Training the Brain: Why Online? (Part 1 in a series)

I see a lot of ads lately promoting various computer programs, claiming that they can cure learning disabilities, ADHD, or a number of  other maladies. Readers probably wonder what’s up with that – Do these programs really work? How do they work? Are they worth the cost? In addition to being a certified cognitive training clinician, I did some research into these programs to try to clear things up for you. There’s a lot to discuss, so please bear with me as I dish it out in small installments. After we get through the basics of what, why, and how, I’ll introduce you to a few specific programs and help you sort out which ones are worth a try for you.

First, why would you choose an online program at all? Here are a few advantages:

  1. Cost: Some computer therapies run hundreds to  thousands of dollars, giving parents extra cause to question their value. But compare it to having a professional administer the same treatment in person, at an hourly fee, and the computer wins hands-down. The only thing left to question is whether it can achieve the same results – and that is indeed a great question, which will be addressed in a future installment.
  2. Reliability: Any in-person treatment depends heavily on the individual provider. Of course, you do your best to choose the most competent person available to you, but true quality control is difficult. When you use a computer-based program, you know that the sounds, images, timing, and pacing are exactly the ones prescribed for you. You’re getting the same program as others who reported positive results.
  3. Convenience: A lot of things can interfere with the regular attendance that is necessary for good progress. All of the computer programs I’ve reviewed allow you to load your account from any computer, so you don’t need to miss sessions due to vacations, transportation glitches, or bad weather. You don’t even need to leave your house at all, or negotiate a schedule that works for your clinician as well as your entire family. You can set it up in your living room or office, and then go on with life.
  4. Engagement: Do I need to tell you that computer work holds more appeal for most? While the fun factor of computer-therapy programs varies and is usually not quite enough to keep kids motivated through a long training course, it still feels more interesting than “tutoring” or “therapy.”
  5. Discretion: As much as we try to applaud their strengths and de-stigmatize difficulties, many people are embarrassed about needing help. With interventions taking place on their home computer looking like a game, they can keep their difficulties hidden even from other family members. Instead of feeling dragged to therapy, they get to feel like the cool one for having a computer program special for them.

But is all this really enough to make up for personal therapeutic interaction? The answer, as usual, is “it depends.” Stay tuned for more discussion of what and who these programs are for, which ones are worth a look, and how to tell.



November 3, 2013 at 1:15 am 2 comments

Review/Extension Activity: Sometimes, Always, or Never

When you get your kids to think and then they ask you to do it again, you know you have a winner.

This is a versatile activity that can be adapted for any setting, time frame, and group dynamic. It engages students in processing vocabulary and ideas, helping them get comfortable and familiar with new words without any memorization pressure. Preparation and setup can be as easy as you need it to be. Here is the basic idea with one simple variation:

Create a list of statements about the topic you wish to explore or review. The statements should be sometimes, always, or never true. For example, here are some of my statements from a lesson about quadrilaterals:

A rhombus is a square

A rectangle is a parallelogram

A parallelogram has a right angle

A quadrilateral has 4 acute angles

A quadrilateral has exactly 2 right angles

I played the game with intensive students individually or in pairs, so I did it as a board game: Take any follow-the-path game board and randomly label the spaces sometimes, always, and never. In turns, each player picks up a statement card, reads the statement, and decides whether it is sometimes, always, or never true. The player must PROVE or at least reasonably demonstrate their answer through logic or examples. Often, the student develops their answer through the process of proving it. They can sketch examples, look up a definition in a reference book, and discuss with others. Some of the students surprised me – and themselves! – with the insights this process brought out. Once the players are collectively satisfied with the answer, the player moves to the next unoccupied matching spot. The game can be adapted to different game boards or simply collecting cards. Adapt for levels of knowledge/memory by making different reference resources available (or not). When students are already familiar with the way this works, you can make it an independent center activity for groups or individuals. You can have students make up the statements and then pool them together. Making up statements for a S/A/N game center can be an “early finisher” activity.

Another way to play that limits it to more of a categorization exercise is to write just the words on the card instead of full statements. Make several copies of each. Then, students draw the cards and place them on a template that looks like this:

A ______________ is a _________________

This will result in many of the same permutations you might have created in the first place, but it’s easier to prepare and adds a fun randomness.

