Sunday, June 24, 2012


Explaining abstract concepts can prove challenging to the best of educators for the best to the weakest of students/audiences.

Here's one wonderful example of the art and challenge of explaining. [My husband actually used this clip recently to describe the financial fiasco in Europe and Greece].  It's taken from Elaine May's movie A New Leaf in which she starred with Walter Matthau. In this YouTube clip Walter Matthau runs to his accountant after an important check of his bounced:

While entertaining in its own right, this use of the clip to explain Europe's financial fiasco brings up a few educational points:
  • The power of a visual image to explain something (in this case finances or the importance of"capital");
  • The power of learning life lessons from others' stories and experiences;
  • The challenge of making an explanation meaningful and understood;
  • The power of laughter and art in helping explain and retain information.
The challenge to explaining is that not only must you define a concept, you must somehow relate it to the audience/student.
  • They have to not only understand the words you use, 
  • They have to understand the intent, 
  • They must understand how various factors interact with each other to create the "whole" of what is being explained, and 
  • They have to be able to understand WHY what it is your are explaining is so important to them.
Richard Feynman (Nobel Laureate in physics) in his book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character (1985) talks about an experience he had as a visiting lecturer teaching a master class of graduate students:
"I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become electricity and magnetism - Maxwell's equation...I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately.  But the next time I would ask the question - the same subject, and the same questions, as far as I could tell - they couldn't answer it at all....After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant.  When they heard 'light that is reflected from a medium with an index' they didn't know that it meant a material such as water....Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. [Bold was my emphasis.]
This happens all too often. Without a teacher's careful questioning and relating that topic to their lives, teachers often think their students have "learned" because they could shoot back 'facts' or jargon, and as a result missed the opportunity to EXPLAIN underlying meanings, concepts, application.

To best explain something:
  • The concepts must be related to ideas, names, places, things, students are already familiar with.  [Fractions or proportion, for example, can be explained watching a football game and figuring out 'first downs' ONLY to students who understand the underlying game.]
  • The explanation must be broken down into simple, recognizable components;
  • The use of images, pictures, graphs, charts all paired with words and explanations help students 'visualize' what you are explaining and provide additional paired memory associations. This is where teaching with graphic novels and illustrated texts can be prove extremely beneficial. This is also where the use of clips from favorite movies, cartoon, shows, can become powerful tools.
  • "Play around" with the concept. Once something is explained,
    •  ask your students/audience  HOW THEY think other things in their lives might relate to the concept, 
    • how they can USE what they just learned,
    • how it might be taken further and applied to something around with it, take concepts for a walk, a swim, a jump. 
    • You might, for example, ask them to write draw a cartoon or 'instructions' to explain the new concept to their friends or siblings.
  • Bring emotions into it.  Ask how what was explained makes them 'feel' or ask for images what you just explained conjure up for them.  
  • The more associations (visual, auditory, tactile, emotional, etc.) the greater the chance they will relate to it, understand it, and remember it.

 What are some of the tricks and tools you use to help explain something?  
Please leave your tricks, tools and impressions in the comments, and thank you for your visit. 

Before you leave... one more thing to keep in mind:

    Monday, June 18, 2012

    WAY WRONG!!!

    I find myself torn this week between two reaction posts and so have decided to combine them under one heading...WAY WRONG.  One has to do with a comment left in an earlier post about "wasted potential" and the other a response to a front page New York Times article, Sunday June 10, 2012 "Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill"  Please let me know what you think in the comments.


