Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Evergreen Adventure

Doing BrainDance with young children can be revealing but it is also a little bit messy, especially when there are 26 of them.  This summer I had the delight of working with about half that many grownups who were really psyched to be doing movement.  And how fascinating it was to see how the adults' work was the same as the kids', and also how it was different.

For four intense days in July, students at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, crawled, danced, watched each other's eyes as they read, made rhyming words out of bright-green playdough, and checked their eyes' convergence -- and these were only a few of the activities the students and I engaged in during this summer class. The students also engaged with Bette Lamont, neurodevelopment therapist based in Seattle who works all over the country.

The class was called, “Developmental Movement and Emotional Health,” an unusual subject for an undergraduate class at a public university, perhaps; but this was The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.  Evergreen is well-known for its unusual take on the world, and for the way it stretches its students and faculty in interesting ways.

"One of the fascinating outcomes of this work is that students often experience new emotional insights as well as physical ones as a result of fine-tuning their neurodevelopmental patterning through movement activities," explains Jehrin Alexandria, professor of dance and movement at The Evergreen State College who teaches this three-credit undergraduate course. "The body-mind connections are highlighted and reinforced by this work."  Students reported feeling unsettled or euphoric after an afternoon of practicing movements for the support of their neurodevelopment patterning.

In addition to movement patterns, we -- students and teachers alike -- worked through the activities laid out in Red Flags for Primary Teachers, my handbook of developmental movement and vision exercises.    
(Some of these I, too, learned from Bette Lamont.)

“I never knew that there were so many parts to vision,” one student marveled.  “I am wondering now how my eyes are working – or not!”  “I liked your dances, and the BrainDance,” commented another. "Doing belly-crawling had a real impact on my state of mind."

The students did creeping and crawling activities, played games such as pick-up sticks, eyeball tracking, copying a pattern exactly, hookups, and balancing to learn about their eyes’ movements; learned, practiced, and performed two folk dances, one from Norway and one from Mexico, each of which incorporates all eight developmental patterns of the BrainDance.

Students read and reported on various books, including Brain Rules by John Medina, Brain-Compatible Dance Education by Anne Green  Gilbert, Red Flags for Primary Teachers by Katie Johnson, Jillian’s Story by Robin Benoit, Smart Moves by Carla Hannaford, and others.

For a final activity, members of the class built a machine, complete with movement, sounds, and purpose, with individual focus and group collaboration.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Kid-watching, eyes to eyes

When I grow up, I still want to be a behavioral optometrist, but now in a close second I would also like to have a life as a preschool teacher, working with threes and fours.  I, who have always run screaming from anyone younger than six….

Mostly this is because of the threes I met at Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, MA in April.  The threes of this world are still working on all their cross-lateral patterning and are NOT supposed to be reading.  The children in the threes class were not decided in their handedness, most of them;

I spent a day at Fayerweather Street School at the invitation of Ed Kuh, who has headed this preK-8 independent school since he moved from Seattle in 2003. I went because his teachers were intrigued by the possibilities that Red Flags for Primary Teachers, my latest book about neurodevelopmental and vision issues in young children, could help them with some of the puzzling children in their classrooms.

Most of the day I hung out in the K and the first and second grades, watching and screening about twenty kids. (I also taught all the classes the Brain Dance, but as always when I am teaching or leading it I don’t have as much opportunity to see who is not getting it.) I used a slightly shorter version of my usual screening (see Red Flags, pages 123-130). The kids were interested in working with me; the teachers were fascinated.

“Do Jack first,” one teacher urged me. “He is a real puzzle to us.” So I introduced myself to Jack. (What is it about the Jacks of primary life? They always surface right away.) We went, he and I, into an empty space behind a bookshelf, where there was a little table, and I checked for tracking, teaming, visual discrimination, crawling, balance; I also asked him to do the position sense test and the Other Half picture. 

As we were working, Jack and I, I realized that the teachers were standing on a raised section of the floor on the other side of the bookcase with a cell phone, making a movie of Jack and me. Independent school rules are different, I think.

