Don’t Call It a Comeback – Handwriting’s Been Here for Years

download-1The topic of handwriting has become more and more prevalent in news across the country. In this digital age, just where does such a skill fit? How does this analog skill fit into the digital landscape? How much time should be spent teaching students proper cursive and how much time should they spend developing and practicing this skill? Isn’t this like practice butter churning? Moreover, there is even a debate about the importance of cursive versus printing.

If you are a parent of a young child (or an educator of young children), this whole subject can be quite confusing. Of course you want what is best for your child(ren). You want them to possess the skills necessary to succeed in school and in life. You want learning to be a lifelong and joyful journey. So, what is one to do in the face of such controversy? Well, I can’t settle the debate once and for all in the scope of this blog. However, I can offer some well substantiated advice.

1) I can emphatically state that handwriting, whether it is printing or cursive, is definitely important for literacy development, especially in early childhood. The body of research in education and neuroscience is clear in this respect. (See this research summary for more information).

2) Handwriting practice in early childhood also develops fine motor skills and dexterity. This is also clearly established to facilitate learning and success in school. Practicing these skills while young will, logically, help children develop better handwriting. Students with better handwriting earn higher grades and are better able to keep pace with the curriculum. Additionally, research has demonstrated that handwriting activates children’s brains more than typing. The more we activate children’s brains, the more we help them build important neural pathways. Likewise, the more we help them connect new knowledge to previous knowledge, the better that knowledge is stored in the long-term memory.

3) Taken handwritten notes requires children (and adults) to slow down and process information more than typing does. Proficient typists can copy virtually word for word was is being said, but their brains aren’t processing it and they won’t retain the information. For example, skilled court stenographers can read a book simultaneously while recording the proceedings of the courtroom. When I learned that fact, it blew my mind! But it’s true. And, guess what? Those stenographers do not retain the knowledge of the courtroom proceedings. They have developed that skill so proficiently that it becomes automatic. In one ear and out the fingertips, so to speak. Taking handwritten notes, however, requires the brain to get involved and digest the information in order to make meaningful notes. This processing activates the brain more and thus helps instill that information into memory. It also helps the brain make new connections in the moment. Typing notes is more akin to creating a transcript that one can go back to later and then process the information – delaying the actual learning.

With my new company, Drawn to Discover, we have seen the research and we have seen firsthand the power of the pen and pencil. That is why we are dedicated to bringing parents, educators, and children the powerful and fun lessons from Wendy Halperin directly into homes and classrooms across the country. Obviously, we do not reject technology and its important place in the world and in learning. However, we also know that handwriting is far from a lost art. Thus, we seek to marry the benefits of technology with the importance of teaching fine motor skills through handwriting and art. This marriage is Drawn To Discover. I hope you will join us in this more perfect union.

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7 Keys Aspects of Early Literacy Development: Advice for Parents of Young Children

In a recent podcast with my new company Drawn To Discover, we examined a conversation between our co-founders, Wendy Halperin and Brian Goodman, and Dr. Karin James, neuroscientist at Indiana University-Bloomington. Dr. James, director of The Cognition and Action Neuroimaging Lab (CANLab), focuses her research on the neural correlates of learning in humans. Generally speaking, her work explores “how motor experiences can influence visual recognition in both adults and children, and how the brain changes in response to specific experiences.”

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Listening to the interview, we gleaned 7 key aspects for early literacy development that we thought were pertinent for parents of young children. You can listen to our discussion and hear from Dr. James in podcast episode 3 and episode 4. Additionally, because the conversation sparked many more connections and ideas than could fit in a single podcast – even one that expanded over two episodes – I decided to elaborate more here. Please share your thoughts and experiences in our comments section. I’d love to hear from you!

 

A quick word about the list itself

  • First, the list is not in order of importance. It is simply an extension of the conversation with Dr. James and thus mirrors that flow.
  • Second, the list is not as finely manicured grammatically as I normally would like. Usually, when I create lists for organizations or pneumonic acronyms for students, I like each item to follow the same grammatical pattern (e.g., verb/adverb, as in “Choose Wisely;” or verb/noun, as in “Provide Guidance”). This trait helps keep the lists concise, consistent and more amenable to signage and slogans. For our purposes here, I’m following the advice of Dr. James and allowing for an element of messiness and variety.
  • Third, this list is not exhaustive nor is it a validated measure. It is intended as a handy reference and a jumping off point for your own exploration into early literacy.
  • Fourth, our discussion was primarily focused on children ages 4-7. This list should be viewed in that context.

