Friday, February 28, 2014

Recommended Reads: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green*

Ages: High school

Plot: Adolescence is confusing. Young love is complicated. Hazel, our protagonist, is more intimately knowledgeable about these truths than most teenagers, as a sixteen-year-old with terminal cancer. A last-minute experiment with a new drug is temporarily holding her cancer at bay, but there is no question that she is living on borrowed time. Hazel is constantly accompanied by a cylinder of oxygen. This makes her unusual. But her relationship with Augustus, an irrepressible boy she meets at a cancer support group when he tags along with a friend, leaves her thrilled, dazed, insecure, and giddy. In other words, she’s also just about as normal as they come. The budding love between Hazel and Augustus is, naturally, doomed from the start. But they find wisdom and meaning and, ultimately, peace despite being impossibly star-crossed, and readers will walk away from the book feeling at once sober and joyful.

Our Take: John Green is one of the most admirable authors for young adults out there because he refuses to shy away from, or even water down, some of the biggest and toughest issues in life - not just life as a teenager, but capital-L-Life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Fault in Our Stars. A teenager with terminal cancer? Not featured in a sad side story but as the main character? Of a first-person novel? It doesn’t get much more blunt than that. Just as Green plows full steam ahead into territory that’s tough for adults to broach with kids – no matter that teenagers are talking and thinking about it anyway – he doesn’t hold back in making his books intelligent even though they are written for young people. In fact, maybe their intended audience is the very reason that Green’s books are so unabashedly authentic. We love the respect Green shows teenagers by writing books filled with references to Shakespeare and Dickinson (some identified and some subtle), witty characters, sophisticated vocabulary, and big, complicated, abstract ideas that kids will relish wrestling with. The Fault in Our Stars, as well as Green’s other novels, is the kind of book teens will think about. They’ll talk their friends about it. They’ll reread it, and it will guide them in a way that couldn’t be less pedantic or preachy toward the kind of introspection that teenagers aren’t exactly known for. We doubt that Green is even the smallest bit surprised at the sophisticated reactions his novels evoke in young readers, though. He clearly knows that they are more than capable.

To those worried that a book about the tragedy of a doomed teenager is exploitative or relies on shock value for its power, we simply say: Read it, and read it with an open mind. It’s a valid concern at the outset (one that concerned us, we admit, upon beginning The Fault in Our Stars), but this book is a valuable one both because of and in spite of Hazel’s bad luck.

Adult Content: Green refuses to condescend to young readers by skirting the sensitive topics that play roles in their lives, even if those topics make adults squirm. There is sex in this book (it is not gratuitous, and distracted readers might well miss it), Hazel drinks champagne in one scene, and there is some colorful language. Don’t be shocked. Your high school student won’t be.

*the author of Looking for Alaska, which we recently reviewed

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Picmonic Uses Mnemonics to Make Science Memorable

Science, especially at the higher levels, can be especially challenging for students to learn. There’s much terminology to recall, and concepts are often so abstract that many learners struggle to keep up. Enter Picmonic (picture + mnemonic), an insightful and creative way to make seemingly arbitrary information truly memorable.

Picmonic uses an audiovisual method for teaching science. Although there is material for K-8th grader students, Picmonic specializes in medical content, making it a fantastic resource for students preparing for the MCAT or actually enrolled in medical school courses. Here’s how it works: Each concept is represented by a detailed, cartoonish picture depicting all of the important aspects. The relationship between the picture and the concept is tough to discern at first, but audio narration takes students through the different parts of the picture, explaining how each part of the image connects with real scientific concepts.

