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Social Education for Brain Health

My Blog


Five Years

Posted on February 15, 2016 at 12:02 PM Comments comments (4)
2016 marks our 5th year in business. Over this time we have helped thousands of people learn how to keep their brains healthy. We are deeply honored to be a part of this revolution in the way we think about our mental health.

In 2015 we spent over 1000 hours doing volunteer work both by ourselves and in partnership with many non-profits. Our work with The Dear Wise Elders Foundation has helped connect older adults with schoolchildren for the enrichment of both groups. This collaboration led to our entry in this year's XQSuperschool challenge.

We have also formed local partnerships with several businesses that has led to our very successful Brain Happy Hours. These "parties for your brain" have allowed many independent older adults to participate in the Purplearn experience. We are very happy to announce that one of these Brain Happy Hours has led to an engagement.

A wise man once said that true happiness lies in finding what you love to do and then doing it. The smiles all through our new Eatontown, NJ office illuminate the truth in this. We love helping further the case for social education.

Book chapter 1 continues

Posted on April 22, 2015 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (1)
As I looked back at my blog posts I noticed that I never finished posting chapter 1 of my one-day-to-be-published book. Ironic that it was about a year ago that I last posted a piece of it.

 Behind the fading whistling comes the staccato drum of alternating light and heavy, running footsteps. “First!” yells Damarcus, a skinny, light-skinned and light-hearted black kid who punctuates it with a joyous whack of his bony knuckles against his locker.
“You cheated,” puffs Jose, a short, heavy Dominican kid who is a little too out of breath for a twelve year old who has just run up only one flight of stairs. Damarcus most likely did not have to cheat.
Without realizing I am doing it, I shift my stance a little, taking my weight back just enough to go from combat ready to merely alert. I know the routine so well by now I do most of it unconsciously, sometimes with my eyes closed. Day after day, one hundred and eighty times a year, things rarely vary from the predictable. This is a good thing as around here the unpredictable is hardly ever something warm and welcome, like the principal skipping down the hall in a pink party gown giving us all bonuses for our hard work. The next ones up are always the good kids and my head starts to nod. “Yes,” I say softly but aloud, maybe to convince myself that it is true, “there are some good kids”. I smile my first genuine smile of the day and make sure to make eye contact with the far too few kids that always help to make the day worthwhile as I sincerely say, “Good Morning”.
The respite is short lived and I feel it like an unblocked punch in my gut as I hear the squeak of rubber on the tile floor. It is not the quick, high pitched normal squeak of sneakers on tile but somehow more like a keening wail that cuts through me making me wince. This auditory trick is accomplished by taking every step by slowly turning your whole foot in a wide arc across the floor, preferably while encased in new or wet rubber soled sneakers. I snap back to combat ready as a reflex, but the loud ones are never the violent ones. Even at the tender age of twelve the hardcore kids have already learned the value of silence.
I don’t know why I am suddenly hyperventilating, deep breaths in through my nose and forced out quickly through my mouth, but I am. I try to control it physically by closing my mouth and forcing myself to breathe out slowly through my nose but that just makes it sound like a more nasally sigh. I am so frustrated by everything about this school that I can feel it making me ill. Twenty-five years ago when I first started, I felt like I was making a difference. Now I cannot justify what I do that way. It’s as if everything about this place is against me. I hate that they are forcing me to get my children to pass meaningless tests instead of teaching them how to think. Through a supreme effort of will I barely control my urge to vomit at my own sense of inadequacy.
The truth is that I feel I am losing the battle. It’s hard to watch it get worse every year and not be affected by it. I started teaching in 1989 in the middle of South Central L.A. In 1992 I was teaching middle school science at Chester Nimitz Jr. High. In what I still call the Rodney King riots, the pizza joint that delivered to my one room apartment, my bank teller machine, and the family-owned Mexican restaurant I loved were all burned down. When school reopened that Monday morning, May 4, some of my students offered me a car stereo saying they had more than they needed, which they actually followed with a heartfelt though misplaced in May, “Happy Hannukah!”. The sad truth is that those kids were much better behaved in class, more respectful and thankful towards good teachers, and had more concerned parents than my current students.
And we don't have time to teach them. The walls seem to close in on me and I can't breathe as I do the math. This year we have to give the kids the new week long PARCC test, a pre and post test used to measure the children's growth and evaluate teachers and five separate one day state tests in addition to the minimum of two major assessment tests every marking period that is mandated to give the children their report card grades. That means that out of the 180 days that I will see these kids I have to spend 1/9 of our time administering tests. Even if we only spend two hours preparing the students for every one hour test, this is another 2/9 of our short time together. Add them up and we will spend at least 1/3 of our time, or a full 60 out of 180 days preparing for and administering tests.Help!
Finally breathing slow and steady again I look around and see that, while I was freaking out, the hallway has filled up. Where there were empty hallways what seemed a moment ago there was now an ironically preppy flag of moving blue, white and khaki. Since the implementation of our uniform policy two years ago, most of the kids now dress alike with khaki or dark blue pants and light blue or white polo shirts. That fact aside there is a plethora of uniqueness to be seen. The variation in hair alone is staggering. The boys run the gamut from almost bald fades to the tallest afros to long flowing locks either freefalling or pulled into ponytails. There are no natural blonds or redheads in our student population but all shades of brown and black are well represented by these boys. Thanks mostly to hair dye and ribbons, hair ties, and even rubber bands, the girls fly all the colors of the rainbow. Yellow, purple, red, blue and green show up as streaks or waves or even spots against a mostly darker palate of largely long flowing tresses. This plus the decidedly different anti-uniform of jeans and wild t shirts of the openly defiant kids makes for an eye catching spectacle.
The two girls who are closest to me both have simply dark brown hair, but they make up for the lack of color with their makeup. It is bold and thick and it strikes me as too dark, all blues and purples and long black lashes with extra black brows. A pair of seventh grade girls, they both have the same zombified blank seen-too-much-at-too-young-an-age stares. Their arms are linked defiantly together daring anyone to get in their way as they strut towards their lockers, swinging their hips like Lady Gaga on stage. As they pass they coo at me. “Hey Mr. E,” they say in almost perfect unison.
I bow at the waist. “Good morning ladies,” I say in what I hope is a chipper tone. Truth be told I am still shaking a my head a little wishing for the good old days teaching in the war zone that was South Central LA, but sometimes just putting on a mask of happiness leads to a change of mood, so I carry on.

