Classroom Appstravaganza #2

Dragon Dictation is a free application that allows students to dictate directly into the iPad.  It turns speech into text allowing users to copy and paste text into just about any document!  Students can use this to dictate their writing, experiment with syntax, and build oral fluency.  Parents also might be interested Dragon’s text messaging features for smartphones!  This application is free on iTunes and you can learn more about it on Nuance Mobile’s website.


Classroom Appstravaganza!

This year the Natick elementary schools are scaling up the classroom deployment of mobile devices. Over the past five years schools have implemented these devices to explore how they might enhance learning opportunities for students. Through these small scale classroom applications our faculty and staff have learned a great deal about how to successfully use mobile technologies in the classroom. As a results, every classroom will be equipped with five iPads to enhance and supplement the learning environment. Over the summer these iPads were outfitted with a common set of applications that really work for kids. This series of posts will highlight different applications that are in use in Natick classrooms and provide parents with useful information about how they can use these applications at home.

ScreenChompThis week we are going to start with a basic but powerful application called ScreenChomp. ScreenChomp turns the iPad into a tool that students and teachers can use to show what they know and support one another through the learning process. Check out the following videos to get an overview and a how to.



How to

Class Placement for the 2014-2015 School Year


Every Spring the faulty and staff at Ben-Hem engage in the process of creating classes for the coming school year. Developing and balancing our classrooms is a major step in preparing for each school year. Classroom composition plays an important role in the success of every school year and, therefore, we invest a great deal of time and energy into the placement process.

Class placement begins in April and extends through the last day of the school year. Classroom teachers, guidance counselors, specialists, special educators and administrators work collaboratively to ensure the very best composition of classes for the coming years. Parents participate in this process by submitting letters that provide specific information about the learning style and needs of their child or children. Parent input is valued and given consideration throughout a rigorous placement procedure.

Every child is unique and brings specific needs and characteristics to the classroom. Creating balanced classrooms that maximize the experience and learning of all students is a top priority for Ben-Hem faculty. To facilitate effective balancing, many variables and factors are considered when creating the classes. The following list provides an overview of the criteria by which every proposed class list is reviewed and revised throughout the process.

  • Kindergarten screening results (Kindergarten placements only)
  • Academic Needs
  • Work Habits and Study Skills
  • Home/Family/Developmental Variables
  • Child Study Referrals/Intervention
  • Specialized Educational Services IEP (Individual Education Plan)
  • 504 Accommodation Plan
  • Guidance services
  • Medical needs and allergies
  • Behavioral needs
  • Social/Emotional needs

Guidelines for Parent Participation

Parents who wish to participate in the class placement process may do so by submitting a letter to Ian Kelly by May 1st of each school year. The following paragraph is intended to support parents in crafting letters that will support placement teams as they strive to ensure the best placement for every student.

The overarching goal of the placement process is to create classes that support the learning and well-being of all students. Given that this is a child-centered process, parent letters should focus on providing the placement team with specific information pertaining to their children as opposed to specific teachers. Requests for specific teachers will not be considered during the placement process. The balancing criteria referenced in the previous section are great places to start when thinking about what you would like to share. Parents hold critical information about their children that broadens the perspective of class placement teams. Every so often, circumstances or needs extend beyond those listed above. Parents are encouraged to share this information as well. Robust information about children supports effective placement decisions.


Parking Lot Update

Posted by Ian P. Kelly, M.Ed.

There has been a lot of discussion lately focusing on how to improve safety and convenience in our parking lot. In my last post I wrote about the role of parents in making sure the lot is safe and friendly for everyone. Since writing that post I have had a number of meetings with town officials to discuss improvements that would alleviate parking problems and increase safety in the lot.

