December 7, 2012

Color Theory

This week I practiced writing essays for entry applications to private high schools.
  • 3 different 8th Graders
  • 9 different schools between the 3 of them
  • 11 different prompts
They were not grateful to be applying to expensive schools that are going to stretch their thinking and assign harder writing than the entry essays.

How do I explain that tuition is equivalent or higher to the poverty level income of a family of 4?
@ $24,000

One had written a piece on an incident they learned a lesson from, and another on how he will manage his time as a high school student. This one was not expository - it more like a dream world of imagination that sounded very believable, if I didn't know the author of it! He can't manage his time, assignments, papers, laptop, due dates, and PC files. But he has learned to back up his arguments or important points with examples and elaboration, and he did. But out came my highlighters to find repeated words, and sure enough, he had the word "manage" 7 times. Whew! Easy fix. I find that using highlighters and looking for what IS there, instead of the bloody surgery tool of a red pen of what is not keeps them more attuned.

In less than 90 seconds this video explains one of the tools in my tool kit: color coding. Although this is during brainstorming , in order to categorize your good ideas.

Of course, there are many other color-coding benefits. Highlighters or colored pencils can be used on a hard copy, during revision, to discover whether there are too many of one thing, like adjectives, or too little of another, like transition words. One student highlighted his "Just then..." phrases in an assigned mystery story and there were over eight. That is simply too many.
Thankfully, a follow-up on the October 16th Blog I posted: Teaching Writing explicitly improves Reading Comprehension and Thinking Skills!

A meta-analysis (Graham & Hebert, 2011) summarized dozens of studies examining the impact of writing instruction on reading comprehension. The authors concluded that there is a consistent, positive effect, and argued for three classroom practices:

1) More Writing
2) Write about the texts they read in analytical formats
3) Explicit teaching of the skills and processes that go into creating text.

The New Dorp School's results are likely replicable, but the students were doing much more than just #1 above. That is like having piano students just play more. No. They learned underlying analytical skills, at the sentence level (my song and dance in this blog). Plus, writing was implemented in every single subject area, which opened the door for critical thinking.
And another recent article on this Writing Revolution:

"Teachers are focusing on writing instruction like never before. Several forces are bringing about that change. One is the Common Core State Standards, which tie reading and writing together by placing a heavy emphasis on writing in response to one or more texts. Another—echoed in the standards—is feedback from college professors and employers, who bemoan young people's weakness in the analytical writing most needed in college and training for good jobs."

October 16, 2012

Atlantic Magazine - thoughts from a Pacific NW Gal

The October online issue of Atlantic Magazine is teeming with 20-ish articles about Writing Instruction, with catchy titles, pragmatic solutions, dire predictions, and dogged opinions about grammar and public school.

So I dove in, and here is my takeaway: 

1) Writing is Thinking. Well, I could make a snarky political statement here, woven nicely into the headlines of the Election Season, but I will refrain. I named my business Reading*Writing*Thinking for this very reason. There is logic to the idea that students  become better critical thinkers by writing complex pieces. It forces them to recycle, and organize your thoughts. Writing encourages us to try different ideas and combinations of ideas. Writing encourages us to select our words carefully. 

2) We are in the dark ages in many ways about how we teach writing, because we are trying to create "mini-adults" like in the Middle Ages or something. Sure, in the early grades, teach handwriting, to get the fluency of mechanics going, create poems, tiny stories, even plays, and micro reports for science. But don't do what so many school districts do: examine what expert adult writers do, then transfer that to, say, a middle class 2nd grade classroom: keeping a writer's notebook, creating rough, then next, then final drafts, training students to be good observers, and harvesting a collection of pieces "in the works". 

Um, Hello? Second graders are thinking about recess and are not known to be the best keepers of various pieces of paper and drafts of their ideas from last week, which in their 8-year old brain is a century ago.It is just not developmentally appropriate. 

3) On the other hand, I say a big, "YES" to writing everyday, but careful of the two extremes: teaching to the test, and emphasizing the importance of indenting paragraphs and perfect punctuation, or, on the other end of the spectrum, writing with little regard for grammar, and composing mostly personal narratives all the way up until Middle School and not giving weight to expository "voice." Adults who come to work with me, or mention their struggles at work with writing, do not want coaching in their novel, but, rather, their ability to string sentences together and be taken seriously. Power emails. Articulate letters. Convincing Reports. Succinct Written Requests. Opinionated Responses to News Reporters. 
4)Teachers are afraid to introduce academic writing, because they think they will create yawns and resistance. Just like with decoding, I hear teachers say that teaching it will turn kids off to reading. Well, if that is true, then why do I have so many students in my private practice who cannot decode well, or pull sentences together clearly. 

