Welcome!

Thank you for visiting my blog!  As the Head of a school serving a unique population of learners, I am pleased to have a space to offer opinions, feedback and reflections on language-based learning differences and the field of education.  While many of my thoughts may directly relate to what goes on within the walls of Lawrence School, I hope many of my topics can be appreciated by a wider audience.

I welcome you to this space and hope you will join me in fulfilling the Lawrence School mission to teach students who have distinct learning styles, ignite their potential, and inspire academic and social success.

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Old Surroundings Reveal New Feelings Of Strength, Lessons Learned

You have brains in your head.                       Who goes to dine must take the feast
You have feet in your shoes.                           Or find the banquet mean;
You can steer yourself                                      The table is not laid without
Any direction you choose.                               Until it is laid within.

~Dr. Suess                                                           ~Emily Dickinson 

The sinking feeling was just under the surface as I sat in class during my second day of a two-week fellowship at Columbia University, Teacher’s College.

I was back in the classroom, sitting at a desk for the first time since 1980. There I was with 18 other heads of independent schools from all over the globe, classmates and Fellows at the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership, class of 2015.

The professor had just handed out a form and asked us to take 15 minutes to write our own philosophy of education ­– in response to readings by Michel de Montaigne and John Dewey, both of whom I had read before and both of whom I had read again in preparation for this class – and hand it in!

Immediately, I felt an eruption in my chest and brain; my skin flushed, and my mouth got dry. I felt my heart rate increase, and my palms started to sweat. I was back in the fifth grade taking a vocabulary and spelling test! Back then, I either knew most of the words but couldn’t remember how to spell them, or my handwriting was so bad my teacher would mark me down because she couldn’t read the letters.

My old nemeses – shame, fear, anxiety – jumped out of my skin and sat in front of me glaring and accusing: “Your handwriting is so bad, he won’t even read it” and “Your spelling will shock the professor; he will think you must be stupid.”

The feelings of shame and vulnerability never completely go away for me even though I can hide them fairly effectively; even from myself most of the time. And I have learned over the years from many other successful adults with learning differences like dyslexia and ADHD, that they, too, experience these moments of shame and embarrassment over feelings and experiences buried deep in the past; notwithstanding the many years and outward examples of achievement and success that may now bury them.

Quickly though, I reminded myself that I was no longer a child. I had indeed earned my place at this table of learning, and in this class among colleagues in independent school leadership. I have people who love me in my life, people who respect me in my profession, and many students and parents who know me as an experienced and successful head of school.

Yes, my handwriting is indeed sloppy, but my thinking is not. And while spelling continues to elude me, I have worked hard over many years to acquire and use a broad and deep vocabulary. Yes, I get help from others; and yes, I use technology that assists me in presenting my ideas legibly and spelled correctly. I access resources that help me use and align strengths so that most of the time my challenges and weaknesses can be rendered largely irrelevant.

Thankfully, the moment passed quickly. I am an adult.

I can exercise control over these situations and I have a context and a history to help me stay in the saddle even when the horse stumbles and I feel like I’m going to hit the dirt.

The vulnerability I felt in that moment was a great reminder of what so many of our children and students feel when they realize that other kids can do easily what they cannot, despite their hard work and best efforts. This not only robs them of confidence in their abilities, but also security in school.

I am therefore thankful to live in an enlightened community and serve at a great school with thoughtful and well-prepared colleagues who accept, understand, embrace and support students with learning differences. Their example to me is nothing less than the struggle of a human spirit to be free of assumptions and conclusions drawn about them in school environments that judge narrowly and marginalize the creativity and collaboration that will ultimately drive our success later in life.

I welcome your comments both publicly or privately. Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or e-mail me directly at lsalza@lawrenceschool.org.

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For Our New Parents, It’s a New School, Year and Outlook!

Each year, our new parents enter Lawrence Upper and Lower School for parent orientation sessions with serious expressions on their faces. Eyebrows are furrowed, chins set, shoulders hunched. They have visited schools in the past.

They brace themselves for what they have encountered previously. They prepare for worrisome sessions in which they begin to catalogue the various difficulties and struggles with which their son or daughter will have to contend: requirements, procedures and protocols that shove and poke at their children instead of embracing their approach to learning and encouraging their affiliation.

