“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:
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.
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.
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.
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!