Nicole Mitsakis 2Submitted by: Nicole Mitsakis, Landmark Parent and DD-MA Co-Founder & Director of Operations

 “You have to do the right thing… You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.” 
                                           —Mohandas K. Gandhi


The quote above explains the very personal and passionate commitment I have to establishing Decoding Dyslexia in Massachusetts (DD-MA) as a relevant and effective means to improve the school experience of students with dyslexia. The struggle for my own child’s positive outcome in a public school was a work in progress, full of frustration and stress. DD-MA is a constructive outlet that allowed me to take some action.

For me, one of the most relevant opportunities was on June 17, 2015, when I testified before the Massachusetts Education Committee to share why dyslexia legislation is so necessary (HB 463 and SB 312). DD-MA has worked with neuroscientists and legislators to initiate legislation that will guide public school policy makers to better outcomes. What I’ve learned about the legislation process is invaluable, but the most important lesson I have learned is that by taking steps and creating the opportunity for others to join in those steps towards change, Massachusetts is closer to a result that would benefit all public school students struggling with dyslexia. As a new parent in the Landmark community, I’d like to share the mission of Decoding Dyslexia MA.

 Who is DD-MA and what do they do?

Decoding Dyslexia Massachusetts  (DD-MA) is a grassroots movement to raise awareness of the research-based interventions that are effective in overcoming dyslexia and opening the doors to academic success. We aim to influence families, educators, and legislators and our motto is: Make time to create change or the time for change will never be now.

 Together, committed parents and professionals have joined us over the few short years since our beginning in 2013. I am grateful to all the parents, professionals, legislators, and dyslexia experts that I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from on this journey. The process of advocating for any child with a disability is difficult and it’s even more challenging when that disability is often not acknowledged or supported appropriately.  DD-MA allows me to direct my energy in a positive way to create better outcomes. Below is a list of a few highlights accomplished by our group:

  • Meeting with neuroscience researchers at the McGovern Institute of Brain Researchers to promote dyslexia awareness
  • Advocating as part of the National Decoding Dyslexia Network in Washington D.C.
  • Dyslexia awareness lectures with Dr. Nadine Gaab, Dr. Elizabeth Norton, Dr. Stephanie Gottwald, Dr. Matthew Schneps, Dr. Roberto Olivardia and other experts
  • Documentary movie showings (both The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia and Dislecksia the Movie) with panel discussions for Dyslexia awareness
  • Providing our 1700+ followers with an active place to learn about and discuss dyslexia
  • Engaging Massachusetts families in legislative or community action that will improve outcomes for students with dyslexiaMIT Gabriel Lab 2

There is still work to be done!
The current legislation includes two bills as drafts in the Joint Committee on Education, HB 463 and SB 312. At the Hearing, DD-MA families were accompanied at the hearing by experts like Dr. John Gabrieli and Elizabeth Norton of the McGovern Institute of Brain Research at MIT, Dr. Charles Haynes of MGH Institute of Health Professionals, and Dr. Roberto Olivardia, Harvard Medical School. Many members of the International Dyslexia Association also signed a joint letter submitted as testimony. Though the hearing is past, testimony can be submitted by anyone who wants to offer their opinion and story to the Joint Committee on Education. I encourage all families who are experiencing the challenges that come with dyslexia – academic, financial, social, and emotional – to contact legislators to support legislation. Can you make time to create change?

For more information or to get or stay involved:
Decoding Dyslexia MA wesbite
DD-MA on Facebook

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Submitted by: Mark Drago, faculty member at
Landmark High School

There is an old Staples back to school commercial where the dad skips down the aisle and his kids trudge behind him as the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” plays in the background. A totally different portrayal of the start of school from pop culture is John Green’s open letter to students starting school, asking a simple question, “How psyched are you for the end of summer?” As students make their way through the first day of school, constantly checking their class schedule and navigating where to sit, some seem psyched to be there while others trudge along. Here are some tips that teachers can share with students to get through the next month.