    In a recent blog post discussing underachievers, I received a comment that:
    As one who teaches intellectually gifted kids, these are the students who make me the craziest! So much wasted potential.
    While I understand this teacher's frustration, the view that these students are 'wasted' hit a chord with me.  I understand the intent, but would like to argue that instead of looking at these students as 'wasted potential', it is healthier for everyone to regard any underachiever as having "untapped" or "undisciplined" potential. As with most of us, we all have strengths and weaknesses. As a parent and a teacher of intellectually gifted kids, I have found three major sources of gifted underachievers.
    1. These students often have weaknesses that are not always or easily found because the gifted can better mask and overcompensate. It is our job to find their Achilles heels and help them reach their potentials. We can do this by observing them in and out of class, noticing their successes and better accepting and understanding their failures. I truly believe students always initially try; they breakdown with continued failures (both seen and unseen).
    2. Another source of underachieving is ATTENTION. The material is often too slowly presented or the content too shallow and they go off on mind-trips to further stimulate their intellect. It is our responsibility to help them better discipline and refine their attention by helping them better recognize when they take mind trips; helping them regroup when mind trips have been taken; and empowering them with strategies to prevent the mind trips.
    3. A third source is undisciplined work habits. So often content is too easy they never learn how to STUDY or PREPARE content because they have been able to 'wing' it. This inevitably comes back to bite them. They have to be challenged and taught how to break work down and how to best prepare. They, like everyone else must learn how to STUDY, RESEARCH, and RELATE.
    And, we as parents and teachers must advocate for their needs. The truth is I see gifted as wasted potential from a totally different perspective.  There are so many GIFTED and TALENTED among us, many of whom are not even noticed.  We are so busy trying to get everyone to meet certain standards, the 'bar' for the talented is lowered or ignored.  It is these kids who go unnoticed and unchallenged who are WASTED POTENTIAL - and a wasted resource. 

    2. Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill - A response

    Sunday, June 10, 2012 New York Times front page article:  "Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill: Taking stimulants Not for a High, but for a Higher SAT Score by Alan Schwartz

    First, a brief synopsis of the article:
    He steered into the high school parking lot...Crinkled chip bags...Soda cups... on the passenger seat, a rumpled SAT practice book...Before opening the car door ... he twisted open a capsule of orange powder and arranged it in a neat line on the armrest... leaned over, closed one nostril and snorted it...
    Throughout the parking lot...eight of his friends did the same thing...The drug was not cocaine or heroin, but Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that the  boy said he and his friends routinely shared to study...focus during tests and ultimately get the grades...The drug did more than just jolt them gave them a tunnel focus tailor-made for the marathon of tests long known to make or break college applications.
    Observed Gary Boggs, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, "We're seeing it all across the United States."
    The D.E.A. lists prescription stimulants like Adderall...Vyvanse...Ritalin...Focalin as Class 2 controlled substances - the same as cocaine and morphine - because they rank among the most addictive...they carry high legal risks too...the same as selling it  and can be prosecuted as a felony...abuse...can lead to  depression and mood swings (from sleep deprivation), heart irregularities and acute exhaustion or psychosis during withdrawal.
    Paul L. Hokemeyer, a family therapist...said, "Children have prefrontal cortexes that are not fully developed, and we're changing the chemistry of the brain.  That's what these drugs do.  It's one thing if you have a real deficiency - the medicine is really important to those people - but not if your deficiency is not getting into Brown."
    "isn't it just like a vitamin?" asked one high school junior from Eastchester, a suburb of New York.
    The mother of one high school freshman... said she would open the kitchen cabinet every morning and watch her son take his prescribed dose of Ritalin.  She noticed one day that the capsule was strangely airy and held it up to the light.  It was empty...A number of teenagers interviewed laughed at the ease with which  they got some doctors to write prescriptions...Many youngsters with prescriptions said their doctors merely listened to their stories and took out  their prescription pads.
    We allowed athletes to do this for so long, we are now allowing kids to do this unattested.  Awareness and commitment to our kids has to grow. The problem is so overwhelming.  Too much emphasis on SAT's and tests in general, too much labeling, too much leniency in drug prescriptions, and not enough effective means of monitoring. Then of course there is the source of their incredible stress that must also be addressed!

    I admire the mom who checks and watches her son take his meds, but parents can't always do this.  We can't easily or effecitively 'drug test' before exams, schools have little way of monitoring either.  We may need to more closely monitor the labeling and prescription giving. Maybe, drugs for minors need to be 'administered' by parents and school personnel only - although I doubt this is practical or even possible.  Part of the solution, however, also lies in relieving the source of their stress.  We somehow have to address this incredible competition for colleges and the roles the 'gatekeepers' play. Maybe we as parents have to realize and relay to our kids that getting into that Ivy League college is not the only solution for success.  There are other excellent institutions and other equally successful options and paths your young adults can follow on their journey to inner growth, intellectual growth, and success.

    For anyone interested in links for drug abuse/addition here are some links:

    The bottom line is we are hurting our kids' and our nation's future.  Where do we begin?

