On episode 52 of The Prepped & Polished Podcast Alexis talks to Dr. Bonnie Singer. Bonnie is founder and CEO of Architects For Learning, which provides educational intervention and assessment services to underperforming students in grades K-12 as well as teacher education in instructional methods for teaching literacy nation-wide. She is co-developer of EmPOWER, a method for teaching expository writing, and Brain Frames, graphics for supporting language, learning, and literacy. Bonnie is author of numerous publications on methods for assessing and teaching writing, reading, listening, speaking, executive functions, self-regulation of learning, higher-level thinking, and critical literacy skills. On today’s episode, Bonnie talks about challenges students face with writing, and why writing is hard for so many people, why kids struggle with it, why teachers struggle to teach it, and how it relates to reading.
Enjoy, Thanks for Listening and remember at The Prepped and Polished Podcast, We Empower You to Take Control of Your Education!
Woman: Welcome to “The Prepped and Polished Podcast,” the podcast that empowers you to take control of your education, featuring weekly interviews with influencers in the world of education as well as tutoring tips, lessons, and updates. And now here’s your host, Alexis Avila.
Alexis: Hi, everyone. Alexis Avila here of Prepped and Polished, a tutoring and test preparation firm that provides in-person and online tutoring. For more information, please check out preppedandpolished.com. And I welcome you to “The Prepped and Polished Podcast” where we interview amazing and inspiring guests in the world of education, as well as offer tutoring and test prep tips, lessons, and updates, as well as our celebs giving back series focusing on celebrities who give back to the world in a positive way. Our interview series continues right now with Episode 52 with Dr. Bonnie Singer. Get to know the Prepped and Polished community. You can find us on Facebook: Prepped and Polished; Twitter: @preppedpolished; Instagram: preppedandpolished1. To our listeners, you can submit a question at anytime to our radio at preppedandpolished.com. I love hearing from you.
Joining our show today is Dr. Bonnie Singer. Bonnie is founder and CEO of Architects for Learning, which provides educational intervention and assessment services to underperforming students in grades K through 12 as well as teacher education in instructional methods for teaching literacy nationwide. She is co-developer of EmPOWER, a method for teaching expository writing, and Brain Frames, graphics for supporting language, learning, and literacy. Bonnie is author of numerous publications on methods for assessing and teaching writing, reading, listening, speaking, executive functions, self-regulation of learning, higher level thinking, and critical literacy skills. Bonnie’s specialties include assessment and instruction in writing, reading, learning, language development, learning disabilities, attention, executive functions. Dr. Singer also provides consultation in professional development to teachers and schools worldwide. On today’s episode, Bonnie will talk to us about challenges students face with writing and why writing is so hard for so many people, why kids struggle with it, why teachers struggle to teach it, and how it relates to reading. Bonnie, thanks for coming on “The Prepped and Polished Podcast.” How are you today?
Bonnie: I’m great. Thank you so much for having me.
Alexis: Let’s start with if you could focus on a couple of pivotal moments that brings you to us today as an expert on helping students to overcome their learning challenges, but specifically with their writing challenges.
Bonnie: Pivotal moments. I mean, are you looking for what got me into writing in the first place?
Alexis: Yeah, definitely. Like just a little background.
Bonnie: Well, my doctoral research, my background is in speech and language pathology, so I had a lot of foundation in the realm of listening and speaking.
Bonnie: And then got really interested in reading, which took me towards a PhD. And midway through my PhD, in really looking at some of the fundamental components that impact students’ ability to learn to read, my doctoral adviser said to me, “I don’t think you should study reading. Everybody is studying reading. It’s just not that interesting. Study something that no speech-language pathologists are looking at, like how language is impacting math or how language is impacting writing.” And so it was really my turn into writing was very much on a whim. I wasn’t called to look at writing from some sort of inner quest. It really was at the directorship of Dr. Dorothy Aram, who I owe an enormous debt to because that shift into looking at the last frontier of writing was a fascinating one. I mean, I’ve never looked back. I’ve never regretted it. It’s just been a wonderful journey to then complete that span of listening, speaking, reading, and writing for kids.
Alexis: Wow. And what is Dorothy up to today? Was she one of your professors?