Get to know the people in your class

Both the students and teachers you meet on the first day are the faces you will see for the rest of the school year. Take time the first day to learn their names, their hobbies, and what interests them. These are the people you will work with, learn with, and build connections with.

Learn the expectations

Every class is different. You might have a lab in science class, a writing assignment in literature, and a challenging problem in mathematics. Both the first day and really the first month, take time to learn the expectations. What materials do you need? What should you do at the start of class? What can you do to succeed? All of these questions are good to ask the first day.

Find out what motivates you

It is a new year with new people and classes. You’ve got brand new pencils and a brand new opportunity to make this year great. Try to find something that gets you excited about school and keep that in mind as you make your way throughout the year.

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Mark DragoSubmitted by: Mark Drago, faculty member at Landmark High School. Article as seen in Young Teachers Collective.

I know this is an article about mathematics education, but let me start with a poem:

Zimmer’s Head Thudding Against the Blackboard

By Paul Zimmer

At the blackboard I had missed

Five number problems in a row,

And was about to foul a sixth

When the old exasperated nun

Began to pound my head against

My six mistakes. When I wept,

She threw me back into my seat,

Where I hid my head and swore

That very day I’d be a poet,

And curse her yellow teeth with this.

After reading Zimmer’s poem the image of the old exasperated nun who began to pound his head against the wall sticks in my mind, especially how Zimmer curses her in the last line of the poem. The reason why I think of the teacher is because I am a math teacher, and while I hope none of my students curse me, I wonder how they might describe my math class or me in a poem. The scene Zimmer sets is very familiar, standing in front of the whole class and being scolded for wrong answers. Math class can take on this nightmarish quality of a blackboard filled with confusing numbers, symbols, and letters. And yet, while math can be scary, mathematics is also a subject that is deeply valued in America.

In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address he called on creating more “classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math—the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future.” Teaching mathematics poses the challenge of trying to create welcoming learning environments for a subject that can cause anxiety as well as ensuring that every student learns the skills they need to succeed. We as teachers have the capability to meet these challenges by focusing on our students’ strengths and inviting all students to quality mathematics discussions.

I teach at a high school that specializes in language-based learning disabilities (LBLD), such as dyslexia. While LBLD usually means that students struggle in reading and writing, their disabilities can affect the way they learn math as well. Mathematics is its own language with letters and symbols that hold meaning. By the time they enter my classroom they have often already had experiences similar to the one described in Zimmer’s poem and the mindset that they are “not a math person.” This mindset is often what is most detrimental in the math classroom. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, would call the mindset of “I’m not a math person” a fixed mindset, one where our intelligence is fixed and there is nothing we can do about it. Much of what we do as teachers is convincing students to believe in a growth mindset, one where our intelligence is malleable and controlled by our own effort. In making the math classroom more accessible, we should think about what aspects of our students we are focusing on. Are we just finding the ones who are quick to the right answer? Or are we looking at how the student went about solving the problem?

Dweck’s 2008 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, asks us to shift our focus from praising intelligence to praising effort. When going over a problem on the board, focus on the student’s process and what they did well. So instead of mathematics being a subject where you are right or wrong, we can shift our focus to math being a subject filled with strategies and problem solving that all students can be a part of. By praising students for the work they do, students are more likely to try a difficult problem because they believe they have the capability to do so.

In an interview with Education World, Carol Dweck said, “Psychologists who study creative geniuses point out that the single most important factor in creative achievement is willingness to put in tremendous amounts of effort and sustain this effort in face of obstacles.” We want our students to be creative and critical thinkers.  And the way we get there is by praising them for the talents that they have and for their willingness to succeed.

