Friday, October 30, 2015

Sharing History and Theater with Students

At The Yellin Center, we emphasize that there are many ways to learn and to express knowledge.  Twenty thousand New York City eleventh graders are about to experience education in a new and exciting way.  These students, all from schools with high percentages of low-income families, are going to learn about American history with the help of some Broadway multi-sensory aids.  Producers of the new musical Hamilton, about the revolutionary figure by the same name, have paired with the Rockefeller Foundation to finance student tickets to the show.  The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History plans to create a curriculum to go along with this Broadway experience, with materials to include primary documents from the era depicted in the musical.  Students will have the opportunity to develop and share their own artistic responses.

From the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery
 Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and now stars in Hamilton, was once a New York City student himself.  He told The New York Times, “If we can excite curiosity in students, there’s no telling what can happen next.”  We agree.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Spelling Apps

Spell with Pip

It seems that these days there is an app for everything. So much so that it can cause any parent or teacher’s head to spin when trying to find tools for a specific need. However, when doing a little investigation into spelling apps, I found I kept coming up short. There were a lot of resources out there, but not all of them were robust enough to build critical orthographic skills. There are a variety of fun, engaging games available, but many tended to lack the educational vigor required to build skills or provide needed interventions. 

Regular practice is key for building spelling skills. It is equally important to provide students with fun, motivating ways to practice these skills. We don’t want literacy learning to hinge exclusively on spelling tests and worksheets. With that in mind,  I have chronicled a few of the strong, game-based digital tools that help students practice their spelling skills

Spelling Monster is an app that allows kids to practice spelling words with fun interactive games. The stats section of the app will let parents or teachers know how long a child is practicing and where they might need extra help. Soon, teachers will have the ability to upload their own personalized spelling lists. Educators will then be able to set objectives and get alerts and weekly reports when students meet their goals.

Spell with Pip is an interactive spelling game created by the makers of the Oxford dictionary. The game gradually gets more difficult as children progress through the levels. The game includes a personal dictionary, and focuses on words that children commonly find hard to spell. The added benefit that I find immensely helpful as a Canadian teacher working in America, is that the games can be offered in either US or UK English. That means whether you spell it “realize” or “realise”, this game has you covered.

Word Domino is a game that allows children to build words with the proposed syllable tiles. The game can be played in single or multi-player versions, which is a great way for students to build their recognition of letter patterns. There is a vocal synthesis function where words are spoken once they are found, which can reinforce sight word recognition also.

Word Domino

Friday, October 23, 2015

New Study Looks at How Brains Multi-Task

Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center have just announced new research findings that may help explain how our brains focus attention on specific tasks and filter out distracting or unimportant information, a process often referred to as "saliency determination."

As reported by NYU Langone, senior study investigator and neuroscientist Michael Halassa, MD, PhD. noted, 

“Our latest research findings support a newly emerging model of how the brain focuses attention on a particular task, using neurons in the thalamic reticular nucleus as a switchboard to control the amount of information the brain receives, limiting and filtering out sensory information that we don’t want to pay attention to. Filtering out distracting or irrelevant information is a vital function. People need to be able to focus on one thing and suppress other distractions to perform everyday functions such as driving, talking on the phone, and socializing.”

The researchers also noted the interaction of the thalamic reticular nucleus and the prefrontal cortex of the brain in controlling how the brain multi-tasks. The prefrontal cortex has long been known to control executive functions - organization, focus, and other behaviors that impact day to day functioning. The study looked at how mice were able to respond to stimuli when their prefrontal cortex was inactivated, which disrupted TRN neural signaling. When this occurred, the mice were not able to block out distracting stimuli and find a reward of milk.

Certainly, this research has a way to go before it fully explains how this process works in humans. But it may be a huge next step in explaining the brain issues underlying attention deficit and executive function disorders.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Halloween BINGO

Halloween is just around the corner, so we want to share a fun, easy game to play with the kids. It can be played at home in a small group, or at school with the whole class. BINGO is a classic game, and the rules are pretty straightforward. We have, however, included step-by-step instructions to help you brush up on the game play basics. The complete set of game cards can be downloaded, for free, here. There are five different game boards available. We hope you enjoy your Halloween!

Materials Needed

  • One bingo card per child
  • Materials to mark the bingo cards (e.g. candy, tokens or crayons)
  • One set of teacher/parent game pieces

  • Print out enough game cards so that each player has one
  • Gather any markers, chips or candy needed to mark the squares
  • Teacher/parent cuts out their game pieces along the dotted line

  • Teacher/parent draws a card and calls it out to the students
  • It is helpful to show younger children the picture, in case they aren’t familiar with the Halloween words. In a classroom setting, a projector or smart board works well for this
  • Children look at their game card and locate the picture. They then cover the picture if they find it
  • First person to complete a row of five (horizontally, vertically or diagonally) wins!
  • Alternate way to win: Play blackout, where the entire board must be covered to win

Friday, October 16, 2015

Assessing a College's "Value"

Any good liberal arts college will encourage students to understand that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. This key component of critical thinking is what explains why ice cream consumption does not cause drowning, even though both tend to increase at the same time of year - in the summer.