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1) Allow kids to do things with their hands

I’m going to start with the obvious: babies love to explore. Little children love to explore, they get their hands into everything. Why else do we have to baby proof our homes? And, while it may be obvious that such exploration helps children learn about their environment and the world around them, it might not be so obvious, however, that doing things with their hands also builds academic skills for later. One, the more young children use their hands, the more they build their fine motor skills, their finger skills, and their manual dexterity. Such motor control and dexterity will help them later with forming letters and words. This motor control improves handwriting skills, which, in turn, improve written expression and literacy.

So break out the Legos, blocks, crayons, watercolors, and puzzles. Let your child dig in the dirt or sand. Plant a garden. Show them how to knit. Let them draw and create with pencils and crayons. Allow your child do as much as they can with their hands and make it fun!

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2) Provide visual variability & repetition

Novelty is important to the human brain. Things that are novel or new are more likely to catch our attention. For young children, novelty is all around them. This is a great opportunity to seize that natural curiosity and introduce them to various new and fun activities. The more they explore, the more connections they make in their brain – the more neural pathways they build. All these novel activities increase brain activity and increase learning. We hear parents talk about how their children are like sponges at this age – they soak up so much. And it is true, the brain is incredibly malleable and the young brain grows at an enormous rate. Children really do have an immense capacity to learn. And, the best part is: learning is exciting. They enjoy it!

Nothing done once works. When we provide our children with these various opportunities and experiences, it is important that we allow for repeated experiences. Giving children a chance to do something over and over again helps instill that learning. That’s why children are always asking, “Again, again!” Seeing and doing repeatedly provide richer experiences and deeper learning.

3) Produce – don’t trace or type

Letter learning is the best predictor of later reading. The best way for children to learn letters is by producing them themselves. That is, children need to draw and write letters by hand with either crayons or pencils. They need the chance to create these letters in a variety of ways. Children need to see a variety of forms of letters to help build stronger neural pathways. Tracing or typing letters does not expose them such variances. They only learn one, uniform type (no pun intended). As Dr. James’s own work has shown, tracing does not create the same amount of brain activation that copying does. This is most likely due to the lack of variability (see image below).

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Children need their own examples because their own examples are messy and messy is good for learning. All these different examples build a sort of database of knowledge – they create a strong schema. This broad schema and pattern recognition is an obstacle right now for developer of artificial intelligence. It is difficult to program such a wide-range of examples for A.I. to correctly identify. Humans, however, have a natural proclivity for this.

4) Help kids slow down (but don’t force it)

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the gift of time. That can be more and more difficult in our faster and faster paced world. And, its importance may be greater than ever. When we allow our children time to create and explore, we allow for that natural learning and we allow their brains time to process. The brain needs stimulation, however it also needs time to process that stimulation. Free play and time for imagination provide the brain with the time needed to solidify new experiences and learning into the long-term memory. Over-stimulation leads to fatigue and prevents new knowledge from entering long-term memory stores.

Similarly, when our children are learning a new skill such as writing, we want to encourage them to take their time so they can master that skill. Going slowly can help them physically and mentally master a skill such as writing. On the flip side, however, some children struggle to slow down and we must be cautious not to over-emphasize precision. We want our children to learn and improve their handwriting, and we don’t want to make this skill a burdensome chore that they loathe. Striking the right balance will be essential for parents and that balance will vary from child to child. It is better for children’s long-term learning that they create and produce regardless of how messy those creations are.

5) Repetition & variety (see what we did here)

I’ve listed these items again, and in a slightly nuanced form, in order to stress their importance. It is also important to point out here that repetition does not equal “drill and kill.” Repeated practice and exposure will help improve children’s knowledge and skill, but this doesn’t mean we should require them to sit down and churn out letter after letter factory style. The repetition is more about repeated exposure and repeated opportunity. Again, children will naturally do this. How often do we see children line up items in a row, take them down, and line them up again? Their brains are naturally attuned to this need for repetition.

6) Ownership

This aspect takes us back to the need for children to produce versus trace or click & swipe. When children produce their own letters, words, or drawing they have a sense of ownership. We see the pride and joy on their faces. Their ownership in their creation builds self-confidence and builds self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a concept developed by Albert Bandura and relates to a person’s belief that they have the power to achieve or succeed in something. The more mastery children develop, the more they believe in themselves and the more they are willing to try new things.

So let your children draw words and pictures by hand. Let them write letters backward and suns with faces on them. Indeed, this is why God created refrigerators – to display these creations.

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7) Make it fun & creative 

A common theme throughout Dr. James’s interview was the importance for children’s learning to be fun. The more they enjoy these experiences, the more motivated they will be to create on their own. Children have a natural desire to create and to express themselves. As parents and adults, we can foster that creativity or we can stifle it. We have a lot of power in this regard. The good news is that children are resilient and they want to learn. All we need to do is provide the opportunities and experiences for them. That is our mission at DRAWN TO DISCOVER. I invite you to join us on this journey!

