Monday, August 31, 2015

Four Tips to Help Kids Maintain a Healthy Weight

At the Yellin Center, we devote a lot of focus to students’ minds and brains. But the health of their bodies impacts their learning, too, and childhood obesity is one of the most common health problems faced by young people today. Children who are obese are far more likely than their slimmer counterparts to grow into obese adults. They are at risk for a host of health problems as they grow older, including Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart attack. And obesity wreaks an emotional toll as well as a physical one: overweight children are more likely to be bullied and to suffer from poor self-esteem.

According to Dr. Chad Hayes, author of the pediatrics and parenting blog Chad Hayes M.D.  and pediatric resident physician in South Carolina, a few small changes are often all that’s needed, particularly if your child is still growing. Most overweight kids don’t need to shed pounds; rather, if they can maintain their current weight as they grow, things will balance out on their own.

Dr. Hayes reminds parents to focus on kids’ health, not on the numbers on the scale or kids’ appearance. He also offers parents the following four tips to help their kids attain, and maintain, a healthy weight:

1) Chew your calories. In other words, offer only calorie-free beverages. Juices, a common part of children’s diets, are filled with sugary, mostly empty calories and don’t curb kids’ appetites. The calories from just one serving of a sweetened beverage per day (juice, Gatorade, sweet tea, etc.) are enough to add up to a weight gain of 10 pounds per year. Hayes believes that once children are old enough to obtain adequate nutrition from solid foods, the only beverage they need is water. Sound boring? We suggest sparkling water. Or try keeping a pitcher of water filled with lemon or cucumber slices or mint leaves in the refrigerator for variety. Remember that unsweetened iced tea is calorie-free, too (although most types contain caffeine, which should be used in moderation and only for older children), and many fruit-flavored teas are available.

2) Stop bringing junk into the house. Suburban parents, we’re talking especially to you, here. Many kids in New York City can pick up their own snacks because of the freedom and autonomy offered by a pedestrian-dominated city, but the average suburban family has to drive to obtain groceries. That means parents have almost total control over whether their kids have access healthful foods or junky snacks. “If it’s not there,” says Hayes sensibly, “they won’t eat it.” Offer low-fat string cheese, fresh or dried fruit, sliced vegetables, air-popped popcorn, or raw nut mixes instead of chips and cookies (and don’t forget to keep an eye on kids’ portions).

3) Eat from farms. Nutrition labels can be confusing, but luckily the best foods for you tend not to have labels at all. Pick up foods that don’t come in packages, like fruits and vegetables. Hayes suggests navigating the grocery store strategically by shopping only around the perimeter, where the produce, butcher, and dairy sections tend to be located. The center aisles are home to processed food and should be avoided, especially when one shops with children who may beg for the things they see there.

4) Get moving. Banish kids to the backyard or park, if those are safe places for them to go on their own. If not, accompany them and transport yourselves on foot or bicycle if that’s a reasonable choice. Busy parents can try to coordinate with neighbors to share supervision duties or sign kids up for sports teams of all kinds; look for options like rock climbing at an indoor gym or tae kwon do if your child isn’t much of a jock. Remember that biweekly participation in a sport is not license to supersize kids’ diets, though. Hayes cautions that it’s a lot easier to eat 200 calories than it is to burn them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Back-to-School App Roundup for Teachers

The back to school season is upon us. Parents are busily securing school supplies and updating fall wardrobes in order to get their children ready for the new school year.  Teachers are also hard at work during these past few moments of August as they organize their classroom and polish up their curriculum. Even if your schools have started already -- quite common outside the northeast section of the country -- you may enjoy some of my favorite digital learning tools I have rounded up to help usher in the new school year.

 Math Story is an excellent website that uses music to help students learn foundational math skills. The catchy, upbeat songs span a variety of topics from the times tables to fractions to basic procedures.  Each song is integrated into a YouTube video, allowing students to watch visual representations of the words as they are sung.  This is an excellent, multi-modal way to have students master their numeracy concepts.

Sometimes struggling writers are intimated by a blank page and struggle to generate ideas.  Prompts, the handy writing app, gives students access to over a thousand creative writing prompts.  Furthermore, if writers' block hits during the writing process, the app will send additional prompts based on what has already been written to help guide the student along.  This is an excellent way to gently build a student’s independent writing abilities.  Students can then share their writing via email, Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, or Dropbox.

           Touted as the Schoolhouse Rock for the 21st Century, Grammaropolis is an interactive and engaging application and website that uses animated characters whose personalities are based on the parts of speech they represent.  This witty characterization allow students to visualize the roles of the parts of speech and to identify how a correct sentence is constructed. To augment learning done in the digital space, Grammaropolis also has a series of books and videos that highlight a different part of speech using the same characters.  This literacy program is a much more exciting way to teach students about adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions than a traditional grammar workbook.

