Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Keeping Open the Possibility of Change

Back in 2010, we wrote about an article written by Robert Dobrusin, a rabbi in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that touched on a topic we think about a great deal here at The Yellin Center - how labels (rather than a description of strengths and challenges) can be unfair to children and how they are insufficiently descriptive of what is really going on with any individual.

Rabbi Dobrusin's article (unfortunately no longer available online) explained how labels have unfairly limited the characters encountered in the traditional telling of the Passover story, a timely topic since this weekend marks both the start of the Passover holiday and Good Friday and Easter. The story of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, a familiar part of the Old Testament, is told in a ritualized form as part of the Passover celebration. One key part of this ritual telling is the story of four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who cannot even ask a question. Every year, at the Passover meal, families read about these same sons and tell the story of the Exodus to answer these children's questions.

Rabbi Dobrusin noted, "I am troubled by the fact that we don't let them change. Throughout history they will always be wise or rebellious or simple or unquestioning... How can we set them in stone the way we do? There is one simple reason. They don't change because they each have been given a name: wise, rebellious, simple, unquestioning...How much wiser it would have been [if these children had been described] as the one who asked a wise question, the one who asked a rebellious question, the one who asked a simple question, the one who did not ask at all?"

He went on to explain that when we label individuals we can be too quick to jump to conclusions about their actions. Only when we eschew labels and keep open the possibility of change can we then open the door for individuals to move beyond the roles their labels describe to growth and change. Whatever our beliefs, and whatever holidays and traditions we celebrate, it is excellent advice. Indeed, there is strong evidence that labeling or defining children by their limitations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because they tend not to see past their label to the possibility of their own change and growth. 

A strikingly similar view of how people can be limited by thinking that their nature is fixed and unchangeable comes from Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. Dr. Dweck has distilled years of research on the topics of achievement and success into her book Mindset, which we often recommend to the families we see here at The Yellin Center.  As described on the Mindset website:

"In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities." 

Whatever you may celebrate over the next few days - Easter, Passover, or just a lovely spring weekend - we hope you have the opportunity to gather with family and friends, to practice your traditions, to eat good food, to appreciate the chance to celebrate together , and to keep an open mind about the people in your life, giving them the room to change and grow.

Illustration of the seder meal from a 1929 Passover Haggadah,
 a legacy from Mrs. Yellin's grandparents

Friday, March 23, 2018

Demystifying Young Students

Here at The Yellin Center, we've gotten much feedback over the years that our process of "demystification" -- sharing our preliminary findings, with a focus on areas of strengths before we address any challenges -- helps even young children better understand how they think and learn and how to integrate their learning profile into their evolving self-image. With this understanding, they become more comfortable using the learning strategies and supports they need to succeed.

Over the years, we've heard from many parents how children find this process empowering. For example, one young elementary school student brought his "demystification sheet", which listed his areas of strength and challenge in simple language, to school. When his classmates teased him about using a laptop in class, he pulled out the sheet of paper and pointed to it. "Dr. Yellin says I have something called dysgraphia, " he told his classmates. "That means I have trouble writing. So I need to use a laptop to write. You got a problem with that?" We were told that this put the teasing to rest.

sample Yellin Center demystification sheet
Yesterday, we heard from another parent, this time from the dad of a third grader (let's call him "Henry") who attends a terrific school which describes itself as a place where "children learn to think about their thinking" and which helps "them become aware of how their minds work and how they learn best." During a classroom discussion about learning, the teacher reported that Henry made the following comments, which his dad shared with us:

"Our brain is divided into two main things: your strengths and your challenges. Each person’s strengths and challenges are different. You also have long-term memory and short-term memory. Most people think of short-term memory as 'I only remember things for a little bit,' but short-term memory is…things you know off the top of your head. Then long-term memory is down there and you have to look for it. You have to think about those things…[It’s] like a closet. The things you were just using you can just grab out at the top. The things you haven’t worn in like a month are super deep in there."

Clearly, Henry was listening when he sat around the table with The Yellin Center team after his assessment. We're delighted that he brought his insights to share with his class. Thanks, Henry!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Snow Day

Well, it may be the second day of spring, but most schools in the region are closed, including the rarely closed New York City Public Schools. Some districts are running out of snow days, and the novelty of hunkering down while the weather outside is frightful is wearing very thin. To make it worse, many of us have had our power out during prior storms and know that this may happen again later today. We've got some ideas on how to make the best of what is, hopefully, the last blast of winter weather.

