major changes to the MCAT; they hope the new test's results will allow medical schools to better determine which candidates are ready to learn to be effective doctors in today's world. The revised test will be administered for the first time in April of 2015, affecting those who hope to begin medical school in fall of 2016.

Changes to the Test

More Topics: In addition to content knowledge and critical thinking, areas tested by the old MCAT, the new one will feature questions about research design and graphical analysis/data interpretation. The lion's share of points will come from the verbal section and questions about biology, psychology, and biochemistry. Students should also be prepared to answer questions about organic chemistry, physics, and sociology, though there will be fewer of these. The AAMC says that the test will also draw clearer connections between scientific knowledge and its application to medicine.

More Time: The new test will take twice as long as the old MCAT. Standard administration will last a grueling 7.5 hours, including breaks. According to the AAMC, while there are more questions on the new MCAT, there will also be more time to answer each question.

More Prerequisites: Eight prerequisite courses prepared test-takers for the old MCAT. The new test covers more topics, and so the number of prerequisite courses jumps to eleven. Since course content varies by college, students should check to see how their school's science offerings line up with the AAMC's preparation recommendations.

New Scoring: Instead of being scored on a 1-45 scale, test takers can earn a maximum of 528 points on the new MCAT. Between 118 and 132 points are possible in each of the four sections.

General Study Tips

The new MCAT covers more material, meaning that cramming over the course of a few months is even less likely to be effective. The best way to study for cumulative exams like the MCAT is to take advantage of opportunities to learn throughout one's undergraduate career, even if the MCAT is still years away. College students should avoid last-minute study sessions to get through their midterms and finals in their science courses; taking the time to learn concepts deeply and thoroughly, through many shorter study sessions spread evenly over the semester, will result in more durable knowledge. Later, as they study for the MCAT, crammers will likely find themselves scrambling to relearn everything they forgot immediately after taking their college exams, even if their scores at the time were satisfactory. Hastily acquired knowledge does not last.

Would-be medical students should take as many practice MCATs as they can, as well. For more information on the benefits of practice tests versus traditional studying, see our previous post on current research about testing and memory.

Implications for Students with Disabilities

Certain types of reading difficulties, attention troubles, and sequencing issues will make the new MCAT even more challenging for some students. Students interested in medical school should compare their time and effort levels to those of their peers.College students who find it difficult to master the content of the science courses needed for medical school may want to explore whether they have subtle difficulties with some aspect of learning, such as an undiagnosed reading disorder or a problem with attention. An evaluation, such as those we provide here at the Yellin Center, may clarify these questions and will yield helpful strategies that students can use to improve their mastery of the course material. Even high performers may want to consider seeking out an assessment if they're putting in tremendous effort and unreasonably long hours. Those students who learn that they have weak pacing skills, for example,  may want to consider consulting an executive function coach to help them figure out how to get through each of the sections

Students with disabilities may benefit from accommodations, and the sooner such measures are in place, the better; examination boards are more likely to turn down requests for accommodations if the student cannot demonstrate a history of having such provisions in place. A high school student may be able to finish enough questions on a tough chemistry exam to earn a solid grade, but a particularly slow pace or waning attention is likely to impact her more as she enters college and medical school. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Software for the Classroom: Review of Animation-ish

Ages: Kindergarten through grade twelve 

Content Areas: Cross Curricular

Cost: Varies depending on the license purchased. More pricing information can be found on their website. Of note, a 15 day free trial is also available.

Technical Requirements: Animation-ish can be run on Windows, Mac, and Drawing Tablets

Description: One of my personal all-time favorite children’s authors has launched an award-winning software program titled Animation-ishPeter H. Reynolds is the bestselling author and illustrator behind the incredible titles IshThe Dot and The North Star. Mr. Reynold has moved beyond books and into the digital space with the launch of Animation-ish, which is described as “an easy-to-use animation software program that inspires creativity and enables children to show what they know.” Students can use this program as an alternative to writing a story (allowing a teacher to asses ability regardless of writing or graphomotor challenges), to create a presentation (which could be of benefit for students with language difficulties) or to animate a project. 

