Category Archives: For Parents

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.

 

My Very Favorite Christmas Book of All Time

Today I wanted to give a shout out to my very favorite Christmas book of all time.  No, it isn’t How the Grinch Stole Christmas (she says with some guilt and an apology to that wonderful classic and to Dr. Seuss himself); it’s The Red Ranger Came Calling, by Berkeley Breathed.

I was as surprised as any fan of Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat to find a Berke Breathed book that centered on, well, human beings.  But loving Bloom County, I picked it up to thumb through it.  The book passed both of my tests for successful picture books: it brought me both tears and chills in the middle of the bookstore.  Wiping away the tears, I hurried to the counter and bought it immediately.  I’ve read it a gazillion times to classrooms, friends and individual students, and I wipe away tears every time.

The book is a wonderful piece of family folklore.  Told in the first person, the main character is the boy who would grow up to be Breathed’s father.  Breathed’s love for his father and his childhood experience of wonder listening to this story infuse the book with a palpable aura of joy.

The first-person narrative nails the voice of a cranky, curmudgeonly little boy raised during the Depression, trying desperately not to feel any more disappointment than his already cynical self has experienced.  Breathed manages to layer in the perspective of a wiser, older self reflecting back on the story without minimizing or patronizing his young narrator at all.

The story centers on said curmudgeonly little boy’s adventures to disprove the existence of Santa Claus, in particular to expose a fake whom locals claim is the Real Deal.  After all, the boy explains, “It took folks far more fruity than the Red Ranger of Mars to be tricked into believing such twaddle.  Like many my age, I knew that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny were just that many more promises hatched by those who weren’t very good at keeping any.”

Illustration of  The Red Ranger

Illustration of The Red Ranger

The rich illustrations glow with magic.  They match and magnify the tone of the narration perfectly.  Half the fun of reading the book comes from giving voice to the main character.  The other half comes from letting kids study the evocative pictures.  The combination makes The Red Ranger one of my favorite read alouds.

To say that the boy discovers the true meaning of Christmas would be too clichéd to mean much, but I will tell you that he gains a new understanding of faith, belief and love, and just what those untrustworthy grown-ups are really trying to express with their twaddle.  And as he does so, I can promise you that (if you are anything like me) you’ll find yourself wiping away tears and chills each time you reread this book to those you love.

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.

End-of-the-Year Blues

I can’t believe teachers are starting to talk about going back to school.  I’m only just recovering from the end of school.  I know what you are thinking as you nod your head in sympathy: the finals, the grading, the report cards.  But there’s one more thing to recover from that rarely gets mentioned.  That’s, well, the ending.

You all know the old joke: What are the three best things about teaching?  June, July and August.  Now, I love a good summer break as much as the next teacher.  But I’m also always left with a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth: that of dissolving a community.

Every teacher I know spends a huge amount of time and energy building their incoming, often chaotic group of little ones into a cohesive, supportive community.  From getting to know you activities in September to on-going problem solving, sharing and group work throughout the year, the kids get to know each other, the teacher and themselves as part of this group.

Ask any third grader who is the artist in your class or who the writer and they’ll tell you without hesitation.  Ask a fourth grader which classmates think dogs rule and cats drool and which ones fervently defend their feline friends, and they’ll know.  Even Middle and High schoolers can tell you which of their classmates they text to get the homework assignments and which they text to get clarification on the math lesson.  That is all to say, these kids get to know each other; they become part of a community.

Now, ask any teacher about classroom behavior, and they will tell you that there is a clear and consistent cycle each year: you have to work hard on it in the Fall, get to relax into a solid routine in the Winter, and then have to refocus on it in late Spring.  Why, my colleagues and I bemoan in April, do we have to go over the rules for tether-ball now!  Did all my students really forget how to stand in line or share scissors over Spring Break?  After seven months of practice, how is that even possible?

Battle-weary teachers bandy theories about over the coffee machine: Spring Fever, beautiful weather outside, excitement for the summer.  But a few years ago I realized another factor was unraveling the hard-won structure in the classroom: anxiety about leaving behind the class they have become part of.

Around mid-May one year, I heard a piece on NPR about military spouses getting into squabbles right before deployment.  Psychologists explained that it is easier to take your leave of someone when you are angry or annoyed at them than when everything feels perfect.  The latter is just too sad.  So, unconsciously, we humans spend our last few precious days picking fights, building up the annoyance that will make good-bye feel a little less bitter.

My next morning was filled with a gazillion little aha moments.  Ben and Chris, best friends since October, arguing over whether Ben purposefully though the ball out of bounds.  Melanie and Sarah, not speaking to each other because Melanie had wanted to play on the grass and Sarah insisted on the jungle gym.  These kids aren’t crazy, I (finally) realized; they’re scared.

So for the first time, we circled up and talked about it.  Yes, we were super excited about summer.  Yes, it would be great to sleep in, have no homework, go to camp.  But, hey, we were also going to miss each other.  Although it seemed so appealing, it was hard to go from six hours a day surrounded by friends to a house with only parents and siblings, when you had to work to set up play dates instead of just running out to recess or lunch.

Kids shared what they would miss, who they appreciated, what they had learned from whom over the last nine months.

Now, I won’t pretend I morphed into Michelle Pfeiffer and all conflict magically disappeared as we faded to black in cinematic bliss.  But conflict did decrease, and as we continued to check in and revisit our ambivalence about the end of the year, a tenderness emerged.  Students (and their teacher) learned that we humans often feel contradictory emotions about the same subject at the same time.  So, even though it was harder to say goodbye when the time came, it was also sweeter and more real.  And as I blanch slightly walking by the Back to School signs at Staples, I also start to wonder who the little people are going to be who will make up my community this coming year.