They grind their teeth anticipating homework battles and daily drama that disrupts family life. And worst of all, they worry that their child will continue to feel like strangers in school, or think of themselves as failures. They fear that their children’s confidence and self esteem will continue to decline as curriculum complexity increases year over year.

What happens next, however, lifts my heart. I watch it every year. By the end of the evening, their shoulders are lower. Their eyes brighten. Eyebrows raise and chins drop, broadening into smiles. They are chuckling and simply enjoying themselves at school!

What sparks this remarkable change?

First, they get fired from their job as homework helper! Then, they get a contact sheet of who’s who at the school with many reminders that we want to hear from them. Instead of carrying the burden of various worries around for days, they are encouraged to call, and we will help. Worry, they are told is a “form of prayer”; send it up (not onto your child) and call someone from the school to sort out what is troubling them.

Next, they meet the teachers and administrators, who not only see and hear their concerns as parents but understand and embrace their child. They begin to experience firsthand that Lawrence School is committed to reversing the trend seen at past schools where their children with language-based learning differences fell further and further behind their peers.  They begin to see that we have designed the school to operate and teach the way their children learn.

It’s a similar transition for our new students, who enter our doors unsure of what to expect. They are worried that they will be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed that they don’t understand or know something that everybody else seems to know.  Like their parents, they too quickly relax and revel in an environment that honors who they are, accepts them, affirms their strengths and challenges, holds them accountable in reasonable ways, and teaches them advocacy skills.

The result? They are heard in comments throughout the year.

“My daughter came home and told me she felt smart,” a parent of a new Lawrence fifth-grade student recently told me. Said others, “My son is running for student council!” and “He just came home and did his homework… on his own!”.

In a particularly moving moment, a graduating senior revealed last spring, “Lawrence allowed me to be a son again to my parents.”

I am extremely proud of the work we have been able to accomplish at Lawrence, and with a record-high enrollment this year my spirit soars knowing that we will be able to reach so many more students. Along with the increased enrollments, we have new Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. We are reaching out to bring our message of commonsense teaching to anyone who might benefit; to share what we have learned at Lawrence about creating learning environments that serve kids best.

I love the start of a new school year.

Even after all these years, it never gets old, is always invigorating and always inspires me. No matter how many times I hear the comments and observations from parents who begin their journey with us at one of these back-to-school sessions, each one touches me deeply. Each one represents a child and family transformed.

Each one, every year.

Best wishes for the school year ahead!

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Finding My Way: A Lawrence Senior Tells Her Story

This week we are thrilled to have a guest blogger who speaks to us with the authoritative, candid voice of recent experience. Adrianna graduates this May from Lawrence Upper School at what will be our 10th Commencement.

I found her essay poignant and powerful. I asked her if she would share it with our greater community of students, parents and professionals; and she graciously and courageously agreed.

Adrianna’s journey started with the heartbreak of feeling invisible in primary school due to her struggles with dyslexia. Her situation created a crisis at home for her and her parents. The feelings and experiences faced by both Adrianna and her parents resonate deeply with those who have dyslexia or know dyslexia ‘up close and personal’ as I do.

She is a delightful and articulate young woman who has turned the stumbling block of dyslexia into a stepping stone for her journey forward. Over the years at Lawrence, her aspirations for learning have been rescued by a program and a faculty trained and dedicated to building the competence and the confidence of children with learning differences.

Adrianna is has been accepted into Chatham College in the fall to study Interior Architecture.

My parents knew I was dyslexic in kindergarten. They had me repeat kindergarten to give me more time. I discovered I was dyslexic in third grade when my parents and I saw I couldn’t keep up in reading and math. In my classes, it was hard to focus and learn because the classes were big and I was in the back, one of many students. I was pulled out of class for a small reading group, but the teacher had to focus more on the kids acting badly than me who wasn’t bad. I just needed more time to have things explained to me. My parents started to look at other schools instead of the public school I was attending. They were even thinking about moving out of state to find a better school for me. I felt stupid. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I was depressed, lonely, and bullied. Having dyslexia didn’t help. It was a hard time for me.