This activity works especially well with topics involving a lot of categorization or attributes. Try it in science:

An elephant is a mammal.

A bird can fly.

A reptile lives in the desert.

Or in social studies. Or even in grammar. I love metacognition!

May 19, 2013 at 1:36 pm Leave a comment

Friday Finds: Teachers Pay Teachers

Today’s “find” is not actually hard to find – in fact, it’s practically viral, at least in the teacher-blog-osphere. But this site is so valuable to teachers, parents, and even students that I have to share just in case anyone does not yet know about it. 

Teachers Pay Teachers is, in their words, “an open marketplace for educators where teachers buy, sell, and share original teaching resources.” Pardon the hyperbole, but to me this is a thing of unspeakable beauty. It’s a boon to both buyers, sellers, and even window shoppers.

For the buyer, TPT offers a clean, friendly interface and a vast selection of all types of materials, including graphics, lesson plans, worksheets, slideshows, interactive whiteboard lessons – you name it. The open market conditions drive sellers to create high quality, visually appealing materials and price them competitively. Because the materials are created by actual teachers, you will usually find them to be highly relevant to your actual students and teaching standards. Many sellers offer some items completely free, so you can personally evaluate their style before starting to buy – and when you find someone you especially like, you can add them to your “favorites” for easy tracking in the future.

What especially appeals to me is that many of the materials are specific. While many sellers create “packs” of full units or series of related items, you can also find materials for individual lessons or specific topics. I can’t be the only one whose library overflows with teaching materials I never use because I bought a whole book and only used one activity. Buying full sets and volumes is a budget drain, especially for teachers like me who move around a lot and don’t teach the same topics repeatedly to similar populations. On TPT, you can use search terms, tags, and previews to find the materials that are just right for your current need. The prices are right, the file goes straight to your computer, and you will no longer have to sift through piles of random materials in your file cabinet to find the ones you want.

As a seller, you benefit from the easy-to-use platform and built-in publicity of being part of such a large sharing community. If you’ve ever considered selling your teaching materials for profit, this is the perfect way to break into the market. I have not yet begun to digitize my collection, so instead of linking you to my snazzy TPT seller page, I am sharing this resource just for your own benefit. However, I look forward to this opportunity to share my ideas and creations with a wider audience.

We all work hard to create materials for our students and have long been generous in sharing with fellow teachers; here is the chance to reach a wider audience, make some money on it, and have access to other teachers’ creations, too! Here are a couple of my favorite sellers so far.

Laura Candler is a pro, she has full books but here you can also access individual activities. Her activities and ideas are highly interactive while still being approachable for students who are hesitant to engage.

Rachel Lynette has many reading comprehension “task cards” for really quick practice. These have been great for my students who need a lot of repeated, targeted skill practice in short bursts.

You’ve already heard how much I love Angela Watson (The Cornerstone) but did I mention she is the queen of math games? They’re on TPT, too, and she is way up to date aligning them with Common Core. You’ll pay a bit more for the full game packs, but they’re worth it – they are engaging, they teach/practice what you need them to, they are very well designed, and the kits are very complete. You basically just need to print and go.

Just a small sample, browse around yourself and see just how much talent there is when teachers around the web gather together. Then come back and share – what is your favorite TPT find?

May 10, 2013 at 1:38 pm 2 comments

Where’d the dough go? Silly answers to a great question (DOE Part 3/3)

In my last post, I got a bit carried away whining about how the NYC Department of Education gives independent contractors a raw deal and then denies payment even after you accept that deal. So, what ever did happen to those payments? According to the NBC report, the DOE says the reason why thousands of providers went unpaid for months (still counting, for many) is because they were awaiting “required documentation.” However, as I described in my previous post, the only paperwork they ever requested was invoices and approval letters. Their contract says that from the time I send those, I should expect payment in 6 weeks (that’s weeks, not months). Thousands of providers did exactly what the DOE said, and were only informed of additional “required documentation” after calling repeatedly to ask why they hadn’t been paid. Now, I won’t dispute the DOE’s right to request additional documentation of services rendered. However, they have no right to withhold payments for services provided before these requirements were in place, and if they do decide they want more junk from us, they need to tell us clearly and in advance of the requirement. I should have received a letter, email, or phone call over the summer or accompanying my case approvals for this year saying something like “Dear Contractor, Please note that as of September 2012 you will be required to blah blah, and we won’t pay until you do.” Instead, what happened was that hundreds of unpaid workers individually clogged up the DOE phones asking for their money, and were told “But you didn’t sign up with the QRST system.” What QRST system? Never heard of it. Where do I find it? What do I do? It would also be nice if the “additional documentation” were less cumbersome and redundant. Since finding out about the new requirements, I have had to:

  • Sign up for a “vendor portal” by entering my name and SSN – they already HAVE my name and SSN, why don’t they just add me to their database when they approve me for the service in the first place? Wait for approval/confirmation.
  • Sign up for “SESIS” the same way – Again, can’t they just combine their databases? Wait for approval/confirmation.
  • Get approved for “PETS” by emailing someone to ask them to approve me. I still don’t know the significance of this.
  • Something about fingerprint verification which I had to do when I first started this job, my fingerprints haven’t changed since then as far as I know. I also had to get fingerprint clearance when applying for my teaching certification in the first place, so if they know I’m a certified teacher they should be able to find my fingerprint info on file somewhere.
  • Call “IVR” to record my start dates for each student. Note that my start date is also listed on the original service approval form, so again, they ought to have this info down somewhere. Wait for them to be added to my SESIS file.
  • Go back to SESIS and enter all my attendance data. Note that my invoices also need to include the exact dates and times of attendance. My guess is that they need us to record it twice so that if we ever make a typo so they don’t match, they can accuse us of perjury and invalidate our whole month on both systems. Anything to avoid paying up.
  • Download a new invoice form that will only work properly in the most up-to-date version of Microsoft Excel. Type my attendance and billing information into this form, which takes a lot because with the way they pay me I haven’t upgraded my computer in years, and of course the computers in the school I work in are provided by the DOE and are only to be used directly with the students. This would be considered my “personal” use so I’m on my own. And their form doesn’t translate well with old programs.
  • Also new on the forms this year are start and end times. You used to have to write only the length of the session. Since I first caught wind of this only a few months into the school year, do I now need to reconstruct history to figure out when I saw kids before my schedule was finalized? For years they wanted total time, so that’s what I recorded on my attendance sheet every day. Oh, and instead of typing right into the form, I need to choose those times from drop-down lists of 5-minute increments from 6AM to 9:45PM. A minor hassle, but why?

…and that’s before you can even think about getting paid. By the way, after using the new computerized invoice, you still need to print it out and mail it in together with copies of the original approval letters and “P4” forms for each student – as if they can’t keep a record of who’s approved for which services. So I’m not sure how much they gain by computerizing the thing in the first place. I’m in favor, theoretically – now when they lose my papers, it will be easier for me to print off a fresh copy. Meanwhile, I’m already losing track of how many different systems I’m signed up for, which one had which password, and what I’m supposed to use them all for.

Fortunately, for all its exciting twists and turns, the system apparently does work eventually and people are finally getting paid for the work they did in September. Strangely, many have found discrepancies between the amount they billed and the amount received. So the phone calls begin again. Since I haven’t been paid yet this year (not to worry, it hasn’t yet been six weeks since I completed my scavenger hunt of “required documentation,” so no complaints there…) I don’t know if they’ve streamlined this part, but last time I had to call about missing funds it took over a month. First you get bounced around from one desk to another until you hit a dead end where someone’s away from their desk and the voicemail box is full. Then you get a person who says that the person you need isn’t there. Then you finally get the person you need, and they say they’ll look into it. You melt with gratitude and wait for them to get back to you. You go on waiting until you realize they aren’t getting back to you, and then you try again. So far, these are the reasons we’ve been given for the discrepancies:

  • Not sure, will look into it further, have to ask someone else in a different department whose voicemail box is full.
  • Their mistake, don’t know how it happened, but they’ll fix it – let us know if you don’t receive the money someday.
  • Session lengths must be a multiple of 15 minutes. Some or all of your sessions weren’t, so they rounded it DOWN for you (and then they want you to teach kids that rounding is to the nearest. And that in some situations you need an exact answer without rounding). I got this excuse. I have never seen this rule documented anywhere, and I read all the fine print available. My approval forms say “Session length: a period.” That year, the school I worked in had 40-minute periods.  Note that they did not round the total number of minutes to the nearest 15; they rounded EACH SESSION down to 30 minutes, essentially docking 25% of my pay for the month. This was for three months: the first one, another 6 weeks waiting for that payment, and the third month ended and was invoiced while I was chasing them by phone trying to correct what I thought was their mistake. Note that this was the first time I heard of this after several years of billing exactly to the minute, either it is something new or they are inconsistent about it. But the lady on the phone acted like it was something I should have known through common sense or something.
  • You can’t work for 6 hours straight without a lunch break. So, they penciled a lunch break into your schedule and didn’t pay you for the students you saw during that time. Why is this any of their business? We’re independent contractors, supposed to get paid for services provided – not employees whose every minute can be scheduled. If I want to eat a big breakfast and then see as many students as I can get in a day while just holding off until dinner, what right do they have to care? And again, if they do decide to care, they need to make this clear in advance instead of declining to pay for services already rendered.

Note that for the 15-minute and 6-hour policies (extra credit if you can find a book of these policies and share it with those who rightfully need to know), there is no way to get that money back. They said they’ve already processed the invoices, that month is closed on your case and there’s no going back – besides, they already know you saw the kid for 40 minutes at a time, so if you now claim otherwise, the untruth is rather transparent. As for the future, you can imagine the headaches involved in trying to fit a dozen kids’  schedules into 15-minute increments, especially if you work in a school where some periods are 40 or 50 minutes.

All I want to know is why they can’t just come out with a book of their policies and make it available to all contractors. This business is like telling students to do long division with decimals before teaching them how, and then waiting for them to finish before telling them that they got something wrong in the first step. Then you let them do it ALL over again before telling them that they got the second step wrong, too. Not nice.

February 10, 2013 at 10:09 pm Leave a comment

Part II: How the NYC DOE gets teachers to work for free (or cheap)

My previous post shared some of the frustrations the Department of Education puts us through to get services for students in need. Now it’s time to expose how the DOE unconscionably rips off the special ed teachers and related service professionals who actually provide these services on the front. I pointed you to this NBC report, but that only tells half the story: it only addresses the payments that were delayed, not those that were altogether denied, and it makes no mention of the obstacle course the DOE puts us through to get any payment at all – not to mention the payments that disappear altogether.

There are two stories here: The DOE’s internal problems of inefficiency, incompetence, and unfairness which cause ignorable inconveniences to ignorable little people like me, and their major mix-up this year that turned the entire population of independent SETSS providers on its ear. SETSS stands for Special Education Teacher Support Services, and independent contractors provide these services to students who do not receive them directly from DOE employees, usually because they attend a non-public school by choice. Since special education services are the school district’s responsibility regardless of school placement, the DOE is supposed to reimburse the providers for our work.

Our contract isn’t great, but there isn’t any room for negotiation. Because it’s up to the parents to find an independent provider for their children, the DOE simply doesn’t care if you don’t want to work on their terms. Let the parents go crazy trying to find someone who will sign on to it. Among the terms of the service:

  • You’re only paid for time when the student’s body is actually there with you. Spent 30 minutes traveling to his house only to wait for 15 minutes at the door until you realize nobody’s home and they forgot to tell you? Tough. What other professional would accept this? Every therapist I’ve ever visited requires 24-hour notice of cancellation in order to cancel the bill as well. Even an hour would be enough for me to save my travel and waiting time, and possibly even squeeze in a different client. How about the kid who got suspended and needed a week’s worth of home-based curriculum coordinated with all his teachers and communicated to him at home? Hours at my desk and on the phone. No body in school, no money.
  • You’re required to tend to all of the child’s special education needs, including attending IEP meetings, collaborating with general ed teachers, etc. Again, no pay for this time. We’re not even talking prep time, but actual in-person meetings mandated by the DOE about the student’s services. But you only get paid for “direct” teaching time.
  • Provide make-up sessions only during the same week, but not on the same day as a regular session. Most students are mandated to receive services 5 days a week, so there isn’t any day that isn’t the same as a regular session. So, that student for whom you killed an hour because they were absent with no prior notice? Forget about getting that hour back. No matter how much school work he missed during his absence, which will be harder for him to make up due to his special needs, you get your same one period a day to catch him up. If he was absent for a week, that’s a week’s worth of income you’ll just never see.