5) At The Windward School Judith Hochman challenged this notion that preparing students to master expository writing stifles their creativity: 

" We've reared a generation of students on this diet and we see the outcome of that misguided thinking in test scores throughout the country. [Our] program does focus on the fundamentals of writing, but it doesn't do so in a dull, creativity-killing way. Assignments that ask students to explain a process, justify a position, describe a room, or trace the history of an event can be extremely engaging (depending on the topic, of course, and provided they are taught the skills needed to complete them). It is insulting to students to assume that the topic has to be about their own lives in order for the assignment to be interesting."

There is more, but I have been told my blogs are too long-winded. Am trying to cut myself off. Not that I take anything personally anymore, because I am SO healed of my ADHD tendencies towards that. 

Looking forward to presenting this weekend, on WRITING DESPITE YOUR DISTRACTIONS at the annual ADD Conference

September 18, 2012

Boys Writing, or Trying to Write

24,100 8th graders and 28,100 12th graders responded in 2011 to two 30-minute writing prompts that asked them to persuade, explain, or convey experiences.

Overall, only 27% scored at or above the proficient level.

Females outperformed males at both grade levels.

In 8th grade, 37% of girls scored proficient or above, compared with 18% of boys.

I am sad, but not surprised. Boys are wired for more instant feedback and gratification, plus a distaste for over-flowery language, or descriptive, stylistic prose. I know, that is a sweeping generalization and would never hold up in a journalistic venue. 

I would have to say, "In my experience..." or "From my perspective.." But this is my blog, a cross between a textbook on teaching and a journal on innovative but very messy learning curves put to paper.
So boys often say that they can "talk to the prompt" but not respond to it in writing. They think it is because it takes longer, grammar is looming, and spelling leaps out to be addressed. While those are all true, what is also roadblocking them is formal register, which I have written about here before. Both school and work operate at two levels: the consultative and formal. Consultative is a mix of formal and casual register. Example: “I can’t accept the assignment the way it is.” I love Ruby Payne's work on this, in her research on poverty. I was helped greatly by studying her books and hearing her speak when I was doing staff development in rural farmlands of CA.

No simple answers. [But I have many answers! - as those of you who know me are aware of]

Many frustrated parents. Homework is a nightmare for these boys who resist writing, and need coaching about communicating in print in the formal register. In my sessions with such boys, we have to talk it out in their own comfortable oral language, then transfer it to paper, putting faith in their powers of working memory, and THEN spice it up with transition words and synonyms for what just came out of their mouth.

"Describe what your math group did to come up with their answer today, in one paragraph." Actual assignment of a 7th grade boy today. And how is this, from yesterday: "Give three reasons why the cultural system of Mesopotamia experienced periodic breakdowns. Explain how geographic features contributed to these."  Geez.

Many of my kids think good writers are those who sit down and write a novel in a day. 

Many analogies are made, every night, by exhausted parents, to their 9-17 year old sons, about long-term gratification in sports, or electric guitar, or even gaming. They are trying to prevent power struggles. Or portray the amount of work and revision that goes into a piece of art, mastering an athletic skill, or fine-tuning a career path. Best analogy to writing assignments? Composing a song. 

I haven't decided what I think of this new book, and this author who claims to have the switch that turns boys onto writing. A colleague went to his seminar this summer, and said it was all very over-simplified, touting giving boys permission to write gross, violent, fantasy pieces, and that will magically make them skilled at writing other genres. OH!  
Really! If that worked, then why teach any genres at all?

(from an interview with Ralph Fletcher, the author)
According to my research, many boys yearn to write what they read--fantasy. Yet for various reasons many teachers are
hesitant to allow them to do so.That's too bad. Teachers often say to me: "But the writing they do isn't very good!" I reply:
"So what? Let them take a crack at it. At least they're engaged."
I think we could find lots of other genres that would appeal to boys including:
--humor especially spoofs and parodies
--sports commentary
--scary stories or horror
--graphic novels or comics

Well, that doesn't seem like it would prepare them to write a paper in college on the history of architecture, or an interpretation of a tort in pre-law. Or even get a decent score on the NAEP test, above.

September 9, 2012

Alphabet Soup

So what does all that alphabet soup mean in a neuropsychologist report?  

I get that question a lot from parents, as they attempt to decipher the recent stapled diatribe on their child's brain processes. I forget how overwhelming it can be to see all that information about your child, and how badly a parent would want to cling to "fixing" it all. 

