I used cognitive behavior therapy techniques on myself this morning in order to get my “ssa backwards”* to the gym today. Sometimes, you have to light your own fire, so to speak. I told myself: “You never feel worse after going to the gym” and “You are stressed from end-of-year assessment panic season and you will feel better.” Those didn’t work to motivate so I tried, “Those vegan candy bars you have been eating every day are not actually healthy just because they are vegan, missy.” That one sealed the deal.
I arrived to find my favorite machine available**. I put in my headphones and shuffled my music. Music is amazing how it can trigger memories, isn’t it? When I hear Salt ‘N Pepa, I think of junior high, when I hear Frank Sinatra, I am transported back to my first dance with husband at our wedding. I have long thought that music is a great way to reach students as well. I know that I still sing a stupid skip-count song in my head when doing multiplication. Those jazzy “Skip Count Kid” songs are burned into every layer of my brain.
Anyhoo, when my heart rate was about 145, within my target heart rate, a song came on that reminded me of a class of middle school students with developmental disabilities. I just can’t escape work. But this particular song made me smile, and you will love that it is a Backstreet Boys song. Hello. My name is Rebecca, and I like the Backstreet Boys. Because I am apparently a 12 year old girl in the late 1990s. So I am totally going to date myself, but this song, I Want it That Way was enormously popular in my first year of graduate school when I was doing my first year placement in the schools. Allow me to refresh your memory. *warms up voice* Mi mi mi mi…
You are my fire
My one desire
Believe when I say
I want it that way
Is it coming back to you yet? If I was fancy, I would know how to put an MP3 file of the song on my blog entry. So why does this remind me of a class of developmentally delayed students? Because I met this teacher who had his class put together a music video to this song. I’m not sure what standard it was related to, but I’m sure some tech one. In any event, the teacher showed me the video and it was friggin’ awesome. It reminded me of a bad karaoke video. The kids were playing out the lyrics, but they were super literal about it.
You are my fire was met with an image of a flickering flame
My one desire: kid holds up a sign with the number 1 on it
Believe me when I say I want it that way: kid points to another kid and nods his head.
I mean, how awesome is that? Then it became a bit more “abstract” as the two kids held hands around the school and pretended they were in love and stuff. But nerdy me always thinks of this as a good example of how kids move from the concrete to the abstract in learning concepts. Literal analysis is expected of younger students and students with developmental delays. I once had a kid with autism freak out on me because I said, “Give me your hand” and he thought I literally wanted to take his hand, not hold it. I have had parents worry that their kids don’t understand idioms, don’t make inferences in reading or get the big idea, or only understand math algorithms and not the concept behind it.
So how do you help kids move from the concrete to the abstract? Teachers will know these things, but I thought I’d spell out some general ideas and let all y’all contribute more:
1) You must understand typical cognitive development in order to calibrate when difficulties with abstract thinking are normal or an area of difficulty. I think of one of the grandfathers of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget, who has a beautiful theory about when kids’ levels of abstraction develop.*** To oversimplify, kids are not “mini-adults” capable of reasoning like we do. They do not begin to grasp abstract concepts fully until around age 12, and even then, there is variability. Younger kids can make abstractions, but often need concrete materials to do so.
2) Use concrete aides to illustrate abstract concepts. For example, if you are working on helping early elementary kids categorize and think of the “big idea”, you could borrow from my favorite gal, Maria Montessori, and use materials. Get a bunch of objects/toys/pictures and have kids sort them into categories (e.g. transportation, food, things you use in school, things you use in the kitchen, fruits)
3) In math, use actual manipulatives to teach abstract concepts. For example, use a balance to teach equivalence, use base-10 blocks or money to teach place value, or use 3-D objects for geometry, etc.
4) For older students, creating meaningful, real-world examples is another way to help with abstraction. For example, use surveys to teach statistics, have a mock trial to teach civics, role-play a fake stock market to teach about the great depression (um, or about today’s economic crisis), use gardening to teach science, measurement, and math, teach metacognitive reading strategies on how to connect text to other text, yourself, and your world. Make writing meaningful with these strategies.
5) Understand that having a disability can pose challenges for abstract thinking. For example, students with auditory processing problems or students on the autism spectrum may need assistance in non-literal language (e.g. idioms, nuance, inference). Students with developmental delays, like my video-making friends, may need real-world modeling, concrete aides, and explicit instructions/explanations (e.g. “you are my fire” is a term that some people use to say they love someone, because they feel warmth in their hearts).
6) So. Much. More. I have only touched the tip of the iceberg (not literally) on how to make abstract concepts concrete. Now it’s your turn to share your favs…be sure to include what age group you work with!
p.s. You are all my fire…for writing this blog, that is.
*Term courtesy of my mom. Love it.
**I wish there was a velvet rope around this machine. It is the only one that monitors heart rate and I just love data. Nerd alert.
***I am full of distractions today. But know that my old advisor from Berkeley met Jean Piaget in the 1960s and flew with him in a helicopter from Berkeley to San Francisco to catch a flight instead of driving the 15 miles to the airport. Who knew that generating a theory of development was so lucrative?