Working from Home?
  • Set up young children with their own "office", complete with a work table, paper, a pretend phone, and some "work" to do -- coloring, working on puzzles, reading.
  • Use timers to help children understand that you will be available to them "later" and that they need to wait until the timer goes off to interrupt you (absent an emergency). This works best with shorter periods for younger kids, but shorter periods strung together can still allow some work to be done. 
  • For older children and teens, this is a good time for them to do their own schoolwork, or to work on projects they might not otherwise have time to do. 
  • Cut yourself some slack if you need to use videos or other screen time to allow you to do what you need. An hour or two of cartoons will not impact your child's development. 
Lights Out?
  • Safety requires extra supervision when the house is dark, so put any work away. 
  • Use flashlights, not candles. Hopefully, you have stocked up on flashlights and batteries.
  • This is a great time for old fashioned books and board games. 
Outdoor Time
  • Once the snow has stopped, heading outside can be fun. Make sure there are no trees or limbs in the area that might be stressed or damaged, so that you can all play outside safely.  
  • Children old enough to handle a shovel can help dig out, but only on sidewalks and driveways. Clearing off cars in the street can be dangerous, as plows and other cars go by. 
  • Make sure that no one stays out too long or gets too cold.
  • Hot cocoa may be required when everyone comes back inside, and that's a great thing.

And Don't Forget...
  • Together with your kids, make sure your elderly or disabled neighbors are okay and help dig them out, if needed. While you are at it, check to see that they don't need other assistance.  
Have fun, stay safe, and think about warmer weather!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

One of Those Days...

It's one of those days with lots to think about...

It's Pi day again - March 14th - when those with a mathematical inclination think about the beauty of a circle. We only get to use a very few of the digits of Pi (technically π, the Greek letter), unlike in 2015, when we could celebrate 3/14/15. Still, it's a good time to think about numbers and to learn a bit about this amazing mathematical constant. TIME has a good discussion you might want to read.

Today is a day of student protest across the country, with students walking out of their classrooms at 10 am local time, in light of the latest school shooting in Florida,  to protest gun violence and the failure of politicians to take action to end the plague of deaths of students and adults in schools and elsewhere. Districts differed in their response as these protests were planned over the past few days. Some, like New York City, were supportive of the students' actions, while others threatened students who left class with suspension or other discipline. There is an updating story in The New York Times as this unfolds.

It's also a day to think about the wisdom of pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, who died yesterday at the age of 99. Dr. Brazelton's common sense approach to parenting made him a logical successor to Dr. Benjamin Spock (who died in 1998), who first helped parents move away from strict rules to more common sense and child centered ways to parent young children. In fact, according to an excellent piece in The Washington Post about his life, his patients included Dr. Spock's grandchildren. Dr. Brazelton was the author of two dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles on child development and pediatrics and created The Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) to help pediatricians examine newborns and young infants.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tools for Empowering Dyslexic Students

Note: This post is the last in a three-part installment that describes a problem I faced in designing curriculum for dyslexic students and the solution I discovered. In the first post, I explained my role, introduced my students, and described the problem and my idea for combating it. The second post explained my rationale for that solution. Here, I’ll share my procedure and the resources I’ll use to implement this project in my classroom. The links for the tools and worksheets are embedded in this post and also appear at the end.

I always like to show models when teaching writing, and I wanted to do the same for this project. However, I had difficulty finding a self-advocacy letter I liked, so I wrote my own Sample Letter. The first step will be explaining the purpose of the letter and reading through it with my students. We’ll talk about what points the writer included, and I’ll guide them to determining the purpose of each.

Next, we’ll do some self-reflection. I want my students to think about themselves as people, not only as learners, so the Reflection sheet  I made will guide them through that line of thinking. Before and after they complete it, we’ll talk about how their thoughts will inform their letter.

Such a complex document has to be heavily scaffolded for any group of young students, and this is particularly true of my class. So I made a very thorough Organizer for them to use. It follows the order of the ideas in the Sample Letter so that students can hold one up to the other to orient themselves. Writing is a tremendously demanding process for dyslexic learners, and the Organizer will guide them to devote their attention to each task (crafting topic and concluding sentences, listing points, and justifying each point) separately. Once they have written down their ideas, I’ll help them check their spelling on so that when they draft their letters from their Organizers, they won’t have to think about that tricky aspect of writing. Writing, in this case, will be the easy part; their ideas will already be documented and partially edited and all they have to do is put the pieces together.

I’m excited to use this project in the spring as a way to review our year and preview next year. I’m certain that I’ll make some tweaks after seeing how this plays out in the messy, real world of my classroom, but I hope these materials and ideas help other educators create similar opportunities for their students to learn, reflect, and self-advocate.

Sample Letter
Reflection sheet

Thursday, March 8, 2018

An Approach to Empowering Dyslexic Students

Note: This post is the second in a three-part installment that describes a problem I faced in designing curriculum for dyslexic students and the solution I discovered. In the last post, I explained my role, introduced my students, and described the problem and my idea for combating it. This post will explain my rationale for that solution. In the next post, I’ll share my procedure and the resources I’ll use to implement this project in my classroom.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the year-end project of a self-advocacy letter would tick an enormous number of boxes.