I tell them to talk to other parents, get online to get definitions of the acronyms, but don't spend too much time online, or you will find yourself sucked into the vortex of mommy blogs of special needs kids. Great reading, but too many pieces of advice about kids you have never met, so it feels thrice removed.

Essentially a report is a document that can help you get your child some help at school, confirm the intuitions you have had all along, and pave a road to reasonable goal-setting. A child with slow processing and RAN Scores (Rapid Automatic Naming) should not spend a time trying to get good at timed tests, for example. 

Also used for an IEE - Independent Educational Evaluation - when the school refuses to do testing on a student for special education.  Districts have to pay for these if indeed a learning disability is found. Most importantly [insert self-promotional statement here], a good teacher or learning specialist will be able to unravel the jargon of a report into an intervention plan. 

Receptive and Expressive Language are what I look closely for when demystifying a child's writing struggles. And, of course, attention and working memory. This is where the "L" of SLP comes in. A good Speech and Language Therapist can be an excellent resource for writing instruction, if they have attended numerous conferences on their own, harvesting nitty-gritty tricks outside of their formal training. Written expression is not in the coursework of the average program.  Good SLPs understand that writing instruction is multi-layered, have read research for fun, and touch deeply into kids who need more than a Socratic approach to writing, aka public school writer's workshop. 

Lots of journaling and ideation and breaking open creative pathways is a perfect journey for adults needing that boost, and feedback on their writing. But children need that, AND so much more. They need sentence drills, almost the equivalent of the fluency drills in well-known Multi-Sensory Curriculums.

Just yesterday I worked on having a student create sentences over and over that had certain parameters set by me, and he has come a long way in our summer work but has a long way to go. So many more things there are to "automatize" in writing mastery than in reading proficiency. 

Alphabet soup to me means getting kids excited about the fact that out of 26 letters we can create a million words.

August 11, 2012

The Pendulum of Parenting

Parenting is a subject which I think I know a lot about, yet I have no direct biological experience of. 

[Just steparenting. And being a nanny in my 20's. It so happens that the little girl in my charge has grown up now and tracked her nanny down. She still lives in Seattle and we are connected. Okay time for an "Awwww!"]

The reality is that I work with students, but the true "client" is the parent, and I have a lot of communication with them. Many times i find myself on hot coals, dishing out tips delicately, on hot topics like preventing power struggles, not pushing too hard, not giving in too much, how to discuss learning disabilities with kids, or their brain, and then there are sleep patterns, social skills, and nutrition. Like I said: Tender Topics. With some parents, I feel they are on their best behavior with me, but my intuition screams about what is most likely the reality at home:

The touchy parenting topic comes up in our Learning Specialists Consulting Group, (which is supposedly quarterly, but...well...). We end up delivering all sorts of tips to our clients for how to be a parent, a teacher, a coach, and a cheerleader to their child. And it only works if the parents are curious about how to improve as people, parents, and family members, and are curious about their child. (as opposed to having an agenda). At our professional gatherings, we end up swapping parent stories, since they are so much a part of the results equation, then espousing quippy suggestions about how to interact with anxious parents, marshmallow parents, or disorganized parents.

When all goes well, in the tutoring situation, we are on the same page about what the child needs, the parents establish warm and humorous rapport with me, and fine-tunes it with their child, so that they use their time wisely in between sessions. And then there are times when it does not go so well. That is when I bring out articles, handouts, or quickie memorable gems, like "When the outcome isn't important, give your child the power to choose. When it IS, make yourself clear, and decide, and don't waver. No apologies. No negotiation." 

I get some of this from my gut, and a lot of it from LOVE & LOGIC. Their premise is about preventing battles using choices and natural consequences. Their marketing materials make it seem, of course, that harmony will reign and that every waking moment will look like this photo, but I DO love the humble nature of the creators of the program: a father and son team who did not always collaborate!

I see all kinds of parenting in my private practice, and sometimes I broach the subject of suggesting they do something concrete to prevent power struggles, establish a "tone" in the home for learning, motivate without candy, and be engaged without being overbearing. That brings me to the pendulum. I steer parents into the center as much as I can, with compassion and humor.

The pendulum is what I observe, and parents are sometimes blind to, and most teachers talk about. Parents at one extreme end approach kids with a "They will find their way" mentality, often coupled with "I don't want to label them," and, at its worst, "I don't use any negative consequences." These are what I call Marshmallows

A version of this is the parents who simply have their kids run the show, and they insist on not interfering. They are trying so hard not to raise their voices, or be stern or punitive, that the children run the household. These are what I call Rotweiler Owners, because I have been in households where the dogs run the place. It is apparent the minute I arrive. In this case it is the kids. 

