Thursday, April 3, 2014

The beauty of spring

Spring is in full swing here in the south and I am loving it.  There is so much natural beauty here year-round but spring time is special.  That is because it is both fleeting and spectacular.  I need this combination like a slap in the face.
And how I need that slap in the face!  I find that I get too busy, too wrapped up in the rat race to stop and appreciate life. 
The surprising beauty of a redbud tree with its purple flowers peeking through a mass of larger trees, or the blazing white flowers of a dogwood hiding in the forest always catches my attention.  Yet other patches of scenery occasionally catch my attention throughout the year.  What makes spring special, and what slows me down and forces me to pay complete attention, is the fact that it is fleeting.
I know that the redbud, crabapple, or dogwood flowers will be there for only a few weeks.  Then I have to wait a whole year before I can see them again.  That makes me stop.  I have to enjoy them right now, at this moment.
And it strikes me: shouldn't I do this with all things?  Shouldn't I stop and thoroughly enjoy the laughter of my son, or the hug from my daughter, or the peace that comes after everyone is in bed and all the chores are done for the night?  Rather than rushing onto the next thing on my list as I am prone to do.
So I am thankful for that brief, intense beauty that comes in spring.  And I will be praying that I can live my life in a manner similar to how I appreciate springtime in the south.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Physically Active Learning

I have been taking some education courses lately.  This was a report I did for one of them that I thought you might find interesting.

Physically Active Learning: A practical solution for increased learning?

I first became interested in physically active learning due to my interaction with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I have a child with ADHD and know how hard it is for her to sit still and accomplish a task. She has to get up, take breaks, and move around in order to concentrate on an academic task. Yet in schools I observed the common practice of making a child sit out of recess if they had not finished some instructional work. On an intuitive level this seemed counterproductive and I wanted to explore whether there was some science that connected exercise with learning. As I dug into the research I came across the idea of physically active learning in schools.
Physically active learning came into vogue in the early 2010s1,2, partly as a reaction to new research linking exercise and brain function and partly as a reaction to increased concerns over obesity and inactivity. Physically active learning is the idea that moderate physical activity, either before or during learning sessions, increases memory and executive brain functions1,2. Physically active learning sounds wonderful, but is it really necessary and/or practical for schools today?
Physically active learning is not the kinesthetic learning that is presently being used in schools. Though physically active learning and kinesthetic learning do overlap to some degree, they are different in philosophy and practice. Kinesthetic learning3,4 is a specific learning style that may help certain individuals to increase their ability to retain information. It relies on some form of psychomotor activity, whether as small as moving blocks at a desk or as large as dancing around a classroom, that is tied to the subject being taught. In contrast physically active learning applies more broadly to the population as a whole. All individuals experience a change in brain function when they exercise5,6. In addition the physical activity associated with physically active learning is always whole body exercise, not small fine motor skills activities. And finally the physical activity in physically active learning is not necessarily associated with the subject being taught.
It has long been known that there is a link between physical activity or fitness levels on both brain structure and brain function7. For example, two studies that looked at kids 9-10 yrs of age found that those children who were more fit had larger basal gangli and hippocampi, areas of the brain that control attention and memory8. Exercise has also been shown to increase the production of neurotropic factors, key elements to establishing new memories14,15. Furthermore studies have found a correlation between fitness and academic achievement9,10. Even when academic instructional time is decreased to provide for more physical activity such as PE, academic test scores do not go down1, 9.
However despite these results, there has been a steady decrease in movement and PE in schools as they attempt to keep up with mandates such as No child left behind. A 2013 bulletin from the Institute of Medicine reports that half the administrators of schools decreased PE time since 200111. This is despite the fact that rates of obesity in US children have doubled in the past 30 years, which brings along a whole host of problems related to health and self image12. Even at schools that still have PE, it is not uncommon for children to be disciplined for classroom infractions by being forced to sit out of PE or recess. This is especially common for children who are naturally active, like ADHD children, who create frequent disruptions in the classroom. In the belief that they need to make children concentrate harder on the material at their desks in order to raise test scores, educators may actually be holding back children from reaching their optimal performance when it comes to academic progress. This is why physically active learning techniques are so important.
Physically active learning links small amounts of moderate exercise with direct changes in the brain, and these changes are thought to lead to an increase in the ability of an individual to learn. A typical physically active learning study will have children or adults exercising for 20 minutes or resting for 20 minutes, followed by a study time or a testing time. These studies have shown that moderate exercise, such as walking or cycling for 15-30 minutes, increases memory, attention, and problem-solving in children13. One study looked at 20 minutes of stationary biking during a learning session of foreign words14. There was a significant increase in retention for those who participated in exercise compared to those who didn't. But what is even more exciting was that this improvement was most enhanced for those people who were “low performers”, ie those who had the most trouble remembering the words. In a study of children in Northeast Kansas public schools 16, teachers were taught how to implement physically active learning (called PAAC) and achieved at least 40 hrs per month of physical activity within the class. This led to decreased BMI among the students and increased reading, math, and spelling test scores. Other reports of the benefit of physically active learning are more anecdotal. In a Connecticut school kids crab-walk from place to place and report better attitudes and retention17. A Portland High School teacher uses musical chairs in her classroom, which keeps the students more engaged and focused17. From all of these studies it is evident that physically active learning exercise is beneficial to students.
In today's climate of shrinking PE time, more sedimentary lifestyles, ADHD and increasing rates of obesity, physically active learning is worth considering for the classroom. Unfortunately few teachers implement physically active learning in their classrooms. Some ways to incorporate physically active learning into a classroom include:
  • short breaks of jumping jacks
  • switching desks in the middle of instruction
  • running team relay races where words must be put in the correct place on a diagram/chart in order for the racer to go back to their team
  • playing musical chairs with true/false statements. When a false statement is said, the students scramble for the chairs.
  • dances that incorporate lessons (see crystal structure dance and mitosis dance)
  • disciplining kids by making them walk/run a track during PE or recess, rather than sitting still
Furthermore there are some webpages that have other ideas of physically active learning techniques:

  1. Study: Physical activity can boost student performance, downloaded March 2014 from
  2. Learning Styles, downloaded March 2014 from ;
  3. The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities., Gomez-Pinilla F1, Hillman C. , Compr Physiol. 2013 Jan;3(1):403-28. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c110063.
  4. Study Finds Aerobic Exercise Improves Memory, Brain Function and Physical Fitness , downloaded March 2014 from
  5. The Effects of Aerobic Activity on Brain Structure, Adam G. Thomas,1,2,* Andrea Dennis,2 Peter A. Bandettini,1,3 and Heidi Johansen-Berg2, Front Psychol. 2012; 3: 86.
  6. Phys Ed: Can exercise make kids smarter? By Gretchen Reynolds downloaded March 2014 from
  7. Brain boost: Sport and physical activity enhance children’s learning by Dr Karen Martin, School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia May 2010, downloaded March 2014 from;
  8. How Physical Activity Can Help Kids Do Better in School, downloaded March 2014 from
  9. Educating the Student Body Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, downloaded March 2014 from
  10. Childhood Obesity Facts, CDC, downloaded March 2014 from
  11. Physical Activity May Strengthen Children's Ability To Pay Attention, downloaded March 2014 from
  12. Physical Exercise during Encoding Improves Vocabulary Learning in Young Female Adults: A Neuroendocrinological Study Maren Schmidt-Kassow et al, Plos One May 20, 2013
  13. Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC): a randomized controlled trial to promote physical activity and diminish overweight and obesity in elementary school children Joseph E. Donnelly et al, Prev Med. Oct 2009; 49(4):336-341

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A good use for Halloween candy

If you are like my family, we always end up with too much Halloween candy.  So I was thrilled when my kids decided to explore what happens to candy in the microwave.  The results surprised me, and it turned into a great science experiment.

First, we picked out several different types of candy: chocolate, twizzlers, candy corn, bubble gum, lifesavers, and tootsie rolls.  Then we put them one at a time on a plate and microwaved them for up to 1 minute.  We observed what changes took place in the microwave, the time it took in the microwave for something to happen, the texture after it came out of the microwave, and the texture after it cooled.  Then using the information below and the ingredients in the candy we tried to explain what had happened.

Before we go any further, let me point out some safety issues:
The boiling candy is HOT, hotter than boiling water.  DO NOT let your kids touch or taste it.  Use a knife to poke at it to see what the texture is like.
Microwaves are electromagnetic waves that are strongly absorbed by water, less so by oil, and even less by starches/sugars or polymers.  If you continue to run a microwave without something in it to absorb the electromagnetic waves it can eventually damage your microwave.  So do not let your microwave run for 10 minutes or so if your candy does not seem to be doing anything.  At 1-2 minutes though, your microwave will not be damaged.
As sugars are heated to high temperatures, they will start to burn.  Watch your candy carefully!  If you start to see smoke coming from it stop the microwave and check on the candy.  If it is turning a dark brown or black, don't keep microwaving it.  None of the candies we tried produced a flame, but several did start to smoke before a minute was up (we carried the results outside to prevent the fire alarm from starting).
One other note: all of our "experiments" were easily cleaned off dishes after soaking the dishes for a while.  However I would recommend you do not use your priceless china for this.

So now that we know how to avoid accidents, lets get to the chemistry!

The three main ingredients you will find in candy are sugar, corn syrup, and a form of fat.

Sugar is what is called a simple carbohydrate.  Picture a small ring made of six carbons, with oxygens and hydrogens attached to the carbons.  A simple sugar can be made of one ring or two of those rings connected together.  When sugar is heated it starts to carmalize: the sugar molecules rearrange and combine with each other in such a way that water is given off and large chains of carbon/oxygen molecules are formed.  These chains have a brown color and are what give carmel interesting flavors.  As the sugar continues to be heated it will eventually give off so much water that what is left is the carbon, which is black and flaky (think of the ash left after you burn firewood).
The remains of a lifesaver.