Not only will your students be able to bolster their digital literacy skills by learning how to independently create their own animations, but they can use it a medium to demonstrate their knowledge across curricular areas. As such, this would be an invaluable tool for teachers trying to embody the "multiple means of expression" aspect of Universal Design for Learning or differentiated instruction. Furthermore, embedded into the software program are a number of curricular based activities that they have aligned to the national educational standards

Technology has always been a professional interest of mine and, as a teacher, I would attempt a video or animation project with my class each year. However, so many of the video creation tools available are really designed for professionals, which can be a barrier to implementation in the classroom. What Animation-ish does is provide a child-friendly, simple way to have your students demonstrate their learning via video creation. This will serve as a highly motivating way for learners to showcase what they know, especially when compared to traditional assessment measures such as tests, papers or physical projects.

If you are curious about what this software can do, or apprehensive about the tech skills you must possess to integrate this modality into your classroom,  the team behind Animation-ish has published an exceptional Quick Start guide. Furthermore, professional development is a critical aspect of learning a new tool and a variety of lessons on how to use the different features of the program have made available on the Animation-ish website in order to help you. Beyond this resource, Mr. Reynold also offers a variety of tools for creating a creative classroom, which you may want to explore.  Most are literacy based and infuse elements of high quality art.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Noggle: A Math Fact Game

Today's post continues our occasional series about classroom games and tools developed by Yellin Center Learning Specialist Renee Jordan during her years as a classroom teacher. 

 2 through 8

Curricular Area: Mathematics 

Description of Game:
Mastery of math facts is a vital component of math education. Math facts are the building blocks of all other higher level math operations. Therefore, it is important that students have abundant opportunities to practice their math facts. Noggle is an enjoyable math game for students that can be used as an alternative to fact drills and traditional worksheets.

Noggle is customizable across grade levels, since the numbers can be changed to reflect the abilities of the students in your classroom. Be sure when you are picking numbers to fill in your grid that you are able locate multiple math facts. Another way to adapt this game is by the types of equations you ask your students to search for (e.g. addition, subtraction, division or multiplication).

In my classroom, I have used Noggle as an early finisher activity, a morning puzzle, or as one option in a math game lesson. I found that I was using Noggle so often as a start to the day puzzle or early finisher activity that I taped out a grid using painter's tape on a spare whiteboard mounted in my classroom. This also encouraged my students to create their own number grids on our classroom Noggle board that their peers could try and solve. Alternatively, a teaching colleague used open space on one of her bulletin boards to devise her own permanent Noggle board.

This is the Noggle Board I used with my students, but you can create your own.

Materials Needed:
One handout per student


1. Draw a game grid on the board

2. Fill in the game board with numbers of your choosing

i. Be sure to check your numbers and see that you can find a several equations that your students would be able to locate and solve independently

ii. Example of completed grid with addition, subtraction and multiplication equations


iii   Example answers from the aforementioned grid using the numeral 3 in the top left hand corner (in the shaded cell): 3 +4 = 9; 4+3=9; 9-4=3; 3+6=9; 6+3=9; 9-6=3; 3+2+1=6; 3+4+2=9 3x2=6

3.  Explain the rules of the game to your students and designate the types of equations you would like them to find (e.g. addition, subtraction, division or multiplication). 

 i.      I often reference the game Boggle and explain that it is a similar structure but with numbers instead of letters, and that you are finding equations instead of words.
 ii.      For the younger grades I will only select addition or subtraction;  for older grades I will challenge students to find the additional equation types.
iii. I always encourage my students to find equations with more than two numbers (e.g. 1+3+4= 8) 
iv. I always encourage my students to use the communicative property (e.g. a+b=c and b+a=c)
4.  Highlight the text at the top of the game board where the students can refer to the goal and game rules in case they forget

5. Allow the students time to play the game.

Alignment with Common Core Standards:
  • CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.OA.C.7: Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.