Monday, July 8, 2019

Summer Subjects

We've noted before that the questions that families ask us tend to come in bunches. Many of them are seasonal, and lately we have been asked lots of questions that relate to changes that families may make over the summer and to summer activities. We thought these might be of general interest, so are sharing them with our readers.

For many families, summer is the ideal time to move. There will be less disruption in school and by the time the new school year begins, everyone will be unpacked and ready to roll. But what about families where children have IEPs? These have been worked out with the student's current school. But how does a child get an IEP by the time classes start in her new school?

Fortunately, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) sets out very specific rules for all kinds of moves -- to a new school within the same district, to a new district, or even to a different state. You can read one of our prior blogs- What Happens to My Child's IEP When We Move? to learn the details that may apply to your family. 

College Road Trip
Back in 2010, we wrote about a summer activity for many families whose children are approaching college age -- the College Road Trip. Take a look at our timeless suggestions for ways to get the most out of your travels to college campuses. And remember, even if your trip isn't focused on visiting colleges, any road trip can include a stop at a local campus, even if it is not somewhere your student plans to apply. Seeing a variety of campuses helps give context to what different schools look and feel like. 

Summer Vacation
We also have suggestions for Making the Most of Summer Vacation, tips like how to get ready for a new school, ways to keep skills fresh, and how to handle summer assignments. [Hint: don't wait for the last minute!]

Summer Skills Building
We've also got tips for ways to use the summer break to build vocabulary skills, phonics, and to improve math skills with a tool called Dreambox. 

Sun Safety
Finally, we have suggestions on keeping kids safe in the summer sun. It's not always easy to get children to use sunscreen or to cover up, but the evidence is overwhelming about the dangers of too much sun exposure over time. 

So, enjoy your summer, which is flying along way too quickly!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Changes Coming to NYC School Discipline

One of our favorite quotes from a NYC public high school administrator is that "Kids do dumb stuff." To be fully honest, he didn't say "stuff", but we assume our readers can make the substitution.

He uses this statement to describe the kinds of things that students do that can get them into trouble: fighting, smoking, wearing disruptive clothing, cutting class or unexcused absences, setting off alarms, misusing school property, gambling, and even "engaging in verbally rude or disrespectful behavior", something that teens can do with regularity. These are behaviors that school personnel are trained to deal with and often do so very effectively. However, since 1998, overall responsibility for school safety has been in the hands of the NYPD, primarily through its School Safety Division. These officers are in charge of security, such as building access, and can also get involved in incidents of student misbehavior either because they witness them or because school administrators seek their involvement. It is important to note that School Safety Officers receive special training in dealing with students and generally are familiar with a particular school and its students.

A major issue with having the NYPD in charge of school discipline is that it perpetuates the “school-to-prison pipeline,” described by the American Civil Liberties Union as "a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems." In recent years, arrests by School Safety Officers have declined. As noted in a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) looking at the 20017-18 school year,  School Safety Officers"were responsible for less than 20% of arrests and just 5% of summonses." The report stressed, however, that regular NYPD officers "who are not members of the School Safety Division continue to arrest kids with near total discretion" and that "369 arrests in schools (32% of the total) were for alleged incidents that occurred off school grounds and had no relationship to the school, indicating that the NYPD is using schools as a place to locate and arrest young people."

There is also substantial racial disparity in the students who are arrested and in the use of handcuffs, even when an incident doesn't ultimately result in an arrest. These are laid out clearly in the charts in the NYCLU report. 

All of this serves as background to a new agreement which will go into effect when schools open in the fall. This Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among the NYC Department of Education, the NYPD, and the City of New York is designed for "keeping schools safe places of learning; ensuring that discipline is administered fairly; eliminating disparities and inconsistencies in the punishment of students, and eliminating the use of summons and arrests for minor school misbehavior while continuing to advance school safety."

Among the changes in policy and practice set forth in the MOU are:

  • Police officers should not arrest or issue summons to students "whenever possible" for "low level" offenses such as disorderly conduct, graffiti, or possession of marijuana. 
  • School staff are not to involve either the School Safety Officers or the NYPD when students commit infractions such as clothing violations, cutting class, lateness, smoking, lying, or gambling (unless they can't be handled safely).
  • Both School Safety Officers and the NYPD, to the full extent practicable, in instances not requiring immediate arrest or other immediate action, shall consult with the principal of a school  prior to placing a student under arrest, or issuing to such student any form of criminal process on school grounds. Further, in the course of any such consultation, officers shall take into account any information provided by the principal.
  • Limits will be placed on use of handcuffs.
  • Both School Safety Officers and NYPD officers will receive additional training in areas relevant to dealing with students.
Although not included in the MOU, NYC will be hiring 85 new social workers for schools. In addition, schools will be using restorative justice practices that emphasize defusing conflict over suspensions in all middle and high schools starting in the next school year. Finally,  Mayor DiBlasio has also proposed that out of school suspensions be reduced to a maximum of 20 days from 180 days. 

Monday, June 17, 2019


When your blogger was the parent of young children, any large vehicle was a source of excitement. Bulldozers, fire engines, tow trucks, and cement mixers were fascinating to my kids and I went out of my way to point them out when they came past or parked near our home. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to re-live that experience when I attended the District of Columbia's 11th Annual City-Wide Truck Touch Event.

The morning-long event featured approximately 30 municipal vehicles used to clean and repair streets, change traffic lights, collect refuse, clear snow, provide emergency services, administer mobile health care, and more. Children (and the young at heart) were welcome to climb on all the vehicles, which sat in the large parking lot surrounding the old R.F.K. sports stadium. Doors were wide open and welcoming and uniformed D.C. employees were present in abundance. Horns, sirens, and all buttons were available for pushing, and the noise could get deafening -- but no grown-ups had a discouraging word. Questions were answered:  What was the biggest vehicle towed by a huge tow truck? A fully loaded cement mixer that had overturned on the highway -- and  explanations about the work of the truck operators and emergency workers were enthusiastically answered.

