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Social Education for Brain Health

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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 (4)
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 (11)
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.

Summer 2014

Posted on August 28, 2014 at 1:14 PM Comments comments (6)
I hardly know where to begin. It's been a whirlwind of activity for me and for Purplearn. For me, the summer of 2014 will be remembered as days cool enough for me not to melt into my usual uniform of suit and purple tie.
I wore this uniform at the class I taught at Brookdale. I grew up across the reservoir from the college campus and it is still beautiful. In room 101 of the ATEC building my twelve students and I explored game theory and proper cooperative learning techniques. I am already looking forward to my next classes there in the spring.
I wore this uniform at some old and some new private group sessions of Purplearn. I met and laughed and learned with some really nice people and as I think about them I am smiling. From the 104 year old calligrapher to the origami expert whose paper gifts sit by my keyboard, they are characters all. Thank goodness all my private Purplearn groups from the summer will be continuing through the fall as I would miss them terribly.
And I wore my suits proudly for the Purplearn family classes. We had one family with five generations represented and one with just two, but big or small, a good time was had by all. Just seeing teenagers happily spending time with their grandparents makes these sessions some of my most heart warming ever.
I used to come home after teaching my public school classes in mixed moods. There were good days and there were bad days. Purplearn so far has been full of only good days. Here's to many more good days to come.


Posted on July 14, 2014 at 3:14 PM Comments comments (7)
My grandfather, Hy Schiffman, died in a VA Hospital in Florida. In his later years Hy was your typical jolly fat man and I can't picture him without a smile beneath his thin pencil mustache. As a young man, Hy was very handsome and the lovingly restored black and white wedding photo of him and Nana Tillie made them both look like movie stars. Hy was not an educated man, first laboring at 13 years old to help his family and then drafted into the war, Hy never had formal schooling past the 8th grade but he was always sharp as a tack.
I wasn't there at the end but I was there just a few weeks before. A lifelong smoker, Hy had just had his voicebox removed, but there are other ways to communicate and we went about our usual routine of games, puzzles, and cooperative group thinking. Three hours later Hy wheezed, leaned forward and touched his fingers to his lips in the sign language way to say "thank you". He hugged me, cried a few tears, and I whispered in his good ear, "You're welcome Pop."

Family Brain Happy Hour

Posted on June 27, 2014 at 2:41 PM Comments comments (5)
I started teaching in the middle of the war zone that was south central Los Angeles in the late 80's. I was also the assistant director of a Beverly Hills tutoring agency. One thing was the same in both groups of kids. It doesn't matter if the parents are in Europe or in jail, if the parents aren't actively participating in the children's lives then the children have problems. 

This is as true today as it was then. I offer no solutions to the persistent problems of overwork and violence but what about the parents who want to spend time with their children. What can an extended family of three generations do together that all ages will enjoy? Purplearn has the answer.

Now we are offering Family Brain Happy Hours. We took our popular and exciting 1 hour format and are setting aside times for families only. You and your loved ones will compete as a team against other families in fun and interesting challenges. This is a fast paced hour of nourishment for your brain and the shared experience will bring you closer together.

This summer we will be scheduling classes M - S 8 am to 8 pm so you will find us easy and convenient. First come first scheduled so call 908-216-8071 and get your time today.

Meeting the criteria from United Health Care

Posted on May 25, 2014 at 6:01 AM Comments comments (4)
We just received a new magazine from United Health Care called Renew. In it there is an article entitled "A-Z Brain Booster". It is not a serious, scientific article, but more of a fluff piece where they assign each letter of the alphabet a word that they feel people should do to help keep their brains healthy.

Out of the 26 different things they highlighted, the Purplearn program meets 11 of them. The one I want to mention here is the one we find most important here at Purplearn - Have fun with friends. This is our core principle here at Purplearn and the reason we have had so much success with our program. Purplearn puts the social first in our Social Education program!

On our before and after surveys we get an "A". Over 95% of our participants show a reduction in stress and feelings of depression after the Purplearn program. Well being and self confidence rose and those polled felt they were more capable and mentally fit.

Don't wait for everyone to beat you to it and get on board with the Purplearn program today. It's easy to join our Purplearn family. Call 908-216-8071 or email [email protected] right away.