    These were my 'two-cents' - what are yours?  Please leave them in the comments.
    In the meantime, thanks for the visit and have a great week.

    Sunday, June 10, 2012

    Visual Literacy Part 3:Fun and Games Boosting Critical Thinking and Attention - and Great Summer Activities

    I was recently at Macmillain Publisher's children's Fall 2012 preview event and their books are AWESOME!!!! (A sneak peak will follow in a future post.)  What struck me, however, was the buzz all the editors used... Visual Literacy.
    Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image. Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be communicated through a process of reading. (
    We need visual literacy to:
    - read maps;
    - read charts and graphs;
    - decipher icons on computer, cellphones, tablets;
    - encourage reluctant readers to read;
    - read music;
    - comprehend nuances in bold, italic, and varied fonts in words they see every day;
    - decipher letters when learning to read - visual letter recognition relies on visual literacy;
    - read faces/body language when interacting with others (or watching movies, videos, TV).
      This is the third in a series of posts on visual literacy.  Each post can be read independently or in conjunction with the other. Here's a quick synopsis:
      In this post - Part 3, I focus on  visual literacy as an aid to critical thinking (understanding and recognizing relationships, developing creativity, and reasoning)  and attention.

      •  Look at the picture below. [It was taken from Tribes: The Dog Years written by Michael Geszel and Peter Spinetta, illustrated by Inaki Miranda with colors by Eva de la Cruz, produced by Soulcraft Comics (the book is on sale online and is geared for young adults and over - an AWESOME read). NOTE: This is the first book about the world which is organized into tribes, each of which is led by its elders - all below the age of 21.]
      • Answer the following questions:
        • PART I
        1. Where does this take place?
        2. When does this take place?
        3. How does this tribe survive and care for its members?  What is it's main form of sustenance?
        4. How might you describe this tribe's culture?
        5. Would you want to live in this tribe?  Why / why not?
        • PART 2: And, a few more questions:
      1. Did you notice the rubber ducky?  What purpose might it play in this tribe's culture?
      2. Did you notice the "One Way" sign?  What purpose might it play?
      3. Does my pointing it out the rubber ducky and one-way sign change or influence any of your other responses?
      4. How would you answer Eisner's six questions (which are discussed below):
        1. How does the image affect the viewer?
        2. How is the image composed?
        3. How do the symbols that appear in the image affect the meaning?
        4. How does the subject matter affect the viewer's responses?
        5. How do the materials used affect the meaning of the image (photo, drawing, computer generated images, animation...)?
        6. How does the cultural context affect the production and understanding of the image?
      Note:  I will post the answers on Thursday, June 14th.  If you want, feel free to leave your answers in the comments section.


      Visual literacy aids critical thinking because when reading a face or a picture, one must construct their understanding.  There are no words to tell 'readers' what to think, there is an image relaying 'bits' and hints of information - as evidenced above.  It is this CONSTRUCTION that we use when reasoning, comparing, contrasting and creating.

      Visual literacy aids boosts attention and attention skills because by definition, one must stop, look, attend to the art, and then proceed to make sense out of all its components.

      Elliot W. Eisner, professor emeritus Art and Education at the Stanford University School of Education and known for his work in arts education, curriculum studies, and educational evaluation noted:
      "Our language development does not define the limits of our cognition."  Conversely, "our cognition is not defined by the limits of our language development."
       He then offers a series of questions to facilitate students' cognitive development using images:
      1. How does the image affect the viewer?
      2. How is the image composed?
      3. How do the symbols that appear in the image affect the meaning?
      4. How does the subject matter affect the viewer's responses?
      5. How do the materials used affect the meaning of the image (photo, drawing, computer generated images, animation...)?
      6. How does the cultural context affect the production and understanding of the image?
      Each of these questions should be incorporated into discussions in your classrooms and homes to better understand the full message images relay in books, advertisements, etc.

      My point here is that 
      • the colors used 
      • the design of the page 
      • the letter fonts, sizes and even letter/word placements
      • the details of faces, places,and objects added in the picture. ..
      ...THEY ALL were used by us to construct some level of understanding - they are the basics of visual literacy.