For instance, an 8th-grade-level card with a typically wacky tableau teaches about Charles Darwin and how he developed the theory of natural selection. The 80-second narration begins on the left, where a dolphin balances a cherry on its nose. “Cherry dolphin, Charles Darwin,” explains the narration. Atop the cherry is a British flag, to cue the memory that Charles Darwin was English. Next to the dolphin is an island, shaped like a golden goose. (“Golden goose, Galapagos.”) A bearded man is sitting cross legged with a book called Natural Selection on his lap. He isn’t wearing any clothes; this “natural outfit,” explains the narration, is to remind the learner that he was a naturalist. Perched in a tree above Darwin are three gray birds with thick, green beaks and a bag labeled “nuts.” On nearby islands are similar gray birds, except that the birds on one island have thin beaks that they’re using to drink from flowers and others on a separate island have pointed beaks they’re using to eat worms. A large, green monster has red plumage and a hapless bird foot protruding from its mouth, reminding learners that brightly colored birds were not adapted to the Galapagos because they were too easily spotted by predators.

All of this is explained in less than a minute and a half, and the images are so strange and memorable that it would be difficult to forget either the terminology or the concepts illustrated.

Students can select either “Classic” or “Creative” audio to explain the image to them. The creative audio sometimes takes the form of a jingle or rap and sometimes that of a narrative story with a plot. We recommend listening to both, though the creative audio seems to work best after the classic has already established the basic facts.

One aspect of the Picmonic we really like is the rating scale that appears at the bottom of each card. Once a student has learned the material, he can quantify his grasp of the concepts on a scale of one through five by indicating whether he “doesn’t know it” (1), “gets it” (5) and anywhere in between. The card will then go into a “pile” of cards with the same rating so students will know what they need to review and what they don’t.

Interested? You can try Picmonic for free to get a sense of whether this style of learning is right for you or your student. All of Picmonic’s content is available for either a monthly subscription fee or a one-time fee.

Photo credit: Flickr:  Ano Lobb

Friday, February 21, 2014

Recommended Reads: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Note to our readers: As we continue our occasional Friday posts from our Recommended Reads series, we want to remind you that you can search our blog for other recommendations and reviews. Just scroll down the list of "tags" on the right hand side of this page and click on "Recommended Reads."

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Ages: A sixth grader could read this book easily, but it will be interesting also to high school students. (See “Our Take” below)

Plot: Stargirl makes a splash the moment she shows up at Leo’s high school on her first day of tenth grade. The student body crackles with gossip about this strange new girl. They’ve never seen anyone like her. Stargirl was home schooled, and this is her first foray into the traditional education system. She wears outlandish clothes and carries her pet rat Cinnamon around in her bag. She sings to each student on their birthdays, whether or not she’s ever spoken to them before, accompanying herself on her ukulele. She says outrageous things in class and hands out cookies, just because. The students are suspicious at first, then disparaging, but then they grow to admire Stargirl and her antics. But her habit of cheering for both teams when she is recruited for the cheerleading squad turns many against her, and soon, Stargirl is hated by nearly every confused student at her school. Leo, who has been watching from the sidelines for months, finds himself falling for Stargirl, and is pulled into the middle of an ugly battle royal. But can it really be called a battle when cheerful Stargirl seems oblivious to the other students’ ire? Leo, however, whose outlook is more conventional, has an agonizing choice to make: Will he side with the fun-loving, brilliant, free-spirited Stargirl and remain an outcast, or abandon her to rejoin the comfortable ranks of his peers?

Our Take: Spinelli, the genius who brought us the classic Maniac Magee, is equally deft in spinning this unforgettable tale of a free spirit caught in the maelstrom of conformist high school life. Much as we loved Stargirl, at times we felt confusion and frustration at her antics, as Leo must have, wondering why she couldn’t just tone it down a bit to fit in. By the end, however, we were a bit ashamed of ourselves (again, like Leo) for wishing that Stargirl would ever be anything but her inimitable self. This is an excellent book for exploring the themes of individuality and group mentality. The hostility and anger that Stargirl’s kindness brings out in her new classmates is breathtaking, and savvy adults will be able to find plenty of real-world examples of resentment aimed at people or groups who are “different” to share with the kids who read this book.