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The Language of Work

fullsizeoutput_34d4What is language at its most basic level? A medium for communicating, correct? Most often we think of language as formal, spoken language like English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. But even when speaking with others, a large part of our communication is nonverbal – tone, volume, cadence, body language, and facial expressions all play a very large role. Words themselves aren’t everything. Hence the explosion of emoticons with our textual communication J

Indeed, words aren’t often enough to convey what we mean. As the Planet Walker has written, “We cover up our deepest thoughts with too many words.” Herein, when words fail us we often turn to other mediums of expression such as music, art, poetry, dance, etc.

Sometimes, we have to communicate without spoken language or the arts. This is where the nonverbal communication comes in handy. The smile is universal and really comes in handy in these situations. But I would say the language of creativity is also universal, especially when creating together toward a common goal.

These thoughts have come to me while participating in the monthly workdays at my community garden. On the second Saturday of each month, everyone sets aside the priorities of their individual plots for a few hours in order to focus upon the collective projects for the greater community. These often involve weeding and cutting back overgrowth, as well as bigger projects with our communal herb garden, outdoor classroom, and accessibility. These days bring together a diverse array of individuals representing many nationalities, cultures, and generations. Indeed, our garden community is host to many refugees from across the globe.fullsizeoutput_34d6

I have spent many hours working side by side with individuals far older or far younger than me and often without a shared spoken language. Nevertheless, our common language of collaboration coupled with the universal smile and non-verbals makes our work nearly seamless. It has been during these moments that I am amazed at the common language of work and the common language of creativity. Despite not speaking a word to one another beyond a simple “hello” or “thank you,” we have shared experiences with one another at a unique level – we aren’t covering up our thoughts with too many words. And each month when we see each other again – or even now and again when we see each other in their own garden plot from afar, we have that shared bond and common experience. We now share our own language.

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Fostering Independence: A Reflection on the Efficacy of Creativity

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With the American celebration of Independence Day last week, my thoughts have turned to what it truly means to be independent and how we foster that in our children.

Often times when examining a concept, I like to start with its definition or origin. Merriam-Webster’s defines the word independent as “not dependent: such as… not subject to control by others:  self-governing…  not requiring or relying on something else:  not contingent”

Indeed, isn’t a primary goal of raising and educating children to teach them how to become independent? Of course! We want our children to grow up and be able to take care of themselves. We want to teach our children to become independent in both their actions and their thinking.

How do we do this? We teach skills. From potty training to advanced calculus, the goal is greater independence and autonomy. In addition to teaching specific skills, we also teach our children how to think for themselves so that they can find answers and solutions on their own. This is a natural process and one that can be easily facilitated. Children are naturally curious and creative. They love exploring their environments starting very early. We’ve all seen how babies immediately put something in their mouth – often to our chagrin. And we’ve all seen toddlers search for solutions with their blocks or puzzles. This natural curiosity and creative impulse are instinctual precursors for independence. The more we foster these traits, the more the child’s independence grows.

Creativity and curiosity are also more than just inherent traits, they are skills we can teach. The more we expose children to enriched environments and opportunities, the more curious and creative they become. Success breeds success. As children become more curious and more creative, they can discover more and more on their own, independently. They become masters of their environments. The more they explore, the more they can create meaningful experiences for themselves.

Again, success breeds success. The more mastery children develop, their confidence grows and they tackle even greater challenges and develop even more skills. More skills equal more opportunities, and more opportunities equal more freedom, more independence.

Take advantage of our special summertime offer at DRAWN TO DISCOVER and give your child the gift of independence!

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Cutting Through the Jargon: Developing Rich, Full Vocabulary While Eschewing Empty Buzzwords

George Orwell wrote, “If we don’t have the words we can’t have the thoughts.” This is true, unless of course you count jargon. With jargon you can have words and no thoughts.

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In a recent article by Education Week, the authors explored the high incidence of jargon used in the field of education in general and in state education plans specifically. While technical and industry-specific language is common across many fields, its usage can be exclusionary. In education, such exclusion is not a good thing – especially when educators are seeking “stakeholder engagement” (two of the biggest buzz words EdWeek’s research found).

Thinking about jargon, one begins to think about language itself. Language can serve to communicate or obfuscate. Back to George Orwell, he famously noted, it is better to use an everyday word instead of jargon whenever possible. To get our meaning across and to best convey our message, choosing the right word is paramount. We shouldn’t use big words simply for the sake of using big words, especially if they muddle and complicate our message.  Too often, complex and complicated language disconnects us from our audience rather than connects us. The true genius can explain the most complex ideas in the simplest terms – think Stephen Hawking or Neil Degrasse Tyson. Conversely, we sometimes see people use complex and convoluted communication because it creates that disconnect. For some, language provides a way to separate themselves from the other.

