The Joy of Discovery

Dear Followers of “Minding My P’s and Q’s,”

It is my pleasure to welcome Linda Wachel as our Guest Blogger.  Linda is the Director of Technology and Resource Specialist at Oak Hill Academy. She recently attended a state computer education conference in Austin which sparked some great tidbits of information and insights to share.  Enjoy…


“If we can instill into our students the Joy of Discovery, then one day they will CHANGE THE WORLD!”            Bill Nye – The Science Guy

I had the privilege of hearing a keynote presentation by one of my children’s childhood heroes – Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Around my house in the late-90’s Mr. Nye’s PBS science special was second only to Zoboomafoo, when it came to binge television watching. And if you know Zoboomafoo, the lemur, you know the cute factor gave him an unfair advantage in this competition.  Mr. Nye kept my girls occupied (and educated in the area of science) for hours while I cooked dinner, laundry, etc. With his animated presentation style (due to a strong fascination and passion for his subject) and his quick wit, he has quite a knack for holding the attention of children and adults alike.

In his keynote address to a room full of educators at the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference in February, he inspired and encouraged teachers to instill the “joy of discovery” in their students.  He said that students empowered with this gift will one day “CHANGE THE WORLD!”  This concept was repeated throughout the conference, the largest technology education conference in Texas.  As I attended session after session throughout the week-long conference, I saw a pattern of new buzz words like STEM, STEAM, Makerspace, and AR (Augmented Reality) sprinkled throughout the presentations.  Some of these terms were unfamiliar at first, but I quickly realized that these concepts are already woven throughout Oak Hill Academy’s curriculum, events and programs.

STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

STEAM = the same as above with some Art mixed in

Makerspace = a structured opportunity for students to create, problem solve, think outside the box, explore the world of STEAM with a hands-on approach

Augmented Reality = in simple terms this is the fusion of digital information with either live streaming video or the viewer’s real environment. One of the first times many people may have become aware of this type of augmentation of reality may have been when watching a sporting event on television. Television viewers are now used to seeing the virtual “first down” line superimposed on the field.

Our science teachers have developed a curriculum that is rich in these concepts, while incorporating the hands-on approach that our students love.  For example, Middle School science classes have been busy working in teams to create their own roller coaster.  In a wonderful cross-curricular assignment, Mrs. Mendenhall has guided them from the creative concept phase to the implementation phase, with great practical lessons in fundraising, budgeting, teamwork, planning and, of course, some physics, along the way.

girls coastershmu coasterred team coaster

Similarly, Mr. Coffey led the campus in various challenges over the years – designing and devising the most aerodynamic gliders, the swiftest sailboats for the Rain Gutter Regatta, and the most powerful catapult for our Marshmallow Launch. Each of these events combined classroom knowledge with creativity and problem solving – and a little healthy competition.

Makerspace technology

Mrs. Hewitt’s Makerspace in progress – come tinker with us!

The Makerspace concept gives students an opportunity to implement all of these skills, exploring the world around them, with encouragement to see things from a different perspective.  Mrs. Hewitt has found a use for our outdated technology: instead of calling a technical recycling company to haul off the old computers and printers, she has set up a station in her Fine Motor and Handwriting class where students can tinker with and investigate the workings of these devices.  Armed with screwdrivers and a sense of curiosity, students tinker with these machines, taking them apart with the promise of keeping any component they are able to disassemble.

elements 4d

Click image for a video demo.

And of course, the world of technology attracts our students like a magnet, drawing them into a realm of augmented reality that sparks an inquisitiveness like no other. With iPad apps like Elements 4d –  where students learn that combining a Hydrogen cube with an Oxygen cube will result in the new cube filling up with water – who can resist experimenting with every element to see what else you can create!   Another ideal example of augmented reality is the ever popular Minecraft – check out Oak Hill’s Minecraft summer camp sessions, scheduled June 8-19 and July 27 – August 7.

Oak Hill Academy plans to celebrate all things Science and Numbers on our first Numeracy Live on Wednesday, March 25th.  Students will research famous scientists and mathematicians, and come dressed as one of these men or women who dared to change our world with their STEM knowledge and joy of discovery. I can only imagine what incredible innovation will someday better our lives as the result of Oak Hill students who are learning that tinkering, exploring, creating, and problem-solving lead to the Joy of Discovery!

