Teacher Tips: Keeping Students Engaged in Virtual Math Class

As an avid reader, writer, and English teacher, nothing used to scare me more than the possibility of having to cover an absent colleague’s math class. Like a fish out of water, my literacy-geared mind simply cannot adapt to the math world. Now that we educators have moved into the virtual realm of instruction, at least for the time being, I am even more in awe of how my math teacher counterparts are able to reach their students when it comes to such complex skills. It goes without saying that, for students like myself who find math to be difficult to begin with, they must be finding online math instruction to be even more difficult. Another critical piece of this perplexing puzzle is this: how on earth are teachers now adapting to make online math instruction engaging?  

 

Real World Connections

Just as we would in the physical classroom, in order to boost engagement for a lesson or concept, teachers should try their best to connect the activity or information to students’ real-world problems. Enough with the “train leaving the station at a certain time” word problems and examples. Students will inevitably zone out when the material is not relevant or familiar. Instead, use what you know about your students to incorporate their interests into your math lesson, then connect the content to a problem that they might actually need to solve at some point. Making the concepts less arbitrary by showing students how to use these math skills in the real world will take engagement to a new level.

  • To teach measurements, perimeter, area, etc., have students make a plan for rearranging their room by actually measuring out their bedrooms and bedroom furniture. 
    • Visual learners can sketch a “floor plan” for where they could realistically move their bed, dresser, desk, etc.
    • Kinesthetic learners may want to build a diorama or 3D representation of their bedroom arrangement proposal using everyday materials around the house like cardboard, straws, tape, sticky notes, etc.
  • Teach percentages and healthy eating by demonstrating how much sugar is in some of your students’ favorite candies and treats. Poll students in advance and do a little research about how many grams of sugar are in some of their favorite candy bars. 
    • Then challenge students to represent those grams in tablespoons so that they can visually see how much sugar they are ingesting. 
    • Extend the activity by discussing how much of their daily recommended sugar intake is “eaten up” by choosing that candy bar. Ask students to figure out how much of a healthier treat, like grapes, they could eat in place of the candy barthey’ll be amazed at the comparison.
  • Teach concepts involving time by having students actually time themselves doing everyday tasks, like walking to the park, making their bed, brushing their teeth, etc. 
    • Then incorporate multiplication skills to see how many minutes students spend brushing their teeth in a year, for example. 
    • You can surprise them even more by asking them to track screen time for a week and then finding out the average time they might be spending in front of their phones per year.

 

Celebrate (and Learn from) the Errors

Students don’t often spend time reviewing math errors to gain a substantial understanding. Instead, they’re correcting mistakes for additional credit, or overlooking the missteps altogether. Teachers can boost engagement by capitalizing on students’ errors in non-judgmental ways.

  • Teachers may want to try a practice called “the best mistake” in which they use anonymous student samples to analyze where a math problem went wrong. 
    • This activity encourages students to take on another’s perspective, reread and review material, and look critically at different mathematical functions and properties.
    • This activity also helps to remove the stress around math quizzes and word problems by making light of errors and demonstrating how they happen to everyonewe all make mistakes sometimes. The key is to use those mistakes and improve in the future.
  • Teachers can also increase engagement by letting students be the experts and intentionally making an error in a math problem.
    • Tell students in advance that a step or number is incorrect. Ask students to discuss and collaborate in groups in order to spot the teacher’s error.
    • Remember, kids always love being able to correct the teacher—even if the error is intentional.

Virtual Writing Instruction: Part I

Across school districts, students’ grades, scores, and standardized test results indicate a widespread drop in foundational skills, some of the more critical skills affiliated with academic writing. Writing is not just an English-specific necessity. The ability to construct cohesive, clear, organized thoughts in written form is essential for all aspects of college and career readiness. As educators, we must prioritize these foundational writing skills to ensure that, even in the midst of virtual or hybrid learning, students are still being set up for success.

 

Daily cross-curricular opportunities

Writing is one of those skills that is strengthened by repetition and practice. Exposure to different styles of writing and opportunities to compose different written forms helps students to recognize the importance of writing in all subject areas. Therefore, teachers should provide opportunities for students to practice composing various genres and for different purposes. These do not necessarily have to be long, involved essay prompts; teachers can use these ideas as warm-ups, exit tickets, lesson activators, etc.