But this event wasn't just for fun. Grownups had a chance to register to vote, to enter the elementary school lottery, to learn about the municipal water supply, and other important activities. There was free water and shaved ice for all and free lunches for all children. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning, for folks to bond with their neighbors, and for children of all ages to get to know and become comfortable with the public employees -- firemen, police officers, sanitation crews, bus drivers and more -- who work in their neighborhoods. If your town hasn't yet tried this event, it might be worth looking into!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Pride Month - Resources for Students, Families, and Educators

This June marks the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the uprising at a gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village, that marked the beginning of the gay rights movement in the U.S. Out of this event has grown the Pride Movement, encompassing a broad array of individuals; both Presidents Clinton and Obama issued Presidential Proclamations declaring the month of June to be Pride Month.

The Pride Movement has expanded over the years and now seeks to promote education, legal rights, acceptance, and self-fulfillment for individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, or gender non-conforming (LGBTQ).

Advocates for Children of New York has created an excellent LGBTQ Education Guide, setting out the rights of LGBTQ students in New York City Public Schools. The Guide is very detailed, giving specific contact information and covering such topics as bullying and harassment, transfers for safety and other reasons, the rights of students who do not live with their families, and how students can change their names. This is a valuable resource for students, parents, and educators.

Still another helpful resource is from our colleagues at The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has a Section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health and Wellness. In a section of the AAP website dedicated to Adolescent Sexual Health, there are links to excellent resources for physicians and other health providers and a link to a policy statement that includes ways to make medical care welcoming to all young people and for pediatricians to obtain and share needed information to help support LGBTQ young people (and parents) and to provide them with the care they need.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Shining a Light on NYC Special Education Crisis

Anyone dealing with special education laws in New York City -- parents, attorneys, teachers, schools, and hearing officers -- knows that this is a system in crisis. Too few hearing officers, extensive delays, even too few hearing rooms (all of which are located in often inconvenient downtown Brooklyn) are just a few of the issues apparent to those who are seeking legal intervention to obtain the services and setting that children with disabilities are entitled to under law, specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Now, thanks to a report prepared by an outside consultant, Deusdedi Merced of Special Education Solutions, LLC, and made public by The City, the full extent of the problems with this system and how these problems impact students and families is being made clear. The report was initially commissioned in early 2018 by the New York State Department of Education and the consultant was charged with examining the policies, procedures, and practices relating to impartial hearings in New York City. According to Mr. Merced, a well-regarded attorney who has served in roles in all aspects of the special education system in New York, D.C., and elsewhere, delays in completing this report were "directly attributed to actions taken by the New York City Independent Hearing Office and/or New York City Department of Education."

When the 49 page report was issued on February 22, 2019 it was only released after a public document disclosure request by The City was granted. The news of the report with a link to its contents appeared in yesterday's edition of The City.

In addition to the discussion of the report in The City, there is another piece about the report, its findings, and the current state of special education proceedings in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Both news reports make for a quick and concerning read. The report itself is dense with information, but some crucial findings include:

  • New York State has almost as many due process complaints (the initial step to contest an issue under the IDEA) filed each year as the next six largest states combined; 90 percent of these are filed in New York City.
  • Logistical issues abound:  On an average day there are 122 hearings scheduled but there are only 10 hearing rooms. Hearing rooms often lack sufficient furniture and are poorly ventilated.
  • Hearing officers are poorly compensated and there are frequent recusals. There are insufficient hearing officers for the number of matters. Hearing officers are appointed without anyone checking on their availability (few do this as a full time career).
  • Failure to use uncontested methods -- mediation - or to keep students in their current uncontested placements adds to the burdens on the system. 
The report urges prompt action -- by both NY City and NY State -- to keep this vital avenue for parental redress open and functioning. We hope someone is listening.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Calling In" to Build Classroom Tolerance and Learning

We are living in an era when statements that are racist, sexist, cruel, or just ignorant or unkind, are no longer given a pass in our society -- and that's a real step towards making a better world. But "calling out" people who make such offensive statements can often involve harsh language and humiliation. And when an inappropriate (or worse) statement is made in a classroom setting, it is important that teachers respond in a way that not only challenges or corrects the statement, but also educates the speaker and the listeners.

An excellent discussion of a technique for handling such situations in a classroom appears in an article by Loretta J. Ross in the Spring issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine - "Speaking Up Without Tearing Down". Ms. Ross proposes that when teachers are faced with language or an argument that is wrong or offensive, that rather than "calling out" the student, that the teacher "call in". As she explains, 

"Calling in is speaking up without tearing down. A call-in can happen publicly or privately, but its key feature is that it’s done with love. Instead of shaming someone who’s made a mistake, we can patiently ask questions to explore what was going on and why the speaker chose their harmful language. 

"Call-ins are agreements between people who work together to consciously help each other expand their perspectives. They encourage us to recognize our requirements for growth, to admit our mistakes and to commit to doing better. Calling in cannot minimize harm and trauma already inflicted, but it can get to the root of why the injury occurred, and it can stop it from happening again."

Ms. Ross makes clear that calling in is not for every situation. She notes that when people use bigotry, fear, or lies to hurt others, that they should be called out for such speech or conduct. But she explains that a classroom is a special setting, where mistakes and misunderstandings need to be acknowledged and opportunities for learning abound. She gives a number of examples as to how a teacher can begin "a call in conversation" to address offensive or ignorant statements, and to educate and enlighten his or her students. Her examples include:

  • “I need to stop you there because something you just said is not accurate.”
  • “I’m having a reaction to that comment. Let’s go back for a minute.”
  • “Do you think you would say that if someone from that group was with us in the room?”
  • “There’s some history behind that expression you just used that you might not know about.”
  • “In this class, we hold each other accountable. So we need to talk about why that joke isn’t funny.”
This article should be required reading for every educator -- and everyone who lives or works with others. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Skip-Counting – The Threes & Sixes, Plus a Game

Today's post winds up our "From the Trenches" series by Colorado classroom teacher and former Yellin Center Learning Specialist Beth Guadagni. In Beth's prior posts, she explained how our brains learn math facts and how she uses songs to help her students -- all of whom have dyslexia -- learn the fours multiplication facts.

