Posts tagged ‘education’

On the Other Side

So, I made a mistake. I do that pretty often, actually. But as I always say, mistakes are just another way of learning. The full story is for a different post; for now, let’s just say I let myself get into a situation where I had to read a book of a student’s choice in order to determine whether he’d actually read it or was just bluffing through his assignment. It was a very painful experience.

Now, I am a person who can appreciate diverse genres. But with all due respect to Matt Christopher, I no longer understand why kids are so into him. My past understanding was that the students liked sports, he writes prolifically about sports, so it’s a great match! But goodness, that was the dryest hundred-page kids’ novel I ever had to force myself to stay awake through. It was 90% play-by-play game descriptions – and all for a team that doesn’t even exist! They didn’t even use especially rich vocabulary; the thing read like a sportscast. The “deep” part of the plot occurred in brief dialogues between games. There was a bit of plot and character development, but on a much lower maturity level than the technical reading level of the book. Usually I’m more hard-pressed to find the opposite – mature content at a low reading level. But I digress, I didn’t come here to badmouth a popular author. Anyone who gets my kids reading deserves their publishing contract (though, arguably, the problem here was that the sports-fan student lost interest before finishing the reading)

About eighty pages in, I had a lightbulb moment. Here I was, reading about a topic I had no interest in, in a foreign language purporting to be English, and it was pure torture. I, the queen of context clues, still don’t know what a “buttonhook” is, and they must have done it twenty times in that book! Well, it’s some kind of football play, and not very important to the plot, but basically I skimmed through a lot of the action without fully grasping the finer points of what was going on, despite figuring out more than I ever wanted to know about football, because it just didn’t matter to me. And it suddenly hit me that this is what our students have to do DAILY.

That explains a lot.

Now, I still maintain that some things in life are boring and difficult, and it doesn’t hurt to get used to that. And I also know that there are ways we teachers can (and do! Well, most of us…) try to minimize the torture. But there’s nothing like switching sides for a real kicker.

I have always empathized with my students, but it does help to have the feeling driven home afresh every now and then. So, if you’re not a sports-lover, go ahead and pick up a Matt Christopher book. You might regret it, but you also might learn something!

And just so you don’t think I’m down on Matt Christopher because I don’t do football, I really enjoyed this book, also football themed:


January 20, 2012 at 2:04 am Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s a SMARTboard?

Student Using an Interactive Whiteboard

“My daughter tells me they got to play on a smartboard in her class. What’s going on?”
“The school my friend teaches in got SMARTboards two years ago! How does my principal expect me to teach without one?”
“My son’s PTA is trying to raise $30,000 to install smartboards in every class. $30,000?! What for?”

For the technically uninclined  reader, a SMARTboard (or rather, an interactive whiteboard – SMARTboard is just the most well-known branding) is a large touch screen that hooks up to a computer. It can be used to project and interact with any computer program as well as specialized programs, such as SMART Notebook, which are designed to work well with the touch screen in the educational context.

Will the SMARTboard revolutionize education?
It certainly seems to have changed the game, but looks aren’t everything. In my opinion, there are two main benefits to the SMARTboard, and it is up to the grant writers to assess the cost-benefit ratio:

1. It can make it easier for teachers to plan interactive activities.
I deliberately used the word “easier” rather than “possible.” Even most of the best lessons I see teachers do on their SMARTboards could have been (and were) done in years past with paper and fun-tack. The difference is that the old way required more preparation and didn’t look as snazzy (which actually didn’t bother anyone until the bar was raised). Also, if you wanted to share materials, you had to take turns, sometimes physically rummaging in your colleagues’ files instead of downloading a carbon copy off their website.  However, besides saving the teachers a great deal of time and expense, providing this medium is valuable because it increases the likelihood of teachers actually using clever techniques. Face it – we’ve always been able to share interesting pictures and documents with our students, but when it required thinking of it days in advance, going to the central library to sign out a slide, hooking up the carousel projector, and… you know, I actually don’t know what else was involved in ye olden days, because when I was in school my teachers just didn’t do that very often. I wonder why.