Those teachers had identified puzzles, for sure:  nearly all of the children they asked me to look at were not crossing their midlines and most of them couldn’t balance either. I made a few suggestions for each one; they were, inevitably, mostly boys.  Simply because of the way boys’ brains are wired, they will usually come to success in school literacy activities later than girls will. 

More about that another time.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Putting numbers on beginning readers’ eyes

How many children can’t use their eyes to read? How many children are labeled as non-readers when they are really non-see-ers?

My answer to this has always been, “about 30 percent” of first graders in regular education classrooms from middle-income families. 

This year, when I screened 87 first graders in October of 2012, there were closer to 60 percent.  Most of them, to be sure, were having trouble with tracking, that is, moving their eyes smoothly across their field of vision (or across a page of print). It worked out like this:

            Number of children screened                                 87                   100%
            Need to recheck tracking (37), teaming (17)          54                      60%

During this fall screening process, I also check to see where the children are in terms of their neurological development.  (If the eye screening is brisk and incomplete, the neurodevelopmental screening is even more superficial!)  The main thing I am looking for is cross-lateral patterning, which would show that their development is almost finished, or not

            Number of children screened                                 87                  100%
Number of children who can’t belly crawl             28                     32%
            Number of children who can’t skip                          9                     12%
            Number of children who can’t balance                  12                     13%

Now this was during the 2012-2013 school year, when first graders were not yet expected (according to the Common Core standards set out in the fall of 2012) to know how to read at the time of entering first grade.  Most of the literacy instruction in these classrooms, therefore, involved a great deal of reading leveled texts, working on phonics, learning to write letters and stories from left to right, and other fairly traditional practices in the teaching of reading.  Most of these 87 children were doing BrainDance every day as well.

In March, when I rechecked the ones who had had difficulty in October, the numbers were significantly reduced.  Of the 54 children who were having trouble tracking and teaming in October, 19 seemed to be tracking well in March, bringing their eyes into focus easily.  October’s 60% seem to have self-corrected to 35%, merely by living through those months and doing reading work.

But 35% is still way too many.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

SPIDERMAN revisited

            Some children get stuck in the Body-Side pattern, which should lead to the Cross-Lateral pattern.  As Spiderman, the child can move laterally at first, then  use arms and legs alternating – right arm with left leg, left arm with right leg, in a truly Cross-Lateral movement  Some children will do this as a Body-Side activity for weeks or months and only come to Cross-Lateral movement after they have had success for many days with the one-sided Spiderman.

The direction is simple and very engaging – who doesn’t want to be Spiderman? I tell them, “Your job is to move like Spiderman does, going across the room as if you were going up a wall.  Use your right hand and your left foot, then your left hand and your right foot. Go as far as you can in one direction, go back in the other direction.  Do that twice the length of the linoleum.”

There is a big Vestibular component to this exercise, because the head is almost upside-down as they move along the floor. If the space is big enough, the children could each have a section of wall and pretend to be Spiderman vertically.  For most children this isn’t as much fun and, for me, it does not have the Vestibular component because the whole body is vertical.

When the children do Brain Dance every day, they are familiar with the names and bodymovements of “Body-Side,” “Cross-Lateral,” and “Vestibular.”  Because of this daily familiarity and practice, they know WHY they are doing Spiderman – I like to think that helps them enjoy it!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Dancing Again

It’s fall, Armistice Day, and most teachers dive into something new at this time of year because they had a really good idea over the summer. Now, in November, they are coming up for air (after all the “new and exciting” programs/schedules/curricula, and/or administrators’ ideas for how to fill their days) and figuring out how to make their summer dream come true for their students.

Take my PE-teacher friend Matt, for example. “I’d like to do some dance in PE this fall,” he confided over our second beer one September evening. I nodded my agreement -- in my view, elementary children can never have too much dance -- and asked him how he planned to do it. He grinned. “Wanna help me?” he asked.

Someday, I will say No to that question, but this was not the day.
We decided to do folk dances (which I have done before with younger children) with his third-graders (which would be new for me).  During two more meetings, we chose and practiced the dances, inserted some work on mapping to ground the dances in the world, and picked a way-too-optimistic starting date in October.