      For learning and reading specialists, the Reading Record Calculator will be incredibly advantageous during your assessments. The app is a running record calculator and stopwatch with the added benefit of integrated audio recording and playback. Teachers able to play back the audio and flag all errors and self-corrections. From there, the application seamlessly calculates a student’s reading rate, percentage of accuracy, and self-correction ratio. You can than e-mail the data, along with any notes on the book, reading level or student name to yourself or any other member of the student’s educational team.

 Noise control is a vital component of classroom management.  Too Noisy, is a fun app that can be displayed on a computer, TV or Smartboard in order to help teachers maintain an appropriate level of noise in the classroom.  According to the app description, “as the noise level in a classroom increases beyond an acceptable level the noise level meter dynamically indicates the level of noise, and the background graphics within the app change to reflect the noise levels.”  Teachers can personalize their display by choosing from a variety of background images, or setting timers where students can earn rewards for remaining quiet for designated amounts of time.  


Monday, August 24, 2015

Visiting a Transformational School

I’ve just returned from a fascinating trip to Manchester, New Hampshire, where I had the opportunity to visit the Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2), the demonstration site of the QED Foundation’s mission to transform learning practices in K-12 education.

As we previously reported in our spring 2015 newsletter, in the initial phases of what is planned as a multi-year project led by QED, we will be visiting schools throughout the country with a view towards documenting practices that will help create a template for research-based educational change. This project is funded by the Bay & Paul Foundations. The participants under this grant, in addition to QED and your blogger, are representatives of organizations actively engaged in school reform, including the School Reform Initiative, which “creates transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence.”

What we observed at MC2 was a learning environment different from any other I had seen. While descriptions cannot capture the energy and creativity of this special school community, some of the most notable aspects of the school include:
  • MC2 works to eliminate the predictive value of race, class, language, gender, and special capacities on student achievement. They use a strength based model, leveraging areas of strength to overcome challenges. 
  • MC2 is governed on a model based on the three branches of the federal government. Here, the stakeholders are parents, student, and staff, and all of these community members have a voice in all aspects of the school, from dress code, to policies, to the physical plant of the school.
  • Students aren’t graded. Instead, they progress through different phases of development – areas such as community, collaboration, critical thinking, and leadership -- to determine their readiness to move towards graduation.
  • The goals for each student are formulated by Learning Teams, made up students, their parents, and their academic advisors. Students update their Learning Team on their progress through daily written reflections and at quarterly Exhibitions.
Our group will be continuing our visits throughout the country to schools that represent transformational learning communities. By seeing such schools in action, we can get a better sense of what makes them "tick" and how to spread this approach to learning to schools throughout the country. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Lag in Putting Sleep Research into Practice

A recent editorial in The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter expresses frustration with the lengthy time gap between important scientific discoveries and the implementation of these discoveries in everyday practice.

Dr. Gregory Fritz notes that the lag between research findings and changes in practice and behavior is often cited to be 17 years on the average, but that the disconnect is particularly egregious when it comes to what researchers know about the importance of sleep for adolescents and the actual amount of sleep that teenagers get. He refers to a 2014 Policy Statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics as evidence that the need for sleep is well-accepted in the pediatric community. The AAP Policy Statement and Dr. Fritz both point to early school start times as a major factor in sleep deprivation. We have written about this issue many times; in fact so often that it is impossible to include links to all relevant posts. Searching "sleep" in the list of blog topics will enable readers to locate all our posts on this subject.

Research has demonstrated that the tendency for teens to stay up later is part of the changes in the level of the hormone melatonin that occur during puberty and continue through adolescence. When teens are able to compensate for this change by sleeping later in the morning, things tend to balance out. But, when teens have an early start time at school and they must get up before they have had the full amount of sleep needed for maximum functioning, their daytime function is impaired. Dr. Fritz notes that, "sleep-deprived adolescents tend to get lower grades and report higher rates of depressive symptoms," compared to those who get the optimal amount of sleep - close to nine hours. Particularly concerning is that there is a correlation between sleep deprived teens and auto accidents. When you consider that teens are inexperienced drivers, and you add in the impairment caused by drowsy driving, this is frightening.

Dr. Fritz laments the failure of adults to take the available data seriously and to take steps to change the start times of school for teens. It may take some logistical maneuvering, but failure to make this a national priority is creating a generation of drowsy, inattentive- and possibly endangered - teens.

photo credit :D Sharon Pruitt @ flickrcc

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Benefits of Reading to Young Children

Pediatrician and journalist Perri Klass is a leading advocate of reading to young children, and has long been involved in Reach Out and Read, a national organization that works through health providers to distribute books to parents of young children, many of whom could not afford to purchase them on their own.