Ultimately, the goal of focusing on students’ strengths and praising them for their talents is to create an equitable math class in which all students can receive high levels of learning. Learning mathematics requires students to be actively involved in reasoning through problems and deriving their own answers. A math classroom should be filled with discussion on important concepts and different reasoning strategies, but frequently class time is filled with test answers and how well students scored. When students are worried about answering test questions correctly, they try to memorize routine procedures to quickly get to the right answer.

Part of the new common core standards calls for students to “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” The common core asks students to think about how the problem makes sense to them, to base the problem on facts they already know, and work towards their own way of solving. Asking students to make sense of a problem levels the playing field in a math classroom. The discussion is not a race to the right answer that only some students can do. Instead, students offer what they notice and their own way of thinking. No one is worried about being called to the board to try to remember a procedure for six number problems. Everyone feels like they are capable of solving complex problems and by their own effort, able to learn math.

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Submitted by: Linda Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP – Landmark High School Speech-Language Pathologist/Consultant and Landmark Outreach Program Adjunct Faculty

Mprofile pictureuch has been written and discussed in recent years about Executive Function (EF) challenges faced by students diagnosed with a language-based learning disability (LBLD). Also in the forefront are conversations amongst educators, speech/language pathologists (SLPs), and neuropsychologists about interventions for students with social communication disorders (SCD). I have been privy to many of these discussions, and have read countless articles on these topics.  But my “real education” comes from my over 25 years of working with children and adolescents with both EF deficits and SCD.  Current research supports the notion that social communication skills can be impacted by EF deficits.

Cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift one’s thinking, is a component of EF. Consider the fast-paced nature of a social interaction that is filled with both verbal and non-verbal information. If a person has difficulty with cognitive flexibility, then social interactions may be compromised.

John (not his real name) is a student who teachers often refer to as “bright and readily shares his insights with his classmates”. However, teachers also describe him as “rigid and inflexible”.  He performs best with structure and predictable routinesJohn has been diagnosed with a LBLD, EF deficits, and a SCD. There are certain topics that John can provide a wealth of information about. He may come across as a “know it all” and does not recognize when others are disinterested. When a teacher or a peer provides an alternate view to his own, John may become argumentative. He often perseverates on his line of thinking and cannot shift gears. A student like John often perceives situations as black and white; he does not see the “gray”.

This is an overly simplified example of a quite complex dynamic. Ultimately, we need to provide support with both executive function skills and social communication skills.  Rather than reacting in frustration to a “difficult” exchange, I encourage educators and parents to take a proactive approach.

STRATEGIES (be sure to use specific language and provide clear expectations):

  • Teach cognitive flexibility and problem solving

“I understand that you didn’t edit your essay because I had asked you to make corrections in red and you didn’t have a red pen. What is one thing you could have done to get your homework done?” Help the student generate some possible solutions (e.g., borrow a red pen, use a different color pen and email the teacher about it, etc.). Use opportunities like these to teach/model problem solving. (Identify Problem->Generate 2-3 Possible Solutions->Consider Consequences->Make a Choice->Create a Plan)

  • Acknowledge, then redirect; avoid getting into a debate

“I know you want to keep talking about _____, but we have to move on.”

“I know you are trying to be helpful, but Tim didn’t ask for your help.”

“I know it bothers you that Jane is out of dress code, but you don’t need to comment on it. The adults will handle it.”

  • Tell the student how his words or actions make you/classmates feel

“I’m feeling frustrated because you’re not following my instructions?”

“Jane felt embarrassed when you said she was out of dress code in front of everyone.”

  • Alert the student when there are going to be changes in the routine

“Tomorrow Mrs. Gross will be teaching this class so that I can attend a conference. She will collect your homework and help you edit your composition drafts.”

“Friday’s class is going to be shortened due to an extended recess so we won’t be doing our usual warm-up activity.”

  • Identify and discuss the “gray”; not everything is “black and white” “I know that it’s officially springtime according to the calendar, but it is 30 degrees outside, so we need to wear our winter coats.”