In a recent pre-school story time in the library, we celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday by reading one of his classic rhyming stories that truly sums it all up: Oh the Thinks You Can Think!  According to The New York Times, this book “Contains one of Dr. Seuss’s solid-gold morals, the joy of letting one’s imagination rip.”

OhTheThinksYou can think about red.
You can think about pink.
You can think up a horse.
Oh, the THINKS you can think!

Think left and think right
and think low and think high.
Oh the thinks you can think up if only you try!

Thanks to Pam for letting me share on her blog platform!  I welcome your comments and discussion.  I will be monitoring the comments on this blog post. If you have questions or would like to share your thoughts on inspiring our children,  I would love to hear from you!

Linda Wachel

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Happy New Year!

bts road sign

On your mark, get set ….  GO!  We’re off and running into a new school year, which brings feelings of excitement, anticipation, and often a little anxiety – and that’s just for us adults.  Imagine what is going through the minds of our children as they adjust to a new classroom, a new set of teachers, a new group of peers, and maybe even a whole new school.  So it’s no wonder that as they put on that new pair of school shoes or load up crisp notebooks into new backpacks that they feel a jittery stomach or a slight headache.

One of the many things I love about Oak Hill is that we so quickly see the students start bounding out of their cars in the morning with big smiles and a happy heart.  On many occasions, I have had parents tell me, “thank you” for helping their “real” son or daughter return to them – their child who used to love to learn new things and used to love going to school.  I am sure you have heard, as I have, parents and educators throughout the country refer to the school experience as a “battle zone.” And I am not just talking about inner city schools with issues surrounding violence.  I am talking about students having to suit up emotionally to enter their prep school classroom where they are vulnerable to comments from mean-spirited peers or to rigid expectations from misguided teachers.  It is so rewarding to have the luxury of teaching in an environment where the student, and his/her learning needs, comes before the system itself.

As a parent, and now grandparent, myself, I certainly can see how easy it is to get sucked into the rat-race of school “stuff,” and it requires some Herculean strength to break free of the perceived expectations from your well-meaning parent/friend community.  For example, I grew up in a family where both parents were supportive of school activities and certainly had appropriate academic, athletic, and social expectations of their four children; but they didn’t hover over every homework assignment or scrutinize every decision a teacher made.  I am afraid that the hypercritical atmosphere which is ever growing in our educational world is leading to a palpable feeling of pressure on our children and teachers alike.  Are we surprised that anxiety and depression in children is now a common diagnosis in every community?  How sad!

Now don’t get me wrong.  Parental support and involvement (to a degree) is wonderful and very beneficial to the success of students – just don’t overdo it and let it be your only mission in life.  Children need to see a balance of interests and activities in their parents’ lives as good modeling for their own future.  And just as important, it’s great for children to see their parents TRUST others – trust the teachers, trust the coaches, trust the friends.  That doesn’t mean we don’t keep a watchful parental eye to ensure the safety of our children, it just means we don’t micro-manage every single thing our children experience and prevent them from learning how to deal with those less-than-perfect life happenings.

As we start this new school year with the treadmill running at 120 mph and you filling up your gas tank twice a week as you drive from kid activity to kid activity, do yourselves a favor and STOP!  I know it’s tempting to sign up for soccer teams AND art lessons AND cub scouts AND martial arts AND violin AND, AND, AND.  But just think about what you are now excluding ….  Eating family dinner around the table together (check out,family dinner project taking a bike ride around the block, building a Lego project on the den floor, completing a family chore (a whole other topic I will blog about one day), reading a book aloud together, asking the neighborhood friend to just come and play.  Yes, those were the good ole’ days – but guess what?  YOU can take control of your life and your schedule.  Choosing one activity, or at the most two, is great; but the cartoonmessage, and again pressure, of expecting our kids to do it all is unreasonable and unfair to our children.  JUST SAY NO – remember this slogan for anti-drugs?  Well our new addiction is to being busy – all the time.  It’s okay to say NO.   We’ll probably go through a period of withdrawal, but it’s worth it!   Maybe we could start up a 12-step support group, but, oh no, that would mean another meeting each week.