Bonnie: She was my dissertation adviser. She’s now retired and living in Spain and enjoying her life and not thinking about language. But her background was really looking at the neurological substrates of language impairment in children. She had a long NIH research career in looking at kids who had had unilateral strokes and comparing their language development to children who were not acquiring language normally that didn’t have any identifiable reason that we could see for their disruption in their language development. So she’s really well-known for that research, which is fascinating but a little bit askew from where my interests lie. She also is very well-known for one of the first formal studies in looking at the development of kids who are not acquiring language in a typical way and what happens to them when they hit school. And she was one of the first to really reveal that developmental language disorders turn into reading disorders and later language and learning disabilities. So she was a great mentor.
Alexis: Well, sounds it. Why is writing so hard for many people, especially for students?
Bonnie: Wow. That’s a really big question. Writing is one of the most complex things that we do neurologically and your capacity to write really requires that you have the capacity to be like an air traffic controller within your brain. There’s so many things that need to be coordinated and simultaneously monitored and very mindfully tended to while you’re writing that it can very easily overwhelm any of us. It’s also very, very sensitive to a whole host of factors that are out of the control of many students and out of the control of many teachers. So for example, it’s really, really hard to write something really good when you’re starving, when you’re really, really hungry or you’re really, really exhausted or anything that’s just off with your kind of sense of self-regulation.
But if you throw on top of that that it’s hard to hold a pencil correctly and it’s hard to kind of form letters and you throw on top of that that paying attention is a bit of a challenge and it’s hard to sustain your attention to something that’s challenging, over a period of time, you get this kind of 10-car pileup oftentimes with writing. So what we see in kids is that for some, there are some chronic issues that are constantly in their way and it’s like having to juggle 78 balls all at the same time and some of them are really, really big and others are really, really small. The big ones take a lot of attention to keep track of and you’re just likely to drop some along the way. So we see a lot of unevenness in kids who are struggling with writing at all ages.
And if you just reflect in yourself, the last time you had to write something for your website, for example, you might have had just one of the most brilliant days where it seems like [inaudible 00:08:40] and divine intervention happens and you write something that’s beautiful, and then another day you sit to write a little blog post and it’s just like pulling teeth. And you’re still the same person. There’s just different factors at play that can make it hard. It can be the topic. It can be your level of fatigue. It could be things within your control or things outside of your control. It’s a very, very sensitive process to outside influence.
Alexis: That’s amazing. Is there a correlation between reading challenges and writing?
Bonnie: It’s a dicey one. We see kids really struggle with reading who… It sort of depends on what aspect of reading. So there is a connection between kids who really struggle with decoding because they’re having trouble just accessing and acquiring the written code of our language. So those kids are often very delayed as well in their acquisition of written text. But some kids really have trouble on the reading side and are more willing to take a risk in writing, and for others, they read just fine and, for whatever reason, writing is a much more difficult realm for them. So it’s not a one to one. My dissertation research looked at the connection between kids who struggle with speaking and kids who struggle with writing, and it turns out there’s not so much of a connection. You can have a real hard time expressing yourself in the spoken realm and write beautifully, and vice-versa. Talking can come very easily to you, but writing can be really hard. So it’s a much, much more complex process than we’re really able to understand at this point because we’re really under-researched.
Alexis: Wow. Tell us a little bit about Architects for Learning. I know you have a firm in Needham, Massachusetts. And what types of students do and do you not work with?
Bonnie: We see kids here at Architects for Learning who are in school. And in school can be kindergarten and can be all the way through the college level. And basically, we work with students who are, for some reason, underperforming in school. And so, while writing is an area of my extreme interest and a lot of my research and effort and time and energy, that’s not the only thing we do here. We work with kids. Some of the students that we work with are on individualized education programs in school. They receive special education support. They have some kind of known learning challenge that requires in-school help as well as some outside school help. That’s probably about half of the students that we see.
The other half of the kids that we see are just not doing as well in school as they could be, as we think their intelligence or their innate talent would suggest they could be. So those kids tend to struggle with organization. They tend to have some challenges within the realm of time management or prioritizing their work or keeping track of their stuff. More within that umbrella of executive functioning that I know you have a podcast about with Sarah Ward. Those kids are quite smart. They’re bright kids, but sometimes their grades don’t show how bright they actually are, and so they need some more effective strategies for tackling school. The kids who really have more identified learning challenges may need to work with a speech-language pathologist or may need a reading specialist or some very specialized instruction around the realms of literacy and learning in order to make up for some of the challenges that they experience.
