Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sweet: Slam Poetry and Taylor Mali's Tribute to Teachers

With the 2010-11 academic school year closing, I dedicate this post to all the teachers I've had the pleasure of working with and learning from.


This piece is a slam clip of Taylor Mali - teacher and slam poet performing his poem, "What Teachers Make."  My daughter sent this to me a while ago and want to 'pay it forward' to all the parents and teachers who work with their kids to help make them the best they can be.

A note on slam poetry: Slam poetry is a poetry competition in which poets recite original work which is then judged by selected members of the audience. Slams feature a broad range of voices, styles, and content (although many challenge some 'absolute' authority), and scoring is based on both performance and the poem itself.  Poetry slams are now being successfully introduced in schools (particularly inner-city and urban schools) as well as performing venues to further motivate and reinforce kids' literacy skills.

One more gem on proofreading and editing: "The The Impotence of Proofreading"- also by Taylor Mali. Note that this is NOT for kids- as there is some adult content in it but it's intelligent and well worth your time as it clearly illustrates the importance and the difficulty of editing. I hope no one takes offense - that is not my intent and I apologize if it does.  I just couldn't help myself:

I would love to dedicate the comments sections to stories of your favorite teachers or favorite teaching moments, although always feel free to leave questions and posting requests!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Science Fiction: Skills, Chills, and Thrills it Offers our Kids

I discovered science fiction in my teens, but it was as a parent and teacher that I realized how rich this genre is in creative opportunities. Science fiction reflects scientific thinking of the time period in which it is/was written, and has proven a rich springboard for future research.

Skills and Thrills it Offers Our Kids: Science fiction weaves story lines with real or imagined innovations in science and/or technology, often commenting and exploring the consequences of such innovations.  It is an exercise in alternative possibilities.  And, as my last post was on reasoning, this seems like a logical follow up.  Science fiction presents options, possibilities, and alternatives - encouraging its audience to brainstorm, imagine, and analyze technologies while offering scintillating scenarios and satisfying reads.

Ender's Game, Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Flatlands and Dune were the classics that hooked me.  What were/are yours? Here are some examples of how you and your child can 'depart' science fiction texts while sharpening reasoning and abstract thinking:

Squish #1Squish: Super Amoeba (by Jennifer & Matt Holm [authors of Babymouse].  Random House, 2011- grades 2-5). Squish is a graphic novel about amoebas Squish and Pod and their friend Peggy a paramecium- as they navigate school,  Principal Planaria, deal with bullies and dream of superheroes and "doing what's right." The book presents wonderful twists and lessons on single-celled organisms with humor and sensitivity.
Text-departing discussions: How do the characters move and propel themselves on different types of surfaces? What happens if the floors are polished, wet, or dirty? What kind of sports might Squish, Pod, and Peggy play? What might life in school be like if other single celled organisms were there?  How do single-celled organisms actually fight other single-celled organisms in our bodies or on our desk tops? Talk about social issues in school.

2095 (Time Warp Trio)2095 - Time Warp Trio (book #5) (by Jon Scieszka - grades 2-5) is about three boys who while on a school field trip to the American Museum of Natural History, contemplate life in New York City in 2095. With the help of Uncle Edward's magic book, they find out, meeting new and old relatives and strange ironies and alternatives.
Text-departing science related discussions: Explore where science technology and space / time travel.  Talk about what life in New York City or in your neighborhood might be like in 100 or 1000 years? What might change and what, if anything, would remain the same? Discuss the paradoxes of time travel.  How might seeing the future effect the boys' life when they return?  Might they change history and the time line story as a result of knowing the future? Below are some interesting time travel links you can watch and discuss with your kids.

Mrs frisby and the rats of nimh.jpgMrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH  (by Robert C. O'Brien - grades 3-8) relates how Mrs. Frisby seeks the aid of a group of former laboratory rates in rescuing her home from destruction by a farmer's plow.  It also relates the rats' escape story and how these rats can read, write, and operate the technology and machines they've developed. 
Text-departing science related discussions: What are the ethical issues (pros and cons) of animal rights and medical research? How do animals communicate and might they have their own languages? How do animals of different species cooperate with each other for survival? Research rat facts. You may also want to check out these sites for lesson plans and games:http://www.mrsdell.org/nimh/; http://library.thinkquest.org/J002079F/; http://www.kyrene.org/schools/brisas/sunda/mrs_frisby/home.htm

