Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

old dog

I’ve been thinking recently about the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” How depressing! Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but I really don’t want to be that dog!

Multiple brain studies confirm that during our lifetimes there are two great bursts in brain development. One is between birth and age 3 – during this time the brain is dense with neurons and primed to make synaptic connections. As the young child gets older, the brain begins its pruning process by getting rid of the connections it doesn’t routinely use. As another famous saying goes, “If you don’t use it you lose it”…very true for young brains. During adolescence, there is another great period of brain development. Last year I wrote a post about the Adolescent Brain with information from Dan Siegel’s recent book Brainstorm. Feel free to check it out for more information on teenage brain development.

But what about our adult brains? I love learning about education and what we (as educators and parents) we can do to optimize our children’s learning. But sometimes it makes me reflect on my own education and wonder what did I miss out on? What else could I have done if I had known more about learning & brain development? My goodness, how much smarter could I have been!?

So I’m left wondering, is there hope for us grown-ups? Can you actually teach an old dog new tricks?

Some recent studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientists suggest that aging brains might actually remain more malleable and plastic than previously thought. Neuroimaging studies suggest aging brains can actually reorganize and change, and not necessarily for the worse. Instead aging brains may just need to activate different parts of the brain to complete the same task – for example using parts of the left and right brain combined, as opposed to just one-side. Given this new potential for aging brain plasticity, logic would suggest that in fact, it is important for an old dog to at least attempt to learn new tricks. This could potentially stimulate the growth (albeit slow and small) of new neurons in old age. As we get older, new skills should be learned in immersive, engaging experiences. So don’t sit at home with a book expecting to learn how to knit – go out, join a class or a group of others interested in learning a new skill. One great option is groups like Skillshare – classes taught by regular people who want to trade their knowledge with others – learn anything from design to cooking to photography.

Learning a new skill can only bring positive changes to your life. In addition to keeping your brain active, studies show that it can also help your creativity, positivity and happiness. While I can’t guarantee it will spark the growth of new neurons, nor promise that picking up a new skill won’t take longer than when you were a kid, I can promise that no matter how old the dog, you can learn a new trick!

So what shall it be…Balancing a ball on my nose or learning guitar?

Hmm. Stay tuned!

We’re going on a toy hunt…

bear hunt

Yesterday, I started seeing commercials for “holiday shopping”. I swear they keep starting earlier and earlier each year! I barely put away (aka threw out) my Halloween costume from this weekend! But as always, it has started my brain thinking about toys for kids. People often ask, “What are the best toys I can give my child to promote learning at home?”

In truth, for young children, some of the best “educational toys” are things you can find around your house. Sure, technology is exciting and we are seeing it more and more in our classrooms, but I still believe in the learning power behind using your imagination to transform ordinary objects into something spectacular. While I was working in a classroom with two year-olds several years ago, I discovered the power of a simple cardboard box. Instantly it became the most exciting and most play-provoking item we had in our classroom. On your next rainy day (aka this coming Thursday for NYC), might I suggest going on a “toy” hunt around your house?

Here’s a list of popular items you can use in your search: 

large beads (the non-choking hazard type!)

old clothes for dress up

jar lids (great for stacking, sorting etc)

cardboard boxes

plastic tubs and tubes



old magazines

measuring tape

magnifying glasses or binoculars

Let your child take the lead, see how they use the objects and take note (figuratively but also literally!) Your child may be interested in using the items to extend their dramatic play or they may be more interested in using the items to create/build something new. Let their natural tendencies guide you.

I have long been a fan of the “Not A…” book series by Antoinette Portis. Her books inspire us to push our imaginations and realize that a simple objects can transform into anything through the power of play. You can find Not a Box and Not a Stick on Amazon. I highly recommend them for reading with your child (or on your own!) Hopefully they will inspire you to see the creative potential behind the simplest and possibly overlooked items in your home.

Happy Hunting!

Educational Justice

Last year, I attended a discussion based around the theme of Justice. I was curious to attend because the discussion was facilitated by 3 members of the Harlem Children’s Zone administration – their goal was to look at justice through the lens of education. I received my masters degree from an institution that prides itself on training teachers to go out into the world and pursue social justice through education. So this was right up my alley!