Stargirl is a particularly excellent choice for high school students who struggle with reading. The writing is simple enough to make it an early middle school-level read, but its protagonists are sophomores and juniors, so high school students won’t feel as though they’re reading “dumbed down” material. It's a great example of the kind of  "high interest-low readability" book we've written about before.

Adult Content: None

Good to Know: Good news to those who fall in love with Stargirl: A sequel, Love, Stargirl, is available, as is a Stargirl journal for recording your own wild ideas.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

New Research Finds No Correlation Between Standardized Testing and College Success

A new study from the National Association of College Admission Counseling may spell good news for high school students who dread the onslaught of standardized tests associated with college admissions. The research, conducted by Dr. William C. Hiss of Bates College and Dr. Valerie W. Franks of the University of Arkansas, indicates that students who did not submit SAT scores as part of their college applications fared just as well in college as students who performed well on these measures and sent their scores to colleges. A high GPA in high school, the researchers found, was the most important predictor of post-secondary success.

The study selected 33 public and private colleges and universities that all had “test optional” admissions requirements; that is, applicants could submit standardized test results if they wanted to, but these numbers were not required for their consideration as potential students. Drs. Hiss and Franks followed more than 122,000 students over the course of eight years, comparing the cumulative GPAs and graduation rates of students who submitted scores and students who did not. The results indicated virtually no difference between the two groups. Those who earned high GPAs in high school, however, tended to obtain similar results in their college courses.

High grades on high school report cards, postulates Hiss, demonstrate that a student has acquired the kind of discipline, curiosity, and study skills necessary to succeed at the college level. This measure, he believes, is a better indicator of a student’s abilities than the snapshot shown by an SAT or ACT score.

A significant difference between the submitting and non-submitting groups did reveal itself, however: The group that did not submit scores was more diverse, containing more students from low socio-economic backgrounds, students of color, and students with learning disabilities than the group that did send in test scores. Importantly, this group turned out to be just as capable, performing as well in college as its more homogeneous counterpart in terms of grades and graduation rates.

For minority students and exceptional students, groups that tend to perform more poorly on standardized tests, the results of this study could lead to helpful changes in college admissions. If it is true that performance on standardized assessments is a non-critical piece of application packages, more colleges and universities may make testing optional, or perhaps do away with the option of score submission altogether. This would spell good news for students who traditionally underperform on these measures. It’s good news for colleges as well; with updated policies, they can look forward to more diverse student populations.

Until there is a more universal policy of not requiring SAT or ACT tests for college admissions, students, families, and counselors can find searchable lists of schools where these tests are not required for admissions on the nonprofit Fairtest website.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Snow Days and Learning

It has been a brutal winter in the eastern part of the country, and municipalities and individuals throughout the region are quickly  running out of road salt, scheduled snow days, and patience. We can't do much about the problems with road salt or make spring come any sooner -- but we can shed some light on the issue of snow days.

A recent article in Education Week cites a 2012 study from Harvard University that examined the impact of snow days on student test scores and found that having snow days, when school was closed, did not have a negative impact on students' test scores. What was a problem, noted the author of this study, was when schools were open but a large number of students stayed home. The study author suggested that getting all students "back on the same page" was more disruptive to learning than just missing a day or two of instruction. The results in the Harvard study counter those of a 2008 study of Maryland schools which found that unscheduled closings for snow or other reasons had a negative impact on student test scores, when contrasted to years in which there were no such closings.

Some school districts are avoiding the snow day issue all together, especially for courses like AP classes, where a year end test will cover a set curriculum, regardless of whether the instructor was able to get to all the material. Districts are holding virtual classes and teachers are informally posting material online so that students can continue to make progress despite school closures. A New York Times article from last week noted that New York State does not permit school districts to use virtual school days in place of actual days when calculating the number of days students must attend class each year. Furthermore, in school districts elsewhere where virtual learning is used (some of which began during long term Superstorm Sandy closures), making sure all students have access to computers and internet connections is a key consideration. Still, in an era when many adults are able to work from home remotely when weather is a problem, it may be time for schools to catch up with the workplace.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Learning to Advocate for Your Child - And Others

Parents sometimes mention to us that they are thinking of becoming an advocate for other parents and students who are seeking special educational services from schools. Most of these parents have dealt with the special education process with their own child and want to apply what they have experienced and learned to help others. Some of these individuals are attorneys who practice in a variety of areas but want to now learn how to extend their practice to the field of education law. Two upcoming programs offer an opportunity for newcomers to get started in the fields of special education advocacy and law.