Our last post gave background and instructions for teaching multiplication facts for four and eight. Using different songs, Beth explains how the same techniques can be used to teach the math facts for threes and sixes.

Skip-Counting by Threes

“Three” is repeated three times to get the rhythm to work out. We add “and thirty-six” at the end in the same way people add “and many more” to the “Happy Birthday” song. Jazz hands, while optional, are highly recommended.

Row,                   row,                      row                      your                     boat,

Three,                 three,                   three,                   six,                        nine

Gently                down                    the                       stream,

Twelve,               fifteen,                   

Merrily,             merrily,                   merrily,                 merrily,

Twenty-one                 Twenty-four                   Twenty-seven

Life is but a dream.

Thirty   thirty-three

…and thirty-siiiiix!

Skip-Counting by Sixes

Happy                birthday                to                     you,

Six                      twelve                    eighteen          twenty-four

Happy                birthday                to        you,
thirty                  thirty-six               forty-two

Happy                birthday               dear           [name]

Forty-eight               and                 fifty-four

Happy                birthday                 to you!

Sixty                   sixty-six                 seventy-two!

Game: Domino Draw

To give students practice applying skip-counting sequences to real math problems.

Materials for the game:
A set of dominos, turned face-down or in a bag.
If you don’t plan to play long enough to go through a whole set of dominos, use a timer so that students play for a set amount of time. Be sure, once it goes off, that everyone has had the same number of turns.
There are two variations here.

1. To target the sequence students are learning:
On his turn, each player draws a domino at random. He adds the number of dots on the domino, then multiplies that number by the sequence you’ve been practicing. For example, if his domino had 11 dots on it and you were practicing the threes, he’d get a product of 33 and earn 33 points.

2. Once students have learned all the sequences, try this variation:
On her turn, each player draws two dominos at random. She adds the number of dots on each domino, then multiplies them together. For example, if one domino had four dots on it and the other had twelve, she’d get a product of 48 and earn 48 points.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Skip-Counting by Fours ... And a Multiplication Game

In her last post, Colorado teacher Beth Guadagni shared the concepts behind one of the methods she uses to  help her students (all of whom have dyslexia) learn number sequences. As part of her advice "from the trenches" we share the specific techniques that she uses in teaching them to work with fours, getting them ready to do multiplication and division. 

To help students memorize number sequences that will help them with multiplication and division.

First, make sure the students know the song. I like to start with the fours and use "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"  because the rhythm of the song fits perfectly with the number sequence, which is not always the case. Don’t try to teach the whole song-number connection at once! I usually like to start with the first five or six numbers, or the first two lines. In this case, the song breaks nicely after 28.

1. Write out the numbers from 4-28. Sing the first line and then ask the students to repeat it. Do this a few times.

2. Next, ask the students to close their eyes. Cover a number, then ask them to open their eyes. They should sing the line, filling in the missing number when they get to it. Do this a few times, covering different numbers each time.

3. Once they seem to be comfortable, add the next line of the song and repeat the procedure.

4. Cover or erase all of the numbers in your chosen lines and sing through them with the students once or twice.

5. Ask students to write the sequence as far as they’ve learned it.

For additional reinforcement, I like to hand out a sheet on which I’ve written the sequence they’ve learned a few times. Each time, it is missing more and more numbers. They have to complete the sequence by filling in the missing numbers, then cover the top part of the sheet when they’re ready to tackle the next, more challenging section. At the end of the sheet, they have to write the whole thing from memory. I also like to include a few multiplication and division problems from that family that they have to solve, using the memorized sequence to help them. They are not allowed to peek at the sequences from the top of the sheet unless they’re really stuck!

Teach the whole song, bit by bit, this way until you’ve taught the whole thing.

Take            me              out                    to the                     ballgame, 

Four          eight            twelve                sixteen                    twenty 

Take me out                to the crowd, 

Twenty-four               twenty-eight 

Buy me some                 peanuts and                      cracker-jacks, 
                             Thirty-two                      thirty-six                          forty 

I don’t care                           if                           I ever get back…. 

Forty-four                   and                            forty-eight

Once they’ve memorized the song, there’s one more part to add: students have to count on their fingers while they sing it. (I allow my too-cool high school students to keep their hands on their laps, as counting on hands that are held in the air feels babyish to some of them.) This is essential if they’re going to use the song to solve math problems.

Each time they say a number, they have to hold up another finger, so that by the time they get to, say, “thirty-six,” they are holding up nine fingers and will know that thirty-six is the answer to four times nine. This is trickier than it sounds. At first, when they have to both sing and track on their fingers most kids lose their place in the sequence. To practice this skill, we sing the song until I call out “Stop!” and students have to write down the last math fact they sang. For example, if I stopped them right after they said “twenty-four,” they should have six fingers extended and so they’d write “4 x 6 = 24.”

Why This Works:
Songs are incredibly powerful mnemonics. Most students seem to remember tunes easily, and this prompts them to recall the number that goes along with each change in tone and matches the number of syllables for that particular line. Students see the number sequence while they are hearing the sequence and the song, meaning that they store the information in several formats in their memories. Eventually, they count on their fingers while singing as well, adding a tactile element. Teaching the song in segments is quite important, too; as with any new skills, students must demonstrate mastery before they can tackle new material.

Once students have gained some comfort with skip-counting, you may want to introduce a game to help reinforce their skills. My kids like the card game "War".

Game: Multiplication "War" 

To give students practice applying skip-counting sequences to real math problems.

Materials for the game:

One or two decks of cards (Use two decks shuffled together if you’re playing with three or more students)
  • Ace = 1
  • Jack = 11
  • Queen = 12
  • King =0

Because War can take ages to wrap up, I often set a timer for around seven minutes while my students play, and the winner is the one with the most cards when their time is up.