      Aside from the importance of images to help aid in critical thinking and attention, we live in an age where visual icons and illustrations are an integral part of our daily lives - from deciphering icons on our phones and computers, to building furniture bought for our homes, or using/viewing clips from pinterest or YouTube...(you get the message).  Images and communication via images are EVERYWHERE!

      III.  SUMMER SUGGESTIONS to help build your family's visual literacy:
      • Here is a link to view more images from Tribes: The Dog Years - use my image above or more images here and answer the questions above with your family.
      • Have an origami day - construct origami figures by following graphic instructions.
      • Talk about messages that colors, fonts and images relay - play around with them and make non-verbal messages for each other. Try leaving daily messages for family members using icons instead of words.  How well does that work?
      • Make maps - treasure maps for dessert, or for a gift, or map out vacation plans.
      • Have a crafts day, where everyone 'writes' up craft directions for a project to be completed by another family member BUT... the directions are all given through charts, icons and/or illustrations.  How did the crafts projects come out?
      • Keep a visual diary of vacations, of camp, of a fun family activity - using photos and illustrations.  Compare this to written entries.  How does it compare? 
      • Read graphic novels aloud - talk about the information the pictures relay and how the images ADD to the story line.
      • Watch Disney's Carl and Ellie's story in Up  (I've attached it below) or the first half of WALLE  with a critical eye.  Talk about how these movies told their stories visually - with limited or no words.  How were the emotions and thoughts of those characters relayed? 

      Thanks for the visit. Please leave your reactions and/or quiz answers in the comments and please make sure you check back on Thursday, June 14th for the answers.  In the meantime, have a great week.

      Part I
      1. This takes place on earth in what looks like the plains area of the United States.
      2. This takes place in the future.  You can tell this by signs of technology:  the signs at the entrance of the 'village', the sunglasses worn by one of the characters in the bottom right corner, and the one-way sign on the center character's shirt. (The reader also know this as it is stated at the beginning of the book.)
      3. The tribe survives by hunting and gathering - you can see the laden sleds entering the village - this is seen relatively clearly in the inserted box at the top right corner.
      4. This is a social tribe - you see that by its configuration - semicircular, inclusive; we see this by the way the background characters are interacting in the bottom panel.  They appear strong, concerned, not hostile.
      5. That's a very personal question...

      Part 2:
      The rubber ducky is in the bottom right corner, hanging from the (Shaman's) stick.
      The one-way sign is on the center character's shirt.
      1. Personal... I find it the image engaging and inviting - what about you?
      2. I love the horizontal panels with the inserted boxes. I find the boxes really bring in and engage the reader.  What about you?
      3. I think these symbols give A LOT of information.  They tell you these are 'modern'  or even post-modern times and that these tribes have 'collected' and used abandoned resources.
      4-6 Personal opinions
      Thanks for playing - I hope you enjoyed the challenge!

      Monday, June 4, 2012

      Understanding Underachievers

      As a parent, a teacher, and a school psychologist, I know first-hand how frustrating underachievement is.  In this post, I discuss possible sources of underachievement and provide potential interventions.