As we have noted previously, COPAA (The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates) is holding its annual conference March 6-9 in Baltimore. This event offers programs for both experienced attorneys and just-starting-out advocates, and is attended by hundreds of individuals from all over the country. It is an amazing way to learn about special education and how to advocate effectively, and affords attendees the opportunity to meet and learn from the leading experts in various aspects of this field. If you are even thinking about getting involved in special education law, this is the place to start. One note: COPAA membership and attendance at the Conference are not open to those who work for or represent school districts or similar agencies.

Another excellent opportunity for parents and others to learn about special education is at a Wrightslaw Special Education Law & Advocacy Training. There is one coming up in Plainview, New York, on March 21, 2014, but a check of the Wrightslaw website will allow you to sign up to receive the Wrightslaw newsletter, which announces programs in all parts of the country. Peter Wright is an attorney who overcame his own learning disability to become a leader in the field of special education and a respected resource for special education practitioners at all levels.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Visit to The Gateway Schools

Last Friday your blogger and Dr. Yellin paid a visit to The Gateway Schools, where the lower school (for ages 5-9) and middle school (ages 10-14) work with students who struggle with language-based learning disabilities.

We had the opportunity to meet with Ellen Grayson, the Director of Admissions, who took us on a tour of the terrific school building, the top two floors of  a former parking garage on West 61st Street in Manhattan, near Lincoln Center, which is now a LEED certified  and welcoming environment, with lots of light, a spacious feel, and which features a full gym, an open atrium for meetings and performances, and quiet niches for one-on-one instruction, in addition to classroom space and rooms devoted to the arts and technology.

We visited a variety of classes, most with lessons in progress, and had the chance to observe students of all levels at work. We spoke about the profile of the students at Gateway, which Ms. Grayson noted includes students with difficulties in processing language or attention, who struggle in a mainstream classroom despite the fact that they have average or above-average intellectual abilities. She noted that the admissions process is designed not just to determine whether a particular student fits the Gateway "profile", but also to look at whether the Gateway Schools have a good classroom fit for that student, something that varies from grade to grade and from year to year. She did note that Gateway does not accept students with diagnoses of Developmental Delay, PPD, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, or Autism Spectrum Disorders.

We then had a chance to sit down and speak at some length with Carolyn Salzman, Head of School at The Gateway Schools. Her pride in her faculty and students was evident throughout our conversation, which covered such subjects as how to best help particularly challenging students, how Gateway students do once they move on to high school (quite well, she noted), and the features that make Gateway an excellent program for students who need language-based academic supports - small classes, lots of opportunities for working with the arts and building skills in executive function and social interaction, and a faculty with both the academic credentials and the personal skills to help the students achieve. We look forward to continuing our conversation with Ms. Salzman and her staff.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Recommended Reads: Looking for Alaska by John Green

High school

Awards: Printz Medal

Plot: Our hero is intelligent, skinny, friendless Miles, who chooses to finish his final two years of high school at Culver Creek, a selective boarding school in Alabama. Miles is definitely in for an education: Not only are his classes more challenging than he ever could have imagined, but he is embraced by a group of new friends unlike anyone he’s ever known before. Miles’s awkwardness slowly dissipates as he finds his place in this tight-knit group, made up of his roommate Chip “the Colonel” Martin, exotic and innocently alluring international student Lara, gifted hip-hop freestyle artist Takumi, and mysterious Alaska. Alaska is the most intriguing girl Miles has ever encountered. She is beautiful, witty, worldly, charismatic, and deeply unhappy. She is moody and unpredictable, but also more fun than anyone Miles has ever known. Then the unthinkable happens, and Miles and his friends lean on each other as they struggle to make sense of their lives in its wake.