To learn more about Linda Gross’s work, check out the following links:

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Amy Ballin 003Submitted by: Amy Ballin, LICSW, PH.D. Landmark School

In college, I first tried meditation with the hope that it would ease my stress. I went to a workshop and learned how to meditate.  It seemed easy enough.  I understood that all I had to do was repeat a word or phrase over and over again in my head and that was mediation.  So, I started a meditation practice.  After two weeks, I decided it did not work and never thought about meditation again until seven years ago when I attended a workshop at the Benson Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine.  It was at this workshop that I understood what did not work in my previous attempt and how meditation can be life altering.

After learning the science of how meditation changes cell structure and gene pathways and reading the research that reports dramatic changes in stress levels, increased focus, and improved health and relationships,  I started meditating with a commitment to do it every day for at least ten minutes for a minimum of eight weeks before I judged it. I kept to my commitment but after about four months I stopped my daily mediation.  What happened after that was amazing.  I noticed a change in the way I responded to people and events.  I was more on edge than I had been when I was practicing meditation.  Things happened in my day that got me more upset.  I was less able to let bad things go and move on.  I went back to the Benson center and started my practice again.  I am more patient with my children and husband and I feel overall better able to handle disappointments, anger from others and other stressful situations.  In addition, some chronic health problems have disappeared.  So I now know from first hand experience that the research is true.

My colleagues in the counseling department and I are introducing the practice of the relaxation response to Landmark students.  We know that students with LBLD tend to have higher rates of anxiety compared to the typical education population.  It is with this information along with the high level of anxiety that we see with our students that we are implementing this practice.

Recently I got a call from the nurse saying a child had a stomachache.  He has been practicing meditation at home and wanted to come to my office to meditate.  We did a ten-minute meditation. He went back to class and stayed in school for the rest of the day.  The stomachache disappeared.

The science on the benefits of meditation is clear and from my own experiences and those of others that have tried it, it seems that a daily practice of the relaxation response is highly beneficial. We look forward to bringing this program to our students.


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searchSubmitted by: Jessie Voigts, PhD, publisher, WanderingEducators, founder, Teen Travel Blogging Program, co-founder, WritingWalkingWomen.

Dr. Jessie Voigts from Wandering Educators recently reviewed Landmark360 expert blogger Vanessa Rodriguez’s latest release, “The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education”. Below you will find a brief review and interview with the author.

“Let me tell you about “The Teaching Brain”. I picked it up, and couldn’t put it down. It delves deep into how teachers teach – and provides an interactive model for teaching – and learning. The process of teaching isn’t simple. There are myriad factors we need to think of and there are a plethora of teaching models that have been promoted over the years. And yet, there has still been something missing, a common-sense approach to teaching the same way we live our lives – thoughtfully, interactively, developmentally, and with purpose. This book, this exciting research, is that piece of the puzzle that has been missing.”  – Dr. Jessie Voigts

Interview with the authorHGSE bio photo

Voigts: Please tell us about your new book, “The Teaching Brain”

Rodriguez: The Teaching Brain challenges widely accepted theories of teaching and offers a unique idea based on a simple yet empowering truth: we are all teachers. This book draws on the science of human development to redefine teaching as a social cognitive skill that develops in all people over time. The book marshals a wealth of research and experience to construct an entirely innovative framework for thinking about, talking about, and supporting this essential social endeavor.

Voigts: What inspired you to write this book?

Rodriguez: I spent over a decade in a classroom trying to defend my teaching decisions. I often found that the language I was using was not what administrators, researchers, and policy makers felt was appropriate evidence. I thought that a doctoral degree would help me to do this.

What I found instead was that we don’t have an understanding of teaching as we do learning – we don’t understand the natural development of teaching in all humans. It suddenly made perfect sense to me that for all of those years I struggled to describe my teaching because we have a very limited vocabulary and overall framework for what it is! I wanted to open the door to a new way of defining teaching.

Voigts: Your theory of teaching takes into account real life interactions – and the growth of teachers. Can you give us a few examples as to how you developed your theory?

