Category Archives: For Educational Therapists

Migrating over to another blog

Dear MindSpark Blog Subscriber;

In an attempt to streamline and update my website and my blog, I am combining the two.  I am taking your emails and subscribing you to the new home of the blog, but it is going to ask you to respond to confirm.  If you could do so, there will be no interruptions in your receiving each blog update.

Thanks very much!  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Take care–

Diana Kennedy

Phonics Card Games

As readers of this blog know very well, games are great to incorporate in the classroom for many important, neuropsychological reasons.  To summarize, kids learn best when they are having fun.

So, we’ve talked about board games for reviewing phonics.

Card Games: Fun and Educational!

Card Games: Fun and Educational!

Today, I want to introduce a handful of card games to get in more of that all-important practice, without kids feeling drilled to death.

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Board Games Galore!

 “The score never interested me, only the game,” Mae West

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why games boost students’ learning.  They soothe anxiety and calm the amygdala, making student brains receptive to learning.  They make drill fun.  They give students a way to beat the teacher.  In short, they are a great tool, especially for drill or practice.

Games can be a quick five-minute review to start a lesson or to wrap up one, or they can be the core of practice in a lesson.  When I work one-on-one with students, I usually play a game for at least ten or twenty minutes of a fifty-minute session.  With that much time, you need to make sure the game is serving its purpose well and efficiently.

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It’s Not About You

When I was a teenager, my room was filled with unicorns and rainbows: posters, stickers framing the mirror, and my prized possession, a hanging rainbow, an ingenious decoration with thin strings threaded through a wooden circle, cascading from almost the ceiling to the ground, creating an eight inch in diameter column of silky rainbowness.

 

When I started teaching, I carefully placed my rainbow column in a corner of the room for the kids to see, touch and enjoy.  Needless to say, they loved it.  And perhaps even more needless to say, their love constantly tangled the thing up.  Every few days I’d spend twenty minutes after school patiently untangling the silky strings from the top down.

In my second third grade class, I had a student who may perhaps be the sweetest girl ever to live.  Diminutive, caring, soft-spoken and loving, Norma* loved school, loved and was loved by her classmates, and loved and was loved by me.  She was forever doing sweet little helpful things, cleaning up the library, straightening up the Band-Aid box, picking trash up of the floor.

One day, in the middle of teaching, I looked over and saw her very carefully working to untangle the rainbow column.  With scissors.  I couldn’t stop from a kind of gurgled yell of her name and something akin to “What are you doing?”  She looked up at me and in a few nano-seconds, went from looking pleased to be helping me to mortified that she did something wrong.  I did my very best to swallow my emotions, knowing that any tear I shed right then would be a dagger in her eight year-old heart.  I breathed deeply and reassured her that I knew she was trying to help, and kept repeating that as I took the ruined column to my desk, blinking hard to stay in control of my emotions.

I tell this story because it is an obvious case of what may be the most key realization for a teacher to have.  I was lucky that Norma’s transparent expression counter-balanced my sense of loss with the crystal-clear understanding that my feelings were about my loss, and not at all about her intentions.

Throughout the school day and year, especially in less obvious situations, one of the most important things to keep in mind as a teacher, or even as a parent, is the gap between how a student makes you feel and what the student intended.  Your student’s hurtful, mean, disrespectful, disruptive behavior?  It’s not about you.

Teachers, as the representation of Adult Authority in the classroom or office, often bear the brunt of a student’s complex emotional responses to authority, school, parents, learning, their feelings as a student, their feelings as a peer of other students, yet we have little or no training on interpreting their behavior as a form of communication.  Therefore, we are apt to take everything a child does personally.  We feel fully human with our own internal lives, but, if you remember way back to your own childhood, you know that children simply don’t see teachers that way.  Think of how Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, feels about his teacher, Mrs. Wormwood.calvin and hobbes teacher

Love us or hate us, how they treat us is not actually about us.

I had a colleague at a school once who came into the teacher’s lounge fuming.  She threw herself into a chair in frustration and said, “That Frank*, he just tried to make me look like an idiot in class!”

