Memphis, Tennessee is the birthplace of more than a few legends of rock and blues; B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Memphis Slim, and the King himself, Elvis Presley, all recorded songs here that have gone on to become classics. Given this rich musical history, there are very likely a few budding musicians among the 1,000 students at Whitehaven Elementary, which sits just down the road from Graceland on Elvis Presley Blvd. But thanks to Principal Robyn Weiss, who started a group of her students on Fast ForWord, there are bound to be plenty of good readers among them.

BrainConnection talks with Weiss, who started Fast ForWord during summer school this year with 30 students, about her school and her experiences with the program.

BrainConnection: How would you describe the students who are going through the program?

Robyn Weiss: The students are aged 7 and 8. They are kids who struggled all year in first or second grade. Several were retained because they don’t read on grade level.

BC: What are the demographics of your school?

Weiss: Whitehaven is a neighborhood school children who live in the neighborhood go to the school. We are a Title 1 school and have 1000 students. 75 percent of our students qualified for free or reduced lunch. There are 164 schools in the district; 104 of them are elementary schools. This is the largest public school system in Tennessee. 80 percent of the students in the district are African American and 100 percent of the students at Whitehaven are African American.

Reading scores have been poor—in the 30 percent quartile. Third graders read about 50 percent or better on standard tests. The group going through Fast ForWord scored in the first quartile in standard tests.

BC: You have just started the program, so you don’t have final results yet, but so far, how are the students doing?

Weiss: Five weeks into the program, 1/5 of the 30 students had completed 90 percent or better of the 4 games. We welcome that because one of those students tested to qualify for special ed, but now he’s one of the kids doing 90 percent or better.

You know when you first look at these kids and form an opinion about what he or she is capable of doing—I didn’t think this one student wasn’t going into special ed—you have your doubts. So his progress on Fast ForWord is pretty impressive.

We have five students with ADD going through the program and I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to sit through it. Of the five, one hasn’t changed. But another one is doing perfectly fine—he’s engaged and focused. There’s only one child I’m still working with. That’s a wonderful percentage.

We have a "greet and talk" time before starting Fast ForWord and it’s time to have conversation and for the children to learn to respond to each other in appropriate ways. We pass the little toy brain around to each child and it’s his or her time to talk.

One kid came back after the first week and he was sitting calmly, with his hands in his lap, paying attention to me. I didn’t believe it. His teacher says he is really zeroed in. He’s probably having success now that he’s never had. He could do nothing before; he couldn’t read even on the pre-primer level. He has surprised me with his progress in the games—his whole demeanor has changed.

Another student should have been retained in kindergarten because she’s developmentally three years behind. She was a preemie with medical problems. She asked for the brain the other day. I was floored. And she started talking about her strategies for playing Circus Sequence. Her teachers and I had always had a hard time understanding her because she didn’t articulate very well. But now we understood every word she said.

BC: How did you learn about Fast ForWord?

Weiss: I had been studying a lot about the brain and had gone to an Eric Jensen workshop and had heard Pat Wolfe speak, and heard David Sousa speak. Every time I went to a brain conference or read a book, someone would talk about Fast ForWord. I went to a brain disorders conference in Chicago. A lot of practitioners and physicians were in attendance and they all spoke so highly of Fast ForWord.

I knew enough about brain plasticity and its implications for education, so I was already a believer. When I was teaching kindergarten, I would see children about whom I was sure their problems were because of a processing problem. I would see kids who just didn’t have any language of their own. I knew they could hear me, but they couldn’t process the sounds. If I gave them the most simple things, they could not give anything back. So, I know that if we’re dealing with this processing and the problems related to that, we’re on the right track. We have the Voyager Program going in the building; it is a good program, but it’s more of the same. We’re not making the differences we need to make; we need something really phenomenal. It’s not just teaching sight words and phonics, it’s not that simple any more. I just feel like we’re on the right track and that we’ll make a difference.

BC: Motivation is a key to Fast ForWord training. What tools and strategies are you using to keep your students motivated?

Weiss: Each day we reward any improvement on Circus Sequence, because that’s the hardest game for everyone. We give them tokens, and on Friday they can use the tokens to purchase things in the store. They really like that.

They like earning their points, but you have to have incentives and celebrations on a daily basis. I make a big deal out of everything to provide motivation. And we celebrate all the time, too. I let teachers know to do that consistently. You can’t not celebrate every advancement, no matter how small.

They know I’m looking at those scores every day. We put sticky notes of their scores right on the screen. We tell them that if they start yawning or looking away, they need to look at that score and see what they need to beat that day.

BC: How do the students going through the program like it?

Weiss: The kids will say ‘I’m going to be a great reader’. The parent of one of the kids in the program says that he loves to come every day.

We have what we call the brain gym in the morning, to get the kids ready to do Fast ForWord. They used to listen to stories being read to them or listen to music. We hold it in the library. And now they’re ripping the books off the shelf. Before the books could sit there forever. The one kid who was going to be retained was reading to one of the other kids. It’s so cool to see. It’s just amazing.

BC: What do you think has been key to your success with Fast ForWord thus far.

Weiss: it’s a great program, but it takes a lot of coaching; you’ve got to be there to coach it. You can’t have a teacher teaching a class at the front of the room while a group of kids is going through the program at the back of the room. I want to send a student through with good coaching so I can get the most out of the program.

Others have wondered why our compliance is so good. One reason has been that we have our own technology person on board. He is a technology teacher during the year and now he is our troubleshooter. All the teachers have walkie talkies in all the classrooms so they can call him to come fix any problem that crops up. So, no one gets behind. If we had to wait for a glitch to be fixed, we would lose a whole day. Having someone to take care of those problems eliminates the wait time.

As long as we have that safety net, this program is marvelous. It’s got exactly what these kids are in need of.

BC: Do you have any advice to give to others about how to have a successful Fast ForWord implementation?

Being close to students helps me identify how I can help them improve their scores. An example is one girl who was getting so excited watching the graphics and activity at the end of a game that she was taking a long time to click on the icon to start the next round. But her delay in moving to the next round was affecting her scores. By sitting with her and watching her go through the game, I realized what she was doing. Attention is really important to making sure the student is doing the exercises correctly.

Before I started a student on Fast ForWord, I had a few requirements:

  • each student had to have a supportive person at home;
  • that person had to come to a meeting and listen to my spiel on Fast ForWord; and
  • the student had to have good attendance during the school year.

I stressed to the parents "you can’t miss." No excuses are good enough. You can’t miss a single day. One parent walks two miles every day to pick up her child.

I believe that when we make the first move—the school, the teachers, the principals—we always get good participation. The parents of these students want the same things we want, they just don’t know how to go about doing it. You have to invite them in and when they get there, you have to embrace them. Then there’s not anything you can’t help them do.

BC: How are the teachers reacting to the program?

Weiss: This program gives hope to the kids, but it also gives hope to the teachers. They say man this is great. We have something to celebrate. When we look at the day-to-day progress, we know we’re going in the right direction. Everyone is optimistic.