2. It lets kids get their hands on technology in a collaborative, supervised way.
I don’t need to tell you that we live in a wired world. Hey, this is a blog. Our kids are only going to make it if they can function in this environment. Many won’t get to practice at home, and even those who do might not learn to harness their powers effectively without careful guidance. Huddling around a desktop or laptop is not the best classroom management solution. Maybe an interactive whiteboard is.

What about the coolness factor?
OK, I confess. I think the SMARTboard is one really cool invention. But coolness wears off fast. Don’t count on expensive toys to hold kids’ attention for more than a few weeks, at most. That is the job of effective teaching combined with available tools and materials.

You touch it! It’s kinesthetic! Isn’t that great?
I’m all for multisensory learning. But sorry, this isn’t it. It does involve a little more movement and hands-on interaction than most typical teaching activities, but as I’ve already stated, that can almost always be achieved with low-tech measures as well. What’s more, I believe that computer screens are actually quite un-tactile. Sliding a finger across a screen provides less feedback than actually picking up an object and moving it. It doesn’t provide any more texture for writing than a pencil on paper. And, most importantly, it’s a distracting decoy that can take away from true multisensory learning: In bygone years, I brought in boxes of different shapes and sizes and a sack of marbles to demonstrate the concept of volume. Now, there’s a nifty slideshow simulation. Doing things yourself can be replaced with watching an internet video of someone who already did it. Instead of planning in advance and bringing in specimens of what I’m teaching about, I can download a whole bunch of pictures that look great but FEEL the same as the rest of the touch screen. So no, “touch screen” is NOT the same as “tactile/sensory.”

The bottom line (OK, several lines):

  • Technology has a lot to offer, but  it’s only as good as the person at the controls. For teachers who can deliver a well-designed lesson without a SMARTboard, and are willing to learn new techniques, they will probably enhance their teaching and streamline their preparation. But there is no substitute for good teaching.
  • Limited resources should be allocated effectively by screening which teachers are most likely to benefit from this tool. It would likely be wasted on an experienced teacher who is doing well in his or her subject area and isn’t adept at mastering new technology. On the flipside, it might be most beneficial in a class with a large proportion of students with special needs, where it could be used adaptivelyto compensate for the limitations of traditional methods.
  • Principals would be well advised to invest in staff development and training to ensure that they get the most out of their SMARTboards. Without training, many teachers might view them as simply very expensive projection screens, or worse, just more wires to trip on.

December 28, 2011 at 1:51 am Leave a comment

What can you do in a second?

The Passage of Time

Image by ToniVC via Flickr

More than you think, probably. As you glance at these words, your brain is processing an astounding amount of information each moment – perceiving it, filtering out the insignificant bits, interpreting the ones that matter, filtering some more, matching the sensations to memories, making sense out of the result, deciding how to respond to it, and putting together all the actions needed to produce that response.


Unless, of course, something goes wrong. And since there is so much going on, there are so many ways to go wrong. Every person with a learning disorder has a glitch somewhere in the above process. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it, just that they have to work harder. Maybe their brain will do some of this hard work for them automatically, if they focus long enough, or maybe they’ll have to consciously make up for the missing piece – perhaps by taking a detour around the regular circuits (“I can’t remember what that word says, but I can sound it out.”)

I’d like to posit that many learning disorders can be accommodated in regular classrooms with  no extra work and only a few minutes a day.


Here’s how it’s done: Every time you ask a question, wait. Don’t say anything. Don’t even rephrase the question. Let those brains process what you’ve said and compose an answer. THEN call on a student to respond. Any other way, it won’t work: Every time, and don’t say anything.

Here’s why: The quickest kids tend to get called on the most. Even when teachers make an effort to call on everyone, the ones who need more time are often still grasping for the answer while everyone waits and looks at them. Either way, if I tend to need more time, I quickly realize that it’s better not to volunteer answers at all. And if I’m not answering, or bound to answer incorrectly anyway, I don’t really have to pay attention to the question either. I’ll just quietly disengage from this lesson, thanks. But if I know that I’ll have a fighting chance at answering questions, I can take it. It doesn’t matter anymore that I’m not the fastest or the first, because by the time the teacher chooses who will answer, there are 15 hands in the air. Nobody’s jumping to call out, either, because they know that this is the way this teacher does it every time – being first is not the advantage. Instead, even the “quick” students take a moment to reflect, processing the lesson on deeper levels, or maybe just taking a breath – nothing wrong with that! The teacher gains the opportunity to see how many of the students are engaged and coming up with an answer, instead of just finding out whether the first one to raise his or her hand has it right.