Dr. Klass notes, in a recent New York Times article, that although studies have looked at what happens when parents speak to their children, there had not been extensive research on the specific impact of reading to a child, as opposed to just talking to them. She shares that two new studies shed new light on just what happens when children are read to and the benefits this can have for learning and development.

In one study, researchers used a form of functional MRI to map the areas of the brain that were activated when preschool children listened to stories. They determined that those who had been read to more frequently at home showed greater activation of brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension. The brain region that was activated is the same one that is used when older children are reading to themselves and the researchers believe that children who build their brain circuits by being read to when they are young may be better equipped to make the transition to reading on their own when they are older.

Another study looked at a group of picture books often used when reading to young children. The researchers found that these picture books contained more unique types of words than were found when parents spoke directly to their children. They concluded that the text of picture books may be an important source of vocabulary for young children.

A benefit that was not quantified by these studies is the joy for both parent and child of sitting together, cuddled up, and sharing a book. Parents of young children may get tired of reading the same favorite story over and over and over, but early childhood is fleeting. Besides, many years later, you will probably be able to remember all the words to those books you read aloud dozens of times!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Tools for a Paperless Classroom

Over the summer vacation I have been having conversations with many of my teacher friends about their professional goals for the upcoming school year. I have been surprised by how many of them have set their sights on striving toward a paperless classroom. During my time in the classroom, I too tried to make my classroom as paperless as possible. Yet as any K-12 teacher knows, it is a hard feat to do away with all printed handouts and materials and the photocopier is often an educator’s best friend. However, as Ed tech keeps changing the face of the classroom, there are a variety of tools being built to help those teachers who are eager to go paperless. The following are a few exceptional resources to help manage and organize a paperless classroom:

Showbie is a platform that helps teachers assign, gather, grade and return assignments. Both tablet and web versions of Showbie are available to enable teachers to organize their workflow. During the grading process, teachers are able to add personalized annotations, corrections and voice notes. Similarly, when assignments are sent out using Showbie, the tool allows students to annotate on the handouts directly in the app. Showbie also has the capacity to sync with over 1000 different apps, allowing your students to submit their work from other tools such as Noteability. 

Vision ME
Vision ME is a classroom management app that allows teachers to manage the classroom workflow, from assigning activities to gathering and grading. Beyond materials management, Vision ME also allows students to chat with other students in real time in order to provide valuable feedback. Furthermore, Vision ME has embedded features like a blank attention screen to grab students’ focus and the ability to limit Internet access on student tablets. Another excellent feature of this particular tool is that it is not only available in English, but also in SpanishFrenchDutchGerman and Japanese.

Google Classroom
We have written before about Google classroom, a space where teachers can organize their workflow by easily creating assignments, distributing materials, gathering completed work and tracking grades, all in one paperless space. On the assignments page, students are able to see what has been assigned and when it is due, which they can access from both home and school. In addition, teachers are able to monitor who has completed their assignment and provide feedback to any students who appear to be struggling. Google Classroom also has the capacity to enhance communication, as teachers are able to send announcements to students and parents or instigate class discussions through the tool. The really exciting aspect of using Google classroom is that is it constantly being developed, upgraded and improved. For example, in July 2015, Google expanded the tool to included mobile notifications. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Babies’ Naps May be Key to Learning

To most people, the sight of a napping baby is a calm, peaceful one. But a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there’s actually a lot going on beneath the surface.

In the study, researchers performed specific actions in front of babies 6 to 12 months old. Then some of the babies napped for varying times while others didn’t sleep at all. Four hours later, only the babies who had gotten the chance to sleep demonstrated that they remembered the actions. In fact, researchers discovered something even more interesting: The optimal duration of a nap for learning seemed to be 30 minutes or more. Babies who caught quick catnaps showed much poorer memories for what they’d seen than babies who slept for at least half an hour.

The researchers believe that naps shield babies’ brains from additional incoming stimuli, allowing them to fully process what they have seen and experienced. This study helps to explain why babies need so much sleep, so often; not only are their bodies growing, their brains are hard at work making sense of a world that is new to them.

photo credit: Bridget Coila via flickr cc.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Digital Assessment Tools

Assessment is a large, important, and oft-debated necessity in education. The traditional view of assessment hinged strongly on summative evaluations -  assessments after the fact, such as a comprehensive exam or final paper. However, the current best practice in evaluating learning is to deploy frequent and thoughtful formative assessments, where teachers build in "check-in points" during the learning process that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. The goal of this evaluation framework is to inform the educator of what specific needs are present in their students and whether they need to augment their future lessons in response to those needs. It is important to note that the post-evaluation reflection and intervention is the defining feature of a formative assessment. Measuring student performance or collecting data is not formative unless you use the information to help your students.