My parents were worried for me. They saw I stopped working as hard. One late night my Mom was crying asking God what to do because she was so worried about me. She started looking through this local family magazine and read the ads in the back thinking I needed a tutor. She found an ad for a school that focuses on dyslexia and it was right in the area! She called them the next day and my parents went to visit. They fell in love with Lawrence School. They loved the small classes and the program. The director of admissions suggested I come in and shadow for a day. I was really nervous that they wouldn’t like me. My shadow student showed me all the amazing things about Lawrence. I fell in love with all the teachers. They were so kind and made sure everyone really understood what they were learning. I loved the small classes. No one was invisible. After I got picked up from Lawrence I told my parents how much I loved Lawrence. My parents said they were thinking about sending me there instead of the local school. We applied and I got accepted. I can’t imagine if I had stayed at my former school. I can’t imagine where I would be now. I don’t think I would have graduated from high school. I would not be going to visit colleges. I would not have been able to imagine going to college. I definitely couldn’t see myself planning to major in interior architecture.

Lawrence helped with my reading and math. I read a lot better than I ever would have a few summers ago. I read all four books in the Twilight series and my mom cried because I used to hate to read anything. It was painful for my parents to see me not like to read because they love reading everything.

Math is still hard but I push myself because I know how important it is. Junior year I took two math courses to catch up. Senior year I am doing it again to make sure I understand different areas of math and because I know it will be required in my personal and professional life. It is helpful that I know that my weaknesses are in math and reading because I know the tools to help me. For example, I sometimes use Google Voice Search to help me spell a word. Also, I know I can solve math problems with a calculator. However, there are times when I am going to ask for help. I know what skills I have to work on and how I can try to get better. By reading more and more, I’m getting better at reading which is a really good thing. My mom practices math with me or help me with a math question that I might not understand. Although math is still hard for me, I don’t give up because I know it’s very important in my life.

Lawrence has done so much for me since the day I came there. I am really happy my parents found Lawrence and that they let me go there. Lawrence has helped more than I can say. There have been some amazing years here and I’m going to miss it when I graduate.

Adrianna W.
Lawrence School Class of 2014

Congratulations to Adrianna and the entire class of 2014 for making this journey and reaching your milestone – and thank you to all the parents, teachers and administrators who have supported them. Your stories have great power to inspire and instruct.

We see you!

We hear you!

We celebrate you and learn from you!

Please keep sharing your journey with us!

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Telling Our Stories, Making Our Way

Their story, yours and mine — it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.
—William Carlos Williams

To be a person is to have a story to tell.
—Isak Dinesen

In a few shortening days, the Winter Solstice will be upon us, marking the sun’s greatest declination south of the equator and, in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest, deepest, darkest day of the year.

My Roman ancestors called this day Dies Invicti Solis – ‘the day of the invincible sun.’ I hope we can all take some measure of comfort in the ancients’ view that, at this darkest moment of the year, an inevitable turning towards the light begins.

At this time of year, when we observe ancient traditions and celebrate the sacred spark within us all with lights and evergreens, I find myself deeply grateful for our work at Lawrence School on behalf of different learners and to all in this profession who support the journey of our young people through school.

In his book Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life, Jerome Bruner writes about the importance of constructing the narrative of our lives, where we become both the authors of – and the protagonists in – our own life stories. Narrating these stories, to those we love and to ourselves, is the essential process in making sense of our lives and forging connections to others.

Bruner notes:

We constantly construct and reconstruct our selves to meet the needs of the situations we encounter and we do so with the guidance of our memories of the past and our hopes and fears for the future…

As we prepare to celebrate our 10th commencement this June, I am mindful of the important role Lawrence plays in helping students reconstruct their own understanding of themselves. So many of the students who find their way to Lawrence experienced discouragement and defeat in other learning environments. When they arrive at a school that understands and honors their experiences, embraces their challenges and acknowledges their strengths, they are able to imagine a bright future. As they construct and reconstruct the narrative that describes their journey, they systematically confront fears based on the past and rescue aspirations for the future. And so do their families!