Our take: Within the first few pages, Miles quotes writer Francois Rabelais’s last words, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps,” to explain his decision to attend boarding school to his parents. This makes it clear from the start that Miles isn’t your average teenager. Or is he? As the book unfolds, young readers will find that while Miles is certainly smart and has some unusual hobbies (he loves to read biographies and memorize the last words of famous people, for example), he’s still a pretty typical kid. He’s embarrassed by his body, overthinks most social situations, and is desperate for a girlfriend. And, like many teenagers, his lack of self-awareness is blended with self-absorption in a way that makes the world feel confusing at times. Miles is able, with the help of his friends and a lot of introspection, to find a measure of peace by the end of the book. Some of his wounds are still raw, but he’s found a way to begin healing himself, and his journey will be especially valuable to kids who have experienced the sting of loss. We particularly love the way Miles’s friendship with the Colonel is developed; while many YA books explore the depth of female friendships, too few portray the range of emotions present in relationships between adolescent boys. This haunting book will captivate almost any teenager.

Adult themes: The teenagers in this book all smoke, swear, and experiment with alcohol. The book contains some sexually explicit material, as well. Concerned parents should read it first, but keep in mind that we’d never recommend anything we thought was inappropriate, and many schools around the country have added Looking for Alaska to their ELA curricula.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Keep Kids Current! News Resources for Kids

Reading non-fiction is great practice for kids, and many young people are genuinely interested in current events. But most print news outlets publish articles that are too tough for developing readers to handle. Here are three of our favorite kid-friendly news sources:

National Geographic for Kids  (3rd – 5th grade)

Just like the beloved yellow-bordered magazine prized by adults, National Geographic for Kids makes for great reading, too. Their website is also a useful resource, though there are not quite as many articles to choose from as you’ll find through our two other recommendations (below). Still, the wonderful pictures and international bent to their coverage will motivate travel- and animal-loving students to read.
Time for Kids  (4th – 6th grade)

Time for Kids offers articles about a wide range of current events, including international news, sports stories, and articles with a cultural focus. We also like the TFK Mini-sites, where topics like Women’s History Month, book reviews, video game guides, the Sochi Olympics, and more are explored through collections of articles. The site also features articles written by “kid reporters”; aspiring journalists can visit the site in March for information about the application process to join them. Lots of resources are available on the site for free; buy a subscription to get issues of the magazine in the mail and to access quizzes and worksheets about the stories

NEWSELA  (3rd – 12th grade)

We are big fans of this fantastic site, which allows parents or teachers to change the language of any article to fit a student’s reading level. By clicking on various Lexile levels* in a field to the right of an article, it’s possible to adjust the difficulty of the text. For example, a December article about Nelson Mandela’s death can be modified so that it reads as a 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, or 12th grade-leveled piece; the content is essentially the same, but the vocabulary and sentence length are adjusted to make it easier or harder. (Not sure how to use Lexile levels? Don’t worry; the site displays the grade level of the text underneath the title and adjusts it every time a different Lexile level is selected. See our footnote for more information.) This is great news for parents of children who want to read about a current event but can’t find an appropriately leveled article. It’s also wonderful for teachers of classes with a wide range of abilities represented; NEWSELA allows the whole class to read the same article at different levels, then discuss it together. Registration to the site is free.

Many NEWSELA articles are accompanied by quizzes – take them off the screen or print them out – to check students’ understanding.

*A text’s Lexile Measure is based on the difficulty of its syntax and vocabulary. MetaMetrics can analyze a piece of writing, and the more complex the language, the higher the Lexile level. Texts below 200L are best for very young readers, and the most advanced readers can tackle texts higher than 1600L. There is no direct correspondence between a student’s grade and her Lexile Measure, but this site provides a table of typical Lexile ranges by grade.