 

For example, science teachers might ask students to write and submit lab reports, compose directions for science experiments, or draft project proposals for a final project. History, civics, or social studies teachers should consider prompts that require students to compare and contrast two or more cultures, time periods, land forms, or branches of government. Math teachers can help students with procedural or sequential writing skills by asking them to compose an error analysis for any questions that they missed on a quiz or assessment. For a task such as this, students are subconsciously learning the skills necessary to craft written work that follows a problem-solution or cause-effect format. The key here is to demonstrate that writing skills, even short practices, lend themselves to all content areas, not just English.

 

Peer review

Peer review sessions are extremely beneficial, especially during virtual learning where students do not have day-to-day interactions with their peers. Dissecting someone else’s work can be a very enlightening practice for young writers. It allows them to see how another student interpreted and approached the same task in relation to their own response. Viewing another’s writing also sheds light on different writing styles, provides ideas for varying sentence structure, and demonstrates how others interpreted a text or quote. In evaluating another’s writing, students begin to grasp, not only how their own writing measures up, but how an instructor might evaluate a written response. It forces students to consider the prompt, the rubric, and the overall objectives with regard to their final composition. Peer review sessions also prompt student discourse, which, during these trying times, can help stimulate social skills, collaboration, and motivation. 

 

Formative feedback

By embedding formative feedback into weekly writing instruction, educators send the important message to students that writing is a fluid process—students are not expected to craft perfect writing on their first, or even second attempt. One of my most beneficial practices to help students with essay writing is to formatively assess the introductory paragraph first, before students continue on with their entire essay. By pumping the breaks and providing specific feedback on each student’s intro paragraph, I am able to accomplish several things at once. 

 

First, looking at the intro paragraph gives me an inside view of the foundation of their essay; I’m able to see students’ interpretation of hook statement, bridge statement leading into their thesis, and the final thesis statement, around which the entire essay will be framed. If students’ introductory paragraphs are a mess in any one of these categories, I can quickly provide necessary feedback and scaffolds for them to revise and reset before they have gone too far down the wrong path. Looking at the intro paragraph also shows me whether students actually understand the writing prompt or not. If multiple students seem to be off track or missing the mark, I can easily intervene and provide supports, interventions, and reteaching to ensure that everyone understands the prompt and how to approach it.

 

In part two of Virtual Writing Instruction, we’ll explore the impact of providing student choice, creating the necessary scaffolding for struggling writers, using virtual sessions to instruct using teacher models, and building online portfolios for student writing.

Transparency and Parent Communication

Schools being closed is certainly not ideal. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to look at the positive. It’s time to look for the silver linings in the Covid cloud we’ve been enduring for nearly a year now. One of those silver linings might actually involve the virtual learning model into which educators, students, and families have been unwillingly thrust. You see, online learning essentially lends itself to consistency, open communication, and transparency between parents and teachers. If utilized correctly, parents can use virtual learning platforms as a front row seat to everything that their child is reading, learning, and creating.

Invite Parents into the Virtual World
Whether teachers are using Canvas, Google Classroom, or any of the other instructional platforms available right now, parents should be encouraged to join as participants or viewers. Many schools made this information available at the start of the school year; however, not all parents were aware of the advantages that this form of “virtual classroom participation” would give them and their children. Educators should consider some of the following measures:

  • Send out a mass email to parents and guardians about joining the virtual classroom if anyone has yet to do so.
  • Be sure to make class codes, course numbers, and Zoom login information visible on your course home page; you can also include this information in the mass email to parents.
  • Post “parent-friendly” announcements to your course homepage to ensure that parents see these important notifications directly at the top when they login to check grades, review assignments, etc.
  • For students with chronic absenteeism, reach out to parents via email and/or phone about their child’s absences in case they are unaware of the missed classes.
  • Use the Canvas “grades” page to send mass emails to specific students and their “observers,” i.e. parents, when they have missed an important assignment deadline. This function allows teachers to email anyone who hasn’t submitted the assignment all at once without showing other recipients.
  • When interims or the end of the marking period is approaching, post a message to all students and “observers” about final steps and tasks for successfully rounding out the marking period.
  • Set up a parent page in Canvas for each course where parents can find important course information, class or weekly calendars, teacher contact info, Zoom logins, office hours, and FAQs.
  • Use Screencastify to create how-to tutorials for parents. These videos could include information on how to check grades, how to see if assignments have been submitted, how to view teacher feedback on written tasks, how to use Kami, etc.
  • Push out a parent survey using Google forms to obtain vital information about how e-learning is going at home. Ask questions like, How much hands-on homework support do you provide to your child on the average night? Does your child have access to his/her own computer for learning? Is there an older sibling or parent in the home during the average instructional day to provide tech support? Are there technology issues at home? Where does your child do most of his/her classwork? How many children are in the home participating in virtual learning at the same time? On average, how much sleep is your child getting on the typical school night? How much time is spent on homework over the weekend? What frustrations are you seeing with regard to virtual learning/instruction? Do you have easy access to your child’s grades, course materials, school resources, etc.? What steps could I take to provide more transparency/clarity to parents about our class? If your child needs more instructional support, do you know where/how to obtain those resources?
  • Finally, teachers should create engaging assignments that encourage discourse within the family. These family-centered prompts require students to bring their parents into the assignment for support and guidance, which allows parents to see firsthand what you’re teaching. For instance, ask students to interview a member of their household for a formative assessment on sentence structure. Have students write a personal essay about how they got their name, including direct quotes from their parents or guardians. Have students create a “family album” on Google slides including photos and fun facts about siblings, pets, parents, grandparents, etc.

Helping Students Combat Zoom Fatigue

Zoom fatigue is an unfortunate yet all too familiar side effect of our current educational circumstances. Depending on grade level, students are logged into a video conferencing platform for classes up to six hours a day. Yet those six hours of class are just the beginning. That time doesn’t account for the additional screen time necessary to complete homework assignments, read and respond to emails, and review online course content. 

 

It is no wonder that students are experiencing high levels of burnout and exhaustion these days. Even more concerning is the domino effect that Zoom fatigue may be havingschool districts across the nation are reporting troublesome spikes in spotty attendance, prolonged absences, disengagement, lack of communication, and, of course, a noticeable drop in grades. Virtual learning is our present reality, and we have yet to know what the foreseeable future of this school year will look like. However, there are ways in which parents and teachers can assist now with Zoom fatigue.

 

  • Teachers should deliberately frame the lesson, as they typically would in the brick-and-mortar setting, but consider adding time estimates for each task. Having an idea of how long each topic, assignment, or activity will take helps students establish expectations and prioritize their mental stamina.
  • Beginning with an engaging, yet relevant, icebreaker goes a long way with student buy-in from the get go. If possible, incorporate movement into the opener. For example, ask students to take 30 seconds to find an object around them that represents an important memory. This allows students to get up and move. It also builds classroom community and allows students to share out about a personal anecdote. 
  • Establish “No Screen” blocks of time throughout the day and stick to them. Meal times and times in between classes and office hours should be strictly considered “screen free” times. This is the same idea behind brain breaks and movement breaks, which allow for a necessary mental reset for young learners. Teachers have limited time with face-to-face online instruction; however, it is crucial that students are getting small breaks during those instructional hours as well. Something as brief as a 5minute gap of time for students to walk away from the computer, grab a snack, or stretch can revitalize heavy eyes and foggy minds.
  • Encourage students to utilize office hours efficiently to reduce screen time during those non-instructional days. Office hours are certainly necessary. However, teachers can help reduce screen use by streamlining the process for office hours. For instance, tell students to login with specific questions in mind relating to the assignment or project. Keep the office hour fluid, meaning that, once students have asked their questions or gotten clarification, remind them that it’s okay to exit the Zoom early. If they have a quick question, consider an email instead of waiting to login for office hours.
  • Incorporate prerecorded asynchronous videos, demonstrations, presentations, etc. Of course, students need live instruction, but breaking up the session with these components can greatly help with Zoom fatigue. Incorporating small asynchronous components can also help make the lesson move quicker since students are working at their own pace.
  • If teachers have finished the lesson with a few minutes in the session to spare, don’t fill that time with extra instruction or busy work. It is okay to end the session and give students a bit more of a break between classes. Of course, offer to stay on Zoom until time has expired in case anyone has a question, but often, students prefer to logout early as a nice little treat.