As food for thought, we began our discussion by watching this TED talk by Geoffrey Canada. Mr. Canada gives a great speech, his passion for quality education is inspiring and infectious. That being said, in practice, Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) has been given very mixed reviews from several of my friends who have worked at the school. I could talk endlessly about different points from Mr. Canada’s speech but I was really interested to hear what my fellow attendees would have to say.

I was most struck by someone’s comment about the lack of justice in current classroom behavior management. While we have been making great strides in terms of progressive pedagogy, behavior management is the area that continues to lag behind. Anyone who has worked in public schools will tell you that yelling remains a key tool for behavior management in classrooms. No matter what strides we make in other areas of education, we are forever held back if we ignore behavior management. This is a key piece in the struggle for justice and if we are truly striving towards justice for all students then we can no longer ignore it.

Truth be told, I started writing a blog post about this conversation days after attending the discussion and only now, months later, have come back to revisit my writing and thoughts on the conversation. I am no closer to answering the many questions I have swirling around my head about behavior management and justice in schools – even the idea itself that the behavior of young people must be “managed” sparks many new questions. But nevertheless, it remains something I am dedicated to thinking more about.

Here are some of the questions I’m pondering at the moment:

What do the environments we create in schools say about how we value children?

If we know, from brain studies, that children cannot learn when they feel threatened, why do we see such little progress in teacher management techniques?

Are teachers fully supported in their own education to practice progressive management strategies?

Are the vast differences in school culture reflective of the social and cultural differences in our larger society?

When you walk down the halls of a charter school like HCZ or a private school in Tribeca or a public school in East New York, what do their differences say about social justice in education?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on any of the above or otherwise!


Books on Separation

Samantha Fair:

I originally posted this blog 2 years ago, but these books are classics and still worth checking out as you begin planning for next month’s first day of school!

Originally posted on Samantha Fair:

Before school starts, I want to share some book suggestions. The following is a compiled list of books I personally use in my classroom to ease separation anxiety and discuss feelings during the beginning of the new school year. There are many other great books out there, but I only wanted to recommend ones that I have a personal connection to. Enjoy!

You Go Away by Dorothy Corey 

As Amazon puts it, “this is the classic of all separation books”. I have used this book many times in classrooms. I think it is particularly useful for twos as the concept and text are extremely basic: You go away, and then you come back!

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell  

I read this book every year during the first week of school, as children inevitably find something in it they can connect with. The story is about three owl babies…

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Planning for Separation

Originally posted on Samantha Fair:

Summer is in full swing and school is probably the last thought on many children’s minds. However, it is always on mine! As I see happy children running through sprinklers and enjoying special family time, I wonder how many of them will be going to school for the first time this fall. While school may seem far away, it’s never too early to begin thinking about Separation and how your family can prepare.

Separation anxiety is completely normal and to be expected (for children and parents alike!) While this blog is mostly be about preparing your child, I would like to first address any anxiety on the part of mom and dad. Before my own first day of school, my mother had been prepared ahead of time by my new preschool teachers for a potential downpour of tears on my part. However when the time came that first day I…

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Summer Reading

child reading

My last day of school is only a few days away and I am excitedly looking ahead to summer break! One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to pick up my summer book list – I still remember trolling the Scholastic catalogues and visiting the library. In fact, choosing my summer reading is still one of my favorite things to do and my Kindle is full of new books to read (hopefully on the beach somewhere!)

To help you and your child prepare for summer reading, I wanted to share some Reading Resources with you – some will help you choose books to read now, others are great general resources for Literacy throughout the early years of school. Enjoy!

Summer Reading 2014 This NY Public Library supported site has book lists broken down by age – from babies & toddlers all the way up to adult! You can also find book recommendations and ratings (plus provide your own).

Create-a-Reader This site is kid friendly, using online games and exercises to encourage early literacy skill building.

Get Ready to Read!  This site has a wealth to offer – free activity cards, online literacy games and webinars for parents plus much more. It’s worth exploring to see what free resources you can use with your family during the summer and all year-round.

PBS Parents Though the whole site is a great resource for parents on a range of topics, this specific link will bring you to a page with Tips for Summer Reading. I encourage you to look around to find book suggestions and even activity plans!

Early Beginnings This link will bring you to a publication from the US Department of Education on Early Literacy Knowledge and Instruction. It was created for early childhood administrators and professional development trainers but I think it could serve as a resource for anyone interested in the basics of early literacy.