Alexis: Nice. And what is Brain Frames?
Bonnie: Brain Frames are a set of visual strategies that I developed as part of an overall methodology for teaching kids to manage the complexity of the writing process. Brain Frames are a set of six graphical strategies that represent visually things we do with language all day every day. So what we see in schools, one of the major instructional techniques that teachers use is these graphical organizers. So we’re trying to get kids to plan their thinking and organize their thinking before they try and express themselves in connected prose. And what I’ve seen from very early on when I worked in a solo practice for about 15 years before expanding the firm to include other people like we have now, but in those early years of working with kids one on one, I just saw such an incredible range of graphics. And some of those graphics were quite helpful and some were frankly not helpful. They were just kind of a visual fill in the blankets for size, but they didn’t really help kids understand what the organizing principle was behind the ways in which teachers were asking them to use language.
So my colleague Anthony Bashir and I were really inspired by some work by David Hyerle, Tony Buzan, some really great thinkers within the realm of trying to visualize cognition. And we really came at it from sort of a side door of how can you help kids to see, literally see, visually, the patterns of how they need to use language because to do well in school, you need to listen. You need to talk. You need to read. You need to write. All of those are using language all day long every day. So we got really theoretical and really boiled it down to there are kind of six fundamental things that we do with language from the time we’re quite young, when we start talking, kids start to tell stories and they start to describe their world and they start to think about why things happen and “What will happen if I do this?” and these kind of fundamental ways in which we use language.
And so we put a visual to each of those things and Brain Frames are those visuals, those graphics that kids create to be able to organize their thinking, whether they’re doing that because they have to explain something to somebody in some kind of spoken exchange or we use them a lot to help kids plan their thinking prior to writing. As the years have gone on, we’ve gotten much more insightful about how those underlying patterns of language show up all through your academics. So taking notes is about recognizing the patterns of communication that an instructor is using and being able to kind of hook on to those. And studying from a text or getting information to stick in your mind is really about being a good pattern detector. So we have these six graphics. They’re called Brain Frames. We can use them for lots of different purposes, but one of the purposes that we use them for is to help kids plan and organize their thoughts before they try and put them into sentences and paragraphs and longer pieces of text.
Alexis: Awesome. And do some of the schools use your product, or is this something that you use just in your practice?
Bonnie: Well, everyone here within my practice is trained in Brain Frames and the EmPOWER method, which is the method Dr. Bashir and I spent many years developing to help kids organize their writing or approach the writing process in a systematic way. For a long time, I’ve been working with schools all over the country and, within the last five years, from overseas as well, in training educators to use some of these methods in their classrooms. So that’s a good part of the work that I do, and then my staff is here working with kids one on one and in small groups throughout the school year and in summer.
Alexis: Out of the dozens and dozens of tips that you have, can you share maybe one or two tips for students who may be struggling with their writing skills?
Bonnie: Wow. That’s a loaded question. It’s loaded only because there’s so many tips and there’s so many very individual ways in which we find writing challenging. So the tip to the educator is figure out what’s most in the kid’s way and work on that, focus on that. The place that I see the majority of students really, really struggling that I have worked with over the years is within the realm of organization.
Bonnie: They either don’t have effective strategies to organizing their thoughts or they don’t have an organized way of just tackling a writing assignment. And so assignments have gotten really much more complex. We’ve really bumped the rigor in this country in terms of written expression and literacy, and people are playing a pretty intense game now, really trying to educate kids to be college ready and career ready by the time they leave high school. And the complexity of writing assignments has really increased in the 25 or so years that I’ve been working with students. So they’ve got to have some techniques and some ways of going about an assignment that it’s not like recreating the wheel every time they sit down.
Bonnie: And some kids are really good at developing those for themselves and they have a good sense of like “The first thing I do is this, and then I do this, and then I use this.” And even if they’re struggling, they kind of know where they are in the process. But other kids just feel an instant sense of incredible overwhelm and “I don’t even know where to start.” So there’s sort of a two-pronged approach. One is we have to give them a way of attacking a writing assignment step by step by step. So breaking that down, but breaking it down into steps that they can manage and they can reproduce no matter what grade they’re in and what subject area they’re writing in. That’s one thing. And then they also have to have some strategies that they can use reliably to organize their thinking because writing is just thinking. It’s just an expression of your thinking. So if your thinking is all over the place, your writing is going to be all over the place.