However, it seems that this principle is often being overlooked in evaluating the colleges our society relies on for teaching students how to think critically. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard provides in its rankings database, among other information, median earnings of graduates. A recent New York Times article notes that this promotes a causation-for-correlation confusion, and that a particular institution’s direct impact on future earnings cannot be assumed.

Confounding factors include admissions selectivity and the fact that students at expensive universities often come from privileged backgrounds, which also correlates with high earnings. Colleges also vary in their focus on particular fields, some of which are more high-paying than others, thereby impacting the average when earnings of graduates across fields are evaluated as a whole.

There are many ways to assess a college’s value. Graduate earnings are just one of them, and even if this is the variable used, it must be interpreted with great caution.

Monday, October 12, 2015

DIY Professional Development for Adult Learners

Here at The Yellin Center we don’t just work with learners in the K-12 demographic. We do a lot with adult learners who are currently in college, professional school (especially medical students as part of our work with New York University School of Medicine) and even working professionals. We help develop learning plans that will help them to succeed in their higher academic and professional lives. We assist by linking them to resources and developing the strong learning strategies they need to excel in their chosen field. However, outside of the brick and mortar structure of traditional education, it can be hard for mature learners to figure out how to master the important professional skills they need to get ahead in the workforce. 

DIY Professional development is the new buzzword in adult education, and aims to allow learners to take control of their learning on their own time. EdCamps, whose target audience is often teachers, are springing up to teach valuable skills. There are also a wealth of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Course), such as those by edX or Coursera, available from many universities and professional organizations that span disciplines. If you are looking to build technical skills you can take part in a coding boot camp or self-teach through online learning platforms, such as Code Academy or Khan. If you are looking to brush up your language skills you can take a free course with Duolingo. Peer-to-Peer learning environments, such as Skillshare, are also gaining traction, which allow trained professionals to share their skill set with eager learners. The 21st century online learning format is empowering learners to determine what they need to master, and tailor how and when to learn it so that it integrates with their busy lives. 

One of my favorite resources out there is, a website that uses a flipped classroom model and video modeling to teach and train professional learners. According to their website, helps members “stay ahead of software updates, pick up brand-new skills, switch careers, land promotions, and explore new hobbies.” houses a vast, ever growing course catalog that spans topics from tech skills to creative design to business acumen. Since it is a cloud-based library, courses can be accessed 24/7 from any device, providing learners with the flexibility to learn on their own schedule. Each course is taught by recognized industry experts who work in the fields they are teaching about, so you know the content is up to date and relevant. I particularly find being able to take training notes a very valuable asset. Several White Papers have been published that explore the research and merits and benefits of learning with

Learning isn’t restricted to the classroom anymore. With an internet connection and mobile devices you can access skills training for nearly any skill set from any location.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

A School Grows in Brooklyn

Today we feature a guest blog by Elizabeth Frank, the Head of School at Sage Heights School, which will be opening in Brooklyn, New York in September 2016. Dr. Paul Yellin is an Advisor to Sage Heights. The school will utilize the approach of Mind, Brain, and Education to apply best practices in the classroom from research in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Education. Sage Heights is a member of the Harvard International Research School Network.

Everyone is different. We say it all the time, but is it fully embraced by our schools, by us? When taught and nurtured according to their individuality, children are more engaged with the process of learning. Educational research has confirmed what many parents and teachers experience daily; each child is infinitely varied from the next and cookie cutter solutions do not meet their needs. Recognizing our inborn differences allows for children to develop their passions and strengths, while fostering challenges and aversions.

Jillian is an advanced eight-year-old who doesn’t have to try very hard to get perfect marks at school, and tests above the average range on assessments like the ERB. She is often praised for her brightness and quickness. She is starting to avoid anything she thinks is too hard, because she fears the grown-ups might discover her secret. She believes, “If I can’t do this fast and easily, then I must be dumb,” keeping her from her own unique potential to learn and succeed.

Charlie is a seven-year-old gregarious kid who excels at school, is athletic, and very popular. However, he recently retreated into himself, refusing to participate in activities he once loved, after his beloved grandmother passed away.

Annabeth is six and loves books, words, and games. She has great difficulty staying out of trouble. Lately, she’s been left off the birthday invitation lists of her classmates.

Henry is a six-year-old, well liked, quiet boy. He loves building intricate structures with blocks and avoids anything with letters or numbers.

All four students are typical and should be treated as such. We do not learn in synchronistic ways and sometimes life gets in the way. All can excel if the adults in their lives help to cultivate their challenges and support their gifts, while emphasizing the natural differences in all of us. We want schools to see our children for whom they are and respond to them as their lives unfold.