So now, hop in the car, go pick up those adorable children of yours from school with their clean, white tennis shoes and brand new pencils, give them a hug, and say, “Let’s go home and play!”


Posted in Culinary Arts, Education, Foodie, Parenting, Self-Esteem, Special Education | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chicken….or The Egg?

The Egg – the most elemental symbol of life … a quintessential image of spring … renewal … simplicity … nature.

The Chicken – a symbol of maternal care … a creature unencumbered by great intelligence (very diplomatic wording, don’t you think?) … a regarded food source for the common household (“a chicken in every pot”) … a downright funny animal.

So, the age-old question, which came first? Well, this debate will probably remain for eternity; but we wanted our Oak Hill students to have the opportunity to experience learning firsthand about both. This past summer, two of our terrific Oak Hill staff members, Leslie Mendenhall and Brit Smart, along with several other volunteers, made this dream become a reality by building an awesome chicken coop to go with our organic learning garden. Now, of course, you can look around the country and find all sorts of garden and chicken programs in schools, but the OHA model is a bit unique in the way we are developing ours to be successful for students with a range of learning differences and sensory challenges. Leslie and Erin Scheuermann, our resident “Hen Whisperers,” are guiding our junior urban farmers through our coop curriculum and have even created a Hen Booster’s Club.

Oak Hill Academy Hen House

Oak Hill Academy Hen House


Leslie recently convinced one of our hens, Nugget, to be a contributing guest blogger. So, here are some chicken nuggets from Nugget …

Nugget - Guest Blog Contributor

Nugget – Guest Blog Contributor

A little chicken chat…
One day you live in a big barn with a hundred hens of various shapes and sizes, and the next day you find yourself living in a sweet little hen house on a quiet school campus with your sister and best friend. Butterscotch and I consider ourselves super lucky to be here at Oak Hill. It took us awhile to get used to all those enthusiastic children, but once they started feeding us treats of broccoli leaves and fresh grubs, we realized that this is a great place to be!

Home Sweet Hen House

Home Sweet Hen House

We spend our time relaxing in the shade, scratching in the dirt, enjoying a sand bath or two, and laying an egg every now and then. The highlight of our day is each afternoon when the gate is opened and the students let us out into the pen to dig for bugs. One day I found a snake and after a little argument with Butterscotch, I ate the whole thing by myself. Maybe it was a little selfish of me not to share, but she didn’t share the big gecko she caught last weekend either!

Nugget and Butterscotch enjoy a sand bath.

Nugget and Butterscotch enjoy a sand bath.

When we moved to Oak Hill, Butterscotch and I learned that we are Buff Orpingtons, but more exciting than that, we found out we are great teachers too! We’ve taught the kids about the responsibility of caring for animals and all about eggs. They learned that hens lay eggs without the help of a rooster, and that with good nutrition and plenty of sunlight, we lay the most delicious brown eggs almost every day. The kids have enjoyed collecting, conducting a few experiments, and eating our eggs. The Middle School students have even joined us in our first business adventure: “Happy Eggs from Happy Hens!” After collecting our eggs, they carefully wash, package, and deliver our eggs to our customers.

IMG_4719 (2)

Preparing the eggs for sale

The first customer for my "Happy Eggs from Happy Hens"

The first customer for my “Happy Eggs from Happy Hens”

We have also noticed that the students at Oak Hill are making the connection between what lives and grows on a farm and how that relates to what they eat. Some students didn’t realize that the chicken they buy at the store, or the sandwich they eat at Chik-fil-A, comes from birds just like us. (Thank goodness we aren’t in that line of work!)

Who knew all of this could happen to two little hens from the country!
Bye for now! 🙂 Nugget

P.S. It’s going to get a little quiet around here this summer….if you would like to come visit, see your latest We-Mail for information on how to join our Hen Booster Club.

For further research on the debate, check out this Caldecott Honor and Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor book by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.

For further research on the debate, check out this Caldecott Honor and Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor book by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.