Dave Levin’s 5 Minutes

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A few small steps can be the beginning of a grand journey and it similarly takes just a few small changes to start a revolution. This is the message that Dave Levin, Co-founder of KIPP schools, is spreading in his effort to change our education system. I was lucky to hear Levin speak this past week. In addition to his charming and funny delivery, he presented one simple idea that stuck with me.

According to Levin, we can begin to revolutionize the education system by providing each student with 5 minutes of structured academic feedback from their teacher everyday. Teachers would touch base with each child in their class daily and give them direct feedback on their strengths & weaknesses. Levin revealed that in his work, talking to teachers, he could not find one that said this was a current practice in their classroom. They were conferencing with students and spending one-on-one time, but they couldn’t honestly say they spoke to each student, each day. This was surprising! Our schools are wrapped around the individual needs of our students, there is no one-size fits all model. Schools will thrive when our students are taught on an individualized basis. Teachers are already getting to know their students, the next step is providing the direct feedback Levin so passionately spoke of. This feedback can and will link back to the character skills necessary for success. In fact, character skills are the Yin to the Yang of traditional skill based education.

Five minutes with each child is a doable goal – it’s achievable. While sweeping change may be overwhelming, small steps can feel empowering. I was fully inspired by Levin’s talk – I could have listened to him for an hour. I can only hope others are listening too.


Daniel Siegel and the Adolescent Brain

I’ve spent much of my adult life studying how young children develop and learn. The world of early childhood can feel like a beautiful rainbow-colored, idealistic bubble. It is full of rapid development and snuggles, what could be better? But the children we teach do not just exist in this bubble; each of the young children I cherish continues to grow long after they’ve left my preschool. One day they will even become teenagers (gasp!)

During the teenage years the brain goes through a second major phase of development. So to learn a bit more about what the next decade will bring for my students, I went to hear brain expert and author Daniel Siegel speak about his new book Brainstorm.

According to Siegel, current science and pop media provide conflicting reports about the adolescent years. Many of the popular ideas about teens are actually myths and can be destructive to the relationships between the teenagers and their parents. For example, one of the largest myths about teens is that adolescence is a period of immaturity.  While it is true that this can be a very dangerous time for young adults (accidental deaths etc.) it is not due to immaturity, nor from raging hormones. In actuality the brain is going through a period of remodeling. Similar to the pruning process that occurs in the brain around ages 3-4, the teen brain is also pruning unneeded synapsis and neurons. The teen brain is also becoming a more specialized brain through the process of myelination. Myelination makes existing brain connections stronger and more balanced. The myelin allows the neurons to communicate up to 100x faster! This process of remodeling the brain is not just through the teen years however, longitudinal studies have shown that this process continues into our early twenties; which to me, explains a great deal. Think about any kind of remodeling, in your house or otherwise. It is an exhausting process and it costs a lot! This is what the teen brain is working against: the stress and exhaustion of remodeling the part of your body that makes your decisions and attempts to regulate your emotions. It’s no wonder that for teens everything can seem like a life or death situation!

Siegel wants us to look at adolescence not as a period of chaos but instead as one of untapped creativity and potential. In order to help us reframe our view, he has created an acronym that he calls the ESSENCE of adolescence. This essence is made up of the following:

ES = Emotional Spark

Adolescents undeniably have big emotions, in both directions. On the positive side this spark is about passion, vitality and a spice for capturing life. On the downside, there is the classic teen moodiness and emotional outbursts.

SE = Social Engagement

During the teen years there is a shift in the majority of social engagement being with parents to being with peers. Teens feel they need to hang out with their friends; it’s a must! This is positive because social engagement has been shown in numerous studies to have positive benefits on our physical and mental health. But of course, the relationship to your peers needs to also be positive to have these benefits. On the other side, the importance of social engagement can include negative peer pressure with a need to impress your now hyper-important peer group.

N = Novelty

As adolescents’ brains begin squirting dopamine, novelty-seeking behavior emerges. This is where teen risk-taking comes into play. On the positive side this can lead to a willingness to try new things, move away from the home and become comfortable with the uncertain. However, this can also lead to a risk of injury, addiction and other new, exciting and dangerous behavior.