The story of a school like Lawrence – and the stories of the young people it serves – has been reconstructed (in Bruner’s words) from presumptions of failure and loss to the acceptance, affirmation, accountability and advocacy we provide and see practiced daily in the classrooms, fields, offices and hallways of the school. The transformational nature of these stories is fostered by the feelings of engagement, involvement, and success students experience in their academic, social and personal life at Lawrence.

I hope you have had a chance to view our new school video, where students, parents and faculty speak so eloquently and honestly about their journey from discouragement and loss to accomplishment and hope. These are just a sampling of the stories that make up the ‘warp and weft’ of what is woven together to construct the narrative – the story – of the life of our school.

I reflect with deep gratitude on the work of our teachers, counselors and administrators here and in the hundreds of schools across the nation that successfully teach students who learn differently and make these stories possible.

One of the many blessings of this wonderful time of year is that we can take time to reflect upon, support and embrace the stories of the children, families and faculty members who keep our learning communities strong. As we do, we can usually see how their tales have touched and enriched the narratives of our own lives.

So whatever your traditions – whether you light the candles of the Menorah, or follow the light of the Christmas Star, or welcome the Winter Solstice as my Roman ancestors did centuries ago – let us keep our care and concern for our children uppermost in our hearts. Let us come together to help them confront the fears and failures of the past, and construct a narrative of their lives that envisions and embraces a bright future full of accomplishment and promise.

I welcome your comments both publicly or privately. Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or e-mail me directly at lsalza@lawrenceschool.org.

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Drive Fast, Dive Deep

I recently came across this interview with Indy Car driver Justin Wilson, who placed fifth in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Justin is an accomplished driver, a successful adult, and a role model to many. He also has dyslexia.

I love stories like this for two reasons:

First, they are stories of resilience.

Second, they are stories that illustrate the problem with our schools and our attitudes about the one-size-fits-all system we have locked ourselves into.

When Wilson was asked if he sees any benefit to dyslexia he replied,

“I do think dyslexia has helped me. It’s pushed me to work harder in everything I do… You get a lot of satisfaction out of doing something that’s hard.”

Many successful dyslexic adults make the same observation as Wilson when asked if dyslexia accrues any benefits. Apparently having dyslexia forced us to work harder than most, and learning to work hard can be an advantage in the market place.

When I was Headmaster at ASSETS School in Hawaii, serving students with dyslexia, we were lucky to have a golf pro who worked with our golf team. He mentioned to me in passing one day that our students, in comparison to many others he had worked with, were great at learning golf. Confused, I asked him why. He replied “They handle frustration well.  They are better at coping with frustration than others I teach, and golf is all about dealing with your frustrations!”

Let’s face it: we really don’t know what working hard actually means, or even what it looks like. We do know that many people who probably work very hard in school never get off of the starting line. We do, however, know exactly what frustration looks like, and how devastating it can be for our children in school.

Justin Wilson and other successful dyslexics were lucky enough to have found a place of self-respect and honor. So many of our kids will not be so lucky.

So, I would like to pose the following question for consideration: Can we figure out a way that students can summon the will to increase effort, increase their stamina and develop resilience without first being ‘hammered’ by a hostile school environment? Surely there’s a way to protect honest effort and encourage kids to rise to learning challenges without frustrating and wounding them in the process.

Just as we can’t ask a fish what it’s like to be wet, I am not sure asking a dyslexic if there are benefits or strengths associated with being dyslexic can get you an accurate answer.

Consider the Hawaiian sea turtle, Honu, as she lumbers and heaves herself across the sand to lay her eggs. She is awkward, slow, and poorly equipped for crossing the long stretch of beach before her. She struggles for every inch on ground she covers—she is worn and exhausted by the time she gets back to the ocean.

Once she gets to the water we see something very different—she swims with strength, speed, and confidence. She dives deeper, stays down longer, and comes up dryer than any other animal in the water. Her flippers—a liability on land— become a boon to the swimming she does with uncommon grace. Struggling to cross the sand might help her appreciate the freedom of the deep water, but I bet it didn’t really help her with swimming, diving, and holding her breath.

Every successful dyslexic adult can look back to childhood and tell a story of struggle in school. In each of us there was a child who, like a turtle crossing the sand, had to bear the burden of being judged in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Can’t we just help our kids get to the water?