Posted in Cross Curricular Teaching, Culinary Arts, Education, Entrepreneurs, Learning Garden, Literature, Special Education, STEM, Urban Chickens, Urban Farming | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aretha Franklin, You Go, Girl!

aretha franklinI frequently meet with groups of teachers, school administrators, parents, therapists, etc., and am asked about what is one of the most important things that makes our school so successful in helping special needs kids.  The truth is – what I feel is the MOST important quality we embrace is what EVERY teacher, in EVERY school, EVERYWHERE should embody; and that is R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Do you hear the Motown song in your head:  Okay, now, make it your mantra!

I’m now going to step up on my big ole’ box of Ivory Soap for a moment and do a little ranting (I’m sure I’ll be keeping this box handy for future blog rants because my blood does get boiling when I see so many ineffective practices happening in today’s educational world – so please bear with me … and don’t turn on any water or we’ll be overcome with soap bubbles).

Now, how could the notion of operating with a “respect first” policy be somewhat foreign to so many teachers and administrators?  I don’t know, but it seems as though RULES reign supreme over RESPECT.  Now don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a time, place, and need for rules – we can’t have a working society without them – but if we are all working out of a framework of respect, then we don’t need as many rules or as many rewards and consequences.

So, how can RESPECT be woven into the fabric of a school?  Well, let’s think of different types of respect:

1.                   Respect of the environment and all the “stuff” that’s around us.

This notion may seem like a subtle distinction, but it has a profound impact on kids – the school is THEIRS!  It is their classroom, their playground, their bathroom, their desk, their library, etc. …. you get the picture.  Here’s the key … with ownership comes responsibility.  Gosh, if the classroom is a mess, we better all pitch in and clean it up.  We want to show off our classroom to other kids in the school.  If there’s trash on the playground, we can all get it cleaned up – fast.  Then we can be proud of our playground when we have visitors on campus.  Goodness, I don’t want MY desk to look like a tornado came through, so I better straighten it up.

 This same respect can be taught to children in their use of materials, and start when they are YOUNG!  If a pre-school student hast spent time building a block tower, then we teach the children not to knock it down (although it is SO tempting), but rather take it down one block at a time because it is the way to respectfully handle the blocks.  The same approach goes for the high school junior handling the electron microscope – you get the idea.  This mindset can spread like a fabulous virus, if you foster it!

                 2.            Respect of other people.

There must be a shortage in our gold supply because our old “Golden Rule” has become more like the “Aluminum Foil Rule”  – sort of a treat others like you want to be treated, unless you just don’t want to.  Ugh.

 Now treating children with the respect they deserve may not always be easy, but we ARE the adults (at least our birthdates probably suggest we are), and we CAN override that knee-jerk temptation to correct or command a child with THAT tone of voice.  You know the one I am talking about … the one that makes you think of John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.”  Okay, I’m showing my age, but you should seriously stream that one off of Netflix one day, if you haven’t seen it.  Anyway, it’s that “I’m more powerful than you, and you have to do what I say, no matter what” kind of voice.  When you are on the receiving end of that voice, you just want to shrivel away – or you’ll want to put up your dukes and say, “oh yeah? Just make me!”  Either way, not a good situation.

 However, if you win the child over with care and respect, you can push them in ways you’ve never dreamed.  Here’s an example – Billy is a 3rd grader who is a struggling reader and has a hard time with impulse control (that means he interrupts the teacher a lot).  Now Billy isn’t feeling super good about himself because when he was in a different school last year, he was embarrassed when the other kids read aloud, and he was skipped over.  Then when the class was talking about stuff he knew a LOT about, like planets, he would try to shout out the answers but would get “in trouble” [“Billy, if you interrupt me one more time, I am going to send you to the counselor!”]  He hated going to school.

 At his new school, Billy’s teacher helps him read aloud, if he wants to, and she has asked him to be their classroom astronomer, where he can make a cool model of the planets to be on display.  He gets 3 poker chips he can use during class to “redeem” for sharing an answer, and when those are gone, it’s okay, he knows he’ll get more tomorrow.  He can’t wait to jump out of the car and go to school now!

 Is it magic?  No, just a little dose of good ole-fashioned respect!

 3.                    Last, but not least, is the type of respect we need to be able to do the first          two … Self-Respect.

The tricky thing is that I think this often gets blurred with self-esteem.  We Baby Boomers have been all about boosting EVERYBODY’S self-esteem, which may be well-intended but mis-guided.  We give trophies for suiting up, medals for showing up, ribbons for cheering up, etc., etc.  After a while, there seems to be an expectation by children that they will receive some sort of award, no matter what they do.  It doesn’t take long for the kids to even recognize how shallow these awards are.