Rodriguez: It’s hard to identify a specific example within the development of this theory since this theory is just how I see the world.  Teaching is a human interaction. Any time something involves an interaction with another human you have to take into account the complex nature of the brain. Our brains are complex dynamic systems.  Because they are dependent on our personal context they are forever changing.

I would also note that most theories of teaching are actually stemming from theories of learning which is why they don’t account for real life interactions or the growth of teachers. They are learner-centric and not about how humans teach but how humans learn. My theory is specifically about how we all develop our ability to teach.

Voigts: Why do teachers need to read this book?

Rodriguez: We are all teachers from as early as age one, we have the ability to teach and we teach without any prompting. However, we’ve never considered why we naturally teach nor how that natural ability shifts when we teach in the artificial setting of a classroom. By understanding the natural development of teaching, you’ll become enlightened on your personal development.  Rather than being told how to teach based on a one-size-fits-all approach, you can discover your own teaching awarenesses; and therefore how you can more effectively interact with your learners.

Voigts: What’s up next for you?

Rodriguez: The book highlights the overall theory I’ve developed on teaching but there’s actually a side of my research that it doesn’t delve into much. I’m currently designing and conducting studies to further understand the development of how humans teach.  In the fall, I’ll be looking at teachers and students brain activity as they interact. I hypothesize that when they feel like the interaction has been successful, we’ll likely see their patterns of brain activity synchronize. So rather than just saying “when it’s working you can feel it,” we’ll actually be able to say you can also see our brain activity synchronize and act as a cohesive system rather than individual parts!

teaching_brain cover 11 4 14Learn more about Vanessa Rodriquez, her work, and “The Teaching Brain”


Learn more about Dr. Jesse Voigts and follow the Wandering Educators blog.

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Disability Discrimination

Submitted by: Angela M. Timpone is a certified educational advocate serving Vermont and Massachusetts and founder of Camp Kaleidoscope, a camp for families with children with autism. 

Last fall, while I watched the Norwich University football team win 19–9 against Gallaudet University, I overheard words like “dumb,” “stupid,” and “retard” from NU spectators. These words weren’t comments on the Gallaudet players’ performance. The derogatory remarks referred to the players’ disabilities; Gallaudet students are deaf or hard of hearing. Disability discrimination is often more socially acceptable than high-profile race discrimination. We chuckle or look away when remarks fly about a person’s disability.

As a parent with two children with disabilities, I struggle knowing their journey will be plagued with discrimination. By early elementary school both Dylan and Tristan were labeled by peers as “stupid” and/or “dumb.” Tristan and Dylan learn and think differently compared to typically developing children.

Disability discrimination isn’t limited to children on the playground. In 2013, I left a high-profile lobbying career in Vermont for Dylan to attend Landmark School. Shortly after moving to Beverly, I wrote an open letter to Vermont Governor Shumlin (who also has dyslexia) and key legislators urging them to consider ways of educating students with dyslexia. In Vermont, there are little options to educate students with dyslexia— no language-based classrooms, no trained teachers and no similar peers in our small school districts. I thought I had sympathetic readers.

In my letter I mentioned that Dylan has a superior I.Q., but he hardly knew the alphabet and that our highly regarded schools had failed him. My letter sparked responses ranging from sympathy to outrage. Some suggested, I reduce my expectations for Dylan. No way— without basic reading and writing skills all doors for Dylan’s future were closed.

My mommy magic-wand can’t eliminate discrimination. I have no good solutions. What I do know is that I am part of the problem. I shy away from talking about disability discrimination. I want to fit-in and I especially want my children to fit-in to society. I worry my avoidance to disability discrimination adds to the problem. Perhaps we need to follow the examples of race discrimination and have public conversations about disability discrimination? Better yet, maybe we can change the conversation— let’s instead talk people’s strengths and abilities versus looking at people’s deficits.

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