There are two variations here.

1. To target the sequence students are learning:
Each player lays down a single card, face-up. They have to multiply the card by the sequence you’ve been practicing and say the product aloud. The player with the highest product keeps the cards from that round.

2. Once students have learned all the sequences, try this variation:

Each player lays down two cards at once. The player with the highest product gets to keep all the cards from that round.

If two players get the same product, they lay down two cards face down, then use a second pair to get the tie-breaking product.

Why This Works:
Students who aren’t focused don’t learn well, and games keep kids engaged in the learning task. This game is fast-paced enough to ensure that students have to use the skip-counting sequences they’ve learned many times during the allotted interval.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Strengthening Paired Associate Memory with Song

We are continuing our series of posts by Beth Guadagni, who shares the strategies she uses teaching her students with dyslexia in Colorado. 

Like many students, mine have struggled to learn their math facts. Automaticity with the multiplication tables is essential for math far beyond simply multiplying numbers; students use multiplication when working with fractions, doing long division, calculating area and volume, and in so many other applications that it seems rather silly to try to list them!

Perhaps most importantly: students need to have a sense of multiplication to determine whether a solution to a math problem makes sense. As Dr. Yellin will tell you, memorizing math facts involves a particular part of memory called paired-associate memory. Paired associate memory involves linking and storing two related data bits, retrieving one piece of information when presented with the other piece (eg., a sound with a symbol, or the number 28 when presented with 4x7).

Paired-associate memory is what we use when we learn someone’s name, remember that the color of the sky is called “blue,” pair the /ch/ sound with a "c" and an "h" together, etc. There’s no immediate context for these associations (although savvy students and educators can invent contexts to make information “make sense”); they just have to be memorized. Paired-associate memory is generally not a strength for dyslexic students, like mine, although people who don’t have dyslexia may struggle with this skill as well.

I learned skip-counting songs from a colleague and was amazed by the ease with which her fifth graders learned the number sequences. I was eager to try this concept in my class, but I was a bit apprehensive, too. Would my high school students be willing to sing strings of numbers to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The Wheels on the Bus”? The answer was a resounding “yes!” Although they were a little hesitant at first, my students were as pleased as I was that they could commit number sequences to memory with only a little practice. In fact (and this is true), one day one of my students, frowning darkly, exploded, “I’m really mad that I made it to eleventh grade before anyone taught me this!”

I’m going to spread the sequences over a few posts, which also is what one should do when teaching these songs. I’ll share a game for practicing math facts in each post, too. Learning the songs is important, but it’s not enough; one has to practice using the sequences to answer actual math facts, too. We'll present detailed instructions on how to use this technique in your classroom in our next post, but you can get a sense of how this process sounds from this YouTube video, posted by another teacher who used this technique. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Pictionary and Charades to Learn Vocabulary

We are continuing our series of posts by Beth Guadagni, who shares the strategies she uses in her Colorado classroom. Today, she writes about ways to help learn vocabulary.

To help students learn vocabulary words, in English or in other languages.


  • words to be studied, each written on a slip of paper
  • list of words’ definitions
  • something to draw with, and on
Students take turns picking words at random by drawing slips of paper. They must get the other players to guess the word by drawing it, or by acting it out. The first one to guess the word correctly gets to select the next word and draw it/act it out.

Why This Works:
My students can’t get enough of this game, so one of the primary reasons it works is that it keeps them engaged. Even my most introverted student thinks it’s great fun because I allow him to choose who will go next if he guesses the word correctly. The game allows the students to move around, as well, and research indicates that movement helps some kids learn faster and stay engaged longer.

People remember information more reliably when concepts are stored in their memories in multiple formats. Memorizing a list of words and their definitions gives students only one format in which to interact with, and remember, material. Having a mental image to associate with a word—whether it comes from a classmate’s drawing or the memory of a classmate performing an action—seems to help my students remember new words more quickly than any other exercise we’ve tried. Further, as they guess which word is being presented, they pore over the list of definitions with more vigor than they would to complete any worksheet or test I could give them. And in a surprisingly short time, they don’t need to reference the list at all.

My students’ memories for vocabulary have improved, and I’ve found that the Pictionary/charades approach helps my students to understand the new words more deeply as well. Even seeing vocabulary words in the context of sentences—a valuable learning experience, to be sure—pales in comparison to playing with the words. When deciding how to portray a word’s meaning to their classmates, my students have taken to connecting personally with the words. For example, one of my students hates to sit still. He loves nothing more than working up a good sweat. His drawing for the word “laborious” showed a stick figure mowing a lawn and smiling. My whole class now remembers that word easily because they connect it to this young man, who has developed a reputation for enthusiasm about chores the rest of them hate to be assigned at home. Charades and Pictionary have helped my students see how to use these words in their lives to express information about themselves or people they know. The information feels relevant because they’ve given it a context.

Although this activity really works only in a group setting, a student studying independently could use it as well. Spending a few minutes imagining how one would draw or act out vocabulary words on a list will still help a student to translate concept from one format (verbal) to another (visual or kinesthetic), leading to deeper and more lasting memories of the words’ meanings.

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Thursday, April 18, 2019

More From the Trenches: Interleaving to Maintain Math Mastery

We are continuing our series of posts by Beth Guadagni, who shares the strategies she uses in her Colorado classroom. Today, she looks at how she uses interleaving to help students maintain math mastery.

To help students retain math procedures they’ve already learned.


Math problems from previously studied units

I put together review sheets that students complete a few times a week. A simpler approach would be to flip backward in a textbook, choose a few pages at random, and do a problem from each section. Note that students should have a way to check their answers* if they’re going to tackle this independently.

Why This Works:

Like many students, my group generally does a good job of performing newly learned procedures once they’ve had some practice. Performing that procedure a few weeks or months down the road is a different story. To combat this, I use interleaving, one of Dr. Yellin’s most useful and widely applicable strategies.