Close all other unnecessary tabs while in a Zoom class. This may seem obvious, but many students use Zoom classes for multitaskingmeaning that they have countless tabs open, documents and assignments for other classes underway, and a cell phone within reach. All of these things only work against their ability to focus, thus creating more fatigue. As difficult as it may be, remind children to stay engaged with the class and task at hand, i.e., no multitasking unless it is related to that class in particular. Put the cell phone away, as well, since this is just one more screen that’ll distract them during class.

Formative Assessments for Virtual Learning

For educators, formative assessments are crucial data points that we utilize on a daily basis, or at least, we used to utilize them in the classroom before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that most of us are doing our instructing and learning in the virtual world in front of screens, formative assessments have become somewhat more difficult, but that much more important at the same time. Since we are no longer seeing our students in person, and many of us are only seeing classes a few times a week, it is even more crucial to consistently check-in on student progress and mastery. Formative assessments, even of the virtual type, help to ensure that students who are struggling or misunderstanding a concept are provided with interventions, supports, scaffolds, clarification, and opportunities for reteaching. Below you’ll find various methods for implementing formative assessments in the virtual realm. Nothing can replace the insight that educators get from in-person observations in the classroom; however, these activities help to make sure we’re getting as much information about how and what our students are learning from our online classes.

 

Journaling

Journaling as a daily warm-up is often considered as an “English-only” writing activity for obvious reasons. However, students’ journal responses can be valuable pieces of diagnostic information for any content area, so long as the prompts or questions are designed to elicit certain feedback or responses. For example, math and science classes can use journaling as a method for checking for understanding after a new concept, property, or formula is introduced in class. Teachers may choose to ask students to write about a scenario involving a time when the physical property of a substance might change. Perhaps a math teacher may ask students to write about a real-life scenario in which their knowledge of exponents might come in handy. The point is to make sure that the journal prompt is specific enough that it provides the teacher with information about who understands the content from the last class and who needs more instruction.

 

Entry/Exit Tickets

Teachers can use a Google form, a quick response assignment in Canvas, or even the chat function on Zoom to elicit formative responses about what students remember about the day’s lesson. At the end of a Zoom session, ask students to think about their class discussion, materials, slides, practices, etc. and have each student provide one sentence about the most significant point or takeaway from today’s class. If students are consistently confused or missing the mark, it should be a sign that some reteaching or scaffolds are necessary before the whole class progresses. If only a few students struggle to pinpoint the main takeaway, then perhaps a small group or breakout room would allow for more direct instruction while the others continue on with the material. Frame the exit tickets not as “got ya” moment tied to points or grades, but more as a “how well did I teach you today?” type of activity.

 

Summaries

To assess students’ knowledge of a text, whether the reading be related to math, science, art, music, history/government, or an actual novel for English class, consider having students summarize the text as a means of formatively assessing their understanding of the content. For younger students, it may be helpful to introduce the 5W’s (who, what, when, where, why) to help them to begin their summaries. The key in assessing a one-sentence student summary is to look for the main points or “big ideas” that you’d hoped students would grasp from the reading. If many students are falling short of finding the big ideas, it’s probably a good idea to go back and complete a whole group close reading of certain paragraphs, lines, or vocab terms.

 

Connections

If students are able to make connections between new content and prior knowledge, chances are good that they’ve at least begun to understand the new material. Therefore, another great method for formatively assessing students in the virtual classroom is to ask them to relate the new topic, idea, content, or material to something that they’ve seen, heard about, or learned before. For example, if students are learning about colonialism, ask them to make a list of things that they think are related to or that remind them of colonialism. These lists can take the form of a word web, a collaborative Google slide, or a padlet response. The point is for students to articulate their understanding of colonialism as it applies to things that they’ve already learned about.

Student Data in the Time of Covid

The sudden switch to virtual learning last spring threw us all for a loop. Students were perplexed, parents were stressed, teachers were overwhelmed, and schools were ill-prepared to roll out an entirely new structure for online learning. However, as time passed, we’ve become somewhat more accustomed to our new normal. Virtual learning is not as personal, effective, or sustainable as the beloved in-person classroom instruction that we didn’t know we’d miss until it was gone.

