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To: Assemblymember Swanson, Re: AB 999

For adult prisoners, rehabilitation and education consistently does more to reduce recidivism rates than does incarceration and punishment. The same is true for juveniles, but not in degree. As youths form their personalities and individuality, the time they spend incarcerated is arguably much more damaging than it is for an adult. By continuing to keep them incarcerated for longer than absolutely necessary, opportunities for true growth and development of contributing citizens are squandered.

I am currently attending San Francisco State University, in pursuit of a BA in child and adolescent development. As part of my coursework, I have had a lot of exposure to psychological research, and even in my limited study it has been apparent that psychologists have known for many years that punishment does not actually increase favorable behaviors.

While alternative placements for youth may be more expensive in the short term, the long term savings both for the individuals and the community at large more than make up for them. As my representative in Sacramento, it is your job to enact and support state programs that will lead to a better California in the next twenty years; not just in the next two. I believe that by passing this legislation you can be a part of that movement.


I strongly support AB 999 (Skinner), a bill to enhance incentives for youth in California's notorious Division of Juvenile Justice ("DJJ"), and I am writing to ask you to sign on as a cosponsor of this bill.

AB 999 replaces the ineffective system of punitive discipline in DJJ with a system providing youth with incentives to participate in their education and programming in a positive manner. By earning program credits, youth are given the opportunity to appear before the Juvenile Parole Board at an earlier date. AB 999 also eliminates the DJJ's use of "time adds," a practice that contributes to disproportionately long sentences for youth in California. AB 999 aims to bring youth prisons in line with adult prisons, where individuals may earn time credits for desired behaviors. The incentive-based system will encourage youth using positive reinforcements rather than punitive practices, which studies have discredited as ineffective.

Youth in DJJ currently spend an average of nearly three years behind bars. Over a third of that time is due to "time adds." Time adds are a disciplinary sanction that delays a youth's eligibility to appear before the Parole board. While an appearance before the Board does not guarantee release, AB 999 will provide youth with more opportunities to demonstrate their readiness for release.

DJJ's misuse of time adds is a primary reason that California has the longest average period of incarceration for youth in the nation. California holds a young person longer in the state prisons than do other states for comparable offenses. This results in long separations from work and family for the youth, and enormous costs to taxpayers. Longer periods of lockup in our state's failed youth prisons do not result in increased public safety or better outcomes for youth.

Currently, DJJ spends $234,000 per youth, per year, and has an extraordinary recidivism rate of 72%. In this economic climate, time adds are a costly and harmful practice that just does not make sense. AB 999 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner is a better-balanced approach, offering both incentives and consequences. I urge you to co-sponsor this critically important bill. Thank you for your work.


A rough guide to finding your district

The text of AB 999

The status of AB 999, as of 4/2/09

Information on Ella Baker Center's "Books Not Bars" Campaign


Preschool Desired Results (including information specific to literacy educators)

While the State of California has yet to develop content standards for pre-kindergarten curriculum, the Department of Education does have a collection of Desired Results standards used to "document the progress made by children and families in achieving desired results and by which they can retrieve information to help practitioners improve child care and development services." A complete description of the Desired Results system can be found here, and clicking on the link at the bottom of the page will bring you to materials and forms related to the program, where you can find the Desired Results Developmental Profile: Preschool Instrument*, among many other useful sources. While the form the California Department of Education provides is an evaluation rather than a prescription, I think it's really very helpful to early childhood educators for several reasons:

1. A LOT of examples are provided, so you don't have to figure out on your own how the abstract skills apply to your kids. You can just read the examples and decide which one seems more appropriate.

2. You'll notice that a very large proportion of the evaluation is focused on personal and social competence. This reflects the recognition that these types of skills are at the forefront of preschool education - if you feel sometimes like you're focusing on these skills it's not necessarily because you're doing something wrong, it's because preschool students are primed to learn them. Delays in social development will inhibit students' learning when they get to kindergarten.

3. Pages 34 to 38 contain the evaluation for preschoolers' effectiveness in literacy learning. You can look at the examples to get ideas for supportive teaching. I really recommend that, if nothing else, you take a look at this. It can also help you figure out how to most appropriately engage students in "rich language."

4. You'll notice that the evaluation presents skills as a progression: For example, a child exploring language "produces phrases and simple sentences that communicate basic ideas and needs," and a child integrating language skills "uses more complex language or vocabulary to describe events that are imaginary, to explain, or to predict." If a child you are working with is only using language in an exploratory way, they may be frustrated if you insist on prompting them to use more complex language. Skills are acquired incrementally, and frustrated students connect that frustrated feeling to school (or, g-d forbid, reading).