One thing we know about memory is that we’re able to store a lot more things than we’re able to find easily, rather like a very large, disorganized closet. Brains are good at keeping thought processes efficient, and so information that we have to access often is stored in a place that makes it easier to find. Information we don’t need often, however, takes a lot longer to find, and sometimes we can’t find it at all. Here in Colorado, my students spend a lot of time enjoying the outdoors, so I use a trail analogy to explain this to them. A pathway that is traveled often is well worn, making easy to find and follow. You can hike faster along a trail that’s been traveled a lot, just like one’s brain can quickly find information that has to be accessed frequently. A less popular trail, though, like a seldom-referenced memory, is much more challenging. You might lose it altogether, and if you can follow it, your progress is going to be slowed by rocks and overgrown plants.

Back to math: Constantly circling back to concepts we covered earlier in the year causes my students continually access procedures they’ve stored in their long-term memories, communicating to their brains that this information is important and so the pathways to it need to be efficient. My students complete only a problem or two from each past unit of study at a time, and we spend only five to ten minutes reviewing every few days. This small investment pays off in a big way, though; when I graded their math finals at the end of the last semester, I was pleased to see that they recalled concepts from August just as well as the ones they’d learned in mid-December.

*See our previous post on Photomath, a free app that uses smartphone cameras to scan and solve math problems.
Photo by Matt Gross on Unsplash

Monday, April 15, 2019

From the Trenches - Photomath

We are delighted to welcome back Beth Guadagni, one of our all-time favorite bloggers. We'll let Beth explain what she has been doing and what her posts will be about...

I’m excited to be collaborating with The Yellin Center on a new series of blog posts! 

I was lucky to work as a learning specialist alongside Dr. Yellin for several years when I lived in New York. Before I attended graduate school and subsequently worked at The Yellin Center, I was a classroom teacher, and when I moved from New York to Colorado I returned to a classroom setting. Currently, I teach math, reading, and language arts at Hillside School in Boulder. All of the students at our small, private school have dyslexia. I teach our oldest students, a mixed grade group of high school students. They are bright, curious, and simply delightful.

I certainly miss many things about The Yellin Center, but the wealth of knowledge I gained working alongside Dr. Yellin has made me a far better teacher than I was before. I find myself designing lessons inspired by the brain-based strategies I learned to recommend to students who came to The Yellin Center for assessment. My students learn more quickly, and they really enjoy learning about how their brains work and why we approach learning tasks in certain ways.

We thought that others might find value in suggestions from someone who has applied these tactics in a real classroom with real students. I’m excited to share a variety of games and teaching techniques, and the rationale behind them. I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I’ve enjoyed working on it!


One thing every high school teacher learns pretty quickly is that students will almost always know more than she does about technology. One of my freshman was aghast to learn that I didn’t know about Photomath and I’ve been using this remarkable app, and encouraging my students to do the same, ever since.

Photomath is an app for both Apple and Android that uses a smartphone camera to scan a math problem. Within a second or two, the app displays the answer.

Here, in no particular order is a list of reasons I love this app:
  • It scans typed or handwritten math problems. (It cannot, alas, solve word problems.)
  • It produces an answer in just a second or two
  • It displays the steps used to attain the solution, along with brief, clear explanations. Users can access multiple explanation modes for some problems. 
  • There are animated instructions for many problems, showing the steps in a sequence like the one I’d show a student on the whiteboard. 
  • When it scans the formula for a line, it will display a graph.
As a teacher, it’s frustrating when a student proudly hands in a completed problem set and every answer is wrong. Without an answer key (which some textbooks feature but many worksheets do not), students often don’t know if they’ve been using a procedure incorrectly. Photomath eliminates that uncertainty.

Of course, it’s imperative that students don’t abuse Photomath. I’ve given my group a few guidelines. First, they are to use it only after they’ve completed a problem. If their answer was wrong, they are not allowed to simply change it and move on; they must check their work (using the Photomath’s explanation, if they want) to find their error. My students raise their hands only when they’re still confused, meaning that fewer hands go up. I get more time with the students who really need my help, and they spend less time sitting around waiting for me. It’s a win-win.

Watch for more suggestions from the trenches in future posts!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Assistive Technology

We often get questions from parents that send us back to our blog to see what we have written about a particular subject. Sharing the link to a blog will often help a student or family who has questions about a particular topic that we have discussed - and written information that can be reviewed and even printed can be particularly helpful.

Such is the case with the issue of assistive technology (AT). In response to a question from a New York City mom, we took a look back at our past posts on this subject -- and found a wealth of information that we hope you might also find helpful. As we hope our readers know, our blog has a "search" feature that lets you find posts by topics, key words, or even the date posted. It's a quick way to check on any subject about which you may have questions.

There is a simple video that explains the basics of AT with information about finding out about how to locate AT resources throughout the U.S.

Our posts about various aspects of AT go all the way back to 2012, so some of the tech we discuss as "new" may not be so new anymore. But we think that you will find these posts a useful starting point for understanding what AT is, how it works, and how it can help you or your student with specific issues.

And we also wrote about the low tech subjects of handwriting and the benefits of teaching children to write by hand and other kinds of low tech AT

Finally, there is a helpful blog post from earlier this year on the InsideSchools blog about high tech tools for students with a variety of disabilities and the New York City Department of Education has a web page with information about the nuts and bolts of getting appropriate technology for students with disabilities in New York City.

Friday, April 5, 2019

New Book Series for Young Music Students

A new series of books, Having Fun with Music - The Young Child's Piano Book is a wonderful and creative way to introduce young children to the joys of music. The first and second volumes of this series are now available and the third book is due out this summer. The books were written by Lori J. Lerman, who has taught voice and piano to children and adults for over 30 years, along with other accomplishments too numerous to mention. Your blogger has been friends with the author since seventh grade and can attest to her deep love of and experience with teaching music. Each book incorporates teacher's notes, explaining the concept behind the lesson, how to use the lesson, and additional activities to extend what is being taught. The books are designed for children from kindergarten through third grade, but can be used for younger children who show an interest in piano or older children with little or no musical background. 