Corn Syrup is essentially a sugar syrup.  It contains many of the sugar rings connected together.  It will also carmalize.

Fat, when heated, will first liquify.  This is what we saw with pure chocolate.  If the fat continues to be heated it will also brown but in a different way from sugar.  Probably what is happening is that the milk solids that accompany the fat in most candies is undergoing a Maillard browning reaction with the sugar that is also present.
Pure chocolate got soft, but otherwise didn't change.

Gum is made of an artifical petroleum polymer.  It did not seem to react at the temperatures a microwave can produce.

Here are a few more websites that explain heating/burning of foods. is similar to what I suggested above, but dealing with only pure sugar. explains carmalization. explains the Maillard reactions.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Integrated Listening

We are now in the second quarter of school and it has been AWESOME!  H is doing great.  She is taking control of her studying and is getting good grades.  And best of all she cares about her grades.  I have hardly had to do anything.  I have been totally amazed.  Even her teacher from last year has noticed her maturity from her actions in the hallway and at lunch.
We are still doing the integrated listening.  We did "sensory and motor" last year and "concentration and attention" this summer.  I can't say for sure integrated listening is responsible for her maturity; it could have just been part of a normal growth.  But there has been such a huge change that I would be surprised if integrated listening hasn't helped at least a little.
I hope your year is going as well as ours!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Eight Below

We watched Disney's "Eight Below" the other night and loved it.  Though I love animals, I usually don't care for how Disney handles animal movies (like "Air Bud", "Snow Dogs" or "Shaggy Dog").  "Eight Below" was different.  It is the story of the survival of eight sled dogs in Antartica, and their trainer's attempts to rescue them.  The scenery is spectacular, the dogs well trained, and minimum anthropomorphism is thrown into the movie.  The way the movie handles scientific research is a bit shaky, but not too syrupy.  The best part was the maturity of the characters.  Unlike alot of Disney films, you don't see the characters throwing fits, repenting and then changing later in the movie. 
So I obviously liked it.  But what about the kids?  The 10yr old was glued to the movie, the 8 year old fairly interested, the 5 yr old not at all.  Oh well.  I guess that means we will just have to see it again in 5 years when he is ready for it!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lego creations!


I am constantly amazed at the creativity my kids display.  Here are a couple of their recent lego creations:
This is H's "Shark Mobile".  Notice the clear compartment in which the shark-man can ride.

This is my middle son's "Roman villa" complete with a patio on which he can grill dinner.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Gluten Free Lunches/Snacks

A while ago Kate at Gluten-Free Gobsmacked asked about the type of gluten free lunches people take to work, being tired of mainly salads herself.  I sympathize with her plight as there are many times I would LOVE to be able to just grab something as I run out of the house and not have to plan ahead.  So I was thrilled to see these GOPICNIC boxes at my local Target. 
I first encountered GOPICNIC at a small airport when I was desperate for anything gluten-free.  The GOPICNIC box I found was fun, delicious, and safe.  Since then I have been asking all of the local grocery stores to carry them and I guess Target finally listened!  I bought as many gluten free GOPICNIC varieties as they had in stock.

At this point I should qualify that I am only planning to use these in an emergency.  At $4 a box, they are too expensive for me to use very often.  But just knowing they are in the pantry makes it easier to plan a regular lunch-to-go.

And that brings me back to Kate's request: what do I plan for lunches?  Here is a picture of some of my regular supplies:
The one I turn to most often is peanut-butter rice cake sandwiches (do not add jelly or honey to these; however nutella works well).  A close second (not shown) is a scrambled egg-and cheese quasadilla.  I also like to freeze fruit like peaches and berries when they are in season in muffin tins.  Then I store them in gallon bags, for an easy addition to some homemade yogurt (the frozen fruit keeps the yogurt cool until lunchtime).  My protein muffins are a favorite as well, but there are rarely enought leftover from breakfast to take for lunch.  I also love to bring some soup or casserole in a thermos if there is any available.  And with any lunch I add either some fresh or dried fruit, and maybe some nuts, cheese or pepperoni for an extra bit of protein if I am famished.  If it is going to be an extra-long day I might throw in some chocolate milk or pineapple juice for a pick-me-up.

There are some occasions where I need to travel for a few days and I like to bring along a meal as a "just-in-case" provision.  My favorites in those situations are Pacific's soups and ready rice, rice cakes and individual packages of peanut butter, and oatmeal with nuts/dried fruit.
As a final note I want to mention desserts.  The longer I have been gluten-free and eating healthy, the less satisfied I am with the typical M&Ms or candy bars.  So for a small bite of something sweet I take along a piece of quality dark chocolate or one of these fortune cookies.  There is something about a ridiculous fortune that tops off a meal perfectly.

Happy gluten-free eating!