A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L'Engle - grades 4-8) is about teenager Meg Murry, who is transported through a "tesseract" (a fifth-dimensional wrinkle in time) with her younger brother Charles Wallace and friend Calvin O'Keefe to rescue her father (a gifted scientist) from evil forces holding him captive on another planet.  These three kids learn from Mrs. Whatsit (a celestial being who can read Meg's thoughts), Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which that the universe is threatened by "The Dark Thing" which has taken the form of a giant cloud and engulfed the stars around it.  Several planets have already succumbed to its evil force. The three Mrs. W.'s transport the three kids through time and space, and their search for Mr. Murry begins.
Text-departing science related discussions: Discuss time /space travel and the paradoxes it presents (see the links below). Einstein postulated (and it has now been proven) that when objects fly in space - time passes much slower.  Given this, what would happen in real life to Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin's relationships with the friends they left behind (who would be much older upon their return)?  What about their relationship with Mr. Murry - would he be older/younger than the kids? Here is a link with lesson plans: http://drb.lifestreamcenter.net/Lessons/Wrinkle/index.htm

Flatland cover.jpgFlatland (by Edwin A. Abbott, 1884 grades 6+) In Flatland, women are simple line segements, men are regular polygons and the narrator is a square.  The square has a dream about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland) inhabited by "lustrous points" and attempts to convince these points that a second dimension exists. Then one day a three-dimensional sphere passes through Flatland and shakes the narrator's world as it tries to convince him of a three-dimensional world.  The square is convinced only after he is transported to Spaceland and together he and the sphere contemplate life in a fourth dimension (and more). This book has sparked tremendous thought and scientific research since it's publication in 1884.  And, while it's fun for for middle schoolers, I recommend revisiting it in high school as well to further appreciate the mathematical, scientific and philosophical issues it offers. The first read will spark their interest and imagination.  The later read can be used when studying higher levels of math and physics.
Text-departing science related discussions: Discuss what life might look like in two dimensions.  Try to imagine what the fourth or fifth dimensions might look and feel like.  Discuss what different threats or dangers exist in worlds of other dimensions.  What might a vacation be like in a two or four dimensional world?  What might you study in school in a two or four dimensional world?

Tribes:  The Dog Years (by Michael Geszel & Peter Spinetta, ary by Inaki Miranda  - grades 11+ for some violence and the fact that one tribe of kids are cannibals) This is a brilliantly illustrated graphic novel about life on earth after a medical lab's research goes terribly wrong.  The story opens in the year 2038 to a world recoiling from a nano-tech virus that reduced himan life span to 21 years. In 2038, civilization is organized in tribes.  This is a story of life in 2038 and the promise of a cure.  I think it is an excellent companion to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as it makes a powerful statement about the responsibilities of medical research.  Please see my blog "My Jaunt at C2E2 2001..Departing the Text:  Teaching Inference with Graphic Novels" for details http://departingthetext.blogspot.com/2011/03/my-jaunt-at-c2e2-2011departing-text.html
Text-departing science related discussions: Discuss how science can not only save lives, it can also break them.  Discuss the roles of regulation, research design and the responsibilities of researchers in protecting the population.  Discuss nano-technology today - what it offers and what it promises.

The Science behind and beyond science fiction

A Note on Einstien and Time/Space Travel:  Time is not a constant but is changeable.  He suggested that objects objects accelerated at higher speeds would shrink and grow heavier and time would pass slower for these space traveling objects than for those left behind.  As a result, those traveling in space with age much slower than his or her friends and family. This has been proven as fact and is no longer fiction. You might want to discuss these paradoxes with your child when reading time-travel books.

Other highly recommeded classics:
The Giver (by Lois Lowry - grades 5-9) When twelve year old Jonas comes of age, he and his friend recieve 'assignments' for their future.  Jonas is the only one selected to be the receiver of memories shared by "The Giver."   Jonas then discovers the terrible truth about their society.

Ender's Game (by Orson Scott Card - grades 5+)- Ender, a boy who is an expert at simulated war games is recruited by the government for a special space/defense school.  He and others are being trained as soldiers by engaging in war and computer games. But, are they just games?

His Dark Materials Trilogy (by Phillip Pullman- grades 6+)- blends of fastasy, religion and science fiction as Lyra must travel between parallel universes to save her friends and father.

The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov - grades 9+)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Reasoning relates how we generate one idea from other(s).  We reason when we:
  • brainstorm, 
  • consider and explain cause and effect,
  • compare and contrast, 
  • problem solve, 
  • figure out how to best relate our ideas and opinions to others, 
  • or even when conducting a witch trail (like Monty Python in the video attached).
Philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Descartes, Hobbes, Maimonides, Locke, Hume Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche have all contributed to the discussion of  reason. I, however, approach it from a developmental psychology perspective, specifically from that of Swills psychologist, Jean Piaget.