The no talking rule is important – if you claim to be giving time to think over the question, but meanwhile you’re rephrasing the question, naming who’s gotten it (“I see three hands up… four…”), or giving hints, I can’t focus on the question – I need to pay attention in case you’re saying something important. My brain won’t do that automatically like the fast kids’ do, so we’re back in the uneven playing field.

You already wait a few seconds. Try waiting just a few seconds more and see what a difference it makes!

More on time… stay tuned!

Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on

November 14, 2011 at 11:27 pm Leave a comment

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

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s SEIT?

It seems like we all know someone who is, does, has, gets, or wants SEIT (pronounced “see-it”). You may even know that stands for “Special Education Itinerant Teacher.” But what is that supposed to mean, anyway?

According to the dictionary, “itinerant” means “traveling.” A SEIT is a teacher who doesn’t have his or her own class, and probably even bounces around to different schools, homes, or other sites each day, working with students wherever they are for a period or two (occasionally more) at a time. The details below, as usual, pertain especially to NYC – other districts may differ in the particulars.

Who gets a SEIT?

Typically, a SEIT is recommended for students ages 3-5 who have special needs but are not placed in a full-time special education program with a full-time special ed teacher. The service would be listed on their IFSP or IEP (another Wednesday Whatsit, perhaps?)

Who can be a SEIT? How do I become one?

Pretty much any state-certified special education teacher can be a SEIT. If the student has an especially specialized need (such as ABA – coming soon to a Wednesday near you!), preference may (and should) be given to someone with training, expertise, and/or experience in that area. If you are a certified teacher interested in working as a SEIT, cases are usually managed by special education agencies that help coordinate service plans, providers, and schedules. Contact local child development centers, and scan the ads that target parents to see who’s helping them get services. Don’t put all your eggs in this basket, though, because supply exceeds demand for SEIT at this time.

What does a SEIT do?

The SEIT’s job is to address the student’s special needs, so the specific activities will vary accordingly. The ideal is to help the student integrate into the regular class, but sometimes the SEIT needs to take the student aside and work with him or her individually. The SEIT can also guide the lead classroom teacher and/or the child’s parent[s] by showing them how to help the child when the SEIT isn’t there, or by setting up plans and programs to be continued between SEIT sessions. SEIT goals are typically educational in nature, but the SEIT also supports the child’s social and behavioral development.

So is a SEIT like a shadow?

This question sounds random after the above explanation, but I hear it all the time, so I’ll answer it here: No. A shadow is not  a certified teacher and usually doesn’t have any special training relevant to students with special needs. Although they can sometimes be helpful in this regard, it is generally not the shadow’s job to take care of students’ educational needs. Though a SEIT may stay with a student in their regular class and encourage the student to engage in class activities independently, s/he is not just sitting there, though it might appear so to a casual observer. If s/he is, in fact, just sitting there, then something’s wrong – but I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion too hastily. Moving a child towards integration is a very delicate balance and there may be more going on that you don’t realize.

November 10, 2011 at 4:01 am Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s the ELA?

(Apologies to the rest of the universe, as this post is kind of NY-centric. I really don’t know what goes on elsewhere.)

Year after year, I run into at least a handful of students, teachers, and parents in a tizzy about the ELAs. They’re not sure what they are, why they matter, or what to do about them, but they hope I know. And is my kid going to have to take a science ELA?

For starters, please calm down. ELA stands for just “English Language Arts,” and yes, there will be a test.

What is it?

In New York State, the ELA test is given to students in grades 3-8 every Spring. It is a pretty standard language arts test, which includes short reading and listening passages, multiple choice questions, and written responses. Some grades also have a short proofreading exercise. It’s usually given in two sessions on two consecutive days.