With the commencement of quarter one, it has become even more apparent that virtual learning is not only leaving much to be desired, but it’s also leaving much more to be learned. Recently reported data suggests that, across the board, students are not thriving. Worse, the achievement gap is widening, meaning that students who were statistically already hindered by certain disparities are feeling the negative effects of virtual learning even more. Math scores have dropped. Literacy scores have dropped. Enrollment is down, as is the rate of students currently passing their classes.

However, behind every data point is a story—a story that emphasizes the human component, for which standardized tests can simply not account. For instance, some secondary students are working part-time jobs to help with bills while a parent or guardian is sick or unemployed, meaning that attendance and participation may be spotty. Some students are experiencing food insecurities due to the fact that families are financially struggling during business and hospitality closures. Some students are experiencing social-emotional stressors and psychological impacts that they may be unfamiliar with or ill-equipped to deal with on their own. The scenarios could go on and on, but the point is this: data is open to interpretation, especially during these unique circumstances.

Here is what we can do:

  • Teachers should utilize office hours to check-in with struggling students about more than their missing work. Yes, it is important that their work be submitted. However, it is arguably more important to ask why a certain student is struggling to compete or submit assignments. Are they caring for younger siblings? Working outside of school? Caring for an ill family member? Having issues with technology, wifi, or connectivity? Are they used to in-person accommodations? Teachers know when students are struggling by looking at the grades and quality of work, but a more significant data point indicates reasons for their struggles—this is worth investigating.
  • Parents and teachers should utilize school counselors and other support services for struggling students. Data simply points to areas of need, but it doesn’t provide suggested interventions or recommendations for additional support. The counselors can be invaluable when it comes to providing insight into a student’s individual circumstances and needs.
  • Teachers should consider creating their own surveys and check-in forms to ask students how they think they’re doing and what they’d like to work on. Yes, Map scores and other standardized tests may indicate standards in which students are underperforming, but student voice surveys are able to tell us a lot more. Ask students about their study habits, their reading interests, learning styles, collaborative preferences, parent involvement, etc. This information can help teachers adjust and modify their instruction and assignments to account for student choice and ability level—all of which help to demonstrate important data regarding student achievement.
  • Schools or individual teachers should consider sending out a separate survey for parents or guardians to complete. Ask parents about their child’s study habits, individual strengths and needs, extracurricular activities and/or obligations outside of schoolwork, experience with technology, organizational weaknesses, procrastination habits, scheduling difficulties, etc. All of this information will help to inform educators about each student’s unique circumstances, which is inherently tied to his or her performance data.

Making Connections and Building Engagement

Whether students are going to school 100% virtually or participating in a hybrid model, one thing is for certain—the need for building community, making personal connections, and boosting engagement is more important than ever before. Education certainly looks different right now, and many teachers would argue that distance learning is just not cutting it academically or socially for our students. Regardless of how and when schools will resume in-person learning, teachers have to get creative in the meantime to ensure that students’ needs are met on a holistic level. We cannot solely focus on providing virtual instruction during these trying times.

Journaling
It is difficult to connect to students through a camera lens. It’s even more difficult to build relationships with learners you’ve perhaps never met in person or if you haven’t even heard their voices. It can be just as uncomfortable, if not moreso, for students to engage with a new, unfamiliar adult over the computer during live instruction. To ease the unfamiliarity, some teachers are turning to a tried and true writer’s workshop activity—journal time. Journaling as a warm-up activity lends itself especially well to an English course, but other content areas can capitalize on journal writing as well.

Teachers should consider starting with open-ended prompts that allow students to express themselves on a personal level. To encourage students to write freely, explain to them that their journal responses will not be evaluated or read by peers. They should understand that journaling is purely intended to share experiences and spur conversation. This also prompts students to speak candidly so that you can begin to get to know them on a more personal level—this is essential since we are no longer teaching in person. Keep the prompts light and provide options to start the routine. I always like to ask my high schoolers to tell me what their favorite and/or least favorite thing about being a teenager is. These responses give really good insight into students’ lives and what they may be dealing with outside of school. I also like to keep these samples and refer back to them later in the school year to show students how much growth they’ve shown in their personal writing.