For a little context, Frank was a sweet but awkward, well-meaning fourth grader with mild Asperger’s.

“After I told the kids a story, I was talking about what it meant, and he butted in and said he had heard the same story, but it meant something different.  He was trying one-up me, to challenge my authority, to make me look stupid.  I thought we had a good relationship, but now I think he hates me.”

This teacher had let her strong feelings completely overwhelm her.  Rather than looking to see what Frank’s actions might mean to him, she conflated her feelings with how he intended to make her feel.  She ended up punishing Frank with harsh words and a call home for something he had no idea he had even done.

Now, I knew Frank and knew that he 1) loved this teacher, 2) wanted her to like him, and 3) equated her liking him with her being impressed by his knowledge in her subject.  Far from trying to embarrass her, he was trying to impress her and make her like him more.  The fact that he used showing off as a way to gain approval and friends was a good insight into why he annoyed so many of his peers, and perhaps a window into his life at home, but it certainly had nothing to do with his teacher.

So for your sake, and the sake of your students, when you find that kid, the one who gets under your skin or drives you nuts, take a deep breath and look at what your reactions can teach you about yourself and about the child, but for goodness sakes, remember that it isn’t about you.

*student names have been changed for anonymity

Games: Soothing the Amygdala

“Games give you a chance to excel, and if you’re playing in good company you don’t even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game.”
― Gary Gygax

Sometimes I feel really sorry for my students.  These poor kiddos are struggling in school, or their parents wouldn’t bring them to me.  Whether they have a learning disability or ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder, they come home from school intellectually and emotionally spent.  Whew!  Survived another day.  Then their parent tells them to get in the car so they can go…back to learn all the stuff that is so hard for them during the day.  Uh…what?  No wonder some of them come in glassy-eyed, or at the least anxiously looking around to assess how school-like my office seems.

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In Defense of Pandering

I admit it; I pander.  Scooby Doo, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Power Puff Girls, Goosebumps, Baseball’s Biggest Bloopers, Rugrats, Captain Underpants, The Day My Butt Went Psycho, all have graced my bookshelves at one point or another.  Diary of a Wimpy Kid?  Yup.  Hunger Games?  Duh.  Percy Jackson?  Of course.  Divergent?  The day one of my middle schoolers told me she was reading it because her friend told her she had to read it.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

Yes, of course, I have the classics, the books kids should read, the timeless literature, the heart-wrenching drama.  But let’s face it: not every child is ready for The Secret Garden or Lord of the Flies.  And those books that we fell in love with when we were kids?  The Hardy Boys, Catcher in the Rye?  As dated as the slang that made them sparkle so long ago.

Reading teachers from kindergarten through college are faced with a dilemma:  give kids books we know they’ll enjoy, or give them what’s “good for them?”  Here are two things to consider.  1) A book a kid loves easily and immediately can serve as a gateway to the rest of the world of literature, especially for reluctant readers.  2) The best and most amazing book, introduced too soon, can inoculate against said book and all its ilk for the rest of a person’s life.

I mean, how many adults (and you may be one of them!) experience a visceral and violent reaction to Dickens because they were forced to read Great Expectations in high school?  “Ugh!”  They tell you.  “Dickens is the worst!  That language!  It makes no sense.  And it goes on and on.  I hate it.”  Admit that you are reading him for fun and they shudder.

A typical student's reaction to Dickens (http://truthiness43.blogspot.com/)

A typical student’s reaction to Dickens (http://truthiness43.blogspot.com/)

Look: Dickens is an amazing writer.  He writes with some of the most expressive and beautiful prose there is.  His descriptions are cinematic in their scope and grandeur, biting social satire and incredible human empathy.  And he is wordy as all get out and very, well, Victorian.  That cinematic imagery reads to most high school freshman like the teacher in a Charlie Brown special: mwah mwah mwah mwah, mwah mwah mwah mwah.  If you’re lucky, the top readers of the class enjoy the book, but the reluctant readers?  You’ve just proven to them again that reading sucks.