      Undiscovered weaknesses or uneven learning skills
      Most of us are strong is some areas and weak in others. Often these weaknesses go undiscovered and the child appears to be an underachiever.  Here are some often overlooked areas of weakness:
      • Weak visual learners. Some students are excellent verbal learners but cannot process information presented visually in graphs, charts, or process details in illustrations or visual clips.  If undiscovered, "talented" students appear to perform "below their expected performance level".   Possible paths of action:
        • "read" pictures together - comics and graphic novels are GREAT materials for this.  Talk about how the information is relayed using letter fonts and sizes, different colors, facial expressions and visual icons. Here are some links with suggested kids' graphic novels and another that discusses visual literacy;
        • have students practice visual learning at home (outside of school so there is no embarrassment) encourage students to practice reading graphs and charts at home. Here, for example, is a link for mapping skills which will help kids learn to relay information with target words and visual organizers;
        • here's a link on reading graphic images - discuss how concepts and objects can be labeled with words or with icons - take out your phone or computer and play with the icons, when walking or driving, talk about the visual signs and billboards and the messages the pictures relay;
        • discuss this with your child's teacher.  Ask for a 'heads-up' before an up-coming unit, exam or even a lesson with a lot of visual icons, graphs, charts, etc. where you (or some other responsible adult) can preview the unit with your child BEFORE the class or exam - to boost and bolster their skills and confidence.  If your child walks in cold, he or she can easily just 'shut down' and you want to try to avoid this pattern of behavior.
      • Weak verbal learners cannot process lectures, or dense dry passages (having receptive language weaknesses) and/or they cannot efficiently express - in writing or in speech what it is they want to say (expressive language weaknesses).  Here too, if undiscovered, "talented" students appear to perform "below their expected performance level".  Possible paths of action:
        • have your child practice expression at home with an adult (outside of school so there is no embarrassment).  You can leave notes for each other on pillows, refrigerators, in lunch/snack bags;
        • talk and play with words - have fun with them - look at nonsense words and play with them or make up your own;
        • check this link to play with different means of verbal and visual expression;
        • argue /debate here's a fun link to check out: "The Power of Argument";
        • check out this link for reluctant readers.
      • Graphomotor weaknesses can hinder test performance and students 'underachieve' because they cannot efficiently relay the information they know and have learned. It may take your child too long to write what he or she needs to write; OR your child may be so daunted with having to write an essay, he or she may just relay 'the basics' and chose not to write in detail because it is too difficult to physically write, or they may not be enough room on the page or in the allotted space for his/her large, uneven handwriting; OR in math the 4's become 9's, the 3's become 8's. the 7's become 1's. In such cases, they may have accurately solved the problem while the answer itself is wrong because somewhere along the way they inadvertently changed the digits in the problem. Possible paths of action:
        • check this link that discusses what graphomotor weaknesses look like and how to help boost them;
        • here's another link on handwriting and dysgraphia;
        • practice penmanship AT HOME (outside of school so there is no embarrassment);
        • have your child write out all math problems with large spaced graph paper, where they put each digit in one of the 'boxes';
        • for tests, talk to your child's teacher and ask him or her to make sure there is enough space right under the question for your child to respond.  In math, for example, if students have to turn the page over to write their answer, I guarantee they will miss-copy the question.
      ATTENTION weaknesses can be another contributor to underachievement. One word may trigger associations and these kids are off on fascinating "mind trips" or tangents, often missing  important details (see youtube clip below). OR, students may fail to see the 'relevancy' of the lesson and simple turn off because it 'is boring'. Bart Simpson and Billy Madison are two such characters who have 'tuned out' because they saw no relevancy to their school lessons. Possible paths of action:
        • help students find relevancy to what they're learning. Talk about what they learned at home (dinner, maybe) or when driving to after-school activities.  You may want to relate what they are learning about to current events or to books you've recently read, or movies you've recently seen;
        • make sure the lessons move at a comfortable pace - provide additional resources for the weak and (different more challenging ones ) for the advanced learners to keep their attention;
        • regardless of what the lesson is, make sure the kids understand 'what's in it for them';
        • here is a link on attention you may want to check out;
        • as a parent, if you think your child is bored in a class, find ways of enriching what he/she is learning in class - go to the library and find related books, go online and search for related links to help make the material more challenging and more meaningful.
      SOCIAL FACTORS often come into play with underachievers. For some, 'smart' is not cool so they dumb-down to fit in with the group of friends and avoid bullying. Possible paths of action:
        • here is a link on nerds and bullying which play into these social factors;
        • here is link on reading faces and developing effective social skill;
        • there may be other social and emotional factors that feed into underachieving which are beyond the scope of this post. TALK with your child and know that while they'll often  say 'the homework is stupid' or 'the class is boring' there is always more to it.  Ask about their friends, ask what your child does at recess and who he/she plays with, talk to the teacher and try to get additional insights into social aspects that impinge on school performance.
      Regardless of the possible sources of underachieving there are a few generic interventions you can take:
      • reinforce good work and good grades;
      • set up structured goals and celebrate their achievement;
      • help your child organize his/her schedule and required assignments;
      • make your child accountable for homework assignments and projects;
      • help make homework more relevant;
      • ADD STRUCTURE  to your child's homework routine
      In closing here is a video clip of an unlikely pair of underachievers -where one word links associations taking them on mind trips, missing material and resulting in ...well enjoy!
       I hope you found this discussion relevant and helpful.  Please share your experiences, suggestions, and opinions in the comments.  Have a great week and thank you for your visit!