Identity Collage
Creating an identity collage is another useful and engaging way to get students to share a little more about themselves in a visual art form. Ask students to create a Google slide as a self-portrait. They can use an actual photo of themselves or get artistic and sketch or draw themselves. Once they’ve added the photo, which shows the world how they appear on the outside, ask students to cover half of their face on the slide with images, words/phrases, or other symbols that represent their underlying or deeper identity. Encourage them to think about what their peers might not know about them just by looking at them. Once students have submitted their slides, teachers can combine all of the dual external/internal self-portraits into a class “yearbook” of sorts. This way, even though we aren’t physically learning in the same space, students can get to know a little bit more about their peers on a more personal level.

“All emotions” Playlist
Music tends to be a topic or area of discussion that spurs great participation, no matter your student’s age or grade level. Music is also something that can unify groups of people on an emotional level, since people often view music as therapeutic. If studying language, history, psychology, or perhaps music, kids will greatly appreciate this engaging project. Ask students to compile a list of go-to songs that they would play as clear representations of a mood or emotion. For instance, what is your go-to song to listen to when you’re frustrated, or melancholy, or excited, or feeling silly? Students will then make a playlist of their 3-5 songs and briefly explain how the song helps to alleviate their frustration or sadness. They’ll need to answer questions like, What about this one song excites you or makes you laugh? What about this song helps you to release anger/frustration? What line or lyric from this song resonates with you when you’re feeling sad?

Get Spontaneous on Zoom
Zooming all day can become draining, to say the least. Shake things up for kids by utilizing short breaks that serve a specific purpose and keep kids engaged and wanting to come back to the discussion. For example, if giving students a quick 5-minute break during your Zoom class, challenge them to come back to the session holding something orange. Ask them to come back with a hat on. Prompt them to grab their pet or favorite stuffed animal when rejoining the session. Tell them to grab their favorite snack or something that they absolutely can’t live without. Take it a step further and ask students to bring a family heirloom or or family photo to the next Zoom class so students can pair-share in breakout rooms as a family-based show and tell.

STEM/STEAM Activities for Distance Learning

STEM and STEAM Day is observed in the month of November. STEM is the acronym assigned to an approach to learning that utilizes science, technology, engineering, and math skills as gateways to inquiry-based learning. STEAM is STEM + the arts. One of the wonderful aspects of a STEM/STEAM educational approach is the fact that, using a child’s personal interests combined with hands-on activities, learners simultaneously develop critical skills, such as problem-solving, collaborative teamwork, creativity, cooperative communication, and critical thinking/analysis. Virtual learning doesn’t have to mean that STEM/STEAM activities are left by the wayside. Although many schools address STEM/STEAM learning through extra curricular activities and clubs within the school, educators and parents can still integrate STEM-related activities to motivate young learners at home.

Simulated Oil Spill
This activity allows students to see real-world implications of pollution in the oceans by using a few household ingredients. Parents and educators can examine the cause/effect relationships and frontload the activity at the same time by providing images of oil spills. Prompt students to think about how an oil spill impacts not only the immediate area, but also everywhere else. Spur discussion by showing videos of the clean-up process; then tell them that they will be simulating this process with their own “oil spills.”

In a shallow dish or pan filled with water, prompt kids to “spill” some vegetable or olive oil into the pan. Then, dip feathers into the oil spill to simulate the impact on wildlife, specifically birds. Ask children to use materials such as sponges, spoons, coffee filters, etc., to remove as much of the oil as they can from the water.

The project encourages kids to put on their “problem-solving hats” by brainstorming how to minimize the impact on the environment when oil gets into our oceans. This activity also requires children to hypothesize by asking questions like, How much of the oil do you think you can remove with a spoon? Do you think a sponge will work better? Can a paper towel help to remove any of the oil? Do you think you’ll be able to fully clean the feathers? What do you think we use oil for on a daily basis? Discuss the importance of taking precautions to avoid oil spills and how we can help protect our environment by relying on less oil.

Rube Goldberg Machine
Covid-19 quarantine times have certainly brought out the creative bug in many of us, so how about putting an educational spin on your in-home challenges? Rube Goldberg machines are great for keeping kids’ hands busy while teaching them about chain reactions, cause and effect, and how to utilize certain mechanisms to accomplish a goal. The great thing about this activity is that you can do it anywhere and use practically anything around the house.