 I think there’s a huge difference between someone telling you that you did something well and you looking in the mirror and liking the person looking back.  Whether you are an adult or a child, if you feel good about choices you are making – that they are in sync with your personal value system – you then have the internal strength to tackle those times of frustration or temptation.  You don’t have to rely on the approval of others when you have self-respect.

Now, sometimes kids start getting more attention for making bad choices than good ones; and, as we know, negative attention is better that no attention.  On occasion, I have been told by a student not to bother trying to help them because they are just a “bad kid.”  No, that’s just a kid who has lost all self-respect and is on a doomsday course.  They have probably made some bad choices, which probably resulted in some increasingly harsh punishments, and so the cycle begins.  Well, I am just too stubborn to accept that kind of scenario.  I put on my detective hat and find SOMETHING positive about their character (perhaps it’s their tenacity in holding on to being “bad”) and then find something that interests them.  We use that interest for them to help someone else, and THEN the outward and inward respect starts to gradually build back up.  WHEW!

We don’t really teach self-respect, we model self-respect.

 Okay, I could rattle on and on about this issue, but I will force myself to get down from my soap-box for a while.  I would LOVE to hear from you about how you weave respect into your life and the children’s lives around you.  It IS the key.

 Now listen to  one of  “Motown’s Greatest Hits,” and enjoy yourself some R-E-S-P-E-C-T!!!


Posted in Class Room Management, Education, Parenting, Self-Esteem, Special Education, Success | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Minding My P’s and Q’s – Confessions of a Peach Asparagus

Okay, it’s time for “True Confessions,” as if you won’t be able to tell in a few minutes, but I am a novice blogger – even a novice blog-reader.  So please forgive me if I’m not up-to-date on blog-isms and haven’t really studied blogography. And, yes, you guessed it – I AM over the age of 50 and try to avoid mirrors at all costs which remind me that I am not, in fact, the thirtysomething that I feel I am.  Wow, where did these last twenty years go so fast?  I guess into the blogosphere, where I am trying to launch myself.

So, you may ask, why IS this person entering the Brave New World of blogging?  Well, all I can say is that it was either this (where I hope to attract at least 4.3 people to read along on an occasional basis) or submitting a 627 word weekly article to the Daily Planet Digest in hard copy (which will be used to line hamster cages throughout Texas).

Now with gazillions of blogs being written every day all across the globe, what will THIS blog offer?  SURPRISE – I am a special educator …  SURPRISE – I am a mother and grandmother … SURPRISE – I am a speech-language pathologist … SURPRISE – my twenty-five year old son was adopted from Russia at the age of thirteen … SURPRISE – I oversee a special needs private school for students with TONS of potential but with challenges like dyslexia, dysgraphia, sensory integration deficits, speech-language delays, attention deficits, high-functioning autism, school anxiety … SURPRISE – I LOVE puzzles and games (problem-solving is my thing) … AND SURPRISE – I am pretty much calm throughout any storm.

So, again, why would you read this blog?  You could read it as a teacher or therapist to find out strategies and tips for teaching children with learning differences. You could read it as a parent to know you are NOT alone out there and there is a community of support and ideas for YOU.  You could read it to learn of high-tech and low-tech resources for the classroom or home.  And, hopefully, you could read it to have a chuckle or get a lump in your throat over something exceptional that happens most days around my school.  This will definitely be a journey for us both.

I also happen to be a “foodie” and wannabe good cook; so prepare yourselves that I may often collide the worlds of education and culinary arts – it’s just so dad-gum fun to think about kids and recipes at the same time.  This connection may actually go back to the time my then four-year old son was answering the question at his pre-school circle about what his mom did for a living.  Having no idea what a “speech therapist” was, not to mention how to pronounce it, he responded that I was a “peach asparagus.”  I have been trying to live up to that job title ever since.

Posted in ADDHD, Autism, Culinary Arts, Dysgraphia, Dyslexia, Education, Foodie, Parenting, Special Education, Speech Language, Speech Pathology, Speech Therapy | Tagged | 7 Comments