Well, it’s their game, so we play by their rules. I sign on the dotted line agreeing to the above terms (among others). I mail my signature in to the CSE (Committee on Special Education – the ones in charge of these forms) and, if all goes well, I get back an approval letter. Theoretically, I shouldn’t work with the student until I get the approval, but that could take a month – a month in which they’re supposed to get services, not slip ever farther behind their general ed peers. So I just sort of count on the approval coming. The approval letter says that at the end of each month, I should send an invoice together with a copy of the approval letter and expect payment within 6 weeks.

  • Question: Can’t they just keep a database of which services they approve? Why do I need to make copies of your own approval letter to send back to you over and over again every month? *cue moans of dying trees*

Here’s where the fun starts. So far, it’s all been logical: I sign to their rules, do what they said, complete the invoices, copy the approval letter, and wait for the check in the mail. Instead of a check in the amount I’ve billed, here are some examples of what I (and others) received instead:

  • A check for 75% of the amount I billed. No explanation for the difference.
  • The exact same papers I sent in, stamped “Received,” with a note saying I haven’t sent them (I sent back the EXACT same set of papers again, just swapping the to and from addresses and re-paying the postage. This time they found nothing missing. *shrug*)
  • A message saying that my handwritten invoices are invalid because one date was corrected with white out
  • A message saying that my handwritten invoices are invalid because from now on all invoices must be typed
  • And finally, this year’s new zinger: A letter saying that I can’t bill for services until I sign into a series of websites with exactly the same information, and then communicate with a bunch of people to say I did so.

I oppose overlong blog posts on principle, so since my word count is again approaching 1,000, I’ll save the autopsy for the next post. Spoiler: I will never recover the missing 25% of that paycheck, but that didn’t bring me to tears as the rest of the frustration did. It only gets better.

February 6, 2013 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

How New York is destroying Special Ed

Bureaucracy is typically a nightmare, but the NYC Department of Education takes it to a whole new stratum, preventing students with special needs from accessing vital services and then nickel-and-diming the providers of such services. This year, they proudly graduated to a new level of insanity, creating widespread headache epidemics throughout the city. (Note: I speak from the perspective of an independent contractor providing SETSS to students in non-public schools.)

It is January, just about halfway through the school year that began five months ago. Three of the eligible students in my class are only beginning their special education services now. Three kids waited five months. Besides slipping dangerously far behind in their academic work, the one whose counseling was delayed already earned a suspension and was almost expelled. This is a sincere student who is interested and willing to work with a school counselor on his impulsiveness. What’s the holdup? Some of it was simply lack of communication. In an ideal world, when the IEP team decides to mandate services for a child, they should automatically and immediately present the parents with the necessary forms to make the services happen. Instead, the DOE tends to rest on its laurels until the parent comes knocking:

Parent: You said my kid was supposed to get SETSS. Why isn’t it happening? The school says they never got the approval letter.
CSE: Let’s see… it seems you never sent in the Mumble Jumble Crumble form.
Parent: What form?
CSE: You have to send in the MJC form. We don’t have your MJC.
Parent: I never heard of any MJC! What’s an MJC?
CSE: Oh fine, we’ll send you one. Fill it in and send it back, then we can send you the approval.

This is if the parent is lucky enough to reach a person on the first try. Often you’ll be told “they’ll call you back” to hold you off for another week or two until you decide to call them. And what they don’t tell you is that you’d better keep a copy of your form because you will probably have to send it again after they lose it.

So that’s a communication problem. Remember that, because it happens to the teachers later in this post, too. There’s also an efficiency problem. The DOE buildings must be heated by a paper furnace; it’s the only way to explain why they require reams of paperwork and yet often don’t seem to have the document du jour. Like this parent, who knew from experience to request the MJC or whatever form her kid needed:

Parent: My child is supposed to be getting SETSS, as per his IEP. Please send our MJC.
Parent: We still haven’t received our MJC….
CSE: Your child’s services were discontinued.
Parent: What! He still has a learning disorder. He is still failing in general ed. And his current IEP, signed by your representative, says his services should continue!
CSE: His file says his case was closed.
Parent: WHY?
CSE: It says “lack of parental involvement.”
Parent: What does that mean? I was just at his IEP meeting three months ago. You have my dated signature on his IEP, which says that he should get services through June 2013.
CSE: You need to prove it.