I hope that seeing things like this can give you some guidance for what your students are capable of so that you can feel more comfortable with how you teach. When you have an understanding of the developmental levels of students it is much easier to teach in a way that will help them to learn best.

*Clicking on this link will reroute you to File DEN, a website I have been using for about two and a half years to host files. I can attest to the safety of their site: I have never experienced any problems with them, and definitely recommend their service. They allow hotlinking for all allowed file extensions, including videos and music files; and provide 1GB of personal storage space, a 50mb maximum file size limit, and 5GB of monthly bandwidth. All this is part of their free account - they offer additional services for those who are willing to pay for the service.

Nevada Preschool Content Standards and Literacy Teaching

Confident understanding of cognitive and social development is essential for effective teaching; Teachers who routinely teach above or below their students' "levels" will experience frustrated and embarrassed students who, instead of learning curriculum content, are learning that school is a place to feel confused and useless. I work in an early literacy supplemental preschool program and so literacy education is at the forefront of my interests at the moment. This post is useful to anyone who is involved with children, but it is written for early childhood educators who are unfamiliar with developmental standards.


The following are the standards for skills preschool students should have by the end of their pre-kindergarten education that specifically apply to literacy. A complete description of all areas of curriculum can be found here.

I would really recommend going to the site and looking at listening and speaking standards and social-emotional standards - these can give you ideas of what sort of skills you can expect of your students and also what behaviors you need to support. Honestly, for preschoolers, most of the valuable learning that takes place is in social-emotional development; preschoolers’ brains and bodies are made for playing with their friends.

Teaching skills more advanced that those outlined here are not BAD, per se (challenging students is a good thing), but if students appear frustrated and resistant behaviours increase it may be an indication that students are not ready to learn those particular skills.


Content Standard 1.0: Students know and use word analysis skills and strategies to comprehend new words encountered in text.
-Recognize environmental print and symbols (print and other symbols, other than books, found in the physical environment, such as street signs, billboards, cereal boxes, beverages, commercial logos, etc.).
-Identify some letters in own name.
-Identify the initial sound of own name.
-Demonstrate an awareness that print carries a message.

Content Standard 2.0: Students use reading process skills and strategies to build comprehension.
-Use pictures to aid comprehension.
-Ask questions or make comments pertinent to the story being read.
-Identify the front of the book and know how to turn the pages when reading.

Content Standard 3.0: Students read to comprehend, interpret, and evaluate literature from a variety of authors, cultures, and times.
-Retell a story with the aid of pictures, props, or a book.
-Predict what will happen next in a story and respond.
-Listen and respond to rhythm or rhyme.
-Listen and respond to age-appropriate material for a variety of purposes.
-Listen and respond to poetry and prose.

Content Standard 4.0: Students read to comprehend, interpret, and evaluate informational texts for specific purposes.
-Demonstrate an understanding that printed material provides information.
-Recall information from an event, text, or picture.
-Respond to or ask a question about an event, text, or picture.
-Follow, with teacher assistance, a simple pictoral direction.


Content Standard 5.0: Students write a variety of texts that inform, persuade, describe, evaluate, or tell a story and are appropriate to purpose and audience. (All children this age are not developmentally ready to produce representational work.)
-Experiment with writing tools and materials in response to information.
-Experiment with writing tools and materials to communicate.
-Experiment with writing tools and materials in response to a familiar experience.
-Experiment with writing tools and materials in response to literature.

Content Standard 6.0: Students write with a clear focus and logical development, evaluating, revising, and editing for organization, style, tone, and word choice.
-Share ideas for class writing.
-Organize ideas, through group discussion, with teacher assistance.
-Dictate words, phrases, or sentences to an adult recording on paper.
-Share drawings with others.

Content Standard 7.0: Students write using standard English grammar, usage, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.
-Attempt, with a model, to write the first letter of first name.
-Attempt to spell own first name.
-Use letter-like approximation to write name and/or other words or ideas.
-Demonstrate beginning techniques for using various writing materials.
-Trace and progress to copying basic shapes (eg horizontal line, vertical line, X, plus sign, circle, etc).