Does it matter?

It might. Depending on your school, the results might be used for class placement decisions or to screen for academic risks. Some intervention programs use the results to determine which students should receive government-funded enrichment. School-wide averages may also be used to flag those in need of extra help. In my school, promotion decisions are never based solely on state tests, but it’s up to the schools to decide how much weight to give it.

What should we do about it?

Not much, in my opinion. The New York ELA test seems to address standard skills directly enough that you don’t need to waste much time and energy on test prep. My focus in test preparation is just to let students know what to expect so they don’t get confused and intimidated when opening the test booklet. What this looks like:

  • At the beginning of the year and throughout: Read the state standards so you know what students are expected to know. It won’t tell you exactly what to teach but will give you a general idea of what skill areas to look at.
  • All year: Give a couple of test-style multiple choice questions on each reading assignment. Weave in strategies such as reading all the choices and using the process of elimination.
  •  All year: Integrate language-arts words into your vocabulary, and make sure that students understand them. Use phrases like “character traits” and “theme,” for example.
  • All year: Consider accommodations. The day of the test is too late to arrange for extra time, directions read aloud, or such. Notice when kids are struggling in regular classroom tests and alert your school’s special needs coordinator.
  • Before the test: Do a couple of sample essays with your students. The test essays follow very specific formats, so you can easily coach your students on what is expected of them (more on that in some future post if desired)
  • About a week before the test: Print out a sample test and spend a period or so familiarizing your students with the directions and layout, which change very little (if at all) from year to year.

Note that until the month of the test if not later, my recommendations don’t really change your teaching much at all. Beyond that, there’s nothing you can really do to cram language skills.

What about the math ELA?

Now that you know ELA stands for English Language Arts, you can figure that there is no math, science, or history ELA. Trick question, but one that I’m asked all the time! However, there are state assessments in other subjects, my recommendations for those are similar though I don’t care for the tests as much, and this post is long enough without going into it! Until next time, then!

November 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm 2 comments

Friday Finds:

Welcome to Friday Finds! I’ll try to bring you the best of the web every week. Or, if not every week, then on random Fridays because I like alliteration. is an all-purpose site aimed at parents but reasonably relevant to teachers as well. It’s a good starting point for  little of everything, and surprisingly thorough – my usual instinct is to look for specialty sites when researching a particular topic, but for many purposes, this site will serve you quite well. I’m getting no commission for saying this.

What you’ll find:

  • Articles on just about every topic in education. Makes me feel like this blog is a little extraneous. Oh well, I can still try.
  • Educational activity ideas and printable worksheets
  • Q&A forum
  • General topics of interest to parents, such as crafts and recipes.

Why I like it:

  • Well organized: It’s easy to find everything that’s there. Easy to navigate. Easy on the eyes. I like easy. The search tools work great, too – You can search for activities or materials by grade level, topic, and/or subtopic, by clicking tags, or just browsing new or popular items. Very smooth.
  • Real info: Everyone has something to say on the web, but much of it is junk. Here, the material makes sense and is consistent with other current research I’ve read – as well as common sense. Even better, many of the articles are actually written by well-known, respected authors and personalities in educational fields.
  • Great materials: The worksheets and activities are visually appealing, simple, and educationally sound. The articles are written and organized well, easy to understand, and not too long.
  • Thorough: As I stated at the beginning of this post, but will say again because it’s so impressive, this site is remarkably thorough. They seem to have something for everything.
  • FREE! Really free. No “If you want to see the rest of the worksheet, become a paying member.” No spam emails, so far.

Wishful thinking:

This is a darn good site, but could be even better. The ads on this site are not too pervasive, but I do wish you wouldn’t have to click through so many pages. There is only a small amount of material on each page, and frequently after you select your topic you still need to click again to open the article. I assume they do this to maximize ad impressions, but it’s a little annoying, especially if your internet connection is slow. Still, some sites will just annoy you for money – this one at least gives you a good return for it.
I would also love to see more materials for the higher grade levels.

October 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm Leave a comment


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