In today’s classrooms there are a variety of tools to help teachers integrate formative assessments into their curriculum, as well as to gather and organize the data these assessments generate. Some of my favorite tools are discussed below:


Socrative describes itself as a digital assessment tool that uses "real time questioning, instant result aggregation and visualization, [so that] teachers can gauge the whole class’ current level of understanding." One strong merit of this application is its flexibility, in that it can be used on multiple platforms, including smartphones, tablets and computers. Furthermore, it allows for personalization and differentiation of the learning process by allowing teachers to create their own assessments based on the specific needs of their students.


Formative is an exceptional tool to help teachers devise and distribute engaging assessments. The evaluation process is simple with Formative. Within the app a teacher is able to create an assessment, distribute it to students and respond with real time feedback. Formative is also aligned with the principle of Universal Design for Learning that calls for students to be allowed to display their knowledge in multiple ways. Thus, formative allows students to respond to assessment prompts by writing, drawing, or by submitting pictures. Furthermore, Formative is aligned with Common Core and NGSS, and also helps teachers in their pursuit of a paperless classroom.

Exit Ticket

Exit Ticket is a tool that allows teachers to create formative assessment measures, administer them during class periods, and glean real time data about student performance. The types of evaluation tasks a teacher can create are organized into pre-assessments, checks for understanding, tasks to promote discussion, and mid-way checkpoints. Once a student completes an assessment, both the student and the teacher will receive real time data on the student’s understanding of the concepts being taught. Furthermore, Exit Ticket also allows teachers to differentiate their assessments to meet the diverse needs of their student population. For example, using the Groups add-on, teachers can provide special accommodations to sections of their class. When authoring a list of questions, the teacher is able to then customize what questions each group will see.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Developing Emotional Literacy

When it comes to developing literacy skills, practice makes perfect. The more time children spend recognizing letters, sounding out words, and using spelling patterns in their writing, the more accomplished they become. It seems obvious that time working to develop reading and writing is time well spent; after all, literacy skills are essential for academic success. Less time, however, is devoted to helping kids master the skills that some experts refer to as “emotional literacy.”

Nearly everyone has had encounters with people who seem to be born with exceptional emotional literacy, or the ability to “read” others. Someone with strong emotional literacy skills seems to know just what to say in a tense situation. She usually excels in professions that require her to interact with, persuade, and lead others, like politics or sales. Socially, she’s enjoyable to be around. Children with strong emotional literacy tend to get along with adults and other kids alike. They can detect subtle emotional nuances conveyed by a slight shift in tone of voice or a fleeting expression.

There is evidence to suggest that an increase in screen time leads to a decrease in emotional literacy.

For example, a study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that sixth graders who attended an outdoor camp from which electronics were banned were much better at reading human emotions than peers from the same school who did not give up their devices. The really fascinating part is that the experimental group was without computers, smartphones, and tablets for only five days!

Just like standard literacy skills, emotional literacy (for most of us) can be perfected only through practice. And it’s difficulty to get that practice when social interactions take place via screens and are stripped of the facial expressions and voice modulations that accompany face-to-face communication. For many kids, then, it is essential to have opportunities for explicit practice. Here are a few ideas:

An obvious idea is to limit the use of devices—and we’re not just talking about kids’ use of devices, since young people will view their parents’ habits as the norm. Rather than designating certain areas of the house as device-free, try establishing only one or two small zones where phones and tablets are allowed; the expectation (for everyone) could be that these tools are not to be used in the rest of the house. If you try this idea, think about how the spot you pick for phone use might affect your family’s choices. The living room couch, for example, might encourage lots of screen time because it’s easy to sit there comfortably for hours.

Parents should model in-person communication wherever possible. Simply saying things like, “I think I’ll call Aunt Linda to discuss this; some conversations shouldn’t take place through email,” helps kids start to realize that the medium they use for communication is a choice.

Encourage young people to read fiction. Studies have demonstrated a strong connection between a person’s reading habits and his levels of empathy. Researchers believe the connection may be due to readers’ tendency to experience a character’s feelings almost firsthand.

Watch a new movie on mute. Using only the characters’ facial expressions and body language as clues, talk about what you think is happening in a scene and guess the characters’ relationships to each other. Then watch the scene with the sound turned up to see if you were right.

Spend time with toddlers or animals. Because babies and pets can’t talk, kids will have to rely on other cues to guess at what they think, feel, and want.

Travel. Taking kids to a different state, country, or even neighborhood or exotic restaurant helps them to realize that other people’s lives are not necessarily like their own. Talk about what is valued by another culture and analyze the differences and similarities kids observe. If there is a language barrier, so much the better; young people will be forced to rely on nonverbal signals to build understanding.