Last week I met with our facilities manager Paul Comerford to continue our discussions about how best to manage traffic and safety in the lot.  We had a great meeting and came up with a few options that would add parking,  enhance traffic flow, and support safety. Following up on that meeting, Mr. Gatto met yesterday with a broad group of town officials and administrators. Our superintendent Dr. Sanchioni, business manager Bill Hurley, and facilities director Paul Comerford joined representatives from the Natick Police and Fire Departments to review ideas and discuss plans for the future. Beyond the continued focus on solutions, the meeting provided a great opportunity for representatives from across the Natick community to become familiar with the challenges that Ben-Hem faces. As we move forward with possible solutions I will continue to communicate and share our progress.

Dismissal and the Parking Lot

Posted by Ian P. Kelly, M.Ed.

Over the years I have spent countless hours discussing safety in our school’s parking lot. The congestion and lack of available parking are issues that have been with us for a long time. The fundamental problem is that the parking lot was never meant to accommodate a school of our size. Presently there are just over 100 designated parking spaces available to accommodate a faculty of approximately 100 professionals and over 400 families. Roughly 50% of our students ride buses home or take transportation to after school programs in town. That leaves over 300 students who dismiss to parents and families using the parking lot.

It goes without saying that the physical capacity of the lot is woefully short of what the school would need in order to provide adequate parking for the number of vehicles and people that we need to move through the lot in a safe and efficient manner. While this is a real limitation, it should not be used as an excuse to disregard clearly defined rules and procedures in the parking lot. I understand these limitations and the inconvenience that comes with them. When it is ten degrees and snowing it can be a difficult choice to park across the street and walk to the front door instead of parking illegally in a much closer location. That being said, the decision to park illegally is a conscientious choice on the part of a parent or family member between personal convenience and compromising their own safety and that of others.

Recognizing this limitation, we, as a community, have to work with what we have and make every effort to maintain safety. Over the years I have worked closely with my staff in coordination with town officials to do everything in our control to maximize safety and efficiency in the lot. I have implored parents to think about safety first. I have put letters on windshields, collected license plate numbers and turned them over to the police department, closed the lot, and re-directed traffic. At the end of the day, I don’t have the human resources to staff the parking lot and monitor compliance with our policies and procedures and we do not have space to add an additional 75 spaces. I would argue that, even if we did have the resources to do these things, parents would prefer that resource be directed towards teaching and learning.

No intervention, policy, or procedure will ensure safety and that is because safety is primarily a function of choice. This is a reality because, simply put, I can’t control the choices people make. I can provide information and guidance. I can reiterate my concerns. At the end of the day individuals weigh the information they have with their desires and impulses and they choose. Compliance with policies and procedures that are designed to ensure safety is a choice and all I have is the power to ask that the members of this community choose safety over convenience.

How do kids learn to work together?

Posted by Ian Kelly and Heather Smith


In our last post, we focused on independent work skills and provided guidance as to how families can support the development of those skills. In this post, we continue to focus on skills identified by the ROSP and turn our attention to working well in groups.

The ability to work well in a group is a life skill that takes time for children to master but is one that will take them beyond the walls of the classroom.  As with learning any new skill, “failure” is an important part of this process.  Children have to take social risks in order to learn from their mistakes.  No matter how well we try to prepare our children, there are things that they have to learn for themselves.  Navigating social relationships and working with others towards a common goal is simply one of those things.

Works well in a group

  1. Embedded Skills

    • Social negotiation:  Social negotiation is the ability to try to understand another person’s perspective and compromise, when appropriate.

    • Self-regulation: Children learn how to regulate and manage their emotions by learning strategies to deal with them.