In a few years, this baby will be ready to learn piano with this excellent series.

When I asked Lori why she wrote this series, she explained, "My Master’s degree is in Reading and Language Education, so I’ve always been particularly interested in the connection between learning language and learning music. Young children learn language in well-known stages. First they learn to understand speech, then they learn to speak themselves. Eventually, once they're fluent in spoken language, they learn to understand it in written form. Music is a language, and it should be taught to young beginners in the same series of steps. It would be ridiculous to teach children to read and write before they know how to talk, and it’s just as silly to teach them to read music before they actually understand what it means.

"I’m writing the Having Fun with Music series to try to incorporate what we know about language into the process of learning music, using the same series of steps. The early activities use listening, singing, movement, and keyboard improvisation to create “fluency” in the language of music. Once this process has gotten started, the child then begins to learn written notation as a way to take the sounds they already recognize and understand, and recreate them on paper.

"The most important part of the series, I think, is that its main goal is to make piano lessons enjoyable for young children. Every lesson has instructions for parents and teachers on the facing page, including suggestions for optional activities and ideas for using a floor keyboard or incorporating movement. Songs are introduced through singing and games before the child is asked to play them. The parent or teacher is urged to use whatever ideas and suggestions seem appropriate for their own child and to spend as much or as little time on each activity as their individual child seems to prefer. Since young children love repetition and need to repeat skills they have mastered, reviewing activities already completed is greatly encouraged. Rather than progress quickly through the book and then move on to the next, children can spend as much time as they like repeating and enjoying their favorite songs and games."

Monday, April 1, 2019

COPAA Advocate's Training

Parents sometimes ask how they can learn about special education law, to help them advocate for their own child or to help other parents who need guidance. A terrific opportunity to learn about special education advocacy has just been announced by COPAA - the Council of Parent Attorney's and Advocates, a dedicated group that includes both attorneys and non-attorney advocates.

Registration begins this coming Friday, April 5th, for COPAA’s Special Education Advocate Training (SEAT) 1.0 – Beginning Advocacy. This annual program is the first module in a a several part training that can lead to a competency as a special education advocate. You can go to the COPAA website to learn more about the role of advocates in the special education process and how the COPAA SEAT training works. There is also information on other organizations involved in training advocates.

Information on dates, fees, additional training programs, and COPAA membership (although membership is not required to participate in these trainings) is also available on the COPAA site. This course is expected to fill quickly, so don't delay in signing up if you are interested.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The New York Institute for Special Education

There is a hidden gem in New York City that has served children with visual and other impairments since 1832. The New York Institute for Special Education was founded as The New York Institution for the Blind and was located at several Manhattan locations, the most recent of which was at Ninth Avenue and 34th Street. When this land was needed to build a huge postal facility, arrangements were made to move the Institute to its current location on more than 17 landscaped acres on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, where it began operations under its current name in 1924.

Over the years, the Institute's mission has both expanded and contracted. Its original program, and still center of its mission, is the Schermerhorn Program for visually impaired or blind students from ages five through 21. The program is designed to provide students with the tools they need for independence and includes New York State exams and Regents exams for those who are able to work at that level. Those who are not at grade level receive remedial instruction as needed.  Related services, such  as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, orientation and mobility training, and counseling, as well as training in social skills and activities of daily living are provided as appropriate.  Students participate in pre-vocational and skills development and can earn college credit starting in their junior year as part of a partnership with area colleges. There are a variety of extra-curricular activities, including sports, student government, music, and art.

Another program at the Institute is its Readiness Program, a full-day program for Bronx children from ages three through five who have developmental delays and who are referred by their Committee on Preschool Special Education.

Still another program, Van Cleve Program, was established in the late 1980's to serve children with learning and emotional disabilities from ages four through 13. The goal of this program is to remediate the behavioral and learning deficits of these young students in a highly structured setting that includes counseling services for both students and families. At this time, however, the Van Cleve Program is not accepting new students.

The spacious facilities at The Institute include dormitories for students from the Van Cleve Program and those in the Schermerhorn Program who can benefit from the five-day residential program . Students return home on weekends and holidays and during the week receive homework help, learn independent living skills, and participate in numerous recreational activities.
Graduation 2018

The Institute is led by the amazingly knowledgeable and dedicated Bernadette M. Kappen, Ph.D. Dr. Kappen leads a team of dedicated educators and works with a Board of Managers that includes Dr. Yellin, who tries to attend graduation every year!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Advanced Placement for All

We recently had an interesting conversation with a New York City Department of Education (DOE) administrator, who shared his experiences with the DOE AP for All Program. The DOE has put extensive resources towards expanding access to Advanced Placement Exams, which measure college level competency and can reduce the number of courses required for graduation at some colleges.  At some NYC high schools, they are introducing AP classes for the first time, and at others they are expanding from two or three courses to eight or nine. Since this takes a lot of work from teachers and a lot of materials, the DOE provides funding to participating schools to encourage and support involvement. The DOE has stated that its goal is that by fall 2021, students at all high schools will have access to a full slate of at least five AP classes, thereby increasing college and career readiness for all students.

AP Exams are administered by the College Board, which charges $94 for each exam. NYC schools cover some or all of the cost of the exam for their students.

In addition to funding, the DOE provides ongoing training and curriculum to all partner schools. Week-long trainings in the summer, with workshops and updates throughout the year, help first-time and repeating AP class teachers to build the best curriculum. They also provide extra support to students at Saturday Study Sessions where students receive additional support to prepare for exams. This all comes together to provide access to a high-quality AP Course experience for students who may not have previously had the opportunity. The "For All" focus also means schools are pushed to allow access to those not traditionally scheduled for AP classes, like ENL (English as a New Language) students or students with disabilities.

Having all students take AP exams has had a mixed result in some states, as noted in a NY Times article from 2017. However, the College Board reported, that same year, that in New York City, "The number of students taking and scoring a 3 or higher increased in every borough, and across all ethnic groups." And 2018 data from the DOE shows gains in both numbers of students taking AP exams and passing them.

