The staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors. We will be sharing more author spotlights with you, and hope you enjoy learning about these writers who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following interview was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News.
This month’s spotlight is on Ron Shumsky, Psy.D., and Susan M. Islascox, M.A., authors with Rob Bell, M.Ed., of The Survival Guide for School Success: Use Your Brain’s Built-In Apps to Sharpen Attention, Battle Boredom, and Build Mental Muscle. The premise of their book is simple: From struggling students to academic all-stars, everyone can do better in school. By developing executive functions, described as “mental apps,” we all can improve functions like focus and organization, which research proves are more valuable to school performance than intelligence or talent. Read on to meet these teachers and learn about how they came up with such a creative approach to academic achievement.
Q: How did the three of you team up? Tell us a little bit about your journey and decision to write The Survival Guide for School Success.
Ron: Susan and I had been trying to teach kids about attention for a very long time—using the tools available in our field, mainly centered on ADHD and so forth. This yielded paltry results, so we started taking a different approach—showing kids how attention actually works, and by extension, how to work it. This worked better, and we decided to write it up. At that point, we also brought Rob on board as illustrator and creative designer; creating images which enable the reader to see attention, rather than just read about it.
Susan: Ron asked me whether I was interested in teaming up for a six-month project to write a book about helping students use their attention better. Ten years later I think that the six-month period is finally over. As a teacher who helps struggling students with their academic work, I always pursue ways to assist them better navigate their school life. So, clarifying ways to teach how to use executive functions more efficiently was a fabulous opportunity for me. We approached the book from the perspective that everyone can work their attention better; people with a label of ADHD don’t have the corner on the market with needing strategies to manage their time or pay attention more efficiently. This process has certainly made me a better teacher.
Q: What sets this book apart from other books about learning to focus?
Ron: 1) It’s about attention and how it works (rather than ADHD and how it doesn’t). 2) It shows attention, rather than just talking about it. 3) It teaches kids how to operate attention better, rather than just telling them to do so (and blaming them when they don’t).
Susan: Finding more effective ways to help students understand how their minds work and use strategies to be more successful in life, has always appealed to me. That is just what we did in my classroom when we revised and fine-tuned our apps. Now, I love it when my students articulate how they plan to use the apps to make school life more manageable: how one student plans to use her Pizza Cutter app to break a big assignment into smaller tasks, how another student identifies what’s on his Video Screen app that highlights his reason to start an undesirable undertaking, how yet another student uses her Calendar app for fitting in all the tasks into a busy day.
Q: What was your favorite thing about school as a kid?
Susan: Miss Feyder’s second-grade book corner in Sioux City, Iowa, has a special spot in my heart. She gave us a challenge to see how many books we could read. That project sparked my curiosity, and my competitive spirit—I couldn’t get enough. Books became my avenue to explore new worlds, learn new information, and immerse myself in the stories of others. It propelled me to be a lifetime reader. It also helped that I received a chocolate rabbit at the end of the school year for reading so many books at ever higher reading levels.
Ron: Last day of school, graduation, getting it done and finished.
Q: What was your least favorite?
Ron: The stultifying boredom, particularly in middle and high school (elementary school was markedly less so, and by college and beyond I’d learned ways to deal with it). Indeed, this is a central part of our book; how to apply yourself and take on work that you have little or no interest in doing.
Q: What is your favorite thing about school now?
Susan: I enjoy meeting the new students in my class—each adds a new dimension to my understanding about what it means to learn. My favorite part is witnessing when students figure out what works best for them as learners. I especially like watching wide-eyed goofy ninth graders grow into more mature learners who, by their graduation time, already know themselves so much more than what any of us, teachers and parents, would have expected.
Q: And what do you like best about working with your students?
Susan: When students meet with academic success without sacrificing their spirits.
Q: What makes you a “Free Spirit”?
Susan: I love the opportunity to keep learning: living in Japan while teaching at an international school has been a fabulous experience. I see the American culture from a new perspective while learning from my host country’s treasures and warts. My family likes traveling, especially hiking in the nearby mountains and enjoying the local delicacies. Not owning a car during all of this time has enabled us to discover many corners of Japan by bicycle, train, and on foot. Also, I love cooking and baking for friends and relatives; I consider myself the reigning queen of Tokyo in the baking of runzas and jelly-filled muffins. And I definitely am one of the few who prepares yakisoba when I visit family in the Midwest of the United States.
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