  2. Strategies

    • Social negotiation: The art of negotiation is a skill that we want all children to develop.  Depending on whether or not your child has siblings, you are likely observing social negotiations every day at home (and maybe sometimes you act as the arbitrator)!  When your child is at school working collaboratively in a group, she is learning how to work with others towards a common goal and work through conflicts along the way.  In school, we try to teach children about the roles they can play in the process by assigning them “roles” to perform within a group.  For example, we might tell students that one student is responsible for keeping the group on task while another might be the “peacekeeper” etc.  One of the reasons that young children take time to learn these skills is due to their cognitive development.  According to Piaget, children remain in an egocentric (or preoperational) stage of development until about age 7 (one in which they focus on themselves and have difficulty taking on someone else’s perspective).  This doesn’t mean that they are incapable of understanding how another person feels but does mean that they need a good deal of coaching from caring adults who can ask good questions and help them try to identify another person’s perspective.  Asking questions such as: “How do you think your friend feels about this?”  or “How would you feel if you were in this situation?” can help.  If they are playing with another peer and encounter conflict, you might try to help them find a “common ground” where both parties can make a compromise.  You can also try to help your child with this by encouraging him/her to take turns with a peer (or sibling) or offer a peer help whenever possible

    • Self-regulation: It hurts to see our children upset.  Our instincts drive us to make the situation better for our children and, after all, we want them to be happy!  But dealing with frustration is part of growing up.  Instead of removing your child from an undesirable situation, coach them through it.  If your child is upset because everyone in her group is using the crayon she needs (we’re sure you’ve never had to deal with that one before), ask her: “How are you feeling about that and what can you do about it?”  Children could try a number of strategies in this situation: try taking a deep breath, ask a friend when they will done with the crayon, move on to something else that she can accomplish, etc.

Learning to Work Independently

posted by Ian P. Kelly, M.Ed. and Heather L.B. Smith, M.Ed.


In our last post we broke down each of the work habits articulated on the Report on Student Progress (ROSP). In that post, we focused on the skills embedded in following directions and provided guidance as to how families can support the development of those skills. In this post we focus on working independently.

The ability to initiate and sustain goal oriented work is a skill that is developed slowly over time. This learning process requires a great deal of time and patience on the part of adults. With the right structures and supports any child can find success.

Works well independently

Embedded Skills

Clear criteria for success: The child understands what it is they need to do in order to be successful in his or her work.

Self-monitoring: The child is able to measure his or her progress towards clearly established criteria for success

Adaptability/perseverance/tenacity: The child can make adjustments when he or she realizes that the criteria for success has not yet been attained.

Focused, sustained attention: The child can maintain focus on a task until she meets the criteria for success and/or the desired goal.


Clear criteria for success: Setting criteria for success requires adults to strike a balance between developing independence and enabling dependence. As children learn to do new things, it is important that adults provide the criteria for success. For example, if the independent work is to clean up the bedroom, adults should let the child know what that looks like (i.e. Bed made, toys away, book shelf organized). Over time though, it is critical that adults begin to engage children in the process of identifying the criteria for success. If the onus is never the child’s they will not develop independence with the task. Fortunately, this is easily done by asking, “It’s time to clean your room. What does a clean room look like?” Over time, children will come to rely on themselves to identify the criteria for success.

Self-monitoring: With clear criteria for success in place, a child can begin to monitor progress towards attaining his or her goals.  Again, there is a balance to strike here. Children are not born pre-programmed with this skill. Like most other behaviors, it is learned over time. There are so many effective tools for teaching children to self monitor but, perhaps, one of the most powerful tools is modeling how you self-monitor.  You may not always be aware of it, but you are constantly engaged in the process of self-monitoring.  Part of the reason you may be unaware is because the skill has become internalized and nearly automatic. It takes time and practice for adults to slow down and articulate this. Adults can begin to teach self-monitoring by giving your child the opportunity to listen to your self-talk.  If you want to walk your child through picking up the bedroom, you might ask him or her to join you as you model.  While cleaning, you can model by saying what you’re thinking: “Let’s see. The first thing I need to do is make the bed.  In order to do that, I need to take the pillows off so that I can straighten up the sheets. Now that the sheets are straightened out I can put the pillows back in their place…” By thinking aloud, you give your child the opportunity to follow a train of thought and to hear how you tackle a task.