CE = Creative Expression

This expression allows for a push against the conventional, not necessarily accepting just what is but challenging everything to come up with something new. One downside of this is that challenging conformity can be a stressful experience, one that even feels isolating. However, on the positive side, creative expression is so much of what we want life to be. Discovering the new thing, following our passions, this is what we strive for and adolescents have that natural drive within them.

As Siegal says, “The ESSENCE of adolescence turns out to be the essence of how to live a full and vital life as an adult.” So as much as I tend to look at my 3 year olds for inspiration about a fulfilling adult life, I now realize maybe I should be taking a cue or two from the teens!

What do you think about the teen ESSENCE?

Gift Idea in a Box

It’s holiday time and gifts are on my mind. It seems that with the popularity of Birchbox and other subscription services nearly anything and everything can be shipped to you monthly in a pretty box! So how about educational toys for your child? You bet!

I recently became acquainted with Sparkbox and now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t come up with it first! SparkBox is a subscription service that will send you 4 high quality early childhood educational toys in each box. You can choose to receive a box every 4, 6 or 8 weeks. Each box is personalized and based on your child’s phase of development. The best part is after your child plays with the toys for a few weeks, you send them back! No extra toys clogging up your closets, bins and play space. As your child develops, the toys your child receives develop alongside. It’s kind of genius!

I appreciate that Sparkbox works with child development specialists to target the toys to not only be fun but educational and help your child build foundational skills. This is how they phrase it on their website:

We aim to foster a well-rounded education curriculum by infusing each SPARKBOX across diverse skills, varying engagement levels and activity categories. Our skills are broken into Motor, Social/Emotional, Linguistic and Cognitive categories. Our learning types include: Audial, Visual and Kinesthetic. Each box builds on the skills that were exercised in the previous. The more feedback you give us, the more we can personalize your child’s learning curriculum.

To top it all off Sparkbox uses eco-friendly vendors & renewable packaging. Fun & Green!

Though this may sound like an advertisement, I have not been in any way influenced or compensated. I simply came upon it and thought it was really great, especially for the holidays! For more info on the products & services visit www.sparkboxtoys.com


Our Fear

It’s been a long time, too long, since I posted anything on this blog. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I have a new job this school year! I have stepped out of the classroom and become the assistant director at my school. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time, and it has been amazing. Having thrust myself into this new position, I have not been pondering the same type of questions I once pondered on my blog. But to blame my web absence on this alone would be telling a half-truth.

So I must confess something, I have a fear of writing. It’s not a fear that wakes me up at night in a cold sweat after dreams of journaling pop into my head. It’s a calmer, ignored the kind of fear. So whenever I’m faced with the task of writing I simply avoid, avoid, avoid. It’s honestly the main reason that I have failed to keep my blog current.

But I’ve realized that so much of what I do and more importantly, what I want to do in the future will require me to write and to do so comfortably. So I’ve self-prescribed aversion therapy to help me overcome my fear. I will face it head on and force myself to write! Currently, my plan is to choose one night a week to write for an hour, with no distractions. This means no cell phone nearby and no TV in the background. Just me and the blank screen on my monitor. Scary!

To be honest, my fear is about failure. Deep down I worry I’m not a “good” writer. I’m not even really sure what a “good” writer means; but I know it’s this concern that hinders me. So inevitably, as I always do, my thoughts of my own insecurities and fears bring me back to thinking about my students.  I see this same fear of failure in my students emerging at a very early age. Each year there are the children who shy away from certain kinds of work; many times they will simply say it is not something they enjoy. When pushed a little further maybe they will explain that they don’t know how to do it or they simply “can’t”.  In these moments it is so important to have a supportive teacher who can guide them through the activity and scaffold the areas where they need extra guidance. This support allows them to have a successful outcome which they can then attribute to their own capabilities. But I wonder what else can we do to support our fearful children and not shy away from the things they perceive as difficult.

Many times it is the things that don’t come as naturally to us that provide the biggest rewards once accomplished . So while I may think I don’t enjoy writing, or that I’m not quite skilled at it, I know through my student’s perseverance that it’s worth it to keep trying. As the saying goes, “nothing worth having comes easy”. I am going to keep at my writing and in the meantime I am going to continue to brainstorm how we can support our students to do the same.

I’d love to hear from you about how you support your students through their most challenging tasks!