Bonnie: So you’ve got to harness your thinking and then the writing will come. It’s not about the writing. It’s really just about thinking and choices. That’s the whole key. So it’s both. And I would say educators are sometimes lost in the endgame and in the “Let’s just use this graphic. That’s just going to work for this assignment.”
Bonnie: And what I see frequently is kids are inundated with different strategies by different teachers in every class or every year. It’s a whole new game. And they can’t quite figure out something that’s going to work for them over and over and over again. So that’s largely the work that I’ve done with Dr. Bashir. And I really focused on how can we develop a method that kids can use in second grade, in third grade, in fourth grade, in fifth grade, in college, when they’re a CEO. It’s the same moves over and over again and the same strategies over and over again. The only thing that’s changing is the complexity of the assignment. And those are outside of their control. They’re just given assignments. What is in their control is their approach and their techniques. So that’s where you have to focus as a student, I think, and as an educator.
Alexis: So you’ve visited many schools all over the world and I’m sure you’ve seen lots of different approaches.
Alexis: Have you seen, I mean, some schools really dropping the ball and then other schools really doing a great job with how they approach writing, teaching it?
Bonnie: Well, I think a lot of teachers are really overwhelmed around the area of teaching writing. And it’s not their fault, actually. Whenever I do a professional development workshop for educators, I typically ask, “How many of you actually had a class in your teacher preparation graduate program focused exclusively on how to teach writing?” And I would say probably about 5% of teachers raise their hand. Most teachers don’t have any training in how to teach writing, but yet they’re expected to teach writing. And even middle school and high school teachers who teach English tend to teach English and gravitate towards that field and that expertise because they love reading and they love writing and they’re really good at it. And so they have a lot of intuitive knowledge about writing but not necessarily a lot of instructional training in how to teach kids to write. So it’s an aspect of education that’s really under-attended to in teacher preparation programs, and then you kind of push that forward into schools and what you see is teachers are sort of left to their own devices to figure it out.
Bonnie: And when they go to the internet and they try and go look, it’s one of the least researched areas of education that’s out there. We know a lot about reading. We know a lot about how to teach kids to read, how to help them comprehend, how to improve their vocabularies. We know a lot about math instruction. It’s really hard to study writing from a rigorous scientific point of view and so there’s far less research on what’s normal in terms of the development of writing and what’s problematic in terms of when writing is considered disordered or very deviant from what’s typical. There’s a lot of cultural influence on what’s typical for a third grader in one community is not typical for a third grader in a different community. So it’s just really hard for teachers to know what to do, honestly.
And a lot of teachers that I talk to will say, “Well, we have a scope and sequence for teaching math, and we have one for teaching reading, and we have one for teaching science and social studies, but we don’t have one for writing.” So in more recent years, I’ve seen schools trying to catch up and develop writing curriculum, “This is what we’re going to expect of kids in third grade, in fourth grade, in fifth grade,” and really putting more attention into both the methods that they’re using, the materials that they’re using, and the expectations that they have, and starting to try and crystalize that so teachers know what they’re supposed to be having the kids do. But some schools haven’t been able to do that yet. They’re not there yet. And that makes it hard for teachers to do a good job.
Alexis: Are there a few good resources out there for students with writing challenges to help better their writing skills? For example, like could we buy Brain Frames or…?
Bonnie: Well, Brain Frames requires some training.
Bonnie: So I do trainings. I work with teachers all over the place and work with schools all the time in terms of Brain Frames. Brain Frames all by themselves are not magical as for writing. Brain Frames can make a big difference if kids have strong language skills and a pretty good sense of how to organize text and they just are a little bit kind of like “I just don’t know what I think yet, so I got to get my thoughts together.”
Bonnie: Kids who really struggle with forming sentences, they really don’t understand how paragraphs work, they really don’t understand how to write an introduction, a conclusion, put an essay together, they need more than just Brain Frames. They really need more systematic instruction in the process of writing as well as some of the essential elements. And that’s where the EmPOWER methodology really steps in. So I would say for students, I think it’s really hard to be a student and trying to improve your writing all by yourself.