Post Easter Post

Posted on April 18, 2015 at 9:08 AM Comments comments (2)
It's much harder than I thought it would be. Teaching public school and running my business, Purplearn, was a lot. Now, adding in starting up a non profit, The Dear Wise Elders Foundation, I am up to optimizing my showers to save time in the morning.

I miss having the luxury of time to write. Of course I write all the time but most of it is paperwork either for school or for the businesses.  I can't remember the last time I wrote a story.

After meetings in Miami and NYC, I am at least succeeding in spreading the word. Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, is as imperative for our children as any subject currently taught in school.

The other symbiotic benefit of teaching SEL through interactions of youth and older adults is the amazing effect it has on both groups. The kids are more motivated and accept and use the SEL lessons better and the older adults are gratified to be able to help. Win win.

I am also in the process of taking this into cyberspace. Many teachers don't have the time or the training to teach SEL and having an online source for those lessons gives schools a lot of flexibility in implementation. Plus, it will be a fun, safe place for both groups to interact.

So yes, it is a lot. But is it worth it? You bet.

30 Present Race Finale

Posted on December 24, 2014 at 8:39 AM Comments comments (3)
I wore my tuxedo to school Tuesday, December 23rd. Instead of a bow tie I wore my black silk tie with math symbols boldly emblazoned in primary colors. My purple pocket square perfectly matched the purple plus sign on my tie. It was a special day.

The children looked at me with mixtures of delight and puzzlement as I greeted them with a booming, "Bom Dia!" at the door. I always greet them this way, but I tried to put a little extra boom in it to mark the occasion. 

I channel Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island as I step to the front of the room, hold my arms out to the children, smile and say, "Smiles everyone. Welcome."