And finally, the Hover-ers. I don't use the term, "helicopter" because that implies that the parent is pressuring their child to succeed, or micromanaging them, but that is not always part of the mix. Sometimes they are simply so intertwined, anf blur the boundary between them and their child, that they apologize on behalf of their child, prompt them while they are speaking, help them so much with HW that the child does not get the satisfaction of independence, and oh, they worry. These parents are professional anxiety-ers. And remember that ADHD morphs into Anxiety, so genetic apples falling from trees are at play here. Drill Sergeant parents is what the media calls one sub-category of these.

So.....either I have a healthy distance from the maternal (and often genetic) tug, and am using that bird's eye view of the parent-child fabric of emotions so as to offer deep wisdom, or I am pompous, off-base, and would be better off keeping my mouth shut. The plethora of articles in the past year about these pendulums (with differing names and nuances) is a testament that I am not so far off.

August 10, 2012

In the Ideal World...Teaching like Homeschoolers

We should suspend the regular English curriculum for a semester and teach “Reading and Writing.” Every student would produce an essay each week and spend time at the teacher’s desk being edited. We would hire or train teachers to do what my first editors did: Cross out cute phrases, ask what I was trying to say, break overlong sentences into pieces, ask for specific examples, replace inactive verbs with active ones, and so on.

July 20, 2012

Deep Feedback and Deep Word Use

....Was reading a Mother Jones article about private vs. public universities and how well they teach writing, critical thinking, and the like. Of course there is the familiar argument about how we can't really teach sophistication, and the differences in how your papers are attended to, and by who (professor or TA), but what pranced out at me was mention of how paltry the actual deep feedback is, for written assigments, with  budget cutbacks.

That is what is sorely needed - a mentor, a teacher, a trusted adult, with whom to talk about your writing with. Sigh!

Pity the middle school Language Arts teachers, who subscribe to Educational Journals, read the articles that their guest in-service providers hand out, take summer intensives in how to better teach writing to hormonal media-soaked pre-teens, and YET, they don't have the time to really spend with them, one-on-one, discussing the revisions needed in their writing, create deep goals for their writing improvement, and simply have time to READ all those papers! Okay run-on sentence award there, for me.

Someday there will be a way to tape record comments of a teacher while they skim a paper, with some futuristic mind-reading software, and the student then uses those to create a revision, which then gets read by a Grad Student who is doing an in-service project as part of their teacher certification.  In the meantime we need smaller classes and great teachers and bigger budgets and (refrain of song repeats here)

And how I wish this Scrabble sentence were true!
This summer I am also awash in reflections on the Vocabulary Deficit. For BOTH the students whose families have "means", as well as the foster kids who I am overseeing the interventions for this summer, I see serious gaps in vocabulary, as we read fiction, non-fiction, and everything in between. I am shocked at the limits of their understanding of academic language (aka "book words" or the ability to draw from sophisticated lists of synonyms for what they are reading - or what they are writing).

I mean, I don't spend time with them on a word like "cabaret" or "arid" but when a soon-to-be 7th grader doesn't know what "finite" or "prohibitive" means, we may be headed for a roadblock or two in assigned readings in 7th or 8th grade. Duh. 

Oh, if I am in a thunderstorm kind of day, July mood, with fewer clients than I would like to have this month, and cleaning even the tops of door jambs to pass the time, forgive my melancholy. But the vocabulary gap is real. As is the dearth of adult feedback to our budding next generation of writers. 

As one of my favorite bloggers says, "Today I don't have any upbeat tips, just words strung together to make you think, and smile."

July 8, 2012


I have harped on my students about strong verbs until I feel like a repetitive robot. I have practiced choosing the precise noun, and they roll their eyes when I look at their writing and ask, "What KIND....(?)" of bug, or desk, or dog or game.

And then there are adjectives. Not so harpy about those, but they do have their place. Tons of blogs about writing warn, "Not too many adjectives; no one will take you seriously" and other such platitudes. Well, I think kids need to learn that when you are short of verbs in a couple of paragraphs, you had better have some adjectives. I have done my own research in children's novels, with a sample of 16, and it is true that J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, Rick Riordan, and others use this rough math equation.

Adjectives are the words that create the most hilarity in Mad Libs. They are what make-up about 1/4 of our English Language. They are what make poetry leap off the page. They are also what sports reporters use well.  Or overuse. 