Reluctant readers already hate reading.  Why?  Because it is hard for them.  Anytime a student tells me a book is boring, I translate into “too hard for me to enjoy.”  Either the sheer act of decoding the words on the page is laborious enough to take away the brainpower necessary for comprehension, the vocabulary or syntax of the passage is unfamiliar and thereby erects a wall between the reader and the meaning of the text, or the reader has trouble visualizing what they read.  In any case, reading is too effortful to allow the student to get lost in the book.

Reluctant readers may not even know what they are missing.  A freshman girl one time lowered her voice conspiratorially and asked, “Be honest.  Do you actually enjoy reading?”  I was shocked that she didn’t get that enjoyment, nay, love, was the motivator for everything I was teaching her.  She was shocked that anyone actually liked this whole reading thing.

Now, take one of these kids who think reading is a total must do kind of thing and give them a book about something they love and already know about.  First of all, you’ve instantly given them internal motivation to read.  Secondly, you’ve given them a chance to use their domain-specific knowledge to support their comprehension.  Huh?  You are tapping into what they already know about, so that they can use that to help them understand the text.

I worked with a middle school boy whose mother told me, “I don’t care what grades he gets.  I just want him to choose to pick up a book now and again.”  We started brainstorming what wouldn’t be too terrible (forget the word “enjoyable”) for him to read.  He finally told his mom and me that if he had to waste his time reading, at least he wanted to learn something from it.  No fiction!  Our routine became simple: review and teach phonics and morphology and then Google something he was curious about and read it.  One day, we read a comparison of aluminum bats, carbon fiber bats and wooden bats.  Another, we read about Belgian Waffles and the special pearl sugar needed to make them come out just right (supremely entrepreneurial, he wanted to set up a competing shop near the Belgian Waffle booth at the farmer’s market).  A third, we read about the Corvette Z06 Carbon Limited Edition.

I never could have guessed his varied interests.  But once he was reading because he had a “need to know” as Maria Montessori called it, he naturally employed all the comprehension strategies of good readers: monitoring his comprehension, making predictions, checking out unknown vocabulary and unfamiliar syntax, visualizing, asking questions of the text and reading with the purpose of answering them.  Slowly, he started applying these skills to fiction.  One day he came in amazed and excited because he had found a fiction book he was actually enjoying: Alex Rider.  He told me it was the first time he had been able to picture what was happening in a story, and agreed that it made it much more fun.  Eventually, he even started to apply these strategies to assigned reading. Reading about what interested him became the gateway for him to learn to be interested in what he had to read.

fairies

One of Many Fairies Book Series

So, even though we all want our kids to love Treasure Island, or Anne of Green Gables right off the bat, we have a lot to gain from taking a deep breath, asking them what they want to read, and even offering them Captain Underpants or one of the endless Rainbow Magic Fairies Book Series.  After all, what we really want is for them to learn to love reading, not to learn that reading is a painful drag that grown-ups, inexplicably, make you do.

 

Developing Details in Writing: Beyond Visualize and Verbalize Part II

So, you’ve been working with a kiddo whose spelling is great, grammar is excellent, but who melts down when asked to write in class; the more open the assignment, the more panicked the student.  You’ve been using Lindamood Bell’s Visualize and Verbalize program  to help connect the pictures of the right side of the brain with the words on the left side of the brain.  Maybe you have started supplementing that with the Guess the Animal game I described in Part I of this series.  But now you are looking for some other activity to continue developing both receptive and expressive language, all while building comprehension and writing skills.

In Part I, we made sure we had scene builders, folders and pattern blocks in our tool kit.  What, you may have asked, could those possibly be for?  I’m glad you asked!

robot scene builder

Build A Robot from Mudpuppy

For this activity, you can use any type of scene builder: felt, magnetic, cling-on…I am a big fan of the Mudpuppy Magnetic Figures because they are quirky and fun.  The key is that you need two exact sets.