Begin by asking children what type of task they wish to accomplish with their machine. Perhaps you want to unroll the toilet paper, propel a racecar from inside to outside, move a dog treat from the table onto the floor, etc. Extend the activity by asking children to sketch or draw their proposed machine. Help them consider the most useful materials for achieving this goal and how the order of operations is also a considerable facet of this “invention.” You can even turn it into a challenge—who can come up with the most complex or involved Rube Goldberg machine?

Color Fun
A great way to blend math and art is to utilize paint or food coloring! Depending on age, some students may benefit from simply looking at how primary colors can combine to create secondary colors. Have kids make predictions about what might happen when a drop of red is added to blue food coloring. How many drops of red would it take to change the color from dark indigo to magenta? How can you make lime green or light orange? Provide children with small paper cups and Q-tips for blending—then, watch them go!

For older learners, use this same basic activity to discuss proportions and/or ratios. By bringing math into the color blending, students get to see how ratios of a certain component can greatly change the overall product or outcome.

Paper Airplane Origami
Finally, making paper planes may seem old-school, but the educational value can stretch from symmetry and fine motor control, to aerodynamics and properties of physics. Using computer printer paper or construction paper, model how to make a basic paper airplane. Discuss the importance of a nice, solid crease and how to ensure that the wings of the plane are symmetrical. Ask children to make predictions about how far their first plane will fly; perhaps raise the stakes and turn this into a competition! Continue making various planes using different folding techniques and talk about how certain properties can create a more aerodynamic design. Show photos of real airplanes and draw comparisons between those and the paper forms.

Executive Functioning and Distance Learning: Part II

Distance learning has been hard on everyone, but even more so for families dealing with the challenges associated with executive dysfunction. In part one, we discussed the basic background of executive functioning skills, the effects of having executive dysfunction, and the way in which educators can implement strategies even during hybrid or distance learning. Now it is time to look at executive dysfunction from the parent perspective. What does it look like at home, outside of the classroom or separate from academic tasks? What are some strategies and methods parents can implement at home to help children who struggle with executive functioning?

 

Executive dysfunction in the everyday

Deficits in executive functioning are sometimes more subtle when children are at home or not engaged in a learning task. This is why executive dysfunction is easier to spot from an educational or clinical perspective. For parents, it may seem like your child is constantly interrupting you or trying to talk over others. This might not indicate a lack of manners. It could, in fact, be associated with a lack of executive functioning skills. Impulse control, thinking before acting, and processing someone else’s words before responding are all skills attributed to executive functioning.

 

Similarly, if you notice that your child has difficulty retaining one or two instructions at a time, or if she cannot follow directions that she has just heard or read, then she may be experiencing some form of executive dysfunction. What seems like a disregard for rules or instructions could actually be an attentive issue and/or an issue involving working memory, both of which are associated with executive functioning.

 

A child may also struggle with following processes, even after repetition or reminders. Furthermore, metacognitive skills, such as learning how to study, learning how to take notes, and knowing how to synthesize new information with prior knowledge, can also be a struggle for children with executive dysfunction. However, there are methods that parents can use at home to help strengthen these necessary skills.

 

Strategies to use at home

Model certain processes for your child and provide him with visual reminders. For example, if you are encouraging your middle schooler to start doing his/her own laundry, help him/her through the process by doing it together the first few times. Talk and walk them through the steps very specifically and consider using labeled and categorized sorting bins to remind them to separate whites from darks. Put a sticker or little post-in note in the laundry room as a reference for how to set the machine for certain loads. Use specific, ordered language when walking them through the process, such as “first, next, finally or last.” Any process, whether it’s laundry, getting ready for bed, or getting dressed in the morning should be modeled, specific, and consistent.

 

The level of support that you need to provide to your child with the above-mentioned processes should be tapered over time. You may need to actually do the laundry while they watch, initially. Then, slowly withdraw your level of support as they get comfortable completing the task independently. 