Adaptability/perseverance/tenacity: We all make mistakes.  What is most important, however, is our ability to learn from those mistakes and persevere even when things become difficult for us.  Children who demonstrate adaptability know how to change their behaviors or their chain of thinking when things aren’t going as planned.  They do this by persisting. Again, modeling is a great tool for helping children see how you adapt when you have to solve a problem.  But you can also teach children by coaching them. A great question to ask your child is: “What are some other strategies you can use to solve this problem?”  Likewise, take advantage of the opportunities when you can acknowledge your child when she does so and reinforce her ability to persevere when she makes an effort to overcome an obstacle.  For some of our children, taking their snow boots on and off is a challenge.  When your child develops automaticity with this task, take a moment to discuss how she became independent with it. Chances are that she had to do it many times before she became good at it and that she had trouble the first time she tried.  As children develop self-awareness, it’s important to celebrate their efforts and acknowledge how they achieved success (and keep in mind that there was a time when you had trouble putting on your boots, too)!

Focused, sustained attention: Sustaining attention to a task is no easy feat.  We all struggle with it from time to time and, depending on the age level(s) of our children, there is a wide variance in how long our children can attend.  Five-year-olds, for example, tend to have less stamina than ten-year-olds.  But age isn’t the only factor that affects our ability to maintain attention. Sometimes, the more challenging the task, the harder it becomes to stay focused. Similarly, the more interested we are in something, the easier it becomes to stick with it.  This is why it is critical that we talk with our children about how they sustain attention and what they can do when they’re struggling with it.  Asking your child: “I notice that you’re having trouble paying attention.  Why is that hard for you right now?”  You might be surprised by what he or she has to share (and you might also find that your assumptions may/not be true).  There are countless strategies for increasing attention but before you can implement a strategy, there needs to be a match between the strategy and the cause for inattention.  If your child is easily distracted, ask her what distracts her and coach her by asking: “How might you eliminate that distraction?”  If your child is struggling with motivation, help her find a way to connect the task to something that interests her.

Natick’s Report on Student Progress (ROSP)

report cardThe importance of ongoing and effective teamwork between parents and educators cannot be understated. Children thrive in an environment where the adults in their lives understand them and work in concert to support their growth and development. While there are many ways for parents and teachers to establish and maintain effective lines of communication, the Natick Public Schools also formalizes basic communication structures to ensure that parents and families understand the progress their children are making in school. One of our major mechanisms is the Report on Student Progress (referred to as the ROSP).

The ROSP is basically what you and I know as a report card. It is issued twice annually; it is released at the end of January and on the last day of school. Some families find that the ROSP appears very different from traditional report cards that most adults received as children. When we were in school, many of us grew accustomed to receiving a subject-by-subject report with a letter grade attached.  Some report cards included narrative comments from the teachers while others contained subjective ratings of behavior and study skills.

Standards based report cards were developed and structured as a way to provide parents and families with more comprehensive information about a student’s progress.  Like traditional report cards, the ROSP attempts to provide families with feedback about a student’s academic performance.  What separates the ROSP from traditional report cards, however, is the level of specificity with which it provides families with information about a student’s progress towards attaining and mastering key grade level learning standards.  The standards represented on the reports reflect Massachusetts State learning standards. There are two major differences between standards based reports and traditional report cards. The first is the overall structure of the report and the second is the way in which the student’s progress is rated and reported to families.

Standards reflect what students should know and be able to do.  Standards-based report cards break learning down into key concepts and skills that students are expected to master in their respective grade levels.  Whereas you might have received one cumulative letter grade to reflect all of your learning in a subject such as “Math,” your child’s ROSP will provide you with feedback that specifies how well your student “Knows and uses addition and subtraction facts to 10” or how well s/he “identifies 2-Dimensional and 3-Dimensional Shapes.”

For each standard, students receive a proficiency rating.  Natick’s ROSP uses a numerical rating system on a 1-4 scale. The scale follows:

1 – Not progressing towards grade level standard

2 – Progressing towards grade level standard

3 – Meets grade level standard

4 – Exceeds grade level standard

These ratings differ from traditional report cards which presented a student’s progress in terms of letter grades, reflecting a student’s overall performance on tests, quizzes, class assignments, homework assignments, etc. While letter grades certainly gave parents and families an idea about the extent to which the child was succeeding in the class, they failed to provide specific information about performance in content areas and ways in which support could be provided at home.