First, show your student that you have the exact same set he does.  You tell him the game is for one of you to build a scene in secret behind a folder, and describe it to the other person while building it, so that at the end, the two scenes look exactly the same.

I always let the student choose whether she wants to build first or have me build first.  The shyer ones, or the ones who don’t quite get the activity yet, let me build first; the ones who grab hold of the idea want to build right away.

While they are building and describing, I make sure to ask clarifying questions if there is a little ambiguity (“How far from the moon does the monster head go?  Do you mean the green leg with scales or the smooth one with a boot?”)

Once they are done, we do a drum roll and the Big Reveal!  I remove the folder with a flourish and we compare results.

After a bit of oohing and ahhing, we debrief, um, briefly, with comments like, “Oh, I see the arm is pointing up.  I saw it pointing down,” or “You really helped me see the angle of the space ship, but I thought it was a little closer to the edge.”

The great thing about this game is that it works on both receptive and expressive language.  You can also target specific types of language (to the left of, on top of, or specific vocabulary) and the Visualize and Verbalize structure words.

Afterwards, you may want to ask the student to write a description of their picture.  They have great support: a visual right in front of them, verbal rehearsal of the description, and the debrief to focus on anything that was unclear.

I’ve also used  pattern blocks for this (which, by the way, is an excellent geometry exercise as well) or simply blank paper where we drew something and directed the other person to draw the same thing.  You can really use anything that gets built, drawn or made, as long as you have two sets of it.  Pander: use the special interests of your student (Legos?  Perfect.  Fashion dolls?  Fabulous.  Angry Birds?  Absolutely.  Dolphins?  Of course.).  Go nuts!

Developing Details in Writing: Beyond Visualize and Verbalize, Part 1

We’ve all had the kids whose parents come in and say, “He’s been reading forever and his spelling and grammar are great. But somehow he never gets inferences and he just melts down when he is given a writing task.” Maybe you are lucky enough that this student comes with testing; maybe you’re the first one who’s seen him.

So, the question is, how do you get them to write?

My go-to on these kids is Lindamood Bell’s Visualize and Verbalize program. It helps connect the pictures of the right side of the brain with the words on the left side of the brain. It helps develop both receptive language (oral and reading comprehension) and expressive language (speaking and writing).

But then what? Pure V & V is often done all session long, but for me after about 20 minutes of it, I need to switch activities. This is where I reach into my tool belt and pull out…hmm…one set of pictures of animals from a calendar (donate to World Wildlife Fund once and you are set for life); two identical magnetic scene builders; a file folder; pattern blocks; notecards. Ready?

The first rule of all of these activities? Always call it a game. As in, “Oh, I have a great game we can play…” or “In this game, you will…” The great thing about kids is, if you call it a game, it’s a game.

So, in the first game, you spread out fifteen to twenty of your small pictures of animals (I cut the preview pictures off the backs of the calendars). Arrange them in rows facing the student. Hand her a notecard and get one for yourself. Explain that she is going to pick one of the pictures secretly without telling you what it is. Then she is going to describe it as fully as possible (if you have been using V & V, remind her of the structure words) without using the name of the animal! Make sure she realizes the goal is to get you to guess it; otherwise students try to be mysterious and confusing, which is definitely not the skill we are trying to teach.

You will do the same. This is a great way to model the kind of richly descriptive writing you want. Believe me, the student will notice if your card is full and she has one or two sentences on hers: great motivation for the next round. When you are each done writing, you read your description to her. When she gets it, ask what gave it away. Then she reads you her card. I make a big show of thinking it aloud: “Hmm. You said the animal was a baby, so it must be one of these five. (I physically sort the pictures as I am talking.) You said it was red, so it can’t be this one. You said it had feathers, so is it this one?” If there is possible confusion in the description, make sure not to be able to figure it out. “Hmm, that narrows it down to these two. Can you read the description again? I am not sure which one it is.” Make sure to play this multiple times so your student has a chance to get better, and then point out her growth to her!