Yesterday the six cooperative groups did the math and figured out their scores after all 30 days of our present race. I admit to some degree of pride that five out of six groups correctly tallied their points up with no help from me. After we compared our answers they correctly concluded that no group in their class had a chance to win the six wrapped presents that still sat on the table in front of the room. I didn't get a lot of smiles.

I soldiered on, still smiling as I said, "No. You all have nothing to hang your heads about. I am proud of all you. You all did your best and we had a great eight weeks."

"When we come back from break we will begin a new points race so you can do better next time. Clean slate for everyone!" I hope I sound uplifting even though I am disappointed that they are still mostly not smiling.

"And earning a surprise individual prize is the student who achieved the highest marks on all assignments. Just edging out his brother Juan is Jose."

The two boys immediately start arguing over who had gotten the best marks. As I hand the puzzle over to Jose I say, "You two argue it out at home."

Jose thanks me as he takes the puzzle. Then he tilts his head sideways as if trying to figure out a math problem. He smiles and nods as he says, "No Mr. E, we're going to share it."

Now it's my turn to smile and nod as I hope that maybe I have taught them something besides math after all.

Early Morning Reflection with the Wise Elders

Posted on December 14, 2014 at 8:15 AM Comments comments (1)
Early yesterday morning I had to wear my long woolen overcoat over my dark suit with purple shirt and tie. The downstairs party room where we meet opens to the outside when it is warmer and the chill was seeping through the large closed windows. My friends, the original wise elders, were not happy with the current temperature and everywhere was heard loud grumbling coming from under blankets and sweaters.

I had a fresh batch of letters and short replies from the schoolchildren to read to them so I just began over the racket. "Thank you Wise Elders," I began in my loud teacher's voice. "I learned that it is better to give than to receive. They should make a t shirt with that on it."

This brought smiles and a few laughs from the group. Dorothy is quick and loud and she started. "Annie," she booms pointing at the always well dressed woman next to her, "They think you invented that."

Annie says with such a straight face that it is hard to tell if she is really serious when she replies, "I did."

I read more letters and we had a lovely rap session together. Even the usually quiet Molly, a slight woman with Alzheimer's who is quite the artist at 91, said a few things. We reflected about a lot of things and we had a great time doing it together.

My favorite moment came when I read one boy's short note. "Do you know any war stories? My Grandpa used to tell me war stories. What is war?"

Carl is 102 years old. He's still over six feet tall and a veteran of more than a few wars. I was eager to hear what he had to say about this, when Dorothy spoke up first. She said it quietly and spoke matter-of-factly like it was obvious. "War is what happens when people forget how to love."

Carl covered his sudden gasp with a loud clearing of his throat and added, "I couldn't have said it better myself."


Mathiness - 30 Day Present Race part 3

Posted on December 7, 2014 at 8:34 AM Comments comments (1)
I am wearing my sportcoat as I address the class. This is unusual for me, but I feel it gives weight and formality to the speech. I finish thanking them for all their hard work to a slightly too loud round of applause. I silence them with a word, "But..." I let it trail off.

"We still have to do the math. On note paper everyone will list all their group's points and find the total as of right now. First group done gets 100 points, second group done gets 80, then 60, 40, 20, and the last group done gets 0. Go."

Five out of my six cooperative groups instantly flash into activity, quickly sending one member to record the scores from the poster in the back of the room and then discussing their attack of the problem. The sixth group only has five members but they are all much too young men to remind me of my great uncle Frank after a big Sunday supper. Tired and lethargic, they are all sitting slumped in their chairs. I sit in the empty spot, leaning back to emulate their posture. "Sup," I say with a slow nod.

Two of them get it right away and smile as they straighten up and get out a piece of paper. Looking at the other three in turn I continue in my warm, parent voice, "Guys. I know you have only gotten a few points but it doesn't matter."

Jesus mumbles into his hooded sweatshirt, "Right. It doesn't matter. We can't win."

"You wanna bet?" I ask. "If I can prove to you that you can win, will you do all the work?"

As one, the five members of group six nod at me. I keep talking as I grab the big bag of realistic looking fake pennies from my shelf. "Do you guys know these fake pennies cost two cents apiece? That's right, they paid $20 for this bag of one thousand pennies. Wouldn't it have been cheaper for them just to use real pennines?"