Standards-based ratings make it easier for parents and families to understand their child’s strengths and to see where their child could use more support. The specificity of this feedback allows parents and families to clearly identify standards in which students have achieved mastery and target areas for growth. Thus a child who “meets grade level expectations” demonstrating a proficiency score of 3 on the following standard, identifying 2D and 3D shapes, has a solid understanding of the concept. The same child may be “progressing towards grade level standards” demonstrating a proficiency score of 2 on the following standard, knowing and applying addition and subtraction facts to 10, should continue to work towards achieving this grave level standard.   Some variability in performance ratings is typical, as children grow and develop.  But knowing your child’s areas for growth is just as important as knowing your child’s strengths.  In the weeks to come, we will provide parents and families with more information about how to interpret the ROSP and suggest ideas for engaging your child in a meaningful conversation about his/her growth.  Stay tuned!

Executive Function. What on Earth are these Educators Talking About?

by Ian Kelly and Heather Smith

Executive function is getting a lot of attention in the education community lately. As this terminology and the science behind it seeps into the vernacular of teachers and educational professionals families may feel left out of the party. While we always strive to keep the edu-babble (professional jargon) out of our conversations and communications with families, we sometimes can’t help ourselves. In this post, we define executive function and provide the foundation for a series of posts on this topic. Our hope is to provide adults with a working knowledge of the concept and strategies that will enable them to best support the child’s development of critical executive and metacognitive skills at home and in life.

Although there is debate amongst psychologists, neuroscientists and educators about how executive function should be defined exactly, there is consensus that executive function refers to a person’s ability to plan, execute, and monitor goal-oriented behavior.  Lynn Meltzer (2007) defines it as: “goal setting, planning, organizing, prioritizing, memorizing, initiating, shifting, and self-monitoring” (p.xi) while Moran & Gardner (2007) define it as an intrapersonal combination of “hill, skill, and will” arguing that it is a combination of “metacognition, inhibiting habitual responses, delay of gratification, adjusting to changing rules, and making decisions under uncertain conditions” (p.19). There we go again, edubabble. So what does all of this mean?

Both you and your child engage in executive planning all day, every day. As an adult, you are not always aware of the fact that you are planning and there are times when you are acutely aware of the fact that you are not planning effectively (like when you forgot to pick up milk at the store). For most adults, these executive processes become so ingrained that they are second nature, almost reflexive. If you drive the same route to and from work everyday you may have had the experience of being on “autopilot.” Your cognitive system is so tuned to the route and the routine that you sometimes forget parts of the drive or you take that route even when you don’t mean to. This simple example illustrates the highly tuned and powerful executive skills of adults.



Unfortunately for kids, their autoplioting days are a long way off. Fortunately, they can all get there with your support. So, let’s get back to clarifying all of that edubabble we laid out earlier. Simply put, executive function is a network of cognitive skills and strategies that allows us to sustain goal oriented behavior. The process of sustaining that goal oriented behavior requires planning, doing, and assessing. Simple right? Wrong. It’s incredibly complex and it’s the place where most children spend the bulk of their physical, emotional and cognitive resources in learning.

The challenge for the adults trying to support children in developing executive skills lies in trying to remember the challenges of their own learning experiences. The automaticity of mature executive function skills make it easy to forget just how complex the world can be and how long it took to learn and become experts with certain skills. The first step in supporting kids in their development of executive skills is to appreciate the complexity and challenge that children face in learning things that, to us, seem routine (in edubabble this is called cognitive empathy).

The second step that adults can take to support the development of effective executive skills is to embrace, to the extent your sanity or their safety will bear, those questions as opportunities to support the acquisition of these skills. Children ask a million different questions about a million different topics. These questions can become frustrating as, over time, they can begin to feel mundane or unbelievably repetitive. Just try to breathe and remember that they are asking you these questions for a real reason that is meaningful to them.