Schools should be places where children are encouraged to find their innate strengths as well as learn new skills.

Schools ought to help children catch a glimpse of the deep open ocean waters of their lives without getting stranded on the beach and judged while they are struggling across the sand.

Let’s agree to forgo drawing any conclusions about sea turtles while they are crossing the beach – or children while they are still in school.  Let’s encourage our children to draw conclusions about themselves only when they get to whatever ‘ocean’ they belong and begin to swim!

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What’s in a Name? Labels that Inform and Educate—But Don’t Define Us

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”  ―Juliet, from Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” ― W.C. Fields

“We believe learning is a journey in which obstacles can become opportunities for growth, and direction is more important than distance.” ― Lawrence School, Guiding Principles (from the Mission, Vision, Guiding Principles)

The news services have been recently buzzing about the latest revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (known as the DSM) used by social workers, physicians, and psychologists to identify and treat mental illness. This will be the fifth revision to the DSM; the last revision (DSM-IV) was in 1994.

One controversial issue in this most recent round of revisions was whether or not to use the terms “dyslexia” and “Asperger’s disorder” as diagnostic categories.  Just last week, it was announced that Asperger’s disorder will be dropped. Dyslexia is in—but will be subsumed under the category of Learning Disorders, as detailed in this article from the Washington Post.

These changes have caused passionate debate in the professional community and outrage among some parents and teachers, who argue that subsuming the term “dyslexia” under a broader category minimizes the seriousness of the disorder.

But what’s in a name? How important is it to name the obstacles our children must dodge in order to succeed in school?

Physicians and clinicians report that it is certainly important to have the right name on whatever conditions afflict or impede children in school or in life. Their concerns are real: the names of these conditions, affixed by properly credentialed professionals, determine which treatments and services will be provided, by whom, in what settings, and for how long.

No name means no diagnosis, and no diagnosis means no treatment.

For school-aged children with language-based learning differences like dyslexia, no diagnosis also means no eligibility for services. This can result in academic disaster. As psychologist Deborah Waber points out in her book, Rethinking Learning Disabilities, untreated learning issues that a child may face early in school can initiate  a ‘cascade’ of confounding negative effects. As the failure in one academic area builds, it spills over to other academic areas and then into the emotional arena, causing anxiety, depression, low self esteem, and a host of other problems secondary to the original learning issue.

Waber suggests that when it comes to identification and evaluation, we rethink our entire approach. Under the current system, we wait for two to three years for children to fall significantly below age and grade level norms before an assessment can be approved. By that time, the failure has already done lots of damage that may take years to correct. Rather than wait for failure, Waber argues that a concerned parent’s call for help ought to be enough to initiate services.

This makes more than common sense. It makes educational and economic sense as well. Ever since the first federal legislation was approved back in the 1970’s, educators, researchers, politicians, clinicians and physicians have been arguing and debating definitions, diagnostic thresholds, and treatment protocols for dyslexia and learning disabilities.  Research is ongoing. There is still no real agreement. Eligibility is not portable from state to state or county to county, despite federal legislation that is intended to guarantee that students receive special education services when needed. The debates between and among the professions and professionals rage on, while bright children continue to fail in school and needlessly suffer the outrageous indignity of illiteracy.

I have no argument with professionals trying to get the right name for what ails us. But, along with Waber, I do argue that we need not wait to serve children while the professionals argue semantics.

We know how to teach a child to read—and we can identify a child who is at risk for reading failure very early in the game.  We don’t need a diagnosis of dyslexia or a label! We know what to do and we know how to do it. The fact is, the sooner we intercede, the easier, cheaper, and more effective the remedy. We can prevent Waber’s ‘cascade‘of negative effects.

The research has been done, the arguments have been made, and the jury is in. Early screening and prompt intervention in grades K-4 prevents reading failure and reduces referrals to special education.

————————

The first time I heard the term “dyslexic” it was used in a way that was very personal to me. I was in a job interview in June of 1975, with Dr. Charles Drake, the founding headmaster of the Landmark School in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts; 35 miles north of Boston. Landmark serves bright children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities like dyslexia. My little brother Adio was 12, couldn’t yet read, and was enrolled at the school.

