Category Archives: For Teachers

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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Teachers: Who’s on Your Team?

This is a question for all the teachers out there.  Who’s on your team?  Other teachers?  Check.  The administration?  If you’re lucky.  Parents?  If you’re smart.  So…what about your students?

little monstersLook, I taught in the classroom for ten years, and I know how easy it is to slip into thinking about you and your students as Me versus Them.  Walk into the teacher’s lounge and you’re likely to get that feeling reinforced.  “Don’t let them get you down!” colleagues will say.  “You show them who’s boss.”  Now it’s Us against Them.  Teachers versus Students.

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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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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.

 

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 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.

First Day (Aaaahhhh!) Jitters

I walked into Staples and saw them.  Signs plastered everywhere: Back to School Sale.  My stomach tightened, my palms sweat and my heart skipped a beat.  As much as I or any teacher loves teaching, there is always that inevitable dread that comes as August winds down and September looms.  If this is true for we adults, who have been through 1st days of school twenty, maybe thirty or more times (even brand-spanking new teachers have already gone through their own twelve first days plus four in college), just think of how it feels to the little ones we teach.  Even the kids who love school, thrive in an academic environment, miss the easily-found social time of recess and lunch, or feel soothed by the structure and predictability of a regular school day feel some level of apprehension facing that very first day all over again.  Just think what it is like for the kids who struggle academically, socially or attentionally.

So, what’s a sensitive, caring, emotionally savvy teacher to do?  The first and most important step in helping your kids (and, let’s be honest here, yourself) deal with the first day jitters is to acknowledge them.  My master teacher lo these many years ago started out the first class meeting the first day of school by saying, “I’ve been through 48 first days of school and you know what?  I still couldn’t sleep last night wondering about what it would be like this year.”  You could hear the kids sigh their collective relief.  You mean this is normal?  I’m supposed to feel this way?

I always planned my first week curriculum around these very human fears.  The first day, we read aloud Kevin Henke’s wonderfully charming Wemberly Worried.  Oy, what a worrier Wemberly is!  She’ll make your most anxious student look as calm as the Dalai Lama.  And Wemberly’s newest and biggest anxiety of all?  School!

The second day, I read Shel Silverstein’s poem, “What if?”  which ranges from “Whatif I’m dumb in school?” to “Whatif green hair grows on my chest?”  Needless to say, kids (and teachers!) love it.

Lest you (or your administrator) get too worried about “wasting” time on socio-emotional issues rather than “the real” (hah!) curriculum, I have my kids follow up, first by inventing their own What if‘s (connecting self to text, and making a great bulletin board to boot), and then by comparing and contrasting Wemberly Worried and What if? (connecting text to text, venn diagram and all).

Of course, these activities don’t take all the dread away from the beginning of school, and they sure don’t make up for having to get up early again, but they do help kids feel normal, even when their feelings are uncomfortable.  And that helps to set up the class for a really great year.