By now I am seated back with group six and I am pulling out a big handful of those fake pennies. "OK. Let's say you win week one. Here are your points." I give Jesus one penny and continue, "You win week two as well and remember I told you that the points double every week." I hand Jesus two more pennies.

"You rock," I say with a smile. "You guys win weeks three and four too!" I make a show of counting out two piles of pennies. "Week three doubles up to four pennies and week four gives you eight more pennies." I hand over the twelve pennies and continue. "So in week five the winner gets how many pennies?"

All five guys at the table are leaning forward with their hoods down and are looking at me. Angel speaks first. "Eight times two is sixteen," he says flashing much whiter teeth than my own. "Hand 'em over." Angel reaches out his hand expectantly.

I count out sixteen more and slide them into his hand faking reluctance. "Just to make a point, let's also say you win the next two weeks so only the final week remains. How many more pennies do you get?"

Again Angel is first to answer. "32 and then 64," he says nodding his head in certainty. "You seriously gonna give me all that?"

I am already counting and placing all 96 of the pennies into the center of their group pod of desks so they can all grab some. "Count them up and tell me how many you have now?"

This takes them too long as their social skills also lag behind the rest of my groups and they argue over who will count them, but they finally come up with 127. I know I have them as I pause to look into their confident faces and say, "How much do I win when I win week eight?"
Angel frowns as he says, "One hundred and twenty eight?"

"Yes," I say patting him on the back. "Good math skills. So, which is more, 127 or 128?" I smile as they realize my point, then I slowly get up and check the next group as group six gets to work.

Dear Wise Elders

Posted on December 1, 2014 at 5:18 AM Comments comments (4)

My class had run out of steam. Once, in early August, there had been four full tables of more than six people each. I needed a valet to help park the walkers that had to be lined up at the door. When we compared our answers we often had people trying to talk over each other. Today we sat sparsely spaced around two tables. I addressed the ten older adults. Doing my best not to show my exasperation, I asked, “No stories? Anyone? ”.

It wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t my fault. Well, actually it was my fault. I knew a one hour class once a week wasn’t enough time to really work on an extensive memory help program but I was stubborn. Purplearn was founded on the principle that learning should be fun and I was serving up big doses of hard work instead. Still I was inwardly wallowing in self pride. A sin I know, but a few of my elder students were showing great memory and engagement progress. I let down my logic teacher and put the needs of the few ahead of the needs of the many and I knew it would cost me my class.

But I found something unexpected in those few that warm, September day. We sat together and I told them how I felt about my schoolchildren’s general lack of respect. And they all started to talk, everyone all at once talking about respect. I knew what I had to do as I reached for my bag. My small group of wise elders had something to say and I had the art supplies to make them heard.

Everybody did something. Some folks wanted to draw and some folks wanted to write and some folks helped each other do both. Although I also had a few magazines and some folks cut out pictures, we all liked what we had made at the end so we left it as is. I went home with a new poster in my portfolio that was bound for the back wall of my classroom that I had set aside for SEL.

The kids really loved the poster. We ended up having a great rap session about our grandparents that day. Some of the kids were able to talk with their own grandparents and some of the kids had left them behind in other countries. The only thing that was the same was the wistful smiles on the faces of every kid who spoke. They had all connected on an emotional level and by the week’s end almost everyone decided to write a letter thanking my wise elders. I wrote on the whiteboard in front of my room in big, bold print, DEAR WISE ELDERS.

The letters were all kinds of bad examples of grammar, spelling, and mixing languages but they were all written from the heart. I had the kids sign them just the way the elders had, using only initials and age. Then I took a high resolution photo of the poster that I printed out on my color laser and put the letters around it making a poster for my wise elders to keep. This first one we made still sits on an easel in a place of honor near the front hallway, by the art room.

We just finished our Christmas poster yesterday. I never want to get preachy with my elder students but I did manage to get more Happy Holidays onto the poster than Merry Christmases. Almost half of the wise elders are Jewish too but they all see the Christmas tree as the main symbol of the season. Growing up in my Jewish household we never felt our tree made us less Jewish but I still remember my grandfather’s disapproving stares so I am a little surprised by that. I didn’t even want to get into Kwanza though, much less any other holidays.