"The flimsy pitch reeled through the suspenseful air."
"There were even hints of their lethargic 118-108 victory Sunday against an undermanned and injured Sacramento team."
"Wimbledon, the oldest of the Grand Slam events, remains beautifully suited to Federer's Swiss army knife of a skill set."

You decide.

Adjectives are what kids can struggle with because they know they want to say, "The Waterpark was awesome," but their teacher - or someone like me - has told them that "awesome" is a tired word. So they reach into their lexicon of words and can't quite find a synonym. 

Time for the Thesaurus? Maybe. Remember, that is not a tool to be used without adult supervision, because just dunking a fishing rod into there and retrieving the first word encountered results in sentences like this, from one of my students, an almost 6th grader:

The slides at the Waterpark were majestic and we had a jocular day.

The cost of trying to avoid awesome and fun.

Using the Visual Thesarus is a great strategy, and so much more motivating (!) yet still it needs a tag attached to it: "Do not use without Adult Supervision." Caveat: $19.95 a year.

So....what do the new Common CORE Standards say?

Here is a snippet from Grade 6-8:
Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events.

My kid-friendly version of that is "Show Don't Tell" and "...use words that will make your readers see what is in your imaginative mind."
And, of course, I show them how their favorite authors use precise words. Wimpy Kid doesn't count as a model, though. Wimpy words. Imprecise. Okay, okay, not every page. I am such a curmudgeon about that series.

Ooops. I was supposed to be talking about Word Precision and Adjective Use.

I am sticking with my rough equation.
Paragraphs need either solid strong verbs, OR precise adjectives, but not both.

And precise nouns are always called for. 

June 7, 2012

Brain Stickiness

There is no teflon in the house, but there is teflon in the brains that come here to work with me.

My friend told me this week, while I gushed over new strategies on the forefront of the marriage of pharmacology, and alternative modalities, I learned at an ADD Conference last Saturday, that I need to come back in the next lifetime as a brain researcher. I have come to trust medication more than I would have ever predicted, yet I grow more MIStrustful of "Big Pharma."

"But I don't trust the AMA,", I responded, "because doctors only have, like 16 hours of credits on nutrition, and maybe 12 on stress and the body-mind connection, PLUS they have not healed me as much as my own brain and bodywork have." 
"Well", she said, "that is why they need you."

I have been watching TED Talks lately, because they have short time frames for my short sometimes attention span, uber smart people, yet not ones who live in a laboratory and never see daylight or controversial conversations, plus TED is the place I would speak about ADHD, brain health, schools for LD kids, academic skill-building in the ideal setting, and how to coach a kid who hates reading and writing, if I only knew the right "TED" people.

I tried the Seattle area TED Talks with no response. I am fighting my beliefs that I do not have enough degrees, or that I have too many wrinkles, to keep pursuing this goal. I seems you must present some newfangled idea, creative, original, and life-changing, to qualify. Nothing like a high bar to reduce me to inertia. Just like my kids I tutor! So I will practice what I preach, not give up, and keep searching for what it takes to present. I probably need to really practice what I teach, and "narrow my topic."

I said today to one of my 8-year-olds, "Maybe we could create a scrapbook of your summer trip and you could write little captions." Oh No. That did not go over like it did with my 11-year old girl who did that last summer. She took it and ran with it, practicing starting sentences with interesting beginnings. Instead, for him, it was like presenting a "high bar."
"Let's aim for writing great 5-paragraph essays this school year!" Students are eavesdropping on this goal-setting brainstorm in my living room, while I talk to their parent, usually a mom, and meanwhile, their handwriting, grammar, spelling, keyboarding, thesaurus use, sentence length, and sense of organization is paltry. I calmly reassure them, in my most Glenda the Good Witch voice, that we will work just on sentences for a long time and then only when they are ready, essays. Gosh, I know of NO child or teen who lights up when that word is spoken. And then I deliver the hypocritical news, when they tell of some daunting assignment, like writing about why their school is the best, and give THREE reasons grade, that 5-paragraph essays are not how most magazines or newspapers are actually written.

Speaking of entrenched beliefs, I listened to a talk tonight by Joe Dispenzia, who is an articulate geek who makes sense of the chemicals in the brain, and motivation, learning, and habits. Nothing trivial there. The limbic brain, or mammalian brain, or emotional brain, regulates "internal chemical order." Of course, if the frontal cortex is compromised, as in anxiety-ridden, ADHD-ers, or traumatized people or children, there is less of a dance step integration possible. I just could not help think of my struggling writers, and whether changing their thinking could incur tangible changes in their output and flow. 