While Piaget is more well known for his stages of cognitive development, what most appeals to me is his theory of how kids begin to reason and construct levels of understanding:

According to Piaget, reasoning involves "assimilating" (or incorporating) new information into our existing 'schema' (or rules of understanding).  When we face something we can't define, predict, or understand, we enter an (uncomfortable) state of "disequilibrium".  When in this state we try to tweak and work out inconsistencies until they make sense.  Piaget termed this process reflexive abstraction as we reflect, compare, contrast, reason rehearse, and rearrange facts and observations to reach a more comfortable level of understanding. 

As we reason and build understanding we will either:
  • ignore what we can't understand, OR 
  • construct newer levels of understanding, incorporating more aspects of the problem we face to accommodate the conflicting information. 
Sometimes this new understanding will hold over time, sometimes it won't.  These states of disequilibrium are where effective learning, reasoning, and constructing understanding take place.
Piaget provides a famous "conservation" experiment to show how kids construct knowledge.  This is best done with kids ages 5-8 who are beginning to go beyond the obvious or "concrete" and begin to "abstract," factoring a variety of aspects including those which are so obvious. 
From: sciencebuddies.org

WE BEGINS WITH A QUESTION:  In front of your child, measure a given amount of liquid, say 1/2 cup of water (using measuring cup  "B") and pour the liquid into a tall narrow glass "A" and another 1/2 cup into short wide glass "C".  Ask your child which has more - glass "A" or glass "C"

[Sound familiar:? How many times have siblings argued because you poured "more" lemonade or milk shake for one and not the other because you had different sized glasses?]

A young child (typically below the age of 7) will tell you that glass "A" has more because it is "taller" or "higher" or "more."  This is because younger kids will focus on one aspect of the problem, typically what they see.  In this case it is the height.  They do not look at volume.

So, to help them reason and grasp the concept of volume, Piaget would then have the child pour 1/2 cup of liquid from "B" into "A" and that same amount again from "B" into "C" asking again which has more, "A" or "C"?  If child still said "A" - because it is higher,  have the child write down the exact amount going into "A" and then "C" pointing out that it is the same amount.  Then ask why "A" still looks like more. 

Piaget might also play around with different glasses.  He might, for example add glass"D" (the same size as "C") and have the child pour the same amount that is in "C" into "D" - asking which has 'more" (with the child answering 'they're the same'). Piaget would then have the child pour the liquid from "D" into "A" and ask again which has more.  The point is to create a state of disequilibrium where the child begins to recognize that maybe "A" (for some reason) doesn't have more.  Through questioning and experimenting adults can help their child reason that it is not just the height of the glass but its width as well.

HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR CHILD LEARN TO REASON?  PRACTICE!  Talk and ask questions about the world around you:
  • When walking outside ask why some robins have bright read breasts and others don't.  Why some mallard ducks have bright green or blue on their necks and others don't.
  • Why do some birds have long beaks and others short ones?
  • Ask why some streets have stop signs or lights and others don't.
  • Ask them to predict things, ask why people they see in a movie or read about in a book do something unusual or silly.
  • When driving in a car at night, ask them if they think the moon is following them?  Why?  How? What if one of you want in one direction, and your friend in another - would the moon follow both of you?  How?
You get the idea.  The trick, is to ask the questions and let your child think of the answers.  If their answers are not quite right, ask more questions to help them recognize other aspects of the problem.  Let them wrestle, reason, problem solve and brainstorm.

  • Please let me know if you'd like me to pursue this further, or if you have any other questions.
  • In your comments, Please share the types of questions you ask your kids and please share their wonderfully funny responses.  Here are a few Art Linkletter collected over his career.

For further reading, here are some related blogs I've posted:

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Quills, Pens, Pencils: Let's Talk Handwriting!

In my last post I wrote about perceptual motor skills - eye hand coordination and have been asked to go into a bit more detail about graphomotor skills.  Jargon aside:  Let't talk about handwriting.

Graphomotor Skills involve highly specialized coordinated eye-hand-finger movements for writing (and writing only).  Drawing, interestingly enough, is not a graphomotor skill as it involves different muscles and different eye-hand coordination.  [Drawing is considered a fine motor skill.] Many people can play musical instruments, draw, knit, and perform other fine motor actions but have horrendous hand writing.  That is because handwriting has its own very specialized memory-motor, and eye-hand-brain feedback requirements.