This time after it was all done and the final pictures and words were snug in their tape, I started a final discussion with my wise elders. I told them how the theme for this month in my school is giving back. We all decided that was a great theme for the holidays so we picked out a few spots where we could write that on the poster. The photos show the evolution of the finished and refinished poster.

I plan on expanding the response group at school to include my math classes. The students have been commenting on the posters and marveling at the ages of some of the authors. I will have them write a combination letter talking about how they feel and also explaining what a coordinate plane is. I will put some of the students’ best visual models of the coordinate plane around the letters and make a nice reply poster for my wise elders.

The thing that strikes me most about the dear wise elder project is the symbiosis. Both groups benefit from giving to the other. My wise elders feel respected and useful and my children feel respected and useful as well. Both sides feel good and want to continue. We definitely have started something here. A few of my fellow teachers have expressed interest in expanding the program so we’ll see where this goes.

Join the conversation at #dearwiseelders on Twitter or email me at [email protected] or call Purplearn at 908-216-8071.

Race for Presents part 2 - The Point System

Posted on November 22, 2014 at 2:38 PM Comments comments (1)
My basic point system works in multiples of 5, making tallying point totals easy even for the mathematically challenged. Small tasks and demonstrating positive behavior are worth the minimum 5 points. Bonus tasks and something you want to recognize as especially good are worth 10 points. Group completion of large assignments and homework starts at 25 points and goes up from there, but nothing is ever worth more than 100 points and there should be very few 100s. At the end of every class, the group points are tallied and the totals written in sharpie on the scoreboard in the back of the room.

There are two ways to earn points. The first way is by completing assignments and the second way is by demonstrating positive cooperative behavior and good social skills. Both are equally important.

Little things like walking into class on time and immediately beginning to work on the Do Now assignment on the board will earn a group five points. I usually find at least one group doing whose members are all getting the Do Now done and I loudly say, “Group two is getting five points because ALL of them are working nicely. Good job group two.”

Most assignment related points are only earned by all members of a group completing the assignment. A good example of this is the next thing I usually do, collect homework. I have every group put their homework into a pile in the middle of their desks. As I collect them I check only for completeness and that all group members have done the work. Later on, when I grade the homework, I check for correctness. If all group members have the assignment complete their group gets 25 points. If even one is missing or incomplete, their group gets nothing. To assure individual accountability, classwork assignments are usually accompanied by my choosing one group member “at random” to explain how to solve a similar problem. The group sinks or swims based on every member’s performance. This all or nothing policy ties the group mates fates together and allows me to tap into the power of positive peer pressure.

This brings us to the second way the groups can earn points. The number one rule in my classroom is “Always Be Positive”. Whenever I catch any student using positive encouragement I reward that group with five points. This is not about Johnny telling Jimmy that he will smack him if he doesn’t do his work. This is about Johnny asking Jimmy if he can help him complete the next assignment. And this is about Johnny explaining the current work in a nice and positive manner. By focusing on rewarding positivity you get your message across loudly and clearly. This is the behavior I expect and I will not accept anything less.

Grace Murray Hopper once said, “You manage things, you lead people.” Your goal is to get your class to exert positive peer pressure on each other. To do this you must lead by example. Resist all urges to comment on the negative and instead find ways to praise the positive and reward positive behavior with points. If everyone except one child walks in late to class, do not yell at the majority. Instead, praise and reward the one student who arrived on time.I only give 5 or 10 points for each instance of positive behavior, but I give them loudly.

Always be mindful of your phrasing. As an example, I sometimes give an assignment that has the children doing 10 math problems with a time limit of 20 minutes. I tell them that every group in which everyone correctly answers all questions before the time is up will receive 30 points. Then, when a group finishes, I give them those points and tell them that they have earned a bonus. The “bonus” is that they get to do an extra set of 3-5 problems for 10 more points. By phrasing it this way I am able to get the group to finish their work ahead of schedule for a reward of more problems. Sometimes I secretly smile at how well this works.