My current belief is that the "stickiness' of one's brain is directly related to how healthy the nutrients you put in are, plus the dopamine, plus the amount of explicit instruction you get, and much more. 

Changing Your Brain: The 3 Brains that Allow us to go from Thinking, to Doing, to Being

Oh Yeah! I am supposed to place bullet points in my post in order to follow the rules of BLOGGING! I always forget.

  • Nerve cells that fire together wire together. 
  • If learning is making new synaptic connections, then remembering is maintaining and sustaining those connections. 
  • Warning: Many moving images of dendrites and synapses in the youtube video. Kidding.

Love the resources on his website. Who can argue with the Meditation called, "Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself?"

May 17, 2012

Remedial Reading and Writing for incoming College Students

Okay, I cannot stand to read blogs that simply cut and paste what other people have written, and tack on a single sentence response of their own. Talk about lacking personal voice!So here I will fitfully, boldly, and guiltily do the same. I do know one of the authors, William Tierney, from my years at Cal State. I abridged the post so as to prevent concentration dilution on your part. The parts in bold are what I am always beating my drum about. 

Remediation in College

Every summer for the past decade, we have conducted a writing program for college-bound, low-income minority students. More than 80 percent of them have never written a formal five-page paper. Instead, they’ve churned out short essay after short essay after short essay. When asked to develop an idea or argument beyond two or three pages, they look dumbfounded.
IThe Education Commission of the States reports that only 17 percent of students enrolled in remedial English nationally go on to earn a college degree. That’s a shameful return on what the Gates Foundation estimates to be a $2.3 billion annual investment in remedial programs nationally.
What works? Our 10 years of teaching remedial writing, as well as other research, points to four ways to get students to write better.
Set specific and understandable goals. Abstract test scores – “You score in the 85th percentile” -- don’t help students, especially first-generation learners, know if they are underprepared to write in college. If students somehow discover they are not good writers, they have no idea what they need to do to improve. 
Teach students how to revise. What students need to understand is how to make the essay they just wrote better. A teacher’s general comments at the end of an essay, the usual practice, are like an autopsy report: They may tell the student why the paper is weak, but they do not help the writer fix the problem. 
Teach summarizing, not analyzing: Critical thinking in and of itself is not a precursor of good writing. Putting thinking into words, sentences and paragraphs is the endgame, and that crucially involves the ability to summarize material, a more concrete and therefore teachable skill. If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.
These sorts of solutions are not rocket science, but they are, unfortunately, controversial. Adopting them would mean focusing on writing as process rather than as product, an unsettling break for those accustomed to exams and assignments without revision opportunities. But the current remedial writing programs have the dubious distinction of being the first stop on the way to dropping out of college. 

April 19, 2012

Teaching Boys Who Would Rather Build Forts All Day

This weekend I head north to Vancouver to give a presentation to 115 specialists, as part of the

Canadian Academy of Therapeutic Tutors.

They expect me to illuminate them on the latest and greatest in magic tricks for teaching writing. Not that I am anxious, or nervous. (Hah!)

One of my students (age 7) asked how I was going to do a presentation when I didn't know how to speak Canadian.

Since my last BLOG I started a new little contract-y job, with a Foster Care Agency, and they really do that middle word: CARE. Social Workers who use every ounce of their compassionate bloodstream, and their graduate school smarts, to help these kids feel an anchor. Ahem, a small detail, however, is that these kids struggle with reading. So I come in with my virtual Super Woman cape and assess them, even though the school has supposedly done so, only to find that (surprise!) schools aren't doing the best interventions, or dong much at all. So my pen and my sword pursue best interventions, with elaborate write-ups, and grave predictions about their future, and the schools do not exactly call me up to attend any of their parties or potlucks. I will also be doing mini trainings for the foster parents on how to help their kids in a more pointed way than having them read People magazine over and over.

Lately, while not burning data CDs for my Vancouver-ites, lumbering to Pilates class in the rain, writing long e-mails to parents of the kids I tutor, and stressing about whether I am eating enough greens, or worrying about the futures of foster children...I am....
....Listening to Andrew Pudewa (don't ask me to pronounce his name, but I have exchanged many emails with him over the years) talk about Boys and Writing - an audio of one of his presentations, which are for sale on his website. I am too cheap to spend the hundreds on his curriculum, but I have pored over the Institute for Excellence in Writing materials at conferences, heard powerful stories from homeschoolers, and scratched my head about why I haven't seen the curriculum in classrooms, or on special ed. teachers shelves. Here is a 2 minute clip of him, to get a sense of his wisdom.

