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.