This last example also illustrates how I deal with success. Too often we are prepared only to deal with failure. A math teacher will plan to review the correct way to solve the problems if the students cannot yet do so on their own, but give little thought to what to do if some students succeed in their task. I always have a “bonus” task ready for those who are successful. I hardly ever give more than ten points for these bonus tasks, but the high performing groups that finish early eat them up like candy. I love that I am also able to get some of my students to think more deeply about their math by varying my bonus problems.

To be continued

30 Day Race for Presents

Posted on November 19, 2014 at 8:29 AM Comments comments (2)

Teachers – What if I told you there was a single system that could handle most discipline problems, guarantee high student engagement in classroom activities, and ensure most, if not all, of your students turn in their homework every day? Read on, because all of this and more can be yours for one low price.

No, I’m not going to charge you for the information. However, the first thing you have to do is spend about $40. Every year I patiently wait for sales on games like Connect 4, Jenga, Monopoly, and Scrabble. I usually find them for about $6 each and I buy six of them. Then I wrap them in holiday themed wrapping paper and put them away until November.

By November my students have been with me for about two months and they have been schooled in the basics of cooperative learning. If you are unfamiliar with the basics of cooperative learning, my book should be out by next summer. I have about 35 children in each of my three classes and a fairly small classroom, so I usually end up with six groups of about six students each. If your situation allows for it, I strongly recommend four students per group and this setup will also save you a few dollars.

Check your school calendar and count backwards 30 school days from your last day before winter break. On that day, bring in those wrapped presents and prominently display them in your classroom for all to see. Also new and prominently displayed is a poster sized paper scoreboard on which daily group point totals will be posted. Tell the children that the one group in all your classes with the highest point total at the end of the 30 days will each receive a wrapped present.

My next step is to explain the point system to the students. Keep in mind that you have to strive to be consistent and fair in awarding points as the children will quickly detect any lapse in either. On the other hand I point out that I am the sole judge and all my decisions are final. I also tell them I am only human and I may miss some things or make some mistakes. Then I show them the leftmost quarter of the whiteboard that will serve as my daily tally board, where I have listed groups 1-6.

Next post - The Point System

A Teacher's Lament

Posted on October 19, 2014 at 11:57 AM Comments comments (7)
It's hard to pretend. But, day after day, I put on a smile and do my job. I do my paperwork according to the latest model and set about the business of trying to get kids to pass tests. The thing that set me on this path was believing I can make a difference. Pretending I still believe gets harder every day.

Let's look at the numbers. There are 180 days of school. This year students will take 5 state assessments, 10 major assessments for their report card grades, a pre and post test for teacher assessment in every class, and the week-long rollout of the new PAARC test. This adds up to 30 days taking tests. Subtract 30 from 180 and we are left with 150 days for instruction. One sixth, or about 14% of the school year is taken up with the mechanics of taking tests. In my informal poll, 100% of the twelve educators I asked agreed this is a huge waste of time.

The proponents of testing are saying that the new PAARC test is using rigorous, real world problems. I say bravo – it’s about time. But if this is true, that makes their real world more like MacGyver.  Only he had to solve a tough problem alone with the clock counting down. Those of us in the actual real world work together with other human beings over time to solve problems within a reasonable time frame. So, just what is it these tests are measuring?

And what about the quality of those 150 days of instruction? Are our children learning how to use math to help solve real world problems, or just how to take tests? Will today’s 6 graders be able to communicate effectively, work well together with others, and delegate and accept responsibility as adults one day?

In my classroom, carefully colored patterns on hundreds grids showing how tenths times tenths are hundredths form a colorful border around a poster boldly declaring, "respect". On another wall, pictures of faraway lands are interspersed with illustrations of student generated negative number problems about elevation or temperature. Right now the students are measuring the room, dividing their dimensions by 32, and constructing a 1/32nd scale model of our room using cardboard and tape. 

Any of these tasks make a better assessment of how well our children understand and use math than a written test. As a bonus, the daily tasks would be the assessments so we don’t need any extra days getting the kids to look for matching answers on scantron sheets. And it is not hard at all to make that scale model of the Parthenon in Greece instead of my room and make this into something cross curriculum. 

If only we were all on the same page.