Student Resistance

Review of “Johnny won’t read, and Susie won’t either: Reading instruction and student resistance”

In the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Rebecca Powell, Ellen McIntyre, and Elizabeth Rightmyer published a study which evaluated literacy activities (like Jumpstart) in which students engaged in off-task behavior at least 25% of the time. In my review of their report, I will forego their own constructions of meaning from the results in favour of one which is simpler and more applicable to a setting like Jumpstart. To begin, I will define two important concepts in classroom management and curriculum development: off-task behaviour and engaged time. Then I will go into the actual findings of the study, which evaluated teaching style and qualities of instructional tasks. The purpose of this review is to provide a background of good teaching practices to those who have limited classroom experience.

Before any evaluation is done, it is important to be clear about what is being evaluated. In the case of this study, classrooms were selected for extensive review when off-task behaviour was observed for more than 25% of activity time (this does not include transition time). Off-task behavior was treated as a pre-defined term in the study and not explicitly discussed, but a brief overview and a few examples will clarify what is meant by it. Off-task behavior is behavior which interferes with learning - as will be discussed later, it can result from a variety of different circumstances. Some examples of off-task behavior cited in the article are: students talking instead of listening to the teacher, lying on the floor and rolling around, interruption with unrelated questions and comments, going to the bathroom or getting water during activity time, etc. The presence of these behaviours does not mean instruction is ineffective, but if they are taking up a significant portion of your teaching time it may be difficult to teach effectively.

One aspect of effective teaching is the amount of time students are engaged. While they are off-task, they are obviously not engaged. But just because a child looks like they are on-task, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged. Students are engaged when they are actively attending to the learning task, and the more time your students are engaged the more successful they will be. There are several obstacles to student engagement, however. First, students tend to perceive the educational process negatively. They do not see how it is relevant to their daily lives and their family values. If the instruction they receive lacks real-world validity, minimal engagement will result. Second, students may resist engagement when they have a lack of control over their own learning or when they have the perception that a task might lead to failure and/or embarrassment. Obviously there may be emotional or temperamental reasons for low engagement, but there are things that you can do as a teacher to encourage it.

At this point in time, we are moving beyond qualification of terms and into practices that will actually help you in the classroom. In the study, particular teaching styles were found to be more effective than others. Ineffective practices were: adherence to procedures, scripted models, tasks being too difficult or easy, and students being unable to self-regulate. In my opinion, these practices can partially be the result of inexperienced teachers - teachers who are new to teaching and are too reliant on procedures and models rather than relaxing into their own teaching style, teachers who are unaware of developmental appropriateness and so cannot determine whether tasks are the right difficulty, teachers who have difficulties balancing student choice with classroom chaos. Teachers are faced with a choice, too, and the study showed that some teaching choices were more effective: providing appropriately challenging tasks, encouraging peer collaboration, providing opportunities for student choice, and encouraging self-regulation (independent application of reading strategies) were all aspects of effective teaching styles. This study seemed to focus more on older students (about grade 3), but these practices can still be implemented in a preschool setting: the Jumpstart curriculum is a good starting point for keeping the teaching appropriate to your students’ abilities, you can encourage your students to tell each other their favorite parts of the book they just read, students can choose what colors to write their names in and which center stations to go to first, and you can encourage rich language when students tell stories back to you. Having an effective teaching style is as much about knowledge as it is about flexibility - you have some important tools for teaching literacy, but few people know your students better than you. It is up to you to create a classroom environment that is responsive to the unique needs and strengths of both your students and coworkers. The following table is a layout of the above information organized in a way to help clarify how you can make your teaching practices more effective:

Finally, in implementing teaching methods, the study noted two significantly different qualities of instructional tasks: closed tasks and open tasks. Closed tasks are things such as worksheets or simple questions - activities where there is only one right answer. Closed tasks such as these were found to be directly related to higher incidence of off-task behavior. The study found that where there was a high degree of off-task behavior, tasks were often found to be closed.

However, the study defined several core components of open tasks - those which allow children to complete activities in their own way and come up with answers that are unique to them. Turner and Paris (1995) found six critical features of open tasks. These ‘six Cs’ are: choice, challenge, control, collaboration, constructive comprehension, and (positive) consequences. The following table provides illustrations of these instruction qualities in the classroom:

Especially in a preschool environment, students must be encouraged in all aspects of learning. It may be counterintuitive to tell a child that every answer they give is the “right answer,” but remember that you are helping to formulate how they view education for the rest of their lives. Jumpstart students have usually been identified as students struggling with literacy skills. They often are dealing with circumstances and environments at home that can make learning difficult. This can lead to difficulties in the classroom, but the practices described above will help ANY TEACHER with ANY STUDENT. The findings of this study were based both on previous studies as well as a sample of over 70 literacy activities. Off-task behavior can inhibit learning, but engaged behavior as well as open teaching styles and utilizing the ‘six Cs’ can both address off-task behavior as well as increase student performance.