Bonnie: It’s not a skill that you can just kind of get better at without instruction. And some kids learn to read and then they just become voracious readers and they love it and they immerse themselves in reading and they do way more reading than all their friends. You do see that sometimes in students, but it’s a very small percentage who will just write for the love of writing. A lot of kids are like, “Ugh. I don’t want to write a paper.” You know?
Bonnie: You don’t see that, like “I just volunteer to write on my weekends,” in a huge percentage of the population. Some do, and that’s great. They’re going to grow up to be our journalists and our novelists and speech writers and have very important communication careers. But the vast majority of kids, they’re not writing for fun. And there’s not a lot out there for them to access that’s going to help them besides a really good teacher.
Alexis: Exactly. What’s the most rewarding part of your work?
Bonnie: Oh, boy. Watching a kid get it for the first time. Just that light bulb going on of “I understand something I didn’t know how to do before,” it’s pretty addicting, I’d say. I really love working with kids one on one, and I also really love working with teachers. I really love coming into a teacher and helping them figure out how to do their job better and solve a problem that they’re just… Teachers are so overworked and so stressed and under so much pressure to perform that they don’t have the time and energy to go become an expert in some area like this. They’re really looking to other people who have dedicated 25 years of their career to reading everything there is to know and researching and figuring out the solutions and then coming in and making their jobs easier. So I love partnering with teachers and helping them get their students where they want them to go. And I love my staff. I love mentoring my staff and just taking young speech and language clinicians or reading specialists or special educators and watching them grow, developing their expertise, watching them just become amazing educators. It’s awesome.
Alexis: That’s awesome. What’s the best way to get a hold of you and your firm?
Bonnie: Well, we have a website. It’s architectsforlearning.com and there are contact links through that website to contact us directly. Educators can sign up to be informed about upcoming trainings. There’s a little link. They can just say, “Put us on your training announcement list,” and then when we’ve got workshops or larger, more intensive trainings, we just send those announcements out to people. Probably the easiest is through our website.
Alexis: Awesome. And last loaded question. To any teens who may be listening to you today, do you have a couple of words of wisdom before they cross that bridge into young adulthood?
Bonnie: I would say… Oh, gosh. I have like a million words of wisdom. I don’t even know which one to start with. I mean, one is I would say if you absolutely hate writing and don’t get it, it’s probably not your fault.
Bonnie: It’s probably not your fault. You’re probably just fine. And keep looking for those teachers who seem to get it and teach in a way that clicks with you.
Bonnie: And then just go ask a lot of questions because finding the teacher who’s got the style that’s a good match for you is so critical to having that sense of like “I can do it” and even an interest in honing a skill turn on. That’s one thing. And the other thing is there’s a lot of pressure on kids right now with high stakes testing.
Bonnie: I mean, you know the pressure kids are faced with this whole college “You have to go to college.” College, college, college. And one thing I say to parents all the time is kids don’t grow up to study what they stink at. They grow up and they follow what their natural talents are and they hone them and they will find their way. And there are lots of kids that we see in my office where I can honestly look at them and say, “This kid is going to be an awesome, successful adult.” And school is going to be hard, so we just got to get them through school and out the other side so life can happen and their natural talents can flourish and you are going to have an incredibly successful child. So just hang in there and put the right nets under because school is all about language. It’s listening. It’s speaking. It’s reading. It’s writing. And increasingly now, it’s about being organized. And when any one or more of those skills is hard for you, school is challenging. But there are a lot of incredibly successful people who have gone on…look at them and they have dyslexia. They have ADHD. They can’t read at all. They compensate as adults because they’re bright and they find their niche. And that’s certainly working for me to find themselves.
Alexis: Terrific. Bonnie, thanks for joining us on “The Prepped and Polished Podcast.” I appreciate your time.
Bonnie: It was a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much.
Alexis: And this wraps up our show today with Dr. Bonnie Singer. To learn more about Bonnie’s amazing work with students, visit architectsforlearning.com, www.architectsforlearning.com. And check out Episode 32: Strategies for Improving Executive Function Skills with Sarah Ward. And if you want to access our SAT e-book, it’s free. Go to www.freesatebook.com. Thank you for joining us on “The Prepped and Polished Podcast.” Now go out there and take control of your education.
Woman: You’ve been listening to “The Prepped and Polished Podcast.” For more information, check out preppedandpolished.com. Also, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening. Class dismissed.
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