Computer Science for All, Algebra for All, and College Access for All are similar, full service type initiatives that provide funding to schools, materials to teachers, support for students, and training for all involved parties. These types of programs were previously limited only to specialized schools or to certain groups of students, but the ideal in the DOE now is that every student is deserving of these opportunities. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Working with Schools

We often speak about our work with students and with families. But we also work with schools, in a number of different ways.

For most students we see, an important step even before we begin our evaluation process is to review information that has been prepared in the past by the school, generally IEPs and report cards. Then, we ask parents to provide the school/teacher(s) with several questionnaires (some proprietary and some standardized) dealing with academic and behavior issues. These are designed to give us a better sense of how a child is doing in school. It is important to keep in mind that some families prefer not to involve their child's school in the assessment process, at least not at this point. Although information from the school is very helpful, we understand and respect parents' preferences when they want to move ahead without letting their school know they are having their child assessed.

Sometimes, especially for very young students, there are reasons to visit a student's classroom for an observation as part of the assessment process. The findings of this visit are included as part of the information we use when creating the student's profile and preparing our report of our findings and recommendations.

Once the assessment is finished and our finalized report has been prepared, we generally speak to the school (in a conference call that includes the parents) about our findings. This call is included in our assessment fee and is done at no additional charge. If the family will be seeking -- or revising -- an IEP, we can arrange to have Dr. Yellin join the meeting by phone to explain our findings and recommendations. We have found this to be a very effective way for the school to understand what we have learned about the student and what strategies, services, supports, and accommodations we recommend.
Sometimes, our work with a school will begin when the school reaches out to us to ask us to evaluate a specific student, or when parents tell us that their school has urged them to come to us with their child who has been struggling.

We also go into schools -- and school districts -- to do professional development and to speak to parent groups. We have several talks to parent groups scheduled for March and April. Check our calendar in the next couple of weeks for full details. Dr. Yellin will speak to local parent groups at no charge.

Finally, our evaluations include an advocacy consultation with our attorney Susan Yellin, Esq., where appropriate. That consultation often includes suggestions for schools that may be a good fit for a particular student. Both Dr. and Mrs. Yellin regularly visit schools in the region and are familiar with many programs that will work well for the students we see.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Signs It May be Time to Change Schools

I have been preparing for a webinar I will be presenting for ADDitude Magazine on March 6th on"A Parent’s Guide to Changing Schools: How to Find the Best Match for Your Student with ADHD or LD" and thinking about what parents need to consider and do before deciding to move their child to a different school.

We aren't talking here about the natural progression from elementary to middle to high school, or the need to move schools as part of a family move from one place to another -- whether in the same school district or across the country. We've addressed these issues before for students with IEPs and there are specific rules to be followed for such moves.

What can be most difficult for families is determining whether their current school is meeting their child's needs and, if not, what can be done to make things better. Whether parental concerns are based on lack of academic progress, social or emotional issues, safety, or distance, there are usually steps that can and should be taken before a decision to change schools is made. 

The first step is generally to meet with your child's teacher, even if the teacher may be part of the problem. See for yourself what the teacher is like (if you haven't already met him/her) and get the teacher's take on the issues that concern you. If the teacher is unwilling or unable to make changes to address your concerns, consider whether a meeting with the principal or another administrator might be helpful. Such meetings can be useful if you want to switch your child to another class or teacher or to have your child placed in a special program -- a gifted track, a bi-lingual class, or a class of diverse learners with a regular and special education teacher in one room. 

But, sometimes these steps are insufficient. If the problems your child is facing are academic or behavioral, this is the time to request an evaluation to determine whether she or he meets the criteria for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504. The evaluation is the first step in this process. The IDEA also provides for a functional behavioral assessment for children whose behavior is of concern. 

Another issue that might make your child's current school problematic is bullying. In New York City, children who are bullied may be entitled to a transfer to a different school. Our colleagues at Advocates for Children have created an excellent guide to recognizing and dealing with bullying and the right to a transfer.

What about issues that your child's school or district can't really change in the short term? Is your child's class size simply too large? Does the school or the area in which it is located have safety issues? Is it too long a trip for your child to get to school? Does he or she have a talent or skill that the school can do little to support? Or might your child have an IEP and need a specific service, such as speech and language therapy or a reading teacher with training in dyslexia remediation, that your school does not provide and is unwilling or unable to offer? These situations may be reasons to consider changing schools. We'll address the steps to take to make such a change in a later blog post -- and in our March 6th webinar. We hope you listen in and submit your questions. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Night-time Screen Use and Sleep

Any child or teen who has access to an iPad, tablet, or smart phone seems to have it glued to their hand, giving it up reluctantly only when parents or teachers insist. 

We often recommend e-books for the students we see hear at The Yellin Center who have difficulty with printed material. They are great ways to allow students to access material they might not be able to read on their own and to keep up with both class content and the latest popular book series that their friends might be discussing. However, our recommendation is always accompanied by a reminder that using an e-reader before bedtime can affect sleep.

A newly released study (this open access study shows up as an abstract, but the full text is available from this link as a free download) which looked at data from over 6600 11 to 12-year-olds from in and around London who reported any use of Screen Based Media Devices (SBMD - mobile phone, tablet, laptop, television etc) supports our cautionary recommendation.

The goal of the researchers was to look at the impact of SBMD in both dark and artificially lit rooms and to determine whether and how such use affected sleep and what scientists call "health-related quality of life" (HRQOL). Scientists found that the subjects "... who used mobile phones or watched television at night-time with the light on in the room experienced worse sleep outcomes than adolescents who did not use these devices at night-time. However, the effects were even greater when device use occurred in darkness." In addition, any kind of night-time use of even one SBMD was "... associated with poor sleep quality on all dimensions including experiencing difficulty falling asleep."