Watch your perspective

Okay, so I see this movie about a severed corpus callosum (okay, I didn’t actually watch it - I simply saw the web page title and started thinking willy-nilly with no thought for decorum), and it makes me think about how with genes, for example, we define their effects by what the organism is like withOUT them - that is how we define their functionality. And I think "Wow, it's so damaging, that this is science's approach to discovering things. Why can't they just observe whatever it is?" But obviously you can't (or, we don't know how to) observe a gene, for example. so then I thought "Well, you can observe an arm."

Imagine if someone wanted to figure out what an arm did, and to do so they cut it off and watched the behavior of the organism afterwards. The interesting thing is that the organism would begin to compensate immediately - by perhaps a redistribution of weight, by simply "making do" with their whole arm instead. To make an equation of their behavior, it would be: Body & Behavior with 2 arms - 1 arm = Body & Behavior with 1 arm + Compensation. There is something NEW in this equation: Compensation. So, the question is: How do you separate function from compensation when you are practicing this science-by-deletion?

On top of that, you STILL need the observational component - a lot of compensation behavior of course is directly related to the missing component and you need a control to compare.

This, in turn, makes me think of the Behaviorist/Holist debate - do we learn about the world around us by breaking it up or by looking in great detail (at one thing at a time) or in a wider-perspective kind of observational way?

Of course the answer is: a little of both. It really pretty much always is, but people get so caught up in what their training is that they find it difficult to switch their perspective back and forth.

So here’s a friendly public reminder: don’t be an extremist.


To Abort or Not to Abort?

I've read a few places that 80% of foetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. This figure horrifies me because:

1. of the implicit cultural priority of neurotypicality
2. abortions are never cause for a party
3. I don't have such an attachment to giving birth myself - I don't see the point in carrying a child if you're just going to abort it if it isn't "what you want" - I'd just adopt if I wasn't comfortable enough with my odds of having a healthy child
4. I have worked with children with Down's, and indeed those with many "special needs" (ah - a phrase that should be the subject of another post) who were: funny, bright, loving, compassionate, etc. etc. etc.
5. I think parents are selfish. Well okay - not ALL parents. And not ALL the time. But I wanted to get your attention.

In my field, there is a lot (a LOT) of talk about supporting parents and families. We focus on strengthening and empowering parents, pretty much at all costs. There are those who say that it is actually the parents, and not the children, who are our clients. This perspective is practical, useful, sensible - teachers are on the front lines. Ours is not a position of prediction and prevention; we go into class each day and deal with the fact that Johnny bit Sally. Our time frame is right now, and right now we have kids in our classes, and they have families that will be with them long after us. Our concern is dealing with what IS, not what is BEST.

But that doesn't mean we don't think about it. Okay - so Johnny bit Sally. I am telling you - it's probably due to the same reason he's always late for school and often has a runny nose: Maybe Johnny's mom shouldn't have freakin' had another kid. And I'm not just talking about lower-income, high-birth-rate populations. Actually, all of my jobs have been in middle-to-upper-middle-class areas. People - parents - think it is a right, to have children. That is just as much true as this: it is a responsibility to have children.

These things are both true - both equally true. But many people feel one way more strongly than the other, and this attitude leads to some moral dilemmas. If you think that having a child is a right, what else do you think you "should" have when it comes to children? Do you think your child should be good at sports? So would you force.... I mean... encourage your child to stay on a sports team even when they protest vociferously? Will you reject your child if they aren't attracted to the right gender? You may contest that these things cross a line - that you can have reasonable expectations of your children (they will be physically fit) and also let them be themselves (my son takes ballet classes).

I contend that you begin to draw that line when you choose to have a child and, when you conceive, you decide to have screening done for things like Down Syndrome. I think that starting to draw the line there is a dangerous, dangerous thing. It is drawing the line at "I want my child to fit in to my society and culture easily." "I don't want to deal with large medical expenses." "I want this to be easy." These sentiments are very easy to understand. Everyone wants these things. But life happens to everyone, anyway. Your child dies at 13. They are in a terrible car accident at 15 and severely brain damaged. You learn they have autism and slowly realize they will never love you the way you want to be loved. They become an addict and throw their life away, homeless by 21 and overdosed by 29.

Expectations are normal. They are human. But if we predicate our love on them then we have already done those we love a grave disservice. And it is our responsibility to give our children the very best love we can.