What do Kids with Graphomotor Weaknesses Look Like? Basically, kids (and adults) with graphomotor weaknesses have horrible handwriting. My husband calls his handwriting chicken scratch because it looks like a chicken scratched it out.  My son's handwriting is equally illegible. He is in college and his notes still look like a second grader wrote it.

These kids either hate writing, or they write cryptically keeping whatever must be written down as brief and simple as possible.  My son took it even further, he hated writing so much, he learned to do most of his math in his head.  This was quite a problem as most teachers want to see the work.  Because his handwriting was so poor, his 4's became 9's, 3's became 8's, 7's became 1's and to save himself from getting the problems wrong - would simply work them out mentally.  My son was lucky - he has a phenomenal memory and could get away with this until high school.  Then things fell apart again.  

What are some factors affecting handwriting?
  • Visual Discrimination - kids must be able to visually recognize and distinguish each letter of the alphabet so they can accurately interpret and reproduce them.  A "b" has to remain a "b" and not look like a "d" or "p" or "q".  "Gun" must look like "gun" and not "pun" (as in Woody Allen's letter in the clip above).  Otherwise others it can't be read and it makes no sense. [Note that visual discrimination skills effect reading as well as writing.]
  • Orthographic Coding - students must not only be able to discriminate between letters recognizing how each is different and unique, they must remember how to print or write them.
  • Motor planning, motor memory, and execution - kids have to be able to remember letter shapes and the muscle movements necessary to make and execute those shapes.  They then have to remember or plan how to make those shapes.  
  • Kinesthetic Feedback - Finally, kids have to monitor their progress as they write, constantly evaluating feedback that the brain receives from the muscles, nerves, and eyes.
For example, when writing kids must remember what the letters look like, then begin to recreate them.  As they write, they have to monitor what their handwriting to make sure the "a" looks like an "a" and the word "act"  looks like "act"  and not "aot" or "ect" or "acl" etc.

 Strategies and Accommodations For Kids With Poor Handwriting: 
  • Practice in private. Have kids practice penmanship, but at their own pace and in private (at least until there is less embarrassment).
  • Have your kids trace letters and words in sand or even in jello (if you don't mind the temporarily sticky fingers).  Tracing in sand and jello or even in the bathtub adds some resistance and can build stronger muscles and muscle memory.
  • Experiment - try out different types of writing utensils and different types and sizes of paper and line width. Try different sized pens and pencils.  Large pencils for example are easier for kids with weak muscle control to use.  My son hated the "feel" of pencils on the paper and was much more comfortable using a pen. My husband prefers the feel of quills as they glide over the paper.  Experiment.
Note: As with most interventions, some help some but not others, my advice is to try and if necessary move on if not effective.
  • Strengthen hand and finger grips.  Squeezy toys/objects can help.
  • Keyboarding.  This helps for some - not others (my son still prefers taking notes by hand). 
  • Pen/pencil grips - When handwriting sometimes the pencil grip is an issue.  In this case try using different types of pen/pencil grips.  My son had more of a sensory-integration issue (he was too sensitive to the paper and grip and pencil) and the grips did not help.  
  • Graph paper - For those who have trouble with letter size, experts suggest practicing print hand writing on large-boxed graph paper, using one square per letter [practicing privately].
  • Provide ample work and writing space on each page. Make sure there is enough space on mathsheets or worksheets and tests for you child to comfortable fill in the required response.  You may want to discuss this with your child's teacher(s) 
My son, who is actually quite good in math was failing because this teacher put 30 problems on one page lines (_______ ) for the answer and no room to work out the problem.  The teacher expected the students to turn the page over and show work there.  My son's 3's became 8's and 4's became 9's, etc.  At that point his teacher was testing my son's copying ability (which he obviously failed).  After convincing the teacher to keep the same problems while providing work space directly on the page (and not have students turn it over or recopy to work) my son earned A's not F's.  The point:  make sure your child has enough space to work in.  If not, talk to his or her teacher about it.
These are just a few suggestions.  Let me know what you have tried (successfully or otherwise).  Also, please let me know if you have any other questions or issues.

These are just a few ideas.  Please let me know what you have tried (successfully and unsuccessfully), and please let me know if you have any other questions.

Some helpful websites to visit:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What are Perceptual Motor Skills and How Do I Get My Kid Some?

May is clearly here.  Ball games, swimming, outdoor sports...all here.  But for some of us, these sports are daunting as participants.  We're klutzes and perceptual motor skills are our bane!

Perceptual motor skills refer to our ability to coordinate small and/or large muscle groups to accomplish some task we visualize doing.  It requires our integrating eye-hand or eye-foot coordination (or eye-any other body part) so we can button our shirts, writing our names, enter our blogs (even after accidentally erasing them...yes this is a rewrite), jumping rope, shooting hoops, skiing, etc.