1.  Reflective learners are better learners. To write this letter, students would have to do lots of self-reflection as they figured out how to introduce themselves to their teacher. They’d need to think carefully about what approaches work for them as learners, which is an important revelation for anyone (and for kids with learning disabilities, in particular). I’d be sure to format the letter in such a way that students would have to list strengths along with their challenges, since kids with learning disabilities need frequent reminders that they have plenty of talents and skills.

2.  To write their letters, students would need to learn about the condition of dyslexia. Kids who are diagnosed at an early age often aren’t even sure exactly what dyslexia means. Knowing the nuts and bolts of their particular brain wiring can help their experiences make sense and give them confidence. All of my students struggle with attention, too, and one has severe anxiety that affects her classroom experience, so crafting this letter would give all of them the chance to research and put into words the effects of, and strategies for, all of these conditions. I hope it will give them a sense of agency and ownership.

3.  A letter is an easy format for transmitting information. I’ve seen approaches to self-advocacy in which a student gives a presentation to his/her teachers, and while I think it’s a nice idea, it’s not ideal for my population. My students all struggle with word retrieval. They’re also fifth graders. So setting them up to lead a session on their own learning in front of a crowd of middle school teachers they’ve never even met didn’t sound like a great idea. This, of course, was assuming the school could even manage to get all of their teachers and the relevant administrators in the same room at the same time at the frantically busy commencement of the school year. My experience working in large, public schools told me this was unlikely. Instead, I envision them walking up to their teachers at the beginning of next year, handing off their letter, and being done with it.


4.  A letter is adaptable. At the end of this year, each of my students will take home an electronic document that can grow and change as they do; I will encourage their parents to revisit the letter in the weeks before each new school year begins to provide their kids with an opportunity for reflection.

5.  A letter is, obviously, a real-world writing application. We’ve been working on crafting paragraphs that contain both solid points and justification for those points, but usually I’m their only audience. Their letters, on the other hand, will serve an actual purpose in their lives, and it will be easier for them to understand why they have to explain their points when writing.

6.  The letter will tie our curriculum together. Our class reads this year have included Al Capone Does My Shirts, The Cay, and Rules. I realized long after I had made these selections that each book features at least one character with some sort of physical handicap or learning difficulty, so I will use that common theme as a lens through which to analyze what we’ve read. After talking and writing about the strengths and challenges that each of these characters brings to the table, my students can put those analytical skills to work by turning the lens on themselves.

Look for the next post, where I’ll share the resources I’ll use to implement this project and explain the procedure I’ll follow.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Dyslexic Students: A Problem and A Solution

Note: This post is the first in a three-part installment that describes a problem I faced in designing curriculum for dyslexic students and the solution I discovered. Here, I’ll explain my role, introduce my students, and describe the problem and my idea for combating it. The second post in this series will explain my rationale for that solution. Last, I’ll share my procedure and the resources I’ll use to implement this project in my classroom.

I teach a group of bright, motivated fifth graders at Hillside School, a small school in Boulder, Colorado. Hillside is an unusual place: All of our students have dyslexia, and all of them attend Hillside for half the day and spend the other half in a mainstream setting. Every day, I do my best to help them learn the literacy skills they’ll need to be successful in an academic setting. Another important skill set, however, goes beyond literacy. Self-advocacy is a skill that students with all kinds of learning differences will need throughout their academic lives, and I need to include that in my curriculum, too.


Wrightslaw, an excellent resource for information about education law as it relates to students with disabilities, tells students that self-advocacy is “learning how to speak up for yourself, making your own decisions about your own life, learning how to get information so that you can understand things that are of interest to you, finding out who will support you in your journey, knowing your rights and responsibilities, problem solving, listening and learning, reaching out to others when you need help and friendship, and learning about self-determination.” Obviously, that all sounds important. But implementation gets sticky, especially for students, like mine, who are young and struggle with language.

It’s important that my students understand what dyslexia means for their learning. It’s also important that they learn to communicate their learning needs to their mainstream teachers; everyone in my class has an IEP, but I know too well that students and families often need to be assertive to ensure that these important documents are being honored. And it’s also important that I teach literacy skills. How, I wondered toward the beginning of the school year, could I get the most bang for my buck and cover all of these things well in the course of a single school year? 
I settled on a project that would tie all of this together: writing a self-advocacy letter that students could hand to their teachers at the beginning of the school year. This letter would serve as an introduction, both of the student and of their learning style.

To learn about the reasons I settled on this idea, look for the next post in this series.