A lot of these same kids have some trouble reading complex facial expressions, so one variation of the game is to use photos of people–either ones you have found in magazines, or a deck of emotions face cards. It all works the same way, but you can fold in discussions about feelings as well. I also like asking, “What do you think happened right before the photo was taken that made her feel this way?”

So, what do you do with the scene builders, the file folder and the pattern blocks, you ask? Well, you’ll have to wait until Part II to find out!

This post originally appeared under the Writing Interventions section of the Association of Educational Therapists website.

In Praise of Neuro-Diversity

So, I have this student, let’s call her Lisa.  Lisa is a fifteen year old with a rare chromosomal abnormality.  She presents as someone with pretty severe autism: she barely makes eye contact, but is fully verbal.  She has a personal relationship with the technical gadgets in a room (“Ask Printer if he knows the answer,” “It’s Projector’s turn to do a problem,”), but she won’t remember the names of students she’s been in class with for months.  She has trouble reading a clock or counting change with automaticity, but she is one of my best Algebra students.  You read that right: one of my very best Algebra students.  She uses a white board (only the one with curved edges, not the square corners, and only with a blue dry-erase marker, never another color, especially not pink) to do all her work because her fine motor skills make it hard to fit side-work onto a single sheet of paper, but she unerringly knows what procedure to use when and applies her knowledge with almost complete accuracy.

I taught Lisa in the classroom for two years until I decided to quit classroom teaching and focus solely on my private Educational Therapy practice.  Now Lisa comes to my home office twice a week for Algebra, while at school she will still be trying to become automatic at reading a clock and counting out change. Now, I knew that it would take Lisa a little while to get comfortable in her new surroundings, so the first time she came to my house, I ask if she wants to meet my husband, since he’d be around now and again.

“Nah,” she says, “Where’s your printer?”  Silly me.  She wanted to get straight to what’s important.  So I show her my printer.

“He’s an HP, like the downstairs one [at my house].  What kind is he?”

I read her the name, “HP Photosmart Premium.”

“Huh,” she says.  “Why do you have the pencil sharpener in front of him?”

“Oh,” I say, “That’s because there is no paper tray and that keeps the papers from falling on the floor.”

“Huh.  He probably has a tray.”

“No, I’ve looked all over, and there isn’t a tray.  Let’s do some math.”

She pauses in the middle of a problem, eyebrows furrowed.  “The tray is probably underneath him.”

“No.  I looked.  I looked underneath and all around.  There isn’t a tray.”

“Huh.”  Lisa finishes her problem and asks for a break.

“Ok.  Do you want a white board break?”

“Nah.  Let’s look for your tray.”

Realizing it is useless to argue, I let Lisa go search for a tray I know is not there, just so she can let her pre-occupation go.

And she finds the tray.

Four years I’ve owned this printer and never found that stupid little tray, and within five seconds she has it pulled out and all set up for me.

In my (admittedly weak) defense, I tell her that I thought the little indentation under which the tray was hidden was a thumb rest.

“Huh.”

Over the course of the next three sessions, Lisa says, “You thought it was a thumb rest.  But really it was a little tray.”

Everyone in the LD community struggles with the choice To Label or Not To Label.  Of course we don’t want our kids stigmatized or limited by their diagnoses; each of them is so much more than just “dyslexic” or “autistic” or any other word you could put in quotations.  On the other hand, a diagnosis provides a shorthand for the types of interventions, remediations and accommodations that may help.  And we can’t forget (how could we?) that a diagnosis is required for services both at school and after.  Most importantly, a diagnosis can circumscribe a student’s disability–instead of feeling globally stupid or lazy, suddenly a child (and his or her parents and teachers) can make sense of the pattern of weaknesses and strengths and can realize that a variety of problems actually all arise from one specific source.  After all, the word define is related to making finite rather than infinite.  But we as teachers, educational therapists and parents, we have to understand that we are defining and circumscribing the learning disability, not the student.  Lisa was, and continues to be, a marvelous reminder to me that, to paraphrase S.I. Hayakawa, the diagnosis is not the student.  Thanks, Lisa.  You’ve taught me so much.  Including where my paper tray is.