All children are learning machines and learning begins with the brain. Neuroscience tells us brains are unique and plastic. There are no two duplicate brains in the world, now or ever. While the basic structure of our brains are the same, at the molecular level differences can be detected that affect our ability to learn, even in identical twins. If all people are different from one another, it follows that instruction should be differentiated. Differentiated doesn’t mean easier, but rather creating high challenge and low risk for each individual.

Additionally, the brain’s plasticity is occurring constantly as we encounter the world. Our brains automatically rewire neural paths with each song sung, picture painted, soccer scuffle, or negative/positive thought. Schools and parents can use this plasticity to their advantage by creating environments where they reinforce important skills and belief systems around learning. Days should be designed to develop proficiencies in reading, math and other content areas, but more importantly on effort, collaboration and problem solving strategies. This way students become ready for the challenges of adult life. Isn't that what school should be for?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not a Luddite

“Because I’m not a Luddite.” This was Les Perelman’s response when asked, in a Boston Globe interview, why he joined a web-based writing tutorial company after years of railing against computerized writing evaluations. Having recently retired from the directorship of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, Perelman is now the chief research scientist for WriteLab, a startup company that has partnered with dozens of college writing centers. WriteLab uses computerized algorithms to offer students feedback on their writing and guide them toward revisions.

Writelab Logo
As Perelman noted in the Globe interview, the software is not a replacement for a human teacher, but rather a supplement. By providing suggestions and questions, it not only facilitates improvement but helps students become more aware of their writing, whether they defend or reject their original choices. Perelman explained in the interview that automated writing instruction can be valuable despite computers’ shortcomings, and that he got involved because, “…if we don’t do it well, other people are going to do it badly.”

Doing it badly is what Perelman became concerned about a few years ago when the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the SAT, developed an e-Rater to automatically grade students’ essays. The New York Times noted that Perelman exposed significant flaws in the system by showing that he was able to earn high scores by submitting to the e-Rater prose that was essentially gibberish. Included in his findings was that the e-Rater values number and size of words over truth and logical coherence.

For example, the e-Rater generated positive feedback in response to this:
Competition which mesmerizes the reprover, especially of administrations, may be multitude. As a result of abandoning the utterance to the people involved, a plethora of cooperation can be more tensely enjoined. Additionally, a humane competition changes assemblage by cooperation. In my semiotics class, all of the agriculturalists for our personal interloper with the probe we decry contend.. . .

Clearly, Perelman had good reason to be cynical about algorithms’ evaluative and informative capabilities, although ETS disputed his findings and conclusions. However, he also has good reason to have some faith in them; and his move to WriteLab may signify that understanding. As anyone who uses a GPS knows, technology certainly can be harnessed for helpful guidance. What one recent study found, though, is that people actually tend to underestimate how much algorithms should be trusted. When researchers at the University of Pennsylvania had subjects observe and then choose between a human or statistical model to make predictions, the subjects were more likely to pick the human model. These results followed a number of other studies’ findings regarding the tendency to dismiss algorithms. In various domains such as stock forecasts or medical decisions, people tended to favor human judgement. However, research suggests that mechanical predictions often beat personal judgement, contrary to what we might be inclined to think is the case.

An openness to the power of technology along with a healthy skepticism and understanding of its limitations seems to be the best approach, in education and in general. Because, after all, we are not Luddites.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Science Apps from Tinybop

Like many of the strong educational app suites available today, the spark that turned into Tinybop came when the CEO was searching for apps for his own son and came up empty handed. Often, digital tools can be fun and engaging for children but lack educational rigor. However, there are several strong ed Tech companies that have set out to change that by creating tools that are more than simple busywork. One such company that  is radically changing the landscape of science education is Tinybop.

The Explorer Library offered by Tinybop provides students with whimsically interactive ways for kids to engage with basic science concepts. Tinybop explains it best, by saying that in these apps, “kids play and learn by diving into big ideas, seeing how things work and making connections about the world they live in.” If English isn’t your first language that is okay, Tinybop releases many of their apps in over 50 languages to ensure that learners of all backgrounds can access their incredible content.

The Human Body app allows students to explore the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory, and digestive systems in a highly interactive manner. Using your iPhone’s camera, children can watch pupils dilate and learn how we send messages through to our brain. Meanwhile, in the Plants app, students will master life cycles and explore different environments and habitats. Students can travel across time and explore the earth’s layers in the Earth app, or understand mechanics by conducting their own experiments in the Simple Machines App.

Beyond the applications, the Tinybop website offers additional resource materials to extend the learning beyond the digital space. Using the educational handbooks students can read more about the area of science they are mastering and glean answers to some of their burning questions. Again, like the apps, each handbook is produced in several languages. If you are interested in knowing more about the benefits of these apps for promoting inquiry and scientific learning, you can review the company’s One Sheet. To keep the science learning going, Tinybop has curated some of their favorite resources in their Loves section of their website. The apps and additional resources are worth exploring to help any budding scientist explore the world around them.