At the time of this interview I was 24; a college graduate with two years of inner city teaching experience. I was no longer struggling to pass courses in school or college. In fact, I was relieved to have escaped from the University of Massachusetts in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Urban Education.  It took six years to navigate the gauntlet of required classes, and to negotiate with deans and faculty to substitute science and philosophy courses for classes I struggled to pass (and ultimately failed) in foreign language and math.  Dell and I married in our sophomore year, and she helped me with spelling and grammar so that I could get through college. Without her help, I would have certainly dropped out.

But once I got my degree, I put those days behind me.  I buried the experiences of struggling to learn to read and spell in school along with the names I secretly called myself— like “stupid” and “lazy.”  They seemed accurate. Why else did I have such difficulty with reading, handwriting and spelling? Everyone else seemed to do these tasks quite easily.

When I interviewed at Landmark in 1975, I was ignorant of dyslexia even though I had taken courses to earn a teacher’s license in college and had a brother who was struggling with that very challenge.

About ten minutes into my interview with one of the heads of Landmark High School, the interview started heading ‘south’ as he asked me about F’s and D’s on my college transcript from UMass.  I bridled defensively—I had just finished teaching two years in a challenging inner city school in Philly.  Why ask about college?

But it was true—my college transcript still smolders with the evidence of my six-year struggle. I didn’t want to talk about the bad grades. I wanted to talk about my work in the classroom. Just when I thought he was going to call for the ‘hook’ and dismiss me, he asked me if I would like to meet Dr. Drake, the Headmaster.  I thought, “That’s strange… why not just shake hands and give me the old, ‘Thanks for your interest, we’ll call you and let you know next week…’ routine?”

Intrigued, I followed him across the campus to the Headmaster’s office. Dr. Drake spoke slowly and deliberately in a deep, resonant, warm voice with a decidedly southern accent.  He was a psychologist and a Congregational minister. He was dyslexic himself I eventually learned, and he was deeply committed to serving children and families who struggled with dyslexia at a time in our history when very few people knew anything about it.

After some warm comments about my brother and my family, Dr. Drake proceeded to stun me by speaking in a most casual way about the very problems that I had always tried to keep hidden.  I remember thinking, panicked, “This guy can read my mind!” Had he somehow gotten a hold of my elementary school teachers?  He seemed to know everything about me. He asked me about my struggles with the alphabet and math facts in first and second grade. He knew all about my trouble telling time and using the dictionary in the third and fourth grades. Of course, now I can look back and know that he was simply reciting the issues that lots of children with language based learning differences have in elementary school—but at the time, I was convinced he was clairvoyant!

At one point, the interview got so scary I interrupted him. Abruptly—almost to the point of rudeness—I offered to save us both a lot of valuable time.  I suggested he move on with what was a busy schedule for him and I get on with a long train ride back to Philly.  He was completely unimpressed with my attempt to put him off and calmly, quietly, and firmly pressed on. I recall that I tried to marshal all my power to control overwhelming emotions that bubbled up. I wanted to argue and prove him wrong! I wanted to escape the interview! I wanted to block my ears! I wanted to run!

In response to my poor attempt at hiding my distress, he did what I could only describe at the time as some kind of magic. He smiled, leaned forward just a bit, looked directly into my eyes, and asked me with great compassion and understanding, “Lou, don’t you get it?  Don’t you have any idea why you have had the experiences and struggles you have had in school?” He talked about my brother, Adio, how dyslexia probably runs in families, and how dyslexia was being treated at Landmark.

Eventually, I agreed to three hours of testing in their clinic. I left his office later with a new understanding about a battle I had fought every day as a student in school, as a young man in college, against an enemy that now had a name:

Dyslexia.

Knowing the name of my nemesis was a relief to me in some ways. It was an answer and a puzzle all at the same time.  It was also a source of grief. Why this? Why now? Why me?

I get it. What we call something is important. If we don’t name something correctly, children and others may come to inaccurate, harmful conclusions. Physicians and psychologists should be able to bring all their diagnostic acumen to bear on any question of diagnosis and treatment. We should get the right names on the conditions that impact our lives.  We should talk honestly and directly to our students. They should know as much about their own thinking and learning as they can possibly understand.