What a relief to hear that he is promoting the same strategies that I have fallen upon through my own trial and error, with fort-making boys, over the years. He is BIG ON VERBS.

I am making tiny progress with the six boys, ages 10-13, who would rather have dental surgery than write.
  • One has Inspiration, and a new MAC, and that makes his willingness dial move up to "10."
  • Another has new medication, so now he actually uses my 25 pages of writing tools instead of forgetting they are there in his binder, on his desk at home. One of these pages is a reminder about using strong verbs, of course.
  • Yet another has taken on my "Think like a reporter" mantra and asks himself often whether he has the 5 W's and H in his writing for school, or for me.
  • The Step-Up-to-Writing summary equation is what one 5th grader is hanging his hat on, because it gives such clear parameters for the many summaries that I assign, since we also work on finding the Main Idea.

Identify the item. THEN Use a verb and a bit more. THEN Finish your thought.

The article on sharks

describes the reasons

why there are more attacks today

Verbs for summaries:

explains describes gives compares tells

shows lists provides presents demonstrates

And a little humor, or spice, or I am not sure - help me out here!

Why Johnny Can't Write
Video that revisits the Newsweek Cover Story December 8, 1975
If this were a student's paper, I would ask, "Where is your thesis?" It is 7 minutes of garbled reporter speak, and while the essence of the video isn't clear, to me it spoke to how this "alarm" is not new, and we cannot simply blame it on the digital age, or our texting teenagers, but a whole host of things.
If anyone can decipher the "Main Idea", let me know.

March 7, 2012

Writing Tantrums

It hurts to hear of the battles that can occur in the car on the way here.

The short descriptor, from mom, usually, upon entering my living room/waiting room, in earshot of the student, goes something like this:

"Now, it is nothing personal, Kendra, but _______ just whines or comes down with a psychosomatic illness before coming to his session. I tell him that he needs to learn some strategies to help him write, since he can't go through life hoping people with just read his mind." (she borrowed this from me)

Sorry, guys, I just don't hear about meltdowns with my girls, or at least they whine more directly, with me one-on-one, and with eye contact!

So when I drill down with the boys, once we have sequestered ourselves in my office, I discover that their "self-talk" (that was about 9 blogs ago) is dragging its voice along the rungs of the sewers (are there rungs in sewers?), and speaking severely limiting lies about their creativity, talent, expression, skill, and future success to the inhabitant of this inner voice, aka my student.

Ah...self-talk. Steven Graham, the consumate researcher on writing, says that changing self-talk via checklists and charts gives rise to self-regulation, and, "voila!" writing fluency. He makes it sound so easy.

I have read his articles and books, but got up the courage to call him this month and after many VMs, the famous guy was available for a 7-minute window! May I never be THAT popular or disorganized that I can't find a slot of 15 minutes to speak, learn, and teach, thus leave a tiny legacy. He did not give advice about the tantrums.

Back to the "I don't want to go to Kendra's, where I have to do that thing I am least proficient at...."

I am between a rock and a hard place, now. Who wants to hear some buttering-up lecture about self-worth and their progress made, when the truth is that it just feels hard to keep all the components of writing in their brain psyche? I am powerless, even with all my research-based factoids and curriculums dripping off my shelves. I despise that cheerleader "I Can"paraphenalia, but there is actually some research that points to results from the use of it. Something like:

I wish I could tell a story about when it was like that for me, but I loved writing as a kid, and the more I wrote, the more I was motivated to find tricks of the trade, and reasons for using commas, and ways to describe my incestuous, insincere uncle in words fit for my diary, and in ones fit for a school assignment.

So I tell a story about something I know THEY struggled with at one time. Today, it was Lacrosse. My tiny, but quite athletic, 4th grade boy - who I have worked with for a year - and whose dyslexia has improved greatly, has become quite the reader. He forgets how hard reading used to be. He also forgets that he did not want to try Lacrosse at this time last year. Now he isgung-ho to start up the season and has a rare confidence for a 10-year old who is smaller than every other boy on his team.

What else helps is that I point out EACH session, the small and incremental things they have done well. I have to pinch myself to remember.


Regarding Research Papers:

I told two 5th graders this month, who tend to "SURF" instead of take notes, and read images, instead of read text, and forget that they are forming the foundation of a research paper, that THEY got to choose the topic of, to get a timer, and:

Surf and Read for 10 minutes
Write and Take Notes for 10 Minutes

February 19, 2012

Hyperfocus, and Writing Despite Your Distractions

I spend a lot of time reading websites about ADD, or ADHD, and figuring out the nuances of the differences, but lately the terms have morphed into one amorphous diagnosis, which supposedly will be categorized in the new DSM 5 as just ADHD, a blanket label, doing away with the well-known 3 subtypes. This is easier on insurance companies, and harder on parents of AD__ whatever kids, and those of us with the need for specificity of our brain's workings, so as to treat and coach it correctly.

I wrote a complimentary email to an author whose blog won Blog of the Year for 2011, which I realize is hardly a Grammy, but she does have more traffic on her site now. I asked to do a guest blog a couple of weeks ago, and she chose the topic, "How to Write Despite Your Distractions." It has not been posted yet, so here is the post I submitted to her, on this site: Being Human at Electric Speed

Writing Despite Your Distractions

There is not an APP for that!

Sending in the Police: Book Ends

Find a very supportive but very laser sharp honest friend who you can call right before you start writing, and right afterwards. Ideally you do this with them actually on the other end, not via Voice Mail. You are putting an accountability “lock” on your writing time, by committing to someone besides yourself, in real time. I borrowed this from friends who are in Debtors Anonymous, who avoid balancing their checkbook. They do a back-to-back phone call whenever they have to do a short task, or a long one, involving an uncomfortable financial necessity.

Giving Permission: OK! 5 Minutes Then!

When your “Irish Setter” mind can only hold you by a leash and pull you towards Facebook, cleaning the hallway, or eating the leftovers in the fridge, tell that dog that he can indulge only with a timer set for 5 minutes. Your rebellious kid sees writing as discipline, something to do at an uncomfortable desk in 4th grade, or even a diet of salad and lean chicken. That kid wants to stir up trouble, run around exploring or destroying something, or make up games - instead of ideas and characters and eloquent sentences. So you, the parent, allow a 5 minute only break, or breather, or you can do this before beginning. But it works best when ice cream in the freezer is calling, WHILE you are writing. Set a loud timer and affix to you or be sure you will hear it, and do something childlike for that time frame and stick to the time. I like pounding the bed with a tennis racket, walking outside, pulling up dirt, or chewing something that a “mom” would say “No” to. This is a trick I learned from a therapist as an addiction recovery strategy, except I am doing it backwards. Her advice is to ward off the craving, urge, or addictive pull, for a mere 5 minutes, to retrain the compulsive brain.

( Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide to Being Human -

Moving them aside: Tech Tips and Mantras

Mental distractions or an impulsive mind can wreak havoc on the life of a writer. Yet as any ADHD expert will tell you, on the flip side of every impulse chemistry in our brains is the capacity to focus like a laser. (this is why parents say, “Why, Joey cannot possibly have ADHD. He sits and plays video games for hours!”) I digress.

There are several software nannies that track your productivity and stand guard against you playing with the wrong neighborhood gang, i.e. surfing when supposed to be writing. The best known is probably Experiment with them – some people bond with a nanny and others, not so much.

Okay, I saved the woo-woo for last. I listen to chanting or affirmation music in the background, and when I feel myself tempted to distract myself and leave the page I am producing material on, I actually sing along or speak along, with the affirmations, which are actually at times related to breathing in and affirming my prosperity from doing what I love to do. This is effective at changing the spin cycle of my mind, and potentially alters the chemical make-up of my brain, temporarily. When all is said and done, or written and revised, it sure feels better to have been actively at my computer instead of passively at it, watching kitten videos.

And one more blog that is worthy of note, and has FREE books on it!

Bryan's adderworld is a site dripping with tips and honesty, and he is someone that actually replies to all the comments people write on his blog. Commendable. He has 4 freebie ebook publications, and this post on writing from over a year ago is pertinent to my own blog.

There is some argument about whether we have this gift of hyperfocus, have to work our way into it, or muscle our way laboriously, or whether some of us just don't possess it in our package of ADD tricks. A sample here of one of the responses to his post:

Bryan – you’ll be interested to know that Ned Hallowell uses writing, very consciously, as a form of “treatment” for his ADHD. When he is writing a book (over the long period of time it takes) he finds it gives him a special focus and also more structure.

That said, my observation is that people don’t control their hyperfocus very often. Rather, for Ned, I think it’s a matter of setting aside time without other distractions because he has a project in which he’s interested and that he knows has a deadline. He also just loves to write, so it’s a very pleasurable activity for him. And you, as you say (and me, too).

You might consider that what you’re describing is something called “flow” – when you get immersed into something you love. Perhaps that’s another word for hyperfocus???