Anne Green Gilbert, with whom I dance myself, has made several collections of folk dances, on video, in lists, and, in her book Brain Compatible Dance Education (2005).  In the Dance Institutes she gives in Seattle every summer and in our Wednesday adult class, she often uses folk dances as a way to illustrate the elements of her brilliantly simple BrainDance warmup exercises (www.creativedance.org).  “Every folk dance from every country contains the same developmental patterns that comprise BrainDance,”  Anne says.

I use this idea with the third graders, so they are not only doing  Dance, and Geography, and PE, of course, they are also connecting their dance moves to their own movement patterns.

When  they come into the gym, they have to take off their shoes so that they will be as grounded as possible -- that is, connected to the ground (the gym floor) through their feet. Dancing without socks either is much better because the feet really are connected with the floor itself, and because sliding is not an option on bare feet.  Because each of Matt’s classes of 26 students has exactly 30 minutes for PE, and de-shoeing and re-shoeing can take as much as five minutes, sometimes dealing with socks too just doesn’t fit into the time.

Right away each child has to find his or her own personal space (which we reviewed in the first class but not since) and we do the BrainDance together:  Breath. Tactile work. Core-distal pattern. Head-Tail connection. Upper/Lower body. Body/Side pattern. Cross-Lateral.  Vestibular.  Usually I connect a concept to it, such as Speed (so we do some the BrainDance patterns slow and some fast) or Energy (so we do some of the patterns smooth and some shaky).  

Then Matt and I walk everyone through the steps of the dance, whatever it is.  We spend a TINY amount of time explaining how to do, for example, a pivot turn or the grapevine walk.  Then we turn on the music and do the whole dance.  

“Come sit on the stairs now,” I tell the children.  “Who thinks we did a movement in this dance that is part of BrainDance?”  Half the hands go up; we call on a few.  If we have time we also ask where today’s concept figured in today’s dance.  Eyes are alight as children make these a-ha connections.

Now it is time to perform for each other, so Matt splits the group in half and I talk to the audience half about how to be an audience, attending and appreciating the performers.  The performing half does the dance with one of the adults as part of the group; the audience can make two or three “I saw people doing ....” comments, the groups switch places and the same routine happens.

Time to put the shoes on fast -- class is over.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Here we are in October of 2012, a beautiful (though dry) fall in the Northwest. School has started, and children are learning, and parents are trying to keep up.

For me, school has both not started and also begun anew. I retired at the end of June 2012 from my primary classroom in public school; in mid-September 2012 I began teaching writing to intermediate children at a small independent school. Now I am co-teaching thirteen nine- and ten-year-olds for parts of three days, a very different experience from first grade!

 Drum Roll, Please:

            The new book is OUT!  Hooray!

Red Flags For Primary Teachers

27 Neurodevelopmental and Vision Issues that Affect Learning
with Activities to Help

Published by Tendril Press (in Colorado) and available from them (www.tendrilpress.com)  or from me (katie.johnson@comcast.net) or (soon) from my new website, www.KatieJohnsonAuthor.com, or from your local bookstore!

            Finally I can stop talking about the new book in the future and actually hold it in my hand!  More importantly, YOU can hold it in your hand too, and try some of the activities and exercises in it with the children in your class who are
P*U*Z*Z*L*I*N*G you!

            Let me know how it goes.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More About Eyes part 2

More About Eyes  Part 2

Does a child need Vision Therapy?  Here is part of a checklist (modified from the Optometric Extension Program Foundation’s checklist distributed to educators by many optometrists (www.oep.org) which may help you make up your mind.

Eye-movement abilities (Ocular Motility)
____ His head turns as he reads across a page
____ He loses the place frequently when reading
____ He has a short attention span in reading or writing
____ He re-reads or skips lines

Eye-teaming abilities (Binocularity)
____ She repeats letters within words
____ She omits letters, numbers, or phrases
____ She misaligns numbers in columns
____ She squints, closes, or covers one eye
____ She tilts her head extremely while reading
____ She turns her head so only one eye focuses on the print

Visual form perception (Visual Imagery)
____ He fails to recognize the same word in the next sentence
____ She reverses letters and/or words in writing and copying
____ He has difficulty recognizing minor differences
____ She confuses words with similar beginnings and endings
____ She cannot visualize what is read, silently or aloud