And herein lies the third thing adults can do to support the general development of executive skills in the home and life setting. Barring any immediate safety concern (or that this question might put you over the edge for the day), answer their question with a question. Do this as often as possible. By answering their questions with questions, you force them to think, plan, act, and reflect. Too often we default to providing the answer. The real learning (and acquisition of executive skills) is in the process leading up to the answer. Take the following example of a typical interaction over homework and a modified interaction over homework.

Typical Adult Response:

Child: Mom, I don’t know what to do for my homework. What should I do?

Adult: Well, get out your homework packet and let’s go over it together.

Child: OK. Here it is.

Adult: (Reads over the packet) OK. The packet says that you need to read for 20 minutes. Why don’t you start there.

Modified Adult Response:

Child: Mom, I don’t know what to do for my homework. What should I do?

Adult: Hmmm. That’s a good question. Let’s think about that. What do you think we should do about this?

Child: I don’t know. What am I supposed to do?

Adult: Well, I am not sure either. Where should we start to begin solving this problem?

Child: My homework is in my backpack.

Adult: OK. I am glad to know that it is in your backpack. How will that information help us solve this problem?

While the modified scenario could go on and on, it is meaty enough to substantiate an important difference in the two conversations. In the first conversation the adult provided the answer. They did all of the thinking and all of the planning. In this first scenario, the child was a passive participant in the problem solving process. The second conversation treats the child as an active agent in resolving the day to day challenges they face. Asking the child to consider what they might do to solve the problem forces them to reflect on the problem, process the challenge, and develop potential courses of action to overcome the barrier. Every child can put forward a hypothesis to solve the homework problem. Their approximation of a solution may be way off base and it is our job, through guiding questions, to help them come to a solution that works. In doing so adults are well on their way to developing the executive skills that, as adults, these children will rely on to find success in life, relationships, and careers.

Our next post will focus on the social and interpersonal dimensions of executive function. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.

Natick Special Olympics!

imagesThe planning for the sixth annual Special Olympics Natick School Day Games is underway and our event will be held on June 10, 2014 at Natick High School during the school day.  This event has grown tremendously since it first began in Natick; in 2009, thirty-five students participated and in 2013, 275 students participated in this track and field event along with 150 high school and adult volunteers.

Special Olympics Natick School Day Games is a rewarding experience for athletes, their non-disabled peers who are called Unified Partners, coaches, volunteers, community members, and family members.  Unified Partners train and compete as a team with their peers who have disabilities in the spirit of inclusion and community.  Everybody benefits from this event; athletes who have disabilities come away from the event with a sense of pride and accomplishment, and Unified Partners come away with an increase in awareness, appreciation, and in many cases, new friendships.  One spectator who watched her grandson participate as a partner last year sent an email that said “this event was life-changing for all of us”.  An athlete told an organizer that “it’s so nice to have others watch us for a change; usually it’s us who are cheering others on.”  One parent emailed that “this was the best field trip I have ever witnessed and all students should have an opportunity to witness a Special Olympics event”.

Massachusetts Special Olympics Natick School Day Games includes all of the pageantry of a Special Olympics event:  Opening Ceremonies includes music, participation by our police and firefighters, a torch run, and Parade of Athletes.  Each athlete and Unified Partner participates in up to three events, and EVERYONE receives gold, silver, and/or bronze medals.  As our Games have expanded, so have our costs and we need to raise funds so that we can sustain this wonderful community event.

Please participate in our “Dollar Drive” on Wednesday November 20, 2013.  Students and staff are encouraged to wear clothing from their favorite sports team, Natick colors, and/or their Special Olympics t-shirts and bring a dollar into school.  Every dollar counts and when we all support Special Olympics, everybody wins!!!!

by Barbara Singer, Ben-Hem School Nurse