Despite the possible barriers that complex language may cause, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expand our vocabularies or solely rely on mono-syllabic grunts. Quite the contrary. A vast vocabulary provides a rich palette for coloring our communication. When used correctly, it provides richer dialogue and more nuanced communiqué. Indeed, a richer vocabulary will allow one to better select the appropriate wording and convey a message in the clearest and most concise manner. Too much jargon or overly complex sentences with cumbersome words have the opposite effect – meaning and substance is lost.

For children, vocabulary is the most important form of background knowledge for success in school (and, arguably, in life). With my new venture, DRAWN TO DISCOVER, our lessons seek to expand a child’s vocabulary, and, thus, expand their universe. This expanded universe helps them better communicate their ideas and build their imagination and wonder. In this manner, language connects ideas, imagination, knowledge, and people. A broader depth of knowledge and observation skills become tools to mastery.

George Orwell also wrote that “the more we use poor language, the poorer our thoughts become.” DRAWN TO DISCOVER is a tool for providing rich language and rich thoughts. If you are a subscriber, thank you for allowing us to assist you and your child on this journey. If you haven’t subscribed yet, click the button to start your journey now.

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What is Creativity? A New Podcast

BallerinaWarmup3I used to say that I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. I viewed creativity within a very narrow scope – I had placed it in a box as if I knew what it was (or at least what it wasn’t). At the time, I associated creativity with art or music. Having not developed these faculties within myself, I therefore decided I was not creative.

My perspective has since shifted. While I still have not developed or accessed a talent in these two areas, I do recognize my own penchant for creativity. For me, the creative outlet often involves writing or word play, but it also involves solving problems, making new connections in my thinking, finding humor or wit in everyday occurrences or conversations, and even finding ways to communicate and connect with various individuals. Indeed, my sense of humor and ability to navigate group dynamics and build relationships are areas where I’ve experienced much success. While I denied my own creative spirit in the past, I am grateful now that I can see it and honor it and, hopefully, grow it. In a sense, I hope to continue to create my own creativity.

Our salvation lies not in knowing, but in creating! – Friedrich Nietszche

A new podcast adventure with my colleagues at DRAWN TO DISCOVER will further explore this definition. And just as creating is a messy, evolving process – a confession of the creator – so too will this podcast be. And, even though my perfectionistic self will cringe throughout, this messy process will be essential to the exploration itself. For the goal of this podcast (and of DRAWN TO DISCOVER) is not some fabricated perfection but authenticity (which is the truest perfection – or, in the words of Depeche Mode, the sweetest perfection).

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There are no straight lines in nature.

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Creatively Kicking Zombie Tail: Using Visual Literacy to Foster Mindfulness & Combat Our Mind-Numbing Culture

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School is out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean children need to become zombies.

Popular culture has been fascinated with zombies for well over a decade now. Sure, zombies have always been a staple of the horror genre, but more than just a staple, zombies have been at the forefront of American pop culture since the movie 28 Days Later hit theaters in 2002 and reinvigorated our collect thirst for brains. Since then there have been several other box office hits, ubiquitous bumper stickers, gag gifts, books (including Zombie Christmas Carols), and even orchestrated zombie walks (think of a flash mob comprised of zombies). The hit series The Walking Dead is looking to its 8th season and has spawned another series that is becoming even more popular than the original – Fear The Walking Dead. Why has America’s typically short attention span been focused on zombies for so long? They must tap into something deeply rooted in our collective experience.

The popularity of zombies may reflect the often soulless nature of modern society. Too much of the modern grind is mindless and automated – even for our children. Indeed, several studies have shown that the traditional classroom model actually reduces brain activity! Additionally, our brains our so inundated so often with information, noise, images, etc. all competing for our attention, it is only natural to want to shut our brains off and zone out. These mind-numbing bombardments also reduce brain activity.

How do we combat this? How do we keep the zombie virus from infecting our brains or the brains of our children? Tapping into our creativity is one way. Play is the most natural way to learn and to discover. When we allow ourselves and our children time to play and time to create, we activate the brain and build new pathways. This makes it harder for the zombie virus to take hold. Such creative endeavors help instill a mindful attitude and help develop a growth mindset. Mindfulness has been proven to reduce stress, increase positive affect (happiness), and boost brain activity. Likewise, a growth mindset creates a perspective of discovery and adventure with a reduced fear of failure – such a mindset also improves positive affect and success in life.

If you are looking for an affordable and easily accessible way for your child to fight the zombie virus, check out DRAWN TO DISCOVER. This online, visual literacy program is a fun and invigorating way to fight the summer slide!

 

 

 

 

 

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