 

When your child makes a mistake, use it as a teachable moment. Without scolding, talk through their thought process—or lack thereof—and ask them specifically how they could have gone about things differently. Consider providing your own example of a time you did something similar and how you fixed the problem. Children with executive dysfunction should see that everyone struggles and faces challenges, but that growth involves using those errors as learning experiences. Ask metacognitive questions like: What made you do that? What did you think was going to happen? Why did you react that way? How could you have done it or reacted differently? What did you learn or realize from this? Give him time to process and ponder these questions.

Inject some fun into the challenge of developing or strengthening executive functioning by incorporating age-appropriate games, activities, or challenges. Matching games are great for developing working memory. Other card games help children practice impulse control, rule following, strategizing, organizing, and quick-response. Parents can also use music to help foster executive functioning skills. Use songs that have repetitive sections or songs that can be sung in rounds to practice coordination on a more complex level. Singing in rounds also prompts children to practice listening and using working memory. I Spy and word searches help children work on selective attention and practice reducing visual distractions.

Parents as Advocates: Tackling Dyslexia

October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month—31 days dedicated to building community awareness about learning disabilities in an effort to provide supports for all children. As important as awareness is, however, parents whose children suffer from dyslexia are plenty aware of the struggles their children face on a day-to-day basis. That is why another “A” word can be even more powerful for families—advocacy.

 

No one knows your child better than you do. Keep this in mind when advocating for your child’s needs. In parents’ efforts not to come across as a “helicopter parent,” they sometimes assume it is in their child’s best interest to follow the expert’s lead, avoid making waves, and be passively agreeable. They do not want to be the bulldog. These fears are common, but that doesn’t make them true.

 

You are your child’s greatest advocate, and here’s how to accomplish that:

 

  • Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, our nation’s special education law, children and their parents or guardians are guaranteed certain protections and rights. Once identified as having a qualifying disability, schools are legally required to provide special education services to your child. Also under IDEA, the law provides parents with something called procedural safeguards, which are put in place so that parents are aware of and have a voice in every aspect of their child’s special education evaluation and IEP process. As part of the process, the school must provide you with documentation and explanation of your rights—STUDY UP ON THESE DOCUMENTS. It is commonplace for IEP meetings to move quickly, with a “sign here if you don’t have any questions” style of rapid wrap-up. It is your job to closely review these documents and to seek clarification before signing anything.
  • Another best practice for advocacy that goes hand in hand with knowing your child’s legal rights is to stay organized. Keep a binder of all necessary documentation regarding your child’s diagnosis and any other evaluative documents that you accumulate as you work through the process. Items such as test results, doctor’s notes and recommendations, educator’s observations, report cards, writing samples, and any data concerning your child’s academic skills should be kept for future reference. The binder keeps essential documents organized and acts as a paper trail of progress and correspondence among your child’s team.
  • It is also essential for parents to be fully prepared for special education meetings. Because of this, the binder’s benefits are two-fold: paper trail and parent playbook [or however you want to define the two benefits]. Of all members of your child’s academic team, you are the person that knows him best, so your seat at the table matters most. Advocating for your child means preparing questions ahead of time and speaking up if they aren’t answered clearly. Meetings tend to move quickly, so request an additional meeting if you haven’t gotten clear answers. Do not assume that the team will automatically clarify for you, so be prepared to ask follow-up questions if needed.
  • The binder is also a great resource for you to use for note taking during IEP or 504 meetings. Not only will you have your own notes to refer back to after the meeting, but the process of taking notes shows that you are actively listening and invested in your child’s special education services. When parents demonstrate this level of involvement and support, it’s the child who benefits.
  • Another helpful advocacy move is to email a summary of the main discussion points that you took away from the meeting afterwards. This keeps everyone on the same page regarding the decisions that were discussed and allows you to share your own perception of how the meeting went. If anything is unclear, your email will start that conversation and provide clarification. In that email, ask about a follow-up meeting so that dates can be arranged and any other necessary steps can be taken.
  • Speak to teachers about your expectations, your child’s expectations, and the school’s expectations. This will prevent any miscommunication and unfortunate surprises. When setting expectations for your child’s success, it is important to be honest, positive, and realistic about the growth that you’d like to see. It will be difficult, but as much as possible, remain unemotional and unbiased about the feedback that you get from your child’s teachers and other professionals—cool heads prevail.