Facebook Back-to-School Question of the Week #2

To help get you in the back-to-school spirit – and maybe pick up some great ideas along the way – we recently started a Back-to-School Question of the Week series on Facebook.  This is an opportunity for you to share your thoughts with your virtual colleagues around some key back-to-school questions. We wanted to share some of these responses with our blog readers. 

Check back each week for highlights of the past week’s question and responses.  We hope you’ll join in the conversation by either adding your ideas to our blog or our Facebook page.

Last week’s question: What do you do in the beginning of the school year to create your classroom culture?

Responses:

  • “Create a parent letter to elicit important information about the child. Have children create goals and dreams, then classroom rules that will allow the students to achieve the goals. Create curriculum that is inquiry based. Make sure that there is academic choice for all activities. Morning Meetings a la Responsive Classroom, to include authentic curriculum.”
  • “I created a ‘Do I Know You Well Enough To Teach You’ questionnaire that ask silly, but revealing questions. We talk about what it means to be a Hamptonian” which is what all of my students are called since I am Mrs. (Momma) Hampton. I take pictures of my students when they are reading on the floor, working in writing groups, sitting at their desks, etc. and those pics are displayed on our classroom bulletin board to emphasize the idea that this is our” room, our community. I absolutely ♥ the first week of school and the weeks following.
  • “I adapted the compass points activity from the [All Kinds of Minds] Schools Attuned course… The H.S. students respond well and it starts them thinking and talking about what their learning profile is and what they need to be successful.”  NOTE FROM ALL KINDS OF MINDS: In this activity, participants are asked to identify themselves as North (structure), South (meaning), East (action) and West (caring) and, in small groups, to consider their own learning/working needs as well as the needs of those identifying with other “directions.” A brief discussion follows. This activity results in a set of ground rules for the group.
  • “Aware that she was facing a difficult class, one teacher I know wrote one thing on the whiteboard on the first day: ‘We are all new.’ (and then went into Responsive Classroom mode to get the kids to elaborate on what they thought that meant and what it would mean for them as they participated in creating a learning community in their class.” 

To read more, visit our Facebook page and look for our August 19th entry.  Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a member to view the page!  Or, if you’ve got an idea to share, leave a comment below. 

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Pursuing Passionate Interests Can “Spark” Success for Students

Search Institute recently released Teen Voice 2010, a national survey of 1,860 15-year-olds and in-depth interviews with 30 teens, sponsored by the Best Buy Children’s Foundation.  This report caught our attention because it highlights the positive effect of “sparks” – similar to what we at All Kinds of Minds call “affinities” – on teens’ well-being and success in school and beyond.  All Kinds of Minds has been talking about affinities for many years, but this study has done a great job exploring and articulating the value of kids’ pursuit of sparks, or passionate interests. 

The report focuses on three key strengths that influence successful teen development:

  • Sparks
  • Voice (confidence, skills, and opportunities to influence)
  • Relationships

Researchers described “sparks” to survey respondents as “interests or talents you have that you are really passionate about. When you are involved with those sparks, you have joy and energy. You are not bored, and you might lose track of time because you are so involved in what you are doing. A spark is a really important part of your life that gives you a sense of purpose or focus.”

The report explores the teens’ experiences with sparks and the people and places that help sparks grow. In this year’s study – the second of its kind – creative arts, sports, and technology topped the list of sparks.

According to the study, the power of sparks comes when three key elements (comprising the “Sparks Index”) are present:

  • You know your spark(s)
  • Your spark is important (evidenced by what you experience when doing your spark and by the amount of time you spend on it)
  • You take initiative to develop your spark(s)

While 80% of the teens in the survey indicated that they have at least one spark, only about half of them exhibited all three of these key elements. 

We know what you’re thinking: Of course it’s important for kids to identify and develop passionate interests!  But here are some key takeaways that really drive this point home:

  • Teens who exhibit strengths in sparks, voice, and relationships do the best of all on every academic, psychological, social-emotional, and behavioral outcome they studied.
  • Teens who score high on all three elements of the “Sparks Index” are more likely than their peers to work to master what they study, work up to their ability in school, and report having a high GPA.
  • 71% of respondents said pursuing their sparks has helped them to learn new things outside of school, and over half of respondents said that pursuing their sparks had given them new skills that would help them in a career. Thus, schools’ efforts to help students identify and pursue their affinities may be key strategies for boosting achievement as well as college and career readiness.
  • 76% of respondents who have a spark said that other people have “often” encouraged or supported them with their sparks, but only 32% of 15-year-olds “often” get encouragement and support to pursue their sparks from teachers.