However, let’s be clear: A child’s failure to learn to read in school is as much a failure of the educational system and environment as it is any thing else.  I am not blaming teachers who don’t know what to do about a child with dyslexia—I was one myself! Inexplicably, we continue to churn out teachers from college with education degrees that leave them clueless about how to teach reading—even now.

I had wonderful teachers who paid attention to my situation. By seventh grade one of my English teachers took time to tutor me so that I could read well enough to move into a college preparation track in high school. Neither of my parents called—no one tested me. This teacher simply recognized that I was unable to write and faking a good deal of my reading. She decided to tutor me. I met several teachers like that during my school years.

The main point is that illiteracy is not a disease—and neither is dyslexia or dysgraphia. The failure of a child to learn to read and write in school can be remedied with or without a diagnosis in school by educators. Treatments for illiteracy and dyslexia are educational—not medical—and should be a part of every teacher’s toolbox before they ever step foot in a classroom.

After my interview with Dr. Drake, I rode the train back to Philly trying to read, realizing that I had stared at the same page for over three hours.  During that train ride, I began to reconstruct my understanding of myself because now I had a name that explained lots that I had tried to avoid or discount over the years. I journeyed through each year of my early childhood and schooling recalibrating and recategorizing experiences.

Oh—and I got the job!  I stayed at Landmark for 13 years, teaching and learning at the same time. I left briefly to earn a master’s degree in Reading and Language, making a career out of my struggle with dyslexia.

The journey I began with Dr. Drake on that day in 1975, in that interview, continues to this very day here with our students and teachers at Lawrence School in Northeast Ohio. Dr. Drake was not only my employer for 14 years—he was a guide and mentor. Through his work at Landmark, he shared his conviction and faith in the future of our students—in young teachers like me, and in the future he hoped would materialize for our educational system.

He didn’t wait for the psychologists and educators of the day to agree with him. If he had, we’d all still be waiting! Rather he simply set about exploring and thinking; finding a way where none had existed before. He taught students with approaches he knew would work.

We all have names—some names and labels we choose, and others we earn. Each reveals something essential about us. I didn’t choose the name “ dyslexic” but I accept it now, and pay it the respect it is due. It doesn’t define me—but it does inform me and others who might want to know why I double-check my arithmetic, why I send everything I write to Dell; or to Ann, our executive assistant; or to Courtney, our communications director.

Dyslexia explains why it takes longer for me to get some tasks done. Sometimes dyslexia has been a stumbling block that I was able to turn into a stepping stone with help from others. Other times it has just been a stumbling block. Dr. Drake was fond of saying that having dyslexia and 59 cents would get you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s.  The price has changed for coffee—but the cost of dyslexia to the individual has remained stubbornly the same over the decades.

Dyslexia should be in the DSM-V. The testing and the diagnosis can inform us, but it does not define us. A diagnosis is not a prerequisite for us to do our primary job in school:

Teach all children to read.

We don’t need the DSM to help us apply the extensive body of scientific evidence and solid research that has been done over the last two decades about how children learn to read in our schools and classrooms.

To those concerned and worried about the DSM-V, I say, let’s keep our eye on the ball. Let’s put the focus on serving the children in the classroom. Let’s use our ire and outrage to get things right there so our children don’t have to struggle for years on end before receiving the vital services they so rightfully deserve.

If not us, who?

If not now, when?

If we can do our jobs now in schools to teach all children to read, I promise by the time the DSM-VI comes out, dyslexia as a diagnostic category could be rendered moot.

I welcome your comments both publicly or privately. Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or e-mail me directly at lsalza@lawrenceschool.org.

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Twitter Challenge

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” -Polonius to Leartes in Hamlet

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” -Plato

Colleagues in Canada tweeted a challenge recently to educators whose schools serve students with learning differences: Tweet a philosophy of education for students with learning differences. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, tweets must be 140 characters or less including spaces. At Lawrence School here in northeast Ohio, we serve students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia. As the Head of a school where “differences are not disabilities” and “great minds don’t think alike,” I decided to take on the challenge.