These findings may provide the push needed to get teens to put away their devices at bedtime -- and, hopefully, can influence their parents as well. Sleep well!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

52 Conversations for Social-Emotional Development

A short piece in Ed., the always interesting magazine published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), led us to a new tool for parents and teachers to support children's social-emotional development. Jenny Woo, a recent graduate of HGSE and a parent herself, created "52 Essential Conversations" for children -- and adults -- ages five and up.

The cards cover such broad areas as responsible decision-making and social awareness, and are designed to be used in a variety of ways -- as conversation starters at home, as writing prompts or circle time discussion topics in a classroom, or even in a psychologist's office.

Woo designed the cards to follow the framework of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which has established national standards for "research, practice, and policy, to equip educators and policymakers with the knowledge and resources to advance social and emotional learning in equitable learning environments". She explains, in a video, that she had recently lost a friend to cancer and had been thinking about what life guidelines she would want to leave for her own children. She set up a Kickstarter campaign and brought the cards to market last year.

Talking to kids isn't always easy. This tool can be a valuable way to start a conversation and share your values with the children in your life.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Research Roundup

Several interesting research studies have come to our attention lately. All of them have to do with children -- their health, development, and school performance. And that's what "Mind, Brain, and Education" is all about. We hope you find them interesting too.

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that what it calls "aversive disciplinary strategies", including all forms of corporal punishment, yelling at, and shaming children, are not effective in the long term in changing children's behavior. Perhaps even more important is that researchers link corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children. The AAP offers guidance in best practice for discipline. 

  • A study funded by the National Institutes of Health and reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, which included more than 400,000 children throughout the U.S., found that rates of diagnosis and treatment of ADHD are higher among children born in August than among children born in September in states with a September 1 cutoff for kindergarten entry. In other words, it is the relative youth of these kindergarten children compared to their classmates, who can be almost a full year older, that can be the basis of an ADHD diagnosis. 

  • Much has been written about the dangers of e-cigarettes and youth, noting the fact that the flavored nicotine products in many of these devices are highly attractive to younger users and can rapidly lead to nicotine addiction. The Juul brand, with its appealing flavors and slim design has been especially criticized. However, individuals who are currently smoking cigarettes -- which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, included nearly 8 of every 100 high school students (7.6%)  in 2017 who reported that they smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days - a decrease from 15.8% in 2011) -- may find that e-cigarettes can help them quit, even more so than nicotine patches or gums, according to a new study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Help with Behavioral and Emotional Problems

It is not uncommon for learning difficulties occur together with emotional or behavioral issues -- often described as co-morbid conditions. Anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and attention deficits can all have a negative impact on how a student learns and manages in the classroom. On the other hand, students who struggle in school because of a learning disability -- things like difficulty reading, understanding, writing, or math -- may also become anxious, depressed, or have difficulty paying attention in class.

Part of our evaluation process for every student is a review of their emotions and behavior. We assess these using a number of tools, which can include interviews with students and parents; questionnaires from the student, their parents, and their teachers; standardized measures, and projective testing.

Our commitment to students' mental health has grown steadily over the years. Several years ago, Dr. Yellin participated in a mini-fellowship delivered in collaboration with an organization now know as Project Teach (formerly Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for Primary Care), intended to equip pediatricians with the knowledge and skills needed to address more of their patient’s mental health needs, consistent with the best evidence-based therapies, to improve the mental health of children and adolescents. The goals of this mini-fellowship were:
  1. to train pediatricians and other primary care providers to correctly identify and differentiate among pediatric behavioral health problems such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, aggression, mood disorders, and psychosis; 
  2. To provide the fellowship participants with training in effectively managing psychopharmacology: selecting medications, initiating and tapering dosages, monitoring improvements, and identifying and minimizing medication side effects; and  
  3. To provide the participants with ongoing real-time consultation and mentorship by child psychiatrists at university-based Departments of Psychiatry.
This training had enabled us to expand our capacity here at The Yellin Center for meeting more of our patients' mental health needs, including psychopharmacology. This is an important aspect of the support we provide to families, especially in light of the continuing shortage of pediatric psychiatrists.

In addition to the work we do to support the emotional and behavioral needs of the students with whom we work, there are national organizations that provide important resources to individuals and families. 

We have written before about the resources and supports offered by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Active Minds for individuals struggling with mental illness. Both of these organizations have as their mission the support of the roughly 20 percent of individuals in this country who have a mental illness. Active Minds focuses its work on young people, especially those on college campuses, while the work of NAMI is more broadly based. But both do important work for this population and their families and friends.

One resource families may find helpful is the Basics Program from NAMI, a "first step" for families who are dealing with a child who may have mental illness -- or who may just be going through a "difficult phase". By learning from other parents about ways to deal with these issues as a family, things may improve for both parents and their child.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Seeing Things Clearly in the Classroom

Here at The Yellin Center we routinely screen the students we evaluate for vision and hearing problems. These are not in depth exams, but are designed to pick up vision or hearing difficulties that should be followed up with an ophthalmologist or hearing specialist. Students who can't see the board or clearly hear instructions from their teacher will not be able to perform at their best.  

As with most school districts, the New York City Department of Education arranges for regular vision screening of all children (during pre-K and in first, third, and fifth grades). Students who are new to the City or who are referred for special education evaluations, as well as students whose teachers suspect a vision problem are also screened by the DOE. At this point in time, routine hearing screenings have discontinued. The DOE outlines its procedures for screenings on its website.

But is screening for vision problems enough? Finding a problem is only one step in improving a child's vision. Researchers in Baltimore recently published findings that demonstrated the effectiveness of a highly proactive approach to helping children with vision deficits. Second and third graders from low income families were given eye examinations and those that were found to need glasses (182 out of 317) were given two pairs -- one for school and one for home. Furthermore, teachers made sure that the students wore their glasses in class and made sure that any broken glasses were promptly repaired or replaced. The researchers found that the students who now had reliable vision aids, without burdening their families, had statistically significant improvements in reading.
Both parents and teachers need to be mindful of the need for children to not only have the corrective lenses they need for maximal visual acuity, but to actually have their glasses with them and to wear them at all appropriate times.