Even though their own people had signed that IEP a few months earlier, and they presumably retained a copy for their records, the mother had to take a day off of work to march hers to HQ and argue for her involvement. Then they had to start again with the MJC. Thank goodness for involved parents or these kids would never get anywhere.

Another one got the forms through without a hitch. But the approval form was missing the specified number of sessions. They won’t honor that. So the parents sent it back and, unbelievably, they actually received it back again without undue delay! This time the kid’s name was misspelled. Of course if there’s any mismatch on any records, it’s as if it never happened. So it had to go back AGAIN. Why did they even re-type the kid’s name? They only had to enter a single digit onto the existing form!

So, that’s why I am still starting with new students in December and January. One year I let a kid into the program without the approval in hand, under the assumption that since his IEP said he was supposed to get services as of the first day of school, that meant the approval would come. It didn’t. Probably lack of parental involvement (the parents were fine, but most people don’t realize you have to be a battering ram to get anywhere in the DOE. They were lovely, un-pushy people.) I never saw a dime for all the work I did with that student before realizing that the forms wouldn’t show up. I, along with most other slightly-jaded providers, no longer see students on credit – or at least, I limit the amount I will see on credit at a given time (sometimes they’ll honor the IEP retroactively, but now I know not to count on it). I really feel for the kids, and for the general ed teachers who have to deal with them alone, but I have to pay my rent.

Another student began acting out and losing focus in class. The mother wanted him to see the school counselor because she felt it was likely a response to his father having recently become seriously ill. The DOE denied the services because he had passed the state tests (taken before the father’s illness) so he obviously didn’t need any educational help. At the risk of sounding unsophisticated: D’oh.

There, we have now solved half of the DOE’s budget deficit by avoiding approving (and hence paying for) special services for the most vulnerable students. In my next post, I will elaborate on how the DOE resolves the rest of its budget woes by avoiding paying even for services already approved and provided. Stay tuned, the fun is only beginning!

February 1, 2013 at 2:02 am 2 comments

We all started somewhere

IMG_0743You may have wondered where I’ve been. Or maybe you didn’t wonder at all. Or maybe you found this blog more recently and figured it’s another poor, defunct, abandoned idea. Well, not to worry – I’m here and I’ve been busy: There’s a new Little Learning Girl in the family! Which means I should probably come up with better pen names to avoid confusion.

I look at Littlest Learning Girl and marvel at how much she has accomplished in just a couple of months. Besides pooping through every piece of cloth in the house, I mean

  • where to find food and how to get it out (she was not born quite knowing this as her big sister was)
  • how to get her hands into her mouth
  • how to swat at toys to make them move and how to kick to bounce her bouncy seat
  • if you move your eyes and head just right, you can go on seeing something even as it moves away
  • you can get a ton of attention if you smile charmingly enough

This stuff is monumental!

Besides making me ponder all the skills we take for granted (how many of us special ed teachers see school-age kids who can’t do the visual tracking one?) it also reminded me how we all started with nothing. We didn’t pop up as social creatures all at once, we started with a fleeting moment of eye contact. Not only weren’t we born readers or talkers, we started with the smallest phonemes.

In a newborn, we call this cute. Somehow, when they come to us in 1st…5th…8th grade missing any of these skills it doesn’t seem quite as cute. Sometimes it even looks rather hopeless. But then we back up and remember that we all got where we are one baby step at a time. And we look for the next step, whatever that is, because it’s the only way you’ll ever get up. You can’t waste time worrying about whether and why you’ll reach the tenth floor or you’ll never even get halfway to one. I don’t know if my students will ever be on grade level, but one thing I’m sure of: If a helpless newborn baby can start with nothing but reflexes and still manage to find a way to learn about the sights, sounds, and feelings of the world, then I really have to believe there’s a way to meet the student where he is and move him on up.

Whether it’s phonemes to syllables
pictures to numbers
objects to pictures
or even just how to smile charmingly.

January 27, 2013 at 10:41 pm Leave a comment

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