Just think about the power teachers have to encourage their students’ pursuit of sparks!  All Kinds of Minds has long encouraged educators to leverage students’ affinities as well as their strengths.  In our recently published book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds, the authors note, “Affinities provide educators with a vehicle for personalizing a student’s educational experience and increasing motivation to engage in learning. Educators throughout the school have the privilege of not only helping students to identify areas of passion but also helping nurture those passions” (page 99).

The possibilities for helping students explore their affinities in the classroom are endless – having students research and give presentations related to their affinities, having students create a blog to write about their affinities, and encouraging students to connect their affinities to broader topics, to name just a few.  To learn more about how schools and parents can nurture children’s strengths and affinities, take a look at this article.

How have you used student affinities to make learning more relevant?  How have your students benefitted?  Share your ideas below, and check out the Teen Voice 2010 report and video!

Facebook Back-to-School Question of the Week

To help get you in the back-to-school spirit – and maybe pick up some great ideas along the way – we recently started a Back-to-School Question of the Week series on Facebook.  This is an opportunity for you to share your thoughts with your virtual colleagues around some key back-to-school questions. 

Our first question of the series, “How do you get to know your new students’ strengths, weaknesses, and affinities?” sparked a lively exchange of great ideas, and we wanted to share some of these responses with you, our blog readers. 

Check back each week for highlights of the past week’s question and responses.  We hope you’ll join in the conversation by either adding your ideas to our blog or our Facebook page.

Last week’s question: How do you get to know your new students’ strengths, weaknesses, and affinities?

Responses:

“Wondering as a parent if I should write up things about my son, that I want his middle school teachers to know about him? Is helpful or just another thing for the teachers with already too much to do?”

“It’s very helpful if you provide that kind of information; I teach middle school and send a survey/questionnaire to parents so I get to know the students better; parents’ input and information is invaluable when it comes to teaching in the classroom!”

“Affinity surveys for our middle schoolers to fill out are a good way to get to know our students. There are many on the web, but can be tailored to fit the needs of individual teachers. Not only obvious questions like those about strengths, needs, affinities, but ones like where in the room do you like to sit? where do you learn best? what kind of learner are you (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc)? Answers to these questions can really tell a teacher volumes about their new students.”

“Let teachers know your child’s learning style. Do they learn through observing, reading, hands on, hearing. Do they need to sit where there are less distractions? Let them know if your child is sensitive to lights, loud noise, smells. If your child has an IEP. Be sure to let them know the best way for you to communicate with them, through notes home, phone calls, email.”

I’m a 1st grade teacher and I have my children bring in treasure bags” filled with 3 items that tell me something about them. I have each child sit next to me as I open their treasure bag and have them share with me and their classmates why they brought each item. I then take a picture of each child with his or her treasures and use them for our September scrapbook.” 

“I teach grade six and I have students fill out a sheet all about me” (this sheet has information on their likes and dislikes as well as information regarding their learning styles from previous multiple intelligence activity). Then … they each have a day designated to them where they bring in various items that help us get to know them and they decorate a small bulletin board in the classroom with these items and their sheet. They present themselves to the class and the bulletin board stays up for a set amount of time …”

“As a parent of two identified children in our system in Ontario I have found writing a letter from the student’s voice to be helpful in letting the teachers know both special interests, fears, areas of strength and weakness. I keep it brief… and I involve my kids because it is their letter to their teacher and their voice is integral to both informing and promoting self-advocacy …”

“One thing I did was ask students, using whatever production style they could best use, (write, draw, tell, perform) their ideal week in school. It gave me a great sense of what they felt they would excel at, their interests and I could infer a great deal of where they might be challenged.”

To read more, visit our Facebook page and look for our August 12th entry.  Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a member to view the page!  Or, if you’ve got an idea to share, leave a comment below.

Summer Blog Series Post #8: The Role of Social Cognition in Talking to Different Audiences

By the time children and adolescents arrive at school, chances are that they’ve already interacted socially with a number of different people: their parents/caregivers, siblings, friends, school acquaintances, and bus driver, to name a few.  And once they’re in school, they assume the role of student. As students, they also interact with teachers, administrators, and other support staff around the school. When interacting with all these different individuals, students need to consider the audience, or person with whom they are interacting, in order to communicate effectively and “fit in” socially.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Students who are able to adjust their language in response to their current audience practice one of the most sophisticated aspects of social cognition: code switching. We don’t use the same language or speak in a similar manner with our parent(s) or caregiver(s) as we do with our friends; and we speak in a different voice when we are interacting with someone in authority (e.g., teacher, principal, or policemen). To effectively engage in code switching, students must devote attention to the understanding and use of language (i.e., code), as well as to the appropriate use of the language code of the particular audience. The ability to identify the audience and respond with the most appropriate code is a skill that we utilize throughout our lives.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with code switching:

The student …

  • modifies language for the audience, time, and place (e.g., chooses different words when speaking with her teacher than when talking with her friends at lunch about a favorite movie)
  • uses colloquialisms around friends
  • speaks respectfully to authority figures

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with code switching:

The student …

  • is teased for using “big words” or sounding too formal when interacting with other kids on the playground
  • gets into trouble for sounding disrespectful when speaking to others (e.g., uses slang when talking to the principal)
  • uses inappropriate language in front of adults or during class discussions

Strategies to help students struggling with code switching:

  • Guide students in identifying the conversational styles expected from different audiences (friends, teacher, parents, etc.). For example, have students complete a chart, writing down the language that they can and cannot use with different groups.
  • Students may need to improve their ability to modify both the content and the delivery of their interactions – both what they say and how they say it. Use role-play situations to help students develop these skills and structured opportunities for them to practice with school personnel. 
  • Students may benefit from examining the consequences of failing to switch conversation codes. Activities where students can play with language might include role-play activities and writing plays or short stories.
  • Students may need to develop an understanding of the language of their peer group to interact more effectively with their classmates. Setting up social skills training groups in your classroom may give students a chance to learn and field-test new skills and behaviors that contribute to social competence.  In order to maximize the likelihood that newly acquired knowledge and skills will transfer to other settings, talk with students about the need to accept others as well as how to develop adaptive coping strategies for unsuccessful attempts at social interaction.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help students who are struggling with code switching.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

This is the last post in our blog series, Understanding Common Learning Challenges.  But not to worry — we’ve got some great ideas for the upcoming months and we’ll be continuing to post new entries regularly!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series  

  1. More information and strategies about using the appropriate language for a given group
  2. Related research on social cognition
  3. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association article on Social Language Use

Summer Blog Series Post #7: The Role of Graphomotor Function in Handwriting

In last week’s post, we discussed the demands of revising written work.  Today, we’re going to focus on a different aspect of writing: handwriting.

Many people, adults and children alike, struggle with penmanship.  The ability to use computers to convey ideas can help minimize the need for handwriting and relieve handwriting-challenged individuals from the frustration of writing in some cases.  But even with the Digital Age in full swing, students – especially those in elementary and middle school – use this skill all day, every day, in their classrooms. 

Writing ideas or taking notes on paper requires us to form letters quickly and easily.  And in order to share their written material with others, students must also write legibly.  Some students find it easier to print than to use cursive writing. Printing requires that only 26 letter formations be remembered, while in cursive writing, every word is different. For other students, cursive is preferable because of the flow of movement when forming cursive letters.

As students progress through school, the demands increase – more details to track, greater language complexity, and growing vocabulary requirements. If students don’t learn to form letters with ease, they may need to focus so intently on their handwriting that they may find it difficult to produce the written work required.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

The process of writing places demands on a student’s memory (e.g., recalling the desired letters), spatial ordering (e.g., making a mental picture of each letter), and graphomotor function (e.g., having a comfortable grip and sending signals to the proper finger muscles to form letters).  In this post, we’ll focus on graphomotor function

Graphomotor function involves the coordination and control of the muscles at the end of our fingers. Some muscles are used to make a pencil move up and down, others to make the pencil move left and right, others to move it in a circular motion, etc. Since writing letters requires a combination of these movements, different muscles are used to form different letters. Some students have trouble getting their muscles to move in the correct way.  If one or more of these aspects are not functioning well for a student, he or she may write slowly and/or form letters and/or numbers that are difficult to read. 

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • writes letters smoothly, at an appropriate pace, and with consistent formation using a normal tripod grasp 
  • uses appropriate spacing between letters and words
  • forms letters without noticeable difficulty
  • writes without close visual monitoring
  • maintains appropriate posture when writing
  • applies adequate pressure to the pencil during letter formation

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • hesitates while writing or labors over individual letters, making writing a slow, laborious process
  • leaves as much space between letters as between words
  • makes frequent cross outs or erasures
  • shows a strong preference for printing over cursive writing
  • uses an alternative (e.g., fist-like) grip or uses wrists and elbows rather than small muscles and joints
  • keeps eyes close to the page while writing
  • is reluctant to write despite having good language skills
  • uses excessive pressure on the pencil, causing the hand to become tired or cramped

Strategies to help students struggling with graphomotor function:

  • Have students practice tracing shapes and letters. Gradually reduce the complete shape or letter to dots, so that the student can practice making the shapes or letters by connecting the dots. 
  • Encourage students who have difficulty simultaneously recalling letter formation, spelling, and their ideas to do writing in stages (rather than try to do these all at once). Graphic organizers are a great tool for this.
  • Introduce fun creative writing activities in which students can practice correct letter formation, for example: writing to a pen pal, creating an advertisement for a new toy or other product, designing a contest entry form, writing to request a famous athlete’s autograph, etc. 
  • When assigning a handwritten project, give students a choice of printing or using cursive writing. Many adults naturally use a combination of manuscript and cursive writing. 
  • Be aware that some students with graphomotor difficulties may also have difficulty learning to type on a keyboard. Guide these students through computer mastery gradually and without undue pressure. As a student is acquiring keyboarding skills, have him/her continue to practice handwriting. 

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies about handwriting
  2. Related research on graphomotor function
  3. Writing section of the All Kinds of Minds Parent Toolkit
  4. Newsweek article: Good penmanship is more than just a quaint skill. A new study shows that it’s a key part of learning.

Summer Blog Series Post #6: The Role of Higher Order Cognition in Revising Written Work

Adding content and new ideas to a story, essay, or report can be difficult, but it is also very important. Students may stop at the end of a sentence, reread what they have written, and decide there is a better word to express what they want to say. They may find places where they need to add more description or rearrange sentences. (We did some revising while writing this blog post!)

Revising can happen at any time during the writing process. Some students spontaneously revise while they are writing. In school, students are often asked to reflect on what they’ve written after they finish their first draft – a task that can be challenging for many students. These students often focus on fixing punctuation and spelling rather than enhancing the content. 

To revise, students must first detect that there is something to change and then know how to change it.  Considerations include audience, grammar rules, appropriate levels of detail, and clarity of expression, just to name a few.  Revising written work is a multifaceted challenge, in terms of both academic skills and neurodevelopmental functions.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

This skill of revising – adding content and new ideas to a story or report changing a word, being more descriptive, re-ordering sentences, or inserting a new paragraph – requires students’ language and higher order cognition to be working well.  In this post, we’ll focus on the higher order cognition demands – specifically, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Students need to be creative and brainstorm new ideas when revising their writing. They also need to think critically about what information they need to cut and what they need to add – what will make the information most effective for the reader. Writing can be interpreted as a problem-solving task: The topic or assignment is the “problem,” and students need to “solve” the problem by producing a written piece that addresses the topic or assignment. Revising is a critical step in ensuring the quality of the end product, or the effectiveness of the “solution.” 

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the higher order cognition demands of writing:

The student …

  • comes up with original, engaging ideas to share through their writing
  • is able to evaluate written material for problem areas such as clarity, relevance to the topic at hand, level of detail, logical sequence, etc.
  • includes highly imaginative ideas in their stories
  • chooses words that are appropriate for the targeted reader
  • is capable of identifying problems with a writing passage and taking appropriate steps to resolve problems

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the higher order cognition demands of writing:

The student …

  • has trouble choosing a topic to write about or using imagination to generate an engaging story or report
  • asks many questions about what to do to enhance their writing, e.g. which passages need revisions, how to address problems with the written work, etc.
  • generates better written work when allowed to collaborate with a peer or conference with a teacher
  • does not logically think through potential ways of resolving a problem, instead pursuing the first thing that comes to mind

Strategies to help students struggling with revising written work:

  • Have students break the revising process into steps, beginning with going through and marking the places where they need to add or change information. Students can use different colored pencils, pens, or stickers to mark where they need to make changes. For example, green could be where they need to think of some new words, yellow for where they should add more details, blue where they need to move a sentence, etc.
  • When having students work together as peer editors, first model the process and types of question they should ask. Provide students with a list of questions that they can ask the writer and example sentence starters for providing feedback. For example, “I really liked it when you said…”
  • Employ the C-D-O revising strategy (Compare, Diagnose, Operate):
    COMPARE: Read a sentence.
    DIAGNOSE: Does this sound right? Am I getting away from the main idea?  Will other people understand and believe the main idea?  Do I like it as is?  After “diagnosing,” the student should ask himself, “Why was this the diagnosis for that sentence?”
    OPERATE: Do I need to leave this sentence out? Do I need to include more information? Do I need to reword it? Should I leave it the same?
    Go to the next sentence and repeat the strategy.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help students who are struggling with revising their writing.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies around the revision process
  2. More information and strategies on writing in general
  3. Related research on higher order cognition
  4. Writing section of the All Kinds of Minds Parent Toolkit
  5. Writing games for kids on Scholastic.com (click on the “Writing Games” tab to the left)