In the interest of full disclosure, for those who don’t know me, brevity has never been my strong suit. When I was a pup in my first administrative post at the Landmark School in Prides Crossing, MA, I was never at a loss for words; so much so that a colleague there actually referred to me as “Memo-Breath” in one of our meetings.

Truth be told, I did talk and write a lot. I talked to hear myself think (often tiresome –sometimes risky!). Memos back then became my own ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ through the forest of  deliberations, details and decisions that make the days, weeks and months of a school year such an exhilarating ride for educators.

So here’s my tweet:

Teaching philosophy 4 LD kids: Acceptance, Affirmation, Accountability, Advocacy.

I used only 80 characters of the allowed 140. Memo-Breath? NOT! (Just sayin’)

So here’s the thinking behind the tweet that could not be confined to 140 characters:

Acceptance:

Children with learning differences are often drastically, dangerously  misunderstood in general education classrooms where well-meaning, dedicated teachers are dealing with large class sizes and lack of formal training in recognizing and responding to challenges like dyslexia. Because children go to school with the expectations of success, failure to thrive in reading and spelling can begin what Dr. Deborah Waber (author of Rethinking Learning Disabilities) calls a “cascade of negative impacts” that can cause a continuing experience of failure and discouragement in school and beyond.

Children who fail to thrive in school are in danger of ‘starving’ for academic achievement. They need an educational venue where the way they learn is understood, their approach to learning is acknowledged and accepted, and where curriculum is designed strategically and delivered personally to help them learn language skills. In the process, we hope these children will begin to understand and accept themselves.  In order to do so we must never allow them to draw any conclusions about themselves while they are in school. Students are learners; they are ‘works in progress’ and must continually be encouraged and supported.

Affirmation:

Difficulty with reading and spelling should not hold one back from achieving and accomplishing important goals in school or life.  The adults in these children’s lives need to affirm that their children have strengths and challenges. This acknowledgement is part of a more specific level of acceptance in which we build on talents and strengths to mitigate and address challenges.

Accountability:

Dr. Charles Drake, founding Headmaster of the Landmark School, used to quip, “Fifty cents and a learning difference will get you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s.” That was his way of saying that our students could learn and achieve just like anyone else – despite their dyslexia.  “If a child can’t learn the way we teach,” he went on, “teach that child the way he or she learns.” Keep at it. Don’t give up. Never sell our students short.

Accountability works both ways! We as educators are accountable for implementing proven practices and scientifically confirmed effective approaches in our teaching.  Apocryphal knowledge about quick-fix “cures” for dyslexia has been making the rounds for ages. Colored lenses, visual “training,” antihistamines and blue-green algae have all been touted as possible therapies. Well, these things may help you see better, track golf drives on TV, clear up a runny nose or keep you healthy, but there is no scientific evidence that any of these things will help any child read any better.

What we do know is that structured, systematic, multi-sensory phonics programs are necessary for children who have language-based learning differences such as dyslexia. These programs help children develop the fluent sound-symbol associations necessary to decode and understand print. Allowing ourselves to be led down roads that aren’t paved with research-based, scientifically proven results is simply acting without accountability.

Advocacy:

Children with learning differences need to be able to ask for the resources and tools they will need to meet the challenges of higher education and the workplace. They must be able to describe their learning approach, strengths and challenges without apology or arrogance. They must know the tools they need to employ in order to accomplish their goals. They must learn to advocate for change on their own behalf.

While we are talking about advocacy, let’s face some facts. We now have the tools and technology to identify children who are at risk for reading failure early in their school experience. All kindergarten children could be screened – assessed for risk factors such as delayed naming skills and weak letter/sound knowledge. Research from over 20 years indicates that it is necessary to acquire these skills before fluent reading skills will be mastered. Once children are identified as “at risk,” appropriate instruction to develop reading readiness skills could be built into their schedules in kindergarten through third grade – before they experience failure in school.

I urge all of us to advocate for all the children – all the learners in all our schools.  As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton observed, “There is no such a thing as other people’s children.”  These children are ours – our nation’s children and our future leaders. We fail them at our peril.

I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions… and, of course, your tweets!

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