Who has it?  Who doesn't?
The Harlem Globetrotters; jugglers, dancers, athletes HAVE IT.
Klutzes - like me - and Homer Simpson don't.

I love dancing...when I'm not tripping and twisting my already weak ankles.  On the other hand, my daughter dances hip hop and can move her hands, arms, feet, body at ridiculous speeds.  My dad tells us how in the army, he had a knack of finding the holes and ditches - he'd always be the one tripping over them.  I took piano lessons and clunked out the songs, my other daughter plays and her fingers glide with grace and agility over the keys playing songs that I could never play (when she's not juggling or fencing).  We are either blessed with strong perceptual motor skills (like my daughters) or we have to painfully gain muscle strength and memory to compensate for weak perceptual motor skills.

What's the big deal about these skills?  We are constantly calling upon these skills when we write, walk, play games/sports, eat, dress...you name it.

A Day in the Life of Perceptual Motor Skills:
  • Dressing: sorting through clothes, taking clothes off the hanger, unbuttoning/ buttoning, unzipping/ zipping, snapping, tucking, tying, covering/uncovering ALL require perceptual motor skills.
  • Getting to work or school:  walking, driving, biking, running;
  • If you take a bus: getting out your pass; climbing large stairs, walking down the aisle of a moving vehicle, etc.
  • Entering work or school- opening doors, lockers, desks, drawers and taking out what is needed;
  • Navigating the room to get to the desk - either moving around a classroom or large/small office;
  • Taking out books and turning to the correct page;
  • Writing or typing information;
  • In class - handling what teachers call "manipulatives" or chips, disks, cubes to help visualize a problem or classroom topic;
  • Computing a math problem:  navigating a page of problems and calculating a long problem requiring carrying, writing, computing;
  • Lab skills: handing different types, sizes, and weights of equipment;
  • Eating:  cutting, carrying a tray to a table and sitting with others making sure not to spill your food over the heart throb across from you, clearing dishes, washing dishes, etc.;
  • Recess/play time:  any kind of ball playing, jumping rope, skipping, running, playing any game with movable pieces;
  • Getting ready for bed - brushing hair and teeth, clearing the bed, laying out clothes,
You get the idea.  There are perceptual motor demands in EVERYTHING we do.

How to help your child build and strengthen these skills:
  • Practice.  Break down the task into manageable subparts and practice them.  Build muscle strength and muscle memory by doing them over and over again.  With your child who is weak or learning - make sure she or he practices in private at first because it can be embarrassing.
For example, if your child is is learning to throw and catch:  Practice at home.  Use larger ball and/or lighter equipment at first.  Initially throw and catch at close range with the lighter, larger ball.  Once she is confident widen the range.  Slowly increase the weight of the ball.  Then gradually decrease its size.  Train her eyes and hands in terms of what to expect vis-a-vis range, weight, depth, etc.
  • Use light weights on arms and/or feet to improve awareness of the muscles needed for the desired task.  This will also help build strength and coordination.  You or your child can also use light weights to build muscle strength.
  • Target weak muscles with activities that strengthen arms, hands fingers, feet.  Erasing the board is a great for strengthening arms.  If your child has weak upper body muscle control, ask the teacher if he or she can help erase/wash the board.
  • Practice the desired movements in front of a mirror or in front of a video camera. This can help provide visual feedback for monitoring body position. 
  • Help your child visualize what he or she should be doing.  Go through the steps just picturing what has to be done and then slowly have him or her do enact the steps just visualized.
  • Hand grips, pencil grips, and squeezy balls often help build finger and hand strength needed for handwriting.
  • With handwriting issues, experiment with different sizes and types of pencils and pens.  Sometimes kids find pencils easier to write with, some pens (my son was a 'pen kind of guy' and he hated the grips- experiment - everyone is a bit different).
Note:  There are different types of perceptual motor motor skills.  Those pertaining to either large muscle groups  are called "gross motor skills" involving jumping and walking, for example.  Those pertaining to small muscle groups are called "fine motor skills" involving buttoning, sewing, piano playing, for example. And there are "grapho-motor skills" involving fingers and hands and handwriting. Handwriting, a grapho-motor skill while relying on perceptual motor skills requires its own post as there is a lot involved.  Please visit this post for more information on FINE MOTOR, GROSS MOTOR AND GRAPHOMOTOR SKILLS.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg.  Please let me know if you have questions or issues you'd like me to cover in greater detail.  And please, in the comments let all of us know about your successes or strategies.