Posts filed under ‘Product reviews’

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

Friday Finds: The Cornerstone

I went through one of the top teacher colleges available, but no one told me what to do when a kid asks to use the bathroom too much… until now.


I first encountered Angela Powell Watson when I accepted my first teaching job. While not very long ago in the scheme of history, that was before the explosion of teacher-blogging and internet resources. It was also before I had any clue about classroom management, having just (tentatively) signed up for my teacher training program. Ms. Powell’s Management Ideas for Teachers saved my day, and many other days throughout that long first year. On this simple site, Ms. Powell shared a wealth of wisdom that guided me in setting up my classroom, creating a behavior plan, and generally feeling ready to teach. I printed off reams of it and took it with me everywhere that summer, clicking through every link to mine all the depths.

So you can see why I was so excited when Ms. Powell, now Mrs. Watson, published The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable, which is basically a polished up, reorganized, printed-and-bound edition of that content, perhaps with some more packed in for good measure. With 471 pages, I certainly can’t imagine anything she’s left out.

The Cornerstone is not your classroom management college textbook; it wastes no time on theories and gets straight to business with practical, realistic, classroom-ready suggestions. It not only presents great ideas, it tells you exactly how to make them happen – there are charts, dialogues, examples, and even a smattering of pictures. This is the book for real people who teach real children. It covers an enormous range of situations, all of which occur much more often than anything I’ve ever read assigned in school. It goes through how to manage materials, behavior, lesson planning, time, and even fellow adults. A run through the table of contents made me want to devour the entire thing in one bite; not knowing where to look first, I realized that one couldn’t go wrong by simply marching from cover to cover – though if you have a specific challenge, you could certainly skip around. Just make sure to go back so you don’t miss any gems.

It is absolutely astounding how Angela seems to know exactly what to do in every situation. She really seems to have covered all bases of classroom management, and each of her ideas is beautiful in its simplicity. There is nothing here that is more of a drag to carry out than whatever you’re already doing. Her suggested responses are phrased with utter clarity and everything just makes SO MUCH SENSE. It would seem that you could have thought of it yourself instead of needing to buy a book… except you hadn’t, so you’ll be glad you did.

The ideas seem to be targeted mainly towards the elementary grades, as much of Angela’s earlier experience was in lower elementary, but just about everything is either already relevant or can be adapted to just about any age and ability. You might find much of it less relevant if you teach high school, but you will probably also find some parts useful anyway. What teacher doesn’t have heaps of resources to organize and documentation to keep track of, for instance?

As a former graphic design major, I can never review a book without commenting on aesthetics. The layout of this book is about as basic as it gets, but completely readable and well-organized. The pictures could use a little help, they’re pretty dark. But overall, though it’s hardly artful, the book is friendly enough to the eyes. Definitely above par for self-published works. On a related note, it has a very low ratio of typographical/editing errors, making it a smooth and professional read.

In addition to the book, The Cornerstone has a companion website which has replaced the former Ms. Powell’s. On it, Angela is amazingly generous with advice and resources. A lot of the original content is still there, as well as all the reproducible forms from the book. There are additional free resources that would have been too tangential to include in the book, such as a page of math games/center ideas. You can also find selected links to quality resources from other sites, like this. And of course, there’s a blog in which Angela continuously shares new insights and links.

What I love about all of Angela’s work, besides the total practicality I already mentioned, is her positive outlook. Her focus is on making teaching and learning a pleasant, peaceful experience. I think a majority of teachers enter the profession for love of kids and learning, but we often get swept away in a storm of nitty-gritty that can potentially drag us down and suck the joy out of teaching. Angela Powell Watson’s mission is to bring back the joy through ironing out those kinks, and she does it admirably. She has even published another book, Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching, which specifically focuses on the mental/emotional aspect of loving to teach.

Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Cornerstone to review. However, all opinions expressed are honest and unbiased; in fact, I am such a big fan of Ms. Powell/Watson that if I hadn’t been offered the review opportunity, I would have just bought the book myself!

May 11, 2012 at 12:51 am 3 comments

Friday Finds: Overcoming Dyslexia

This one is getting a little old, but remains one of my all-time favorites. It is a must-read for all teachers and for parents of struggling students. Also recommended for the general public.

Dyslexia (a specific brand of reading difficulty) is one of the most important and misunderstood conditions in special education. In this book, Sally Shaywitz, M.D., covers  everything you want to know about it – and she does it concisely in plain English. Overcoming Dyslexia is an easy, interesting read even if you have never thought about dyslexia before. It’s written for real people and includes illustrative stories and visual aids.

The book is very thorough and solidly research-based. Published in 2005, it’s missing the latest research, and I hope they revise it soon to incorporate the latest finds. However, there have been no contradictory findings that I am aware of – only new insights that would add to the previous understanding, without invalidating it. Shaywitz, a noted expert in the field, explains the neurological mechanisms involved in reading and what goes wrong when reading isn’t working out. On a practical level, she describes proven ways to identify and remediate dyslexia.

What I like best about this book, besides its easy readability, is that Shaywitz addresses the broad picture, not just the diagnosis and clinical treatment of dyslexia. She discusses how to find the right school and plan an intervention program, how to minimize the emotional fallout of having a learning disorder, and what parents can do by-the-way to improve their child’s reading.

Apropos to its content and target audience, the book also comes in an audio format.

November 11, 2011 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Your Baby Can Read – But Should He?

You have probably seen the ads for this program blinking all over the web in recent years, perhaps especially if you frequent baby-related sites. You may even have been offered a “FREE trial!!!” After seeing that enough times, you might have considered signing up – after all, what do you have to lose? Quite a lot, in fact. Read on.

1. Wasted Time: As the “teach your baby to read” people will be eager to tell you, the first couple of years are a critical window of opportunity for brain development. Toddlers are extremely busy people – mine certainly is. She has a lot to learn. But reading isn’t on her list for another few years. At this stage, it’s much more important for her to play. Playing in age-appropriate ways will help her develop gross and fine motor skills, social skills, and a sense of how stuff works. More on that in future posts.

2. Missing Socialization: Arguably the most important thing for a baby to learn during their “window of opportunity” is how to get along with all those other people in the world. Research shows there are no shortcuts for this. No program will ever substitute for old-fashioned quality time with Mom, Dad, or just about anyone else.

3. Too Much TV: The abovementioned only account for part of the reason the AAP recommends minimal screen time for babies. Besides the missed opportunities, screen time may even be inherently harmful. We might never know for sure, but my gut (and some good empirical studies) tells me this can’t be what G-d had in mind when He made our brains.

4. Wrong Window: Evidence strongly suggests that reading readiness is, at least for many children, a stage of brain development that goes beyond simply learning the skills. If we wait five or six years (approximately, and allowing for individual variations), reading is likely to come more easily, more naturally, and through the right parts of the brain.

5. Burnout: Still not convinced that there’s really much to lose? Studies have shown that children who learn academic skills before the normal developmental time frame are more likely to get sick and tired of them when their peers are just getting fired up. Remember how excited you were to read your first book? Well, I don’t either. But remember how excited your child or student was? Can you visualize that same excitement in someone who’s known how to read since before they were toilet trained?

I could probably go on. Maybe I will sometime. But for now, the above reasons are enough to make me wait. There is no known advantage in knowing how to read a handful of basic words before preschool. Meanwhile, we have other learning to take care of, much of which will actually help pave the way for reading in the not-so-distant future.

Interested in REALLY helping your child get a head start in learning? Follow this blog or like it on Facebook and you’ll be the first to know when that